Daniel Pipes: Zionism's Bleak Present

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Pipes is the director of the Middle East Forum. His website address is http://www.danielpipes.org. Click here for his blog.]

"We are all Keynsians now," Richard Nixon famously asserted just as the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes fell into disrepute. Likewise, one could have said with similar confidence in 1989, as Israel's existence reached wide acceptance,"We are all Zionists now." No longer.

Count the ways Israel is under siege: from Iranians building a nuclear bomb, Syrians stockpiling chemical weapons, Egyptians and Saudis developing serious conventional forces, Hizbullah attacking from Lebanon, Fatah from the West Bank, Hamas from Gaza, and Israel's Muslim citizens becoming politically restive and more violent.

World-wide, professors, editorialists, and foreign ministry bureaucrats challenge the continued existence of a Jewish state. Even friendly governments, notably the Bush administration, pursue diplomatic initiatives that undermine Israeli deterrence even as their arms sales erode its security.

Let's suppose, however, that the country muddles through these many problems. That leaves it face to face with its ultimate challenge: a Jewish population increasingly disenchanted with, even embarrassed by, the country's founding ideology, Zionism, the Jewish national movement.

As developed by Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) and other theoreticians, Zionism's call for a sovereign Jewish state fit the political context and mood of its time. If Chinese, Arabs, and Irish sought to establish a national state, why not Jews?

Indeed, especially Jews, for through nearly two millennia they had paid the greatest price of any people for their political weakness, having been expelled, victimized, persecuted and mass murdered as none other. Zionism offered an escape to this tragic history by standing tall and taking up the sword.

From its inception, Zionism had its share of Jewish opponents, ranging from the Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox) to nostalgic Iraqis to reform rabbis, But, until recently, these were marginal elements. Now, due to high birth rates, the once-tiny Haredi community constitutes 22 percent of Israel's current first-grade class; add to this the roughly equivalent number of Arab first-graders and a sea-change in Israeli politics can be expected about 2025.

Worse for Israel, Jewish nationalism has lost the near-automatic support it once had among secular Jews, many of whom find this nineteenth-century ideology out of date. Some accept arguments that a Jewish state represents racism or ethnic supremacism, others find universalist and multi-cultural alternatives compelling. Consider some signs of the changes underway:

  • Young Israelis are avoiding the military in record numbers, with 26 percent of enlistment-age Jewish males and 43 percent of females not drafted in 2006. An alarmed Israel Defense Forces has requested legislation to deny state-provided benefits to Jewish Israelis who do not serve.
  • Israel's Attorney General Menachem Mazuz has up-ended the work of the Jewish National Fund, one of the pioneer Zionist institutions (founded in 1901) by determining that its role of acquiring land specifically for Jews cannot continue in the future with state assistance.
  • Prominent Israeli historians focus on showing how Israel was conceived in sin and has been a force for evil.
  • Israel's ministry of education has approved school books for third-grade Arab students that present the creation of Israel in 1948 as a" catastrophe" (Arabic: nakba).
  • Avraham Burg, scion of a leading Zionist household and himself a prominent Labor Party figure, has published a book comparing Israel with 1930s Germany.
  • A 2004 poll found only 17 percent of American Jews call themselves"Zionist."

Abraham Burg, a former Labor Party leader, compares Israel with 1930s Germany.

Seen in a larger context, this turn from Zionism echoes trends in other Western countries, where old-style patriotism and national pride have also declined. In Western Europe, citizens tend to see little of special value in their own history, customs, and mores. Last month, for example, the Netherlands' Princess Máxima, wife to the heir to the throne, announced to wide acclaim that"The Dutch identity does not exist." This Western-wide decline of patriotism aggravates Israel's predicament, suggesting that developments there fit into a larger trend, making them the more difficult to resist or reverse.

To top it off, Arabs are moving these days in the opposite direction, reaching a fever pitch of ethnic and religious bellicosity.

As a Zionist myself, I watch these several trends with foreboding about Israel's future.

