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Reclaiming the Zionist Vision

Jews often imagine the future by recounting the past; the most audacious vision for Israel’s future is the one that animated its founding: a liberal political project that fulfills the need for Jewish sovereignty and self-determination.
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Yehuda is a leading thinker and author on the meaning of Israel to American Jews, on Jewish history and Jewish memory, and on questions of leadership and change in American Jewish life. Yehuda led the creation of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in 2010 as a pioneering research and educational center for the leadership of the North American Jewish community, and teaches in

Jews often imagine the future by recounting the past; and so perhaps the biggest and most audacious vision for Israel’s future is the very one that animated its founding: a liberal political project, a state that fulfills the baseline existential need for Jewish sovereignty and self-determination in the land of Israel, organized as a liberal democracy that serves all its citizens and inhabitants equally. This is the promise of the preamble and some key paragraphs in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Rereading it is a reminder that Zionists once thought possible—insisted even— that the State of Israel could house both a state that we see as Jewish and a state that serves the interests of all of its citizens, and that the land of Israel could accommodate the national dreams and the feeling of athomeness for both Jews and Palestinians.

This vision often feels implausible now, considering the mounting political failures of liberalism in the land of Israel; but there was a time not that long ago, prior to the creation of the State, when Zionism was all about dreaming impossible dreams. Early Zionism spoke a language of taking on the responsibility of no less than repairing the condition of the Jewish people; it was a pluralist discourse, encompassing a variety of competing ideas; and it was aspirational, dreaming of a different and often utopian future. Within the span of two generations, from the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th, Zionism went from being the pipe dream of marginal lunatics to the dominant program and plan of the Jewish people. But Zionism’s transformation from an ideological movement into a political reality came at the cost of some of the core aspirational ideas that motivated it to begin with, and increasingly it comes at the cost of its own failure of accountability to some important moral aspects of the original vision. Its primary successes, selfdetermination and sovereignty, should have been treated as prerequisites for realizing its moral aspirations—and not the end goals.

The Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz claimed that Zionism was rooted in the need to not “be ruled by goyim.” But this should be the floor, never the ceiling.

Gaps abound now between Israel’s liberal democratic ideal for itself and the present reality, in the continued structural inequalities that Israel’s Palestinian citizens face; in the enduring occupation, which leaves Palestinians in limbo about their own right to self-determination and breeds human rights abuses; in Israel’s inconsistent policies on immigration and asylum; in the struggle for religious pluralism; in the rising tide of extremism on the Israeli right, that not only threatens the ideals of liberalism but seeks to redefine Israel’s identity.

To address all these challenges is precisely the agenda of liberal Zionism, as a continuation of the project of dreaming that formed the State of Israel to begin with. To treat these challenges as evidence of liberal Zionism’s failure is not just to admit defeat now; it is to treat Zionism as though it were a mere political program, and not the ideology of the Jewish people that brought us to this moment.

The urgencies of political state-building took priority in the 1940s and 1950s over other aspects of the Zionist dream. When you are seeking to survive, everything else—morality, spirituality, culture—moves to the back seat. But for a people that has dreamed for so long in moral and cultural technicolor, survival can never remain the goal indefinitely. At some point, the Jewish people’s responsibility to work toward its betterment becomes paramount.

If liberal Zionism is in the DNA of the original political Zionism, and if Zionism is premised on the capacity of the Jewish people to dream its way into the future, then it is time to reclaim our imagination of what Zionism can do and what the State of Israel might be. If this is not forthcoming in the political systems, it is attainable in our educational systems. And it is not just for the benefit of the State of Israel and all its inhabitants; it is for the benefit of the entire Jewish people, who were once mobilized and dignified by the power of an idea to change the world and bring it about.

This essay is from a special Yom Ha’atzmaut edition of Tamuz, an online magazine of the The David H Sonabend Center for Israel at the Marlene Meyerson JCC