I was raised in an Israel where images of Theodor Herzl are part of the scenery for school children, just like images of George Washington are in the United States. All students have to learn about the three main arguments that early Zionists offered to persuade fellow Jews to support the colonization of Palestine:
- A Jewish homeland will help normalize the Jewish people and make them like other nations. Jews will be respected in the Diaspora as a consequence of a Jewish state coming into existence.
- A Jewish state will serve as a refuge of first resort for Jews facing danger.
- A Jewish state would undoubtedly become a light unto the
nations, avoiding the sins of gentile societies that treated Jews with
The recent hijacking of a Turkish humanitarian aid ship and
ensuing murder of 9 unarmed civilians (including one American citizen) in
international waters bring these arguments into stark relief. The behavior of
the Israeli state, with overwhelming public support, demonstrates how far from "normal'
Israeli Jews have become. There simply aren't any other countries in the world
where this kind of behavior would make perfect sense to the citizenry.
One explanation for the march-of-folly style descent into aid-worker killing might be the sense of mortal danger Israeli leaders cultivate. But it certainly conflicts with the once cherished notion of Israel as a place of refuge. What kind of Jewish refuge broadcasts to itself, day and night, that followers of Hitler are "this close" to annihilating all that is near and dear with rockets and nukes? Take your pick Israel: Switzerland or Sparta. They aren't the same thing.
Finally, when it comes to being a light unto the nations,
there sure is a long way to go. When Knesset Member Hannan Zuabi a passenger
on the Turkish ship and witness to the killing tried to address her fellow
lawmakers, she was shouted down with cries of "traitor' and "your day will
come.' Mass demonstrations in Israel
celebrated the exploits of the nation's new heroes, those brave commandos who
jumped from helicopters to shoot 50 civilians engaged in nonviolent direct
action against the siege of Gaza..
As an active member of the Israeli and American Jewish peace movement for 25 years, there have been occasions when I felt uncomfortable with the anti-Zionist and anti-Israel fringes of the Palestinian solidarity movement. I grew up with Zionists after all. Zionism in Israel used to be a bit like water for fish everywhere but not so interesting. A requirement for civics class. A word that just meant our country deserves to exist and we are proud of it.
Nowadays the connection between the original Zionist values and the modern state of Israel has become far less obvious. Israel is not a safe refuge the citizenry are mad with fear and loathing for enemies internal and external. The security forces are preventing Israeli casualties (for now) while demonstrators burn Turkish flags and chant 'death to the Arabs.' It is not a light unto the nations. And increasingly, young Jews outside of Israel are distancing themselves from the whole embarrassing scene.
Remember Ghandi's famous quip about western civilization? "It's a good idea" he said. By the same token, old fashioned Zionist ideals might be a good thing for Israel. It is no more in harmony with Herzl's original vision than the Soviet Union was in harmony with Karl Marx's. Then again, it might just be a case of something sounding good in theory but impossible to put into practice.