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Ingathering and the Destiny of Israel

By Eliezer Schweid

Why the Jewish state will always need Zionism.


Eliezer Schweid, a professor emeritus of Jewish thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is one of the most prominent contemporary scholars of Jewish philosophy and Zionism. Born in 1929 in Jerusalem, Schweid earned his Ph.D. at the HebrewUniversity in 1962, and has taught there for the subsequent four decades. In 1994, he was awarded the Israel Prize, the countrys highest honor for cultural achievement, for research in Jewish thought.  Among his many works are The Land of Israel: National Home or Land of Destiny? (1985); Democracy and Halacha (1994); Zionism in a Postmodern Era (1996); and The Jewish Experience of Time (2000).

The following essay was published in Hebrew in 1970, and appears here in English for the first time. In it, Schweid asks whether Zionism, after having transformed the dream of a Jewish state into an economic and military success, is still capable of offering a dynamic vision for the future.

 

The discussion surrounding the Zionist character of the State of Israel is predicated on the seemingly banal assumption that the Zionist movement alone created the state. But as anyone familiar with the story knows, other factors were surely involved as well, some of which created the political and economic conditions for Zionism to succeed, while others contributed to the actual building of the country. Anti-Semitism, for example, led more Jews to immigrate to the land of Israel than did organized Zionist education; the interests of certain powers in the Middle East were more of a stimulus to settlement in Israel than the diplomatic agility of Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann; and non-Zionist and even anti-Zionist Jewish movements cooperated politically and economically, and even in the actual establishment of settlements, to build and strengthen the state. There are even those who maintain, with the benefit of hindsight, that were it not for the Balfour Declaration, the Holocaust, the persecution of Jewry in Arab countries, and the support of the Soviet Union at the crucial moment, the State of Israel would never have been founded, and if it had been founded, it would not have been strong enough to withstand the rising tide of Arab enmity.

At the same time, there was no shortage of factors working in the opposite direction. Although anti-Semitism drove some Jews to the land of Israel, the allure of European and American civilization encouraged assimilationist movements on a far greater scale. Some Middle Eastern powers may have found reason to lend their support to Zionism, but their interest was always fleeting and their encouragement unenthusiastic; for the most part, the Zionists had to blaze their own trail in an incessant struggle with avowed enemies and former friends. The persecutions that sparked Jewish migrations did not always bring them to the land of Israel. On the contrary, immigrants streamed to whatever countries seemed to offer the best prospects. In the early twentieth century, Russian Jews flooded into the United States, and even after the establishment of the State of Israel, much of North African Jewry chose to immigrate to France. It was Israels own institutions, and not simply the impersonal forces of history, that organized the mass aliya of Yemenite Jews to Israel in the 1950s.

In other words, some factors not connected to Zionism may have helped to build the State of Israel, but on balance they acted more effectively to prevent it. That the state came into being cannot be attributed to impersonal historical forces. It was the product of will, of an organized Zionist minority that made a conscious choice and fought hard to achieve its aims. It was because of this struggle that Great Britain, through the Balfour Declaration, and the United Nations, through its famous resolution to partition Palestine, acknowledged the Jewish peoples right to a national home in its historic homeland. It was because of this struggle that many who had already chosen the path of assimilation came to see themselves as personally bound to the Jewish nation, and that a significant part of Jewish immigration began to turn towards the land of Israel in order to develop it. In this sense, the State of Israel is without question the achievement of the Zionist movement.

This truth found its sharpest expression in the ideology of the early Zionist pioneers. The ideology of the socialist Ber Borochov, although it too relied on “natural forces” acting within the Jewish people, gave the fullest, most precise definition of Zionism as an idealistic, activist movement. True, Borochov believed that the Jewish state would be built by the masses, who, after a process of proletarianization, would eventually arrive at a socialist regime through a gradual process driven by socioeconomic forces. Yet Borochov understood that only the will power of individuals, of pioneers, could steer the masses toward the land of Israel. In this sense, Zionism is an “enterprise,” an expression of conscious will, and its structure and behavior reflect its essential nature.

But if this is the case, then our opening assumptionׁthat Israel is in essence the creation of the Zionist movementׁis not so banal after all. For beyond the simple historical fact, there is an important principle at stake here, with implications for our own day: The State of Israel is an enterprise, the result of an effort of the will. It is not a “natural” phenomenon, brought into being and sustained by irresistible forces. Israel was not created by such forces, nor does it continue to exist through their grace. Israel is “super-natural,” a creation of the conscious will, and it can therefore continue to exist only so long as the conscious will that created it persists. That which allowed it to be built determined the dynamics of its development, and sets the conditions under which it can continue.

 

But if the State of Israel is essentially an enterprise of the will, then we must also assume that its character is the product of free choice. Israel cannot continue to exist unless a choice is made that it continue to be Zionist. This does not mean that its policies must always and consistently be Zionist; any such requirement would clash with Israels voluntary, activist nature. In fact, Israel has always had to choose between two kinds of action. With hindsight, we can see that it has not always chosen the path of Zionist policy. In fact, at times it has taken into account temporary political interests that are not fully compatible with Zionist ideals.

Nevertheless, the Jewish state, by virtue of its very establishment, created a set of conditions that impel it to strive towards the Zionist ideal. In other words, a kind of momentum was generated which finds expression in our social, economic, and diplomatic interests, always pushing us towards Zionist policy. For instance, the nearly universal hostility of the Arab states forces the Jewish community in Israel to acknowledge its unbreakable ties to the diaspora and the basic necessity of aliya, Jewish immigration to the land of Israel. At the same time, when foreign powers favor the Arab states, their policies often translate into prejudices that are keenly felt by their own Jewish communities, who as a result identify more closely with Israel. These are just two striking examples; there are many more.

On the other hand, many forces today are arrayed against the Zion­ist vision. With the rapid advances of science and technology, Western societies have become more cosmopolitan, a trend which tends to undercut national distinctions, and which also has increased the mobility of professionals who may more easily relocate to major industrial and research centers, which offer far greater opportunities for advancement than in small countries. At the same time, efforts toward conciliation between Israel and the Arab states also strengthen the belief that Israel can attain peace and integration into the region only by forgoing Zionist policies. Similarly, the conflicting interests of the great powers in the Middle East do little to encourage Zionist policy; even those powers dedicated to Israels survival would still like to see its power limited. Here special attention should be given to the plight of Soviet Jewry. Even if the Soviet leadership were to come to the conclusion that the only solution is the mass emigration of these Jews, such a policy would never be considered, for it would anger the Arab leadership. The gist of all this is that even with the establishment of Israel, the forces hostile to the realization of the Zionist vision continue to work against the fulfillment of that vision. And even today, these forces outweigh the countervailing forces that favor Zionism.

Looking back, we can see that in the two decades between Israels gaining independence in 1948 and the Six Day War in 1967, there began in Israel a process of disassociation from the Zionist ideal and its burdens. This process threatened the State of Israel, and with it the whole Jewish people, with the danger of dissolution. And though many Israelis sensed this danger, the state never ruled out the possibility of adopting non-Zionist policies. A country may choose a path that leads to its own destruction.



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