We must not discard the precious legacy of Zionism

On Aug. 29, 1897 — 100 years ago — an assimilated Viennese journalist and playwright named Theodor Herzl brought the Zionist movement into existence. And in that moment, the Jewish people re-entered history.

The consensus today among most observers is that Zionism as a movement and an ideology is dead. They say its purpose was fulfilled with a functioning state of Israel governing in the Land of Israel. The movements and political parties that grew up under its banners are themselves moribund both in Israel and the diaspora, having discarded their ideologies — Labor's socialism and the Likud's belief in settling all of historic Palestine.

The Zionist youth groups, which once were the centerpiece of Jewish life among teens, are also fading away — though still active in many spots. Wiseacres once defined a Zionist as a Jew who solicited money from a second Jew to help send a third Jew to Palestine.

Though the structures of Zionism, such as the World Zionist Congress and the rest of the alphabet soup of organizations and institutions it created, are dying on the vine, that is only because the great struggle for this ideology that dominated the last century was won.

Though its ultimate triumph came too late to save the Jews of Europe who perished in the Shoah, the fundamental thesis that Jewish life would be transformed for the good by the creation of a Jewish state was vindicated by history.

Only students of history and those old enough to remember life before the re-birth of the state of Israel in 1948 can imagine the world in which the First Zionist Congress was convened in Basel, Switzerland. Herzl had seen, in the degradation of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew who was falsely convicted of treason, that even in the freest country in Europe, Jews were still despised. The then-prevalent picture of the Jew as a weak, homeless, rootless vagabond who was abused everywhere is something that children growing up in the state of Israel or the United States simply cannot understand.

Though the state of Israel is not the utopia that Herzl and others envisioned, it is the realization of their ambitions. Hebrew is the language spoken in the streets. The country is governed by a democratic Jewish parliament and its borders are guarded by a Jewish army. Its population is comprised of immigrants or the descendants of Jews who came from every corner of the globe.

Unlike other "isms," such as socialism, fascism and communism, which also grew up around the turn of the century, Zionism can be said to be dead not because it has been discredited and rejected but because it achieved all of its main goals.

But what happens after you win? Can Israelis go on seeing their country, and indeed their everyday life, as the embodiment of 2,000 years of Jewish dreams? Not likely. The "normalcy" that Herzl longed for long ago eclipsed the pioneering spirit of nation building.

And can American Jews feel the same way about a Jewish state that is now a prosperous, powerful country, albeit still threatened?

Lately, Zionism has been overtaken by "post-Zionism," whose poet laureate is former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres; Israel's historic role as a Jewish state has been replaced by a desire to make it a Jewish Singapore.

And many American Jews see no reason to work for an Israel whose imperfect political system has consigned diaspora religious movements such as Conservative and Reform Judaism to second-class status.

With a continuity crisis looming over everything we do here, an increasing number of influential American Jews rightly see no need to continue funneling Jewish funds to the Zionist infrastructure in Israel when diaspora needs such as Jewish education are starving for funds. Indeed, an increasingly assimilated and intermarried American Jewish population is not likely to identify with Israel under any circumstances.

Thus, the new era of post-Zionism looks to be one in which most Jews outside of Israel won't care much about the Jewish state, and Jews living inside Israel have lost touch with the political and religious heritage of their country.

The irony here is that we are burying Zionism just at the time when we need it most.

It may be that the old slogans have lost their appeal. Nobody sings Zionist songs around campfires anymore. But is there a more inspiring vision for young Jews living in Israel or in the United States than the call to Jewish unity and nation-building that is Zionism?

The focus is no longer on aliyah (immigration) or sh'liat haGalut — negation of the diaspora — but on using Israel as a tool to build Jewish life everywhere. Zionism is not a substitute for Judaism, as many have treated it in the last 50 years, but is integral to it. It is in the synthesis of Zionist values, such as love for the Land of Israel, the centrality of it in Jewish life, and the protection of Jewish rights everywhere. It is in love of Torah and the vast spiritual resources of Judaism — whether you yourself are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist — that the Jewish future lies. We simply can't afford to reject Israel no matter what complications the politics of the day bring.

An American Jewry that insulates itself from Israel and that abandons Zionist ideals will be incapable of sustaining itself. Zion is not, as some American post-Zionists would have it, a "place in the heart." It is a real place that has the power to transform Jewish lives. That's why maintaining a steady flow of Jewish teens and college students to Israel in programs that channel them toward study rather than just entertainment must be a priority for American Jewry.

Even as we retire the old political infrastructure of Zionism, we must take care not to discard its precious legacy.

The genius of the Zionist visionaries was their understanding that, without a Jewish state, the fate of the Jews would always be left to the mercy of those hostile or indifferent to them. We paid a terrible price for not listening to them sooner. In our own day, we must continue to heed these lessons of history, and we must support a secure Israel.

At the same time, the promise of Zionism in its second century is to transform Jewish life in Israel and the diaspora. That's a challenge we should all take up.

Jonathan S. Tobin portrait
Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer at National Review.