A Happy Birthday – Denied

Zionism’s greatest success is its simplest one: for the first time in history, in Israel, the Jewish people can powerfully protect themselves.  Not only can they find protection here, as Ukrainian and Russians Jews recently have, but they also find solace from the resurgence of antisemitism in Europe and America.

Seventy-five is a young age for a state, and yet the State of Israel has amassed an extraordinary number of civil and economic achievements in such a short span of time. Zionism, its basic ideology, nevertheless suffers from a great deal of condemnation and suspicion, occupies the relationship between Israel and major international institutions, and causes sanctions to the work and nature of the state.

Though there have been many miracles in the recent history of the Jewish people, there have also been persistent attempts at the state’s ideological deconstruction. Nevertheless, Zionism remains a positive and useful force, and not solely for the Jewish people, proven by the unceasing flow of Jews who “ascend” from the Diaspora to Israel, and the by growing number of agreements made with Abraham Accords member states.

Zionism’s greatest success is its simplest one: for the first time in history, in Israel, the Jewish people can powerfully protect themselves.  Not only can they find protection here, as Ukrainian and Russians Jews recently have, but they also find solace from the resurgence of antisemitism in Europe and America.

Yet the issues surrounding the legitimacy of the very roots of the state and of the relationship between religion and nationality still remain controversial.

The critical implication of this discussion is that in Israel self-determination is not realized as in other states, but instead expresses a religious ideology. This implication becomes a dialectical game based on the real complexity of the issue, and it used in a thousand ways and circumstances against Zionism, even though, in reality, it has been contradicted. This is because in Israel, religiosity is a nuanced option within an identity that has always included secular Jews, who have remained part of their people, its traditions and its common struggle for survival.

The Diaspora, for Zionism’s detractors, who say, “go back to Russia, Italy, or America,” is the most natural choice for a Jew. But demographics have proven otherwise: the Diaspora is continually shrinking while Israel shows signs of growth in all fields. The Diaspora, from which so many cultural, ethical, and scientific energies have certainly emanated, does not have the strength, especially after the Shoah, to maintain the volcanic energy we have amassed throughout our 3,000 years of history. This volcano has moved to Israel.

The hope of being “a light among the nations” has permeated Israel’s efforts and its narratives: from “making the desert bloom” to its prowess in winning impossible wars, together with its resilience in the face of almost insuperable torture, such as that of the Second Intifada, to becoming the Start-Up Nation and a technological and economic leader, or the victory over COVID-19. These milestones outline a positive self-perception, a pioneering spirit of mission, very unusual in the face of the spleen bad temper  that has invaded Europe especially since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war front has created a depressive disappointment rather than a self-defense reaction. The concept of war is unacceptable for modern Europe, but unfortunately war still exists.

Israel at 75, despite the clashes, feels the drive to forge ahead, and this momentum toward the future is recognized internationally. Patriotism, often denounced in most democratic societies until the war in Ukraine revived its meaning, has always been considered, along with fortitude, a positive trait here. The late German playwright Bertolt Brecht made the following motto famous: “Unhappy is the land that is in need of heroes.” “Happy is the people who need no heroes.” Israel has never adhered to this viewpoint, even its political left is the cradle of many national heroes. Patriotism is a shared sentiment. The victory of an Israeli athlete makes the entire nation buzz, the loss of a young man in a terrorist attack or armed clash is mourned by all, responding to violence is common sense and hardly anyone shuns military duty.

The passion for children, Israel’s high birth rate, differs from the rest of the Western world, which is now approaching zero growth. Running into thousands of children on the street is an Israeli, Jewish peculiarity. In Israel, each in a different way, some more defensively, and others determined to seek peace, believe in their path to the future. Israelis citizens even feel happy (Israel ranked ninth in the 2022 World Happiness Report issued by the United Nations) despite continuous terrorist threats and worldwide criticism expressed in condemnations, resolutions, and antisemitic posts on social media platforms.

Seventy-five years after its establishment, the system of accusations that assail Israel day after day is sophisticated, active, and seeks to take advantage of the political divisions existing in the region. Here forces clash, “medievalist” and “modernist” forces clash, as former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer put it. The Jewish state is aligned with the United States, the European Union, and some of the Sunni Arab states, who are convinced that the future must be faced in its reality, without religious prejudice. On the other hand, the “medievalists,” from Russia to China, Iran, North Korea, and Turkey, propose different totalitarian ideologies, some Slavic, some Islamic, some, like China or South Korea, Eastern. This alignment weaves alliances like the Russo-Iranian one, with Turkish, Qatari, Syrian and Iraqi interference, and includes armed groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. The Ukrainian conflict magnifies such strategic designs, emphasizing Israel’s undoubted future re-evaluation as a member of the “modernist” alliance.

