To say that Zionism is in crisis is really to identify the history of the movement. A crisis implies a moment of tremendous import, a point at which, depending on the decisions that people make, a thing can go terribly wrong or brilliantly right. The Zionist movement has had many such moments. To think that Herzl, Nordau, and the others could have built a worldwide movement out of so many disparate communities living under the shadow of hostile or at best tolerant non-Jewish governments, one can only imagine the multiple crises that might easily have derailed the movement in its beginnings.
The history of the British Mandate, the debates over various forms of partition, the struggle with diaspora Jewry, the 1948 war, the 1967 war and the conquest of the territories—all of these represented moments of crises, too.
It has become common to speak of Zionism in crisis in the contemporary period, as well. “Crisis” might be too strong a word, but certainly Zionism is at a crossroads at the moment; in fact, it has arrived at three crossroads at once. They do not have to be navigated at the same time. But decisions do need to be made, and soon.
Crossroads 1: Should Zionism still be seen as national liberation movement, or as the dominant ideology and political culture of a state? It should be clear that Zionism has succeeded in its original goals: the state, Israel, has been built and achieved things of which early Zionists dreamed. Israel is a leader in a diverse range of industries, such as military production, bio technology, and diamond-cutting; its citizens have proved adaptable to all the circumstances thrown at them; and the country is a well-established member of the international community, increasingly integrated into global political and economic institutions. Under these conditions Zionism is the hegemonic identity of Israel’s citizens, a form of nationalism that diaspora Jews can be proud of and feel connected to, as well.
But a lot of Jews, in Israel and in the diaspora, haven’t accepted this transition away from Zionism as a movement of survival. They see a state and a people constantly at the edge of the precipice, saved only by the source of determination, creativity, and strength that is Zionism and the imperative to keep moving forward through settling the ancestral homeland. Thus the state and the people must always act precipitously, because only by doing so, by taking the same risks early Zionist leaders did, can all of them survive. Israel, by that understanding, is not a normal country, and can never be a normal country.
Zionists will have to decide which version of Zionism is the right one, because it cannot be both at the same time. If Zionism remains a vehicle for national liberation, then the West Bank must still be settled by Jews, because—in returning to the original Zionist impulse that lay dormant from 1949 to 1967—there is still territory to be liberated. At the same time, non-Jewish citizens must understand they need to give up some of their own demands while the Jewish state is secured. Jews in the diaspora and allies of Israel must avoid criticizing the state because it must do what is necessary to survive in a hostile world that hasn’t gotten any friendlier. An established state cannot thrive under those conditions.
Crossroads 2: Which should be the dominant element of Zionism—tribalism or universalism? The movement always had both, sometimes clashing directly with each other and sometimes tolerating each other. The underlying assumption of the Zionist movement at its founding was that it had to be a big tent in order to accommodate far-flung and diverse communities but also to present a united front against the world. As the possibility of coexisting in Mandatory Palestine diminished, the tribal element became stronger. After 1948, with the absorption of immigrants from the Arab world and Europe, tribalism and universalism coexisted again, more uneasily.
1967 tipped the balance against universalism. Self-determination was important for Jews to be a normal people, but not important enough for Palestinians. It took some time for that imbalance to become obvious; genuine security concerns predominated, the Arab states remained implacable, and the PLO attacked Israeli children in the name of liberation. But all Israeli governments built settlements, steadily, ignoring for all intents and purposes the implications and consequences of their actions, treating Palestinians as depoliticized subjects. In the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s Yemenite Jews, Ethiopian Jews, and Russian Jews and non-Jews immigrated to Israel, undermining Ashkenazi hegemony—the longstanding basis for Zionist-Israeli tribalism—and reinvigorating tensions between Jewish-Israelis and a recently-politicized and mobilized Arab-Israeli population.
The tribal version of Zionism was driven, too, by the dominance of the political right in Israeli politics, by the emergence of an unapologetic younger generation of Israeli Jews, and, in the diaspora, by the politicization of Israel in American, Canadian, and others’ own politics. This tribalism expects complete loyalty to its Zionism, which undermines the normality and universality embedded in early Zionism.
Crossroads 3: What is the balance between prioritizing Jewishness and Judaism, and prioritizing democracy? This one overlaps with the second one, and is already much-commented on. The weight of open discussion and democratic processes versus Jewish nationalism, and a sub-part: how Jewish nationalism should be defined—in religious or in ethno-national terms. Of all the debates that require resolution, this is the one that can least accommodate the two sides and still leave Israel physically secure and ethically secure.
The occupation obviously has implications for this, but so do struggles within Israel over political, civil, religious, and economic rights for Palestinian citizens, foreign workers, non-religious Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, liberals and leftists, and African refugees. Israel is a society of diverse communities. The issue is whether this diversity will be embraced as something that strengthens the state, or stamped out because it threatens the state.
None of these issues are easily resolved, but they do need serious attention. Other countries face their own dilemmas and debates over identity, citizenship, and belonging, but in Israel the debate has engulfed the diaspora and been marked by intolerance for dissent and difference. That alone constitutes a crossroads, perhaps even a crisis, for Zionism.
It is of course true that these debates don’t take place in a vacuum; circumstances and the actions of others matter. Claims that such issues should be put off until the conflict is resolved, or that nothing can be done until the Palestinians and the Arabs accept Israel or stop attacking Israelis, though, are disingenuous. External conditions and forces were never the defining feature of the original Zionist movement, and should not be the determining factor now, either. The future of Israel, and of the Jewish people even, depend on it.