Group of scholars pressing idea of cultural Zionism, amid pushback.
From the United Nations to the capitals of Europe to the pages of the New York Review of Books, Zionism — and the Israeli policies that undergird it — have lately come under withering attack.
Israel is reeling from the international condemnation following the failed flotilla attack. And Peter Beinart’s essay in the NYRB — which attacked Jewish leaders for failing to inspire a new generation of Jews committed to Israel — urged a more liberal Zionism as a way to get young Jews back in the fold.
But beneath the headlines, a skirmish within academia over the very definition of Zionism has been intensifying. The debate broke into full view here last week at the biannual conference of the American Jewish Historical Society, as a group of scholars, pressing a controversial line of thinking, sought to reformulate Zionism for the 21st century.
At root, their re-examination of the ideology amounts to a struggle over the very meaning of Zionism — or, in simplest terms, why Israel should matter to Jews in the diaspora.
While these scholars are galvanized by the sullying of the term in the international arena, they are perhaps more concerned that Jews themselves understand Zionism to be chiefly a political position — “support for the Jewish state,” period. But Zionism, they say, should mean much more than that.
“I think there’s a lot of confusion about what Zionism means today,” said Gideon Shimoni, an emeritus professor at Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry and author of “The Zionist Ideology.”
The politicization of Zionism, Shimoni and others say, ignores the rich tradition of so-called cultural Zionism — where a connection to the Land of Israel, a revival of the Hebrew language and, in short, the creation of a revived Jewish culture in Palestine once captured the imagination of Jews throughout the world, no matter their politics.
Moreover, these scholars argue, cultural Zionism does not exclude politics, but simply expands the meaning, creating a bigger tent. They argue that a shift of emphasis away from politics and toward the cultural aspects of Zionism would help Jews in the diaspora feel inspired by the Zionist mission, even if they don’t agree with the politics of the Israeli state.
“The transition to statehood limited the scope of what Zionism could be,” said Noam Pianko, an assistant professor at the University of Washington, adding that statehood need not have silenced other Zionist visions.
Pianko chaired a panel titled “Rethinking the Relationship of American Jews to Zionism in the 20th Century,” which garnered much attention at the AJHS conference last week. Held at the Center for Jewish History, the three-day conference drew Jewish scholars from all over the world.
In his new book, “Zionism and the Roads Not Taken,” Pianko highlights once-prominent 20th century American Zionists who, just prior to the establishment of Israel, formulated versions of cultural Zionism that made a Jewish national home seem integral to Jews everywhere.
The Reconstructionist movement’s founder, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, for instance, and Simon Rawidowicz, a pioneer of Jewish studies at Brandeis, argued that creating a Jewish national home in Palestine was essential to strengthening Jewish identity in the diaspora. Whether Jews actually controlled the levers of state — a military, the law and government — was beside the point.
Of course, today’s scholars highlighting alternative versions of Zionism are not universally embraced. In fact, their most formidable critics often come from within academy. They argue that a Zionism that is, at best, agnostic about political control is a misreading of history.
For instance, cultural Zionists who in the 1930s and ‘40s argued for a bi-national state — though, to be fair, many cultural Zionists argued for a Jewish-controlled state too — failed to find Arab partners. As a result, these scholars say, political Zionism proved the only viable option.
“The people who believe that you could have a Jewish homeland without state power were naïve,” said Allan Arkush, a professor of Judaic studies at SUNY-Binghamton, referring to other once-prominent cultural Zionists like Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, the first president of Hebrew University.
Zionism “never could have survived if it had to rely on the Arabs for [the Jewish community’s] safety,” he said. The reason “the road was not taken” — he said, referring to the title of Pianko’s book — “is that its opponents made that nobler road impossible.”
Another prominent critic of the cultural Zionists’ view is Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at Hebrew University, whose work on political Zionist leaders like Theodor Herzl has helped him win the Israel Prize.
Like Arkush, he said that the cultural Zionist vision — pioneered by a contemporary of Herzl’s, Ahad Ha’am — that did not include a political state failed before. And that is proof that it should not be revived again. He noted the Austrian Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who settled in Palestine in 1938 and was a prominent cultural Zionist, tried to find Arab partners for a bi-national state, “but he couldn’t find one.”