Yet, today, Israel is still harassed by Palestinian propaganda that portrays it as a colonialist, racist invader to be expelled, and not an interlocutor. Jewish “cruelty” represents what the late historian Robert S. Wistrich called “the Nazification of Israel,” outlining a definitive moral indignity that requires political obliteration, like that of apartheid South Africa. The Zionism of the next few decades will not resolve the Israeli relationship with the Palestinians. The Nakba (the “catastrophe”) has never moved from its command post in the Palestinian political narrative, even when the Abraham Accords opened a new phase, dominated by the choice not to aim at Israel’s demise, but rather to see its useful aspects. The Palestinians still refuse to accept Israel in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, resolving the “issue” by separating the two sides, even on this 75th anniversary, remains a beautiful, unrealistic, all-Jewish ambition: it is a form of tikkun olam, a way of overcoming oneself through the rejection of war and violence, which goes beyond pure respect for minorities and crosses over into the universalistic utopia of legal norms. In reality, though, Israel’s ability to override even the most advanced model of a democratic community is already here: it is in the laws, certainly perfectible, and also in Israeli public opinion, which remains passionately democratic in wartime, a unique fact in the world. Public opinion is divided, of course, but accustomed to living with an Israeli Arab community from which, for the most part, emerges continual antagonism with intense expressions of violence, which often traffics in hate slogans and has a political leadership that rejects the Jewish state, that is, except for one of its parties.

In the future, Israel must endure, while improving its resilience and extending democratic reliability to minorities and Palestinians both legislatively and economically. It must also remain linked to the practice of peace, not in words, but in deeds: inside the Knesset and hospitals, provide assistance and pensions, promote the right to education and work, and teach it in its schools, as well as sing it in its songs. For now, Israel has remained faithful to the rules of civil respect, equal rights and placing all minorities, even very hostile ones, in roles of power – like no other country in the world.

Of course, this cannot mean sacrificing one’s own Jewish citizens: for example, checkpoints cannot be abolished. Their existence is dictated by security. The claim that Zionism has produced an apartheid state is groundless. The moderate liberal trait of the Jewish state will not be erased by any political force whether religious or far left. Israel has had to compile many practical demands while being accustomed to liberality and compromise. Nor has Zionism ever sought the oppression of another people. In history, the birth of the Jewish state has been characterized by decolonization   and not the opposite, clearly being sanctioned by decisions linked to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the context of a series of border relocations throughout most of the world.

Israel for that matter immediately conceived itself much more positively than almost all the other numerous newcomers. From the very beginning, it was concerned with having strictly elective institutions and an independent judicial system, even though its establishment was marked by chaos and bloodshed, like all postcolonial countries. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, the San Remo Resolution (on “Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia”) of 1920, and thereafter, the cruel White Paper of 1939 and the recovery at the UN are signs of the great international confusion that afflicted those who drew the borders of the new nations, as was the case in India and Pakistan, as well as in African and Arab countries. Yet, the decolonized countries have had a fate marked by much more confusion and massacres than Israel, as Bret Stephens noted in Sapir Journal in May 2022.

Moreover, the Jewish people’s indispensable claim to a state provides a clear reason for survival. Certainly, the Shoah is not the reason for the birth of Israel, but it greatly reinforces its absolute necessity. Many accusations against Zionism are determined by feigned or real ignorance, for example, a timeline that ignores uninterrupted Jewish presence, even after 70 CE. In addition, for example, many, particularly when they are anti-American, recognize that a people are indigenous, such as Native Americans, when this serves to blame the settlers. Palestinian historical connection to the land is not a forbidden admission if it does not cloud the rights of the Jewish people. The Italians, according to the temporal criteria applied to the Jews, would have renounced their “claim” of national unity, as did most of the other European nations, and the Palestinians, in turn would have had an uncertain history. The fact is that their presence on the land grew with the Jewish presence, indeed, it was magnetized by it. Large groups left Palestine in 1948 by choice or forced by the war and after study and revisions of the texts by the “new historians” it is known that no expulsion of the Palestinians was planned.

It has been said everywhere that normality is the criterion by which the success of the Zionist enterprise must be recognized. A famous text by the late Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua from 1980 is entitled “In Praise of Normality,” but before him this ambition for normality was expressed in the 1920s by Hayim Nahman Bialik, the famed Hebrew poet, which David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father and first prime minister, repeated: “We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew.” This and much more has happened: Israel is an example of democratic normality par excellence, even though its primary duty is to defend the lives of its citizens. In addition, peace, has been pursued through extreme means, with agreements and territorial withdrawals, even unilateral ones.

The late renowned Israeli human rights expert and law professor Ruth Gavison, in a famous essay written in 2003, described how the explanation of Israel’s legitimacy lies not in its Jewish character, but in its justification on universal moral grounds. The Jewish state must uphold a democratic regime and protect minorities with loyalty to the Jewish majority and therefore to the Jewish character of the state. But Israel is legitimate precisely insofar as it is a Jewish nation where Hebrew is spoken, one that rests on the Sabbath, celebrates Jewish holidays, honors leadership and remembers Jewish history and the humanitarian, as well as civil values generally recognized in Jewish texts. It is a State, insofar as it protects citizens without interference and they must all be honored and recognized without distinction.

Israel is a unique undertaking that should arouse great interest: instead, there is a race to delegitimize Israel with the absurd denial of the ties between the Jews and Jerusalem, with accusations of genocide and apartheid and persecution against Palestinians. These are defamatory claims that are part and parcel of a downright destructive determination, and without perspective. The success of Zionism is the very existence of the Jewish state for the first time in modern history – the fact that the Jewish people does not have to depend on, demand, adjust to, please or fear disapproval; proof of this is found in its vertical numerical growth after the main problems for millennia have been two, namely that of its survival in the face of antisemitic aggression and the preservation of its Jewish character. First and foremost, the State of Israel preserves the Jewish people in terms of security, by defending them from terrorist attacks and wars, and secondly, from losing their identity.

It does not matter if there are today, as everywhere, fundamentalist and super-secular groups in conflict with one another: what matters is that the Jewish state is secular and independent, has a Jewish majority that protects the rights of minorities, speaks Hebrew as a national language and observes Shabbat. This does not create any basis for absolutism, which the Jews have historically abhorred because of the bullying they have suffered. If anything, Israel is still an inconvenient example for those who equate the term “nationalism” with the idea of ​​dictatorship, even if the very large military elite informs public opinion.

Therefore, when we ask ourselves about the present-day meaning of Zionism and its continuing relevance on Israel’s 75th anniversary, it is essential to go beyond the confines of the apparently unresolvable territorial dispute, which has always truly been the steel tip of a fundamental ideological clash. The logic on which the current ideological insurgency against the Jewish state is based is antisemitism, it is a deconstruction of the very democratic nature of the modern state. It represents a suicidal logic since the ferocious surveillance of Israel obliterates the critical sense on which democratic ethics are built, while remaining blind to a system, where Palestinians live, which is corrupt and violent, dominated by dictators and militias, and generates a reality in which gays, dissidents, and women are persecuted. The double standard confuses the language of contemporary institutions, and simply brings us to the account that the world has kept open with the Jews from time immemorial.

This is because Zionism made Jews take an unexpected leap forward. Moreover, it is difficult for contemporaries, even Jews, to confront an event that in Jewish history is as important as King David, the First and Second Temple, as well as the relationship with Jerusalem and the Shoah. Today, this new historical entity is an immeasurable game changer in terms of consequences and sentiments. The success of Zionism is an outrage to those who consider the creation of a Jewish state – now a superpower in which more than 70 diasporas have gathered, where medical assistance and education are guaranteed for the entire population and life expectancy is 83 years, as well as a source of stability, since the signing of the Abraham Accords – an arrogant act. No one could ever have imagined anything like this.

The rejection of the legitimacy of this process created the war in 1948, and then gradually to all the NOs of which the three in the years following the Six Day War in 1967 are most famous, but no more important than that of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s at Camp David in 2000, and then those taken by international institutions, from the 1975 resolution of the UN General Assembly that stated “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination,” to the 2001 Durban conference where Israel was vehemently demonized, and the declaration in subsequent years by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that deemed Jerusalem a city of Islamic culture. Today, “intersectional” movements place Zionism among oppressive ideologies, identifying it with imperialism and accusing the Jewish people of “white supremacism.” During the days of Israel’s 75th anniversary, it cannot be ignored that it is being hit by an antisemitic typhoon. While the power of this thousand-headed Hydra cannot be underestimated, the time of Israel’s moral and strategic indispensability seems to be on the horizon. Freedom can evoke a deadly feeling of confusion in which one cannot find the spirit of sacrifice necessary to bring children into the world: in Israel however the birth rate, as we have said with pride, is very high.

Translated by Amy Rosenthal