I console myself by recalling that few of today's problems were evident in 1989. Perhaps in 2025, Zionism's prospects will again brighten, as Westerners generally and Israelis specifically finally awake to the dangers posed by Palestinian irredentists, jihadists, and other extremist Middle Easterners.

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omar ibrahim baker - 10/28/2007

Pipes cri de coeur stems more from the impasse that now faces Israel and Zionism than from any real worry about Israel's destiny.

Having won the wars it had to fight and made the alliances it needed to make Israel realizes that none of that secures its continued existence, the way it wants it to be, nor truly solves the JEWISH problem.

If any thing Jews are now more aware of the peculiarities that have historically accompagnied them : they are more suspected and isolated , world wide, and far more rejected in the region than ever before.

A Zionist Israel, as it stands now and as it might survive , to the degree that it will survive , will never be the solution to the Jewish problem.

It would have added a new twist to the old problem and far from solving it it did complicate it as far as everyday life for a Jew is concerned.

Transforming Jewishness from a world wide confessional bond into a nationalist bond, Zionism main feat, instead of solving the diverse sporadic personal problems that accompagnied Jewishness created , for all Jews, a new and far more identifiable problem :their complete identification with the alien , racist nation/state uncompromisingly rejected by its total environment.

Kate Wagar - 10/21/2007

Mr. Pipes sounds as though he believes the incredible misinformation Muslim extremists are putting out. Never have I seen such a pile of rot.

Israel is in the front lines of fighting Muslim extremists. If it fails, Muslim/Arabs take back control of the Holy Land of the Jews and Christians, perhaps cutting off our access forever. If you look at Egypt, you see Arabs in control and the natives, the Christian Copts, sidelined.

I believe the Palestinians think if they yell and complain loud and long enough, they'll suceed no matter what the facts are. I would hate to see this. Jeruselum may be the holiest city in the world, but she gets no respect from Muslims.

Joseph Mutik - 10/15/2007

For about 2000 years (without country, before 1948) the Jewish nation has been defined by religion. After 1948 begun a transition period from the religious definition of the Jews to the "people belonging to a land" definition of the Jews (like most of the others e.g. Americans, Italians, French, Germans etc., etc.). The best example, used in this article (in my opinion), is "the trials and tribulations" of Abraham Burg. He feels uneasy with the signs that Israel becomes a "normal nation" which means that the political and social structure has "center", "left", "right" and the "extremes" on both sides. The title of his book is "Defeating Hitler" but t6his title is wrong it should have been "Defeating the World". During the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century the Jews begun to get out of the ghetto and begin to participate in the real life of the countries they lived. The inhabitants of these countries didn't like that "too" many Jews have political, economic and social power and reacted to the development of "Jewish emancipation" (many times violently, through pogroms). Germany's , under Hitler, behavior towards the Jews was only the end of a period in History. Zionism is the right of the Jews to self determination and as a movement was a reaction to the opposition of the World to Jewish emancipation (in Europe, USA etc.).
Before, during and after WWII the European Jews were left alone to deal with the violence against the European Jews (not only by Germany). When in 1947 UN voted for Israel it was, mainly, because hundreds of thousands of Jews were stranded in European transition camps without any possibility to get out (in Poland the Poles organized pogroms against the Polish Jews trying to return, and USA and UK refused to accept any significant number of Jews). So through the 1947 UN resolution the Europeans succeeded in pushing out a lot of Jews from Europe. After 1948 the Arabs, joined the circus and succeeded in pushing out the Jew from Arab countries. That's the abbreviated history of Zionism and the transition period that begun with the Zionist movement.
For Jewish people with a religious education (I am one of them) this transition is hard and this is true especially for the diaspora Jews. The Jews in Israel and abroad have to begin a process of defining a Jew as someone who considers Israel as the homeland of the Jewish nation. There is nothing wrong with being religious but in the 21st century religion isn't enough as a definition of a nation. If Irish or Italians can live outside Ireland or Italy and continue to call themselves Irish or Italians because they were born in Ireland or Italy or they are descendants of families born there, the Jews (Israelites) have the same right in defining themselves as Jews (Israelites) because are related to the land of Israel.