by Tsvi Bisk and Moshe Dror
The Success of the Zionist Analysis
Classical Zionism claimed that European civilization could not sustain vibrant Jewish communities in modern times. Anti-Semitism and the appeals of assimilation would eventually erode and destroy the possibility of Jewish
existence in Europe. Naive faith in modern universalistic solutions to the Jewish problem such as liberalism or socialism was a delusion. The success of these ideologies would lead to increased assimilation, while their failure would lead to mass disappointment and social frustration. This would result in virulent anti-Semitism.
The above prediction unfortunately has been validated. Progressive ideologies alone have not been able to eliminate European anti-Semitism and its eventual expression in social and political behavior. One could be a liberal or socialist anti-Semite even as one spoke of universal brotherhood.
“Progressive” Europeans claimed that the Jews could achieve social and political liberation if they ceased to be Jews and became members of the general human community. Many Jews, anxious to please “enlightened” opinion, attempted to become the mythological “cosmopolitan” human being. That strange cultural mutation, the cosmopolitan Jew, with a pathological desire to be free of his Jewishness, was born. “Jew, Jew, Jew,” cried Portnoy in Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. “Why can’t I just be a human being?”
On the other hand, 19th century European Liberal Nationalism claimed that there is no such thing as a general human community. There are rather a myriad of national, ethnic, and religious communities interacting with one another to their mutual benefit. The true progressive aim, therefore, should not be to deny our cultural differences but to create frameworks in which interactions between different human communities could be positive and creative. The great 19th century Italian liberal nationalist Mazzini was one of the clearest spokesmen of this view and he had a tremendous impact on Zionist thinking. Moses Hess’s seminal Rome and Jerusalem (1862) – demonstrating how ancient peoples like the Italians and the Jews could reconstruct themselves and make a universal contribution to the entire human race – was a reflection of Mazzini’s thinking. Jabotinsky’s national-social agenda replicated in many ways Mazzini’s thinking.
Today we might use the environmental paradigm to re-enforce Mazzini’s insights. Environmentalism recognizes that “mono-culturalism” (the
cultivation of a single crop over extensive areas) endangers the health of the entire ecological system. Ecological systems that have an increasing variety of species and ever-increasing interactions between these species are healthy, vigorous, and robust. Ecological systems that have a diminishing variety of species and diminishing interaction between these species are sick and susceptible to collapse. Each species preserving its own identity and integrity in dynamic interaction with other species enhances the essential robustness of the entire ecological system. What is true of natural culture is also true of human culture.
A vigorous society would be characterized by an ever-increasing number of subcultures contributing their particular outlook and creativity. Nations and ethnic groups that strive to preserve their integrity and identity in respectful interaction with the rest of humanity enhance the essential robustness of all human civilization. A homogenization of human culture into a cosmopolitan monoculture would impoverish the human spirit to the point of endangering the very prospects of human survival. This view constitutes the ideological validation of Zionism as well as other liberal nationalisms in the 21st century.
Hess’s Rome and Jerusalem anticipated this ecological analogy by predicting the universal contributions a renascent Italian state and a renascent Jewish state would make to universal human civilization, not as their primary rationale, but as a natural consequence of performing the tasks necessary to reconstitute themselves.
Has Hess’s thesis stood the test of time? Have the necessary tasks of the Zionist enterprise contributed to universal human civilization? Examples are numerous. Following are only two:
The Zionist success in reviving the Hebrew language (one of the greatest achievements of Zionism) has become a ‘light unto many nations’. The Welsh, Scots, Irish, Dutch and others are all using the Ulpan system to renew their languages or teach them to new immigrants.
The Zionist success in creating a modern society in an arid ecology has
also been a ‘light unto many nations’. Israeli foresters have been asked to oversee and advise massive arid zone reforestation projects in countries as diverse as Mexico and China. Israeli water engineers and agronomists advise developing and developed countries all over the world.
Such universal contributions have been a natural consequence of Israel fulfilling its national needs and not because of a desire to be universalistic humanitarians.
The Enlightenment call to the Jews to join the general human community was really a call for Jewish assimilation and the end of the Jews as a people. Particular collective Jewish existence was thus de-legitimized by the ideologies of modernism (see Hertzberg’s The French Enlightenment and the Jews, [Jewish Publication Society, 1968]). This was but a short step to de-legitimizing the very physical existence of the Jews. The Final Solution of the Nazis could be seen as a perverted stepchild of this simplistic universalistic impulse.