Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe
Back to Opinion

Still a Proud, Disappointed Zionist

Still Proud of Them: There?s more to Zionism than the expansionism and hard-headedness of today?s Israeli leaders. The founding fathers of Israel believed in a state that was both Jewish and democratic. Image by getty images

My father was skeptical of Zionism. He saw no reason to assume that the Jews would do better with nationalism than all the others had. Yet he winced only weakly when I joined Habonim Dror, the Labor Zionist youth movement, which became for the next 10 years as much my home/family as my family home was. There I became, few questions asked, a Zionist.

In the mid-1960s, Zionism stopped making usable sense to me. It was a doctrine that had been developed in an entirely different time under entirely different circumstances, to address problems quite unlike those that now confronted us. So I stopped thinking of myself as a Zionist; Zionism, having won the Jewish state it had sought, could now be retired.

But when the United Nations, in 1975, declared that “Zionism is racism,” my sense of honor revived my Zionism. Mine is in the end a simple Zionism: Jews are entitled to a national home — a sovereign state — and the only place where such a state makes sense is in what was Palestine and has become Israel. That is by no means all there is to Zionism, but those are its twin axiomatic essentials.

I am a proud Zionist. What Israel has accomplished in many spheres — in agriculture, in high-tech, in music and theatre, in exuberant debate and, in particular, in providing refuge and home to Jews from Iraq, Yemen, the Former Soviet Union and dozens of other difficult and often menacing places, is breathtaking.

I am also a disappointed Zionist, a troubled Zionist. There is no peace process. Israel’s incumbent government energetically pursues a settlement policy that will, before long, render a two-state solution impossible. Israel’s status — and stature — as an (imperfect) democracy is threatened by a Knesset cadre of Know Nothings with little regard for democratic norms, as also by the decidedly unholy alliance between religious zealots and the political echelon. Democratic and Jewish seems increasingly fraught. Sovereignty, it turns out, comes with its own set of problems.

Ironically, Zionism offers solutions to some of sovereignty’s problems. For my “simple” Zionism came in its mainstream expression with rich amendments, amendments that spoke not merely to statehood per se, but also to the nature of that statehood. Many of those amendments are contained and others implied in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, still others in the ample documentary history of Zionism. These days, the insistent motto of the state is “Never Again.” But “never again” tells us only what to avoid; it does not tell us what to embrace. Zionism — humane, liberal, pragmatic Zionism — does.

I know too many — not enough, but more than a few — people in Israel who see Zionism and Israel as I do, as an opportunity for the Jewish people to refute my father’s skepticism, to develop and embody a different kind of nationalism; these comrades deserve to be embraced.

Tikkun olam — the pursuit of social justice — matters, and Jewish music matters, and Jewish literature, and Jewish prayer, and Jewish language and literacy, too. There are endless points of access to Jewishness. But once on the inside, it is cowardly to evade and avoid the issue of Israel — of its welfare, of its safety, of its rectitude. Zionism provides the classic language, the platform, for all these aspirations.

Post-Zionism, as some would have it? We’re not there yet. I believe that to recite the Kaddish for Zionism is politically premature and morally spineless. The fact that Zionism these days appears to have been hijacked by expansionists and maximalists ought not induce us, not for a minute, to abandon the effort. To the contrary: Because the effort is now faltering, those of us who still believe in the seriousness of the promises made in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, who believe that a state that is both Jewish and democratic is a worthy and urgent challenge, must remain engaged.

Contact Leonard Fein at [email protected]

Engage

  • SHARE YOUR FEEDBACK

  • UPCOMING EVENT

    SKY & SCULPTURE

    Hybrid: Online and at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan

    Oct 2, 2022

    6:30 pm ET · 

    A Sukkah, IMKHA, created by artist Tobi Kahn, for the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan is an installation consisting of 13 interrelated sculpted painted wooden panels, constituting a single work of art. Join for a panel discussion with Rabbi Joanna Samuels, Chief Executive Director of the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan, Talya Zax, Innovation Editor of the Forward, and Tobi Kahn, Artist. Moderated by Mattie Kahn.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected]om, subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.