Zionist metaphors outdated, Israeli academic says in S.F.

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Is Israel a Zionist or post-Zionist society?

It's a debate that goes to the very heart of the country's future, said David Newman, founding chair of the politics and government department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

In Newman's estimation, "something like 35 to 40 percent of residents of Israel within the Green Line [pre-1967 borders] today do not identify with Zionism as an ideology. That's a major issue. You can't avoid it. You have to come to grips with it."

Newman, also a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, made his remarks during a recent interview in San Francisco. While here, he also offered political observations at an event sponsored by American Friends of Ben-Gurion University. A native of England, he has lived in Israel since 1982.

Calling his department cutting edge, Newman noted that he and his colleagues focus on issues of citizenship, identity, democracy and civil society as much as the Mideast peace process that tends to dominate the country's political thought.

Chief among the questions Newman and his cohorts explore are the implications of the growing number of Israel's residents who do not identify with Zionism, the belief in a Jewish homeland that underscored the birth of the Jewish state.

The country's increasing diversity accounts for this shift: Among Israel's non-Zionists are Arabs, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and fervently religious Jews who don't believe a Jewish state should be established until the coming of the Messiah.

The notion of Israel as a post-Zionist state is somewhat controversial in Israel, Newman said, as it challenges the founding philosophy of the country. Newman, however, feels the discussion is key to understanding the realities of Israel at the millennium.

"You have to understand that these are not unhealthy problems," said Newman, who says he writes his political column from a center to center-left viewpoint. "These are problems that are quite normal to a society which is undergoing dynamic change and which is part of a global economy and doesn't want to be isolationist."

Securing equal economic and technological footing with Western democracies, Newman said, requires that Israel recognize and maximize its diversity. "It can't continue to impose a single state ethos upon all its citizens."

"In 1999, you can't continue to use the metaphors and images of the 1950s and 1960s of this poor besieged, isolated society taking in hundreds of thousands of immigrants and treating them equally," Newman said.

"These are metaphors and images of a period gone."

While many of Israel's internal issues have been pushed aside in the shadow of security concerns, they are now coming to the fore in a way that can't be ignored, he said.

"What we saw in the last election was it wasn't just the peace issues that were being voted on," he said. "As we move more and more into a post-conflict situation, clearly the political and social agenda is going to shift. We're seeing that happen."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.