Open Zion

12.04.12

Talking To Phil Weiss About Zionism

Writing in Mondoweiss today, Philip Weiss wants the American media to talk more about Zionism, the ideology to which his blog is devoted to condemning. Leaving aside for a moment Weiss’s not inaccurate but not nearly fulsome enough definition of Zionism, he misses one fundamental aspect of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking: acknowledging the separate and collective needs and desires—both material and social—of both nations.

Debating Zionism—a philosophy of Jewish sovereignty which in the eyes of some is a necessary and laudable system and in the eyes of others is an unjust one—is not an intellectual luxury we can afford today, over one hundred years after the First Zionist Congress in Switzerland. This is because the State of Israel already exists.

Without recognizing Jewish nationalism in its sovereign expression, without recognizing the core identity of the Jewish state, it is conceptually impossible to empathize with the dominant form of Palestinian nationalism today—that of the two-state solution fought for by Mahmoud Abbas at the U.N. Perhaps many Palestinians dream of a Middle East without the existence of Israel. Those dreams are their right. And certainly many Jews—Israeli and Diaspora alike—wish there were no more Palestinians. Many of them already cling to Golda Meir’s hurtful and nonsensical words that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people.”

Liberal Zionists, in their attempt to shore up a Jewish and democratic Israel against the settlement-building onslaught—may be living in their own philosophical dream world, according to Weiss. But one thing they have in their favor is the empathy—for both sides—that natural peacemakers live by.

As for Weiss’s definition of Zionism—that it is "a 115-year-old movement inside Jewish life that says there is a need for a Jewish state in Palestine because Jews are unsafe in the west and Jews have a biblical connection to Palestine"—it fails to capture two things. For most Zionists, the Biblical connection to the ancient Land of Israel is less of an uncritical, messianic pull than it is the best geographical justification for Israel’s founding. Why, given the imperatives of creating a Jewish sovereign space at the end of the nineteenth century, was Palestine chosen? Because of all the corners on earth, this was the land to which Jews enjoyed at least some legitimate historical claim.

Second, in its focus on Jewish safety—which Weiss correctly identifies as a much less pressing need today, at least in North America, Weiss’s definition neglects the obvious ethno-national impulses that have animated national movements worldwide over the last two hundred years. These are the same impulses that drive contemporary Palestinian nationalism today.

Perhaps liberal Zionists, in helping prop up the Palestinian hope that they will one day achieve their own state, are part of the problem. But if anything, given the depressing intransigence of Israel’s current government, it’s a problem of false hopes. And if it is a false hope at least it’s a hope laced with the pragmatism necessary to get out of this mess, a pragmatism that says that a Jewish state existing alongside a Palestinian state is the only logical solution that meets the identity and security needs of both sides. It is a pragmatism that Israeli voters would do well to remember as they watch their government snuff out the Zionist dream of a Jewish and democratic state faster than any anti-Zionist blogger ever will.