There are few terms more fraught–and less clear–than “Zionism.”
For some, it is the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise to Abraham to give the land of Canaan to his descendants. For some it is a movement of spiritual and cultural renewal, affirming the centrality of our historic homeland. For others it is a political movement of national self-determination. For still others it is a label for a land-grab that treats the area’s prior residents as second-class citizens. All of these descriptions contain an element of truth and yet none tells the complete story.
Zionism, I think, is the Rorschach test of modern Jewish political discourse. Those who see Israel as a necessary Jewish homeland, the historic and spiritual center of the Jewish people, and the sole democracy in the Middle East will see Zionism as good. Those who see Israel as an oppressor that appropriates land from the Palestinians and uses disproportionate force will see it as bad. And for the many people who are either conflicted or indifferent in their feelings toward Israel, Zionism remains simply a huge question mark.
So what does this mean? To a certain extent it means trying to figure out what Zionism is is a case of putting the cart before the horse. Our feelings about Israel tell us about Zionism, and not the other way around.
With that in mind, perhaps we can regard Zionism as an aspirational concept more than anything else: It represents what we hope Israel to be. For Theodor Herzl, father of political Zionism, and his followers, Zionism spoke of an autonomous and sovereign Jewish homeland; this was their goal and they made it their reality: “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Contemporary American Jews should never underestimate the importance of this vision, never take for granted what it means for Jews all over the world to have a place that is their own. But perhaps we might hope for more than this as well. Perhaps our Zionism should aspire to an Israel that is not only viable and secure, but that also serves as a beacon of freedom, as a model of justice and ethics for the world.
Following the early Zionist visionary Ahad Ha’am, perhaps we should relate to Israel as a spiritual center as much as a political entity, see it as a source of spiritual renewal and cultural creativity both for Jews who live there and who live in the Diaspora. If so, this vision requires ongoing engagement with Israel–as a real live state and as an idea.
An aspirational Zionism doesn’t allow us to turn away in despair or indifference, but requires thoughtful and passionate debate and participation where the contributions of all who wish to see Israel strong, safe, and just are welcomed. Then we can rightly aspire to the vision of the prophet Isaiah: “[Jerusalem] shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city” (1:26) and then “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (56:7)