In 1889, Ahad Ha’am shook the Jewish world with his controversial essay “The Wrong Way.” Criticizing mainstream Zionism—a Zionism of land purchase, settlements and agriculture—as shortsighted and unsustainable, Ahad Ha’am warned against the movement’s already waning power over the Jews of his day:
Whereas previously the [Zionist] idea grew ever stronger and stronger and spread more and more widely among all sections of the people, while its sponsors looked to the future with exultation and high hopes, now, after its victory, it has ceased to win new adherents, and even its old adherents seem to lose their energy, and ask for nothing more than the well-being of the few poor colonies already in existence, which are what remains of all their pleasant visions of an earlier day. But even this modest demand remains unfulfilled; the land is full of intrigues and quarrels and pettiness—all for the sake and for the glory of the great idea—which give them no peace and endless worry; and who knows what will be the end of it all?1
Though they may have proven overly pessimistic at their time, these ominous words seem sadly pertinent today, 120 years later. Zionism, at least in its “classical” sense, has lost much of its force as a unifying vision for Israel.2 The majority of Israelis, to be sure, are still avowed patriots, and regard post-Zionism as the most grave of accusations; Yet even they would be hard pressed to explain why the old national ideals are still relevant or what part they play in contemporary Israeli reality. At the same time, there are those who are bitterly disillusioned with Zionism, considering it to be the root of all evil—from the continuing occupation of the territories to the systematic discrimination of Sephardi Jews and Israeli Arabs. The result of this ideological fragmentation is a politics dominated by sectarian parties, a country without an inclusive ethos, rapidly disintegrating into tribal structures. The frail cord that binds us together seems to be wearing fast.
Despite the general outcry against this trend and the numerous attempts to reverse it, classical Zionism,3 I believe, can no longer serve as a collective credo for the State of Israel. The reasons for its decline are not, as is commonly claimed, ideological bankruptcy and a turn toward radical individualism, but rather socioeconomic changes which are sweeping the world over. The first of these is the gradual dispossession of the nation state by the market state. The second is the evolution from an agrarian to an industrial to a creative economy, a process that has rendered the romantic ideals of the Jewish national movement somewhat obsolete.4 The third, more local reason for the dissolution of Zionist ideology is Israel’s reality as a multicultural society; over half of its population is comprised of three major subgroups—the Haredim, former Soviet Union immigrants, and Arabs—which have never subscribed to Zionism, and are not likely to do so in the future.
In analyzing the causes for the eventual demise of the old Zionist Weltanschauung, this essay also seeks to formulate an alternative. Given Israel’s current character as a market state and creative economy, the alternative herein presented—not unlike that of Ahad Ha’am in his day—is the ideal of a “knowledge nation.” The proposal outlined in what follows, which I have labeled KNI (Knowledge-Nation Israel), links the rich cultural heritage of the Jewish past with the new socioeconomic reality of the Israeli present. Drawing on the tradition of study which has dominated Jewish history throughout the ages, KNI proposes to turn the pursuit and production of knowledge into the binding ethos of Israeli society. Potentially meaningful for all sectors of Israel’s population, and suited to address contemporary socioeconomic developments, KNI may serve as an innovative vision—a new form of Zionism—ushering the Jewish State into the twenty-first century.