Avineri added that it is simply not true that Zionism today is a political ideology only. “It’s nonsense,” he said. Zionism today, he argued, is premised on the idea that only a political Jewish state can protect Jews throughout the world in case of another tragedy like the Holocaust. But upon that basis, he said, you could include the cultural project of reviving a modern Jewish culture.
Still, it could not go the other way around. “Cultural Zionism has not saved one Jew in danger,” he said. “Political Zionism has saved millions.”
Those scholars who highlight forgotten cultural Zionists, and those who criticize them, at least agree on that last point: in the past, cultural Zionism failed. But those arguing for a revival of the cultural Zionist model counter that it its political counterpart is failing now, and only a re-emphasis on the cultural aspects can save the whole Zionist idea.
Their evidence is that Jews in the diaspora feel less connected to Israel, which, they argue, is because Zionism seems chiefly about supporting the state — and in Beinart’s view, a particularly hawkish view of the state. Moreover, the importance of a Jewish state to Jewish survival worldwide — once a bedrock of all Zionist ideologies — is increasingly in doubt. After all, for many Jews, and particularly in America, the most threatened Jewish community in the world seems to be the one in Israel.
Even Israeli scholars are now arguing that a refashioned cultural Zionism is crucial for the Israeli state to survive, in part because it is the best way to win support from Jews in the diaspora — which they see as essential.
“Israel really needs the diaspora,” said Ofer Schiff, a scholar at Ben-Gurion University whose new book highlights another forgotten American cultural Zionist, Abba Hillel Silver, and recently inspired a lengthy story in Haaretz’s magazine. He also presented a paper at the conference last week, which drew a bevy of post-lecture questions.
In “The Defeated Zionist: Abba Hillel Silver and His Attempt to Transcend Jewish Nationalism,” Schiff argues that Silver — who led the American branch of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, which bought land for Jews who immigrated to Israel, and was the architect of the 1947 United Nations partition plan — saw American Jewish life as dependent on a Jewish state in Israel.
While Silver advocated for a political state, he was at root a cultural Zionist, Schiff argues, because he thought that only a revived Jewish culture in their historic homeland would strengthen the identity of Jews in the diaspora.
Schiff and other Israeli scholars say that the rise of political Zionism today drowns out the voices trying to articulate the importance of Israel to Jews in the diaspora. The problem, they say, also stems from a reason that is altogether different from the political-cultural divide.
It has to do with a basic disconnect between two competing interpretations of all Zionist ideologies — what Shimoni has called Israel’s “inherent centrality” to world Jewry versus its “circumstantial centrality.”
The inherent centrality version sees Israel as essential to the survival of Jews throughout the world. The Jewish state is a bulwark, this version argues, against the gravest threats to modern Jewish life: anti-Semitism and assimilation. Without a Jewish state, in other words, Jewish life in the diaspora would eventually die out.
But the circumstantial centrality version argues that Israel is just as essential to world Jewry as any other Jewish community. Jews who take this view are concerned about Israel insofar as one of the world’s largest Jewish communities is threatened, but otherwise, Israel’s importance is no more or less critical than any other Jewish community.
David N. Myers, a professor of Jewish history at University of California Los Angeles, seems to fall into this latter camp. The author of “Between Jew and Arab: The Lost Voice of Simon Rawidowicz,” he has recently argued for a new notion of Jewish nationalism in which great centers of Jewish life in the diaspora are understood as equal partners with Israel. A more inclusive view of collective Jewish identity, he said, “cannot be focused on center-and-periphery, but on equal partnership.”
In a paper published last month in the “Peoplehood Papers” — a project funded by the Jewish Agency, a leading advocate for Israel — he argues that any meaningful sense of a global Jewish nation must wean itself off of the view that Israel is the sole source of vitality in the world. After all, he argues, almost 60 percent of the world’s Jews live outside of it.
He even offers some practical solutions like a Birthright-style trip in which young Jews from all the world’s great Jewish cities—Melbourne, Montreal, New York and Tel Aviv—would travel to each other’s cities. “The result will be a messier matrix of global Jewish collectivity,” he writes, “but a far richer one.”
Signup for our weekly email newsletter here.