The Struggle To Reinvigorate The Zionist Ethos

By Moshe Dann

Published March 04, 2005, issue of March 04, 2005.
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As the Israeli government moves to eliminate the Jewish presence in Gaza and in four settlements in northern Shomron, opponents of its plan would do well to keep things in perspective. The battle is not over homes and hothouses; it is over the hearts and minds of our brothers and sisters. Even if we lose the battle for Gush Katif, we will not have lost the war.

The attempt to destroy Jewish communities in Yesha has brought to the surface a power struggle within Israel over the meaning of Zionism, the future of Israeli democracy and the importance of Jewish identity. Though deeply painful, the struggle can provide opportunities for an educational process that might eventually transform Israeli society, allow true democracy to flourish and liberate us from our Holocaust-based frame of reference. That, in turn, will give birth to a more relevant and vigorous Jewish and Zionist ethos.

Well before the inception of the State of Israel, Palestine was seen as a national homeland and as a refuge for persecuted Jews. The Holocaust taught us that Jews could be slaughtered genocidally and no one would help. This gave rise to “Never Again,” the imperative to protect ourselves. “Never Again” was essential to winning Israel’s acceptance by the world; it was, for many, our raison d’etre. Today, however, it is inadequate to justify Israel’s existence.

In order for something new to emerge, there must be a shift in how we see the structure itself. Only when sacred myths about the state, its institutions and political parties and their leaders are challenged and the rot at the core of system itself is exposed can change occur. Many Israelis now realize that our system has evolved into one in which no one is accountable to any constituency. When political and economic power is concentrated, without checks and balances, it allows the system to be manipulated by the ruling elite for their own interests, masked by a fake “democracy.”

To enforce compliance government institutions — the judicial system, the police, the attorney general and Justice and Internal Security ministries, even the army — will try to crush any opposition. The media provides disinformation and distraction; settlers are vilified as if they were the enemy. The more these institutions are used to suppress dissent, however, the more it is possible to see the essential corruption of the system. Prime Minister Sharon’s plan to destroy Jewish communities in Yesha is an example. It’s not about homes and hothouses; it’s about a conception.

“Settlements” in the Land of Israel are the defining characteristic of the state’s existence. Settling the land is not merely a political statement, but a historical imperative and a divine obligation. Indeed, the only reason the Land of Israel has value is because Jews live in and value it.

That the right of Jewish people to settle the Land of Israel is an axiom is now denied, not only by our enemies but by some Israeli leaders, as well. Denying this right negates the essence of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel and raises a basic question: To whom does the Land of Israel belong? How can Jews “occupy Palestine” when it belongs originally and absolutely to the Jewish people? For some, the Jewish claim is no greater (and for some less) than that of Arabs. This attempt to distort history and the purpose of the Jewish people in its homeland is the basis of Sharon’s policy.

The challenge that the left presents, therefore, is an important and necessary ingredient in creating a renewed Zionist consciousness — one that goes back not to Herzl or the Holocaust, but to our Patriarchs, to the giving of the Torah, and to conquering and settling the land during the time of Judges, Prophets and Kings. If the destiny of the Jewish people can only be worked out in the Land of Israel, as most Israelis and all Zionists believe, then our claim to the land is not only political and historical, but also existential.

The true meaning of Israel is not as a refuge for persecuted Jews, but as the dynamic fulfillment of prophetic visions, the ingathering of Jews and the rebuilding of the Land of Israel; it is part of the process of redemption. Every Jew, secular as well as religious, is part of that transcendent vision, a historical process embodied in every act of aliya and settlement. These are not only acts of physical relocation, but also of a spiritual commitment. They are, quite literally, why we are here.

That some secular Jews oppose this process is inevitable. They need to reject the idea that we are part of God’s plan because to accept it would require confronting what it means to be a Jew and an Israeli. Paradoxically, opposition to Jewish settlement can clarify the meaning of these concepts. It helps us break out of the now-irrelevant “Never Again” frame of reference and forge a new and more authentic awareness of our presence and purpose in Israel.

It is in this spirit that we should view the plan to uproot Jewish communities in Yesha while assisting in the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Destroying Jewish communities just because they are Jewish is a dangerous precedent, especially when we are under attack and when there are no obvious rewards. But the danger of this policy is not the real issue. Attempts to destroy these communities raise a basic question: What are we doing here in the first place?

If Jews can’t live in Yesha because Arabs and the international community oppose us, then where can we legitimately live? And if we are allowed to live only within our pre-1967 boundaries, why were we attacked when that was all we had? And why do Palestinian terrorists blow up buses and cafés in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem?

Whether or not Gaza and parts of Yehuda and Shomron are emptied of Jews, our struggle must and will continue. Ours is a struggle for true Zionism — settlement of the Land of Israel on the basis of the inherent inalienable right of the Jewish people to do so. Ours is a struggle for true democracy — “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” And ours is struggle for true Jewish identity — the ability to live authentically without shame or fear.

This struggle is our obligation and privilege anchored in covenant, ingathering and redemption. It has nothing to do with what Arabs demand, what the international community desires or what the government decides. It has to do with the duty and destiny of the Jewish people in their homeland.

Moshe Dann, a former assistant professor of history at the City University of New York, is a Jerusalem-based writer and journalist.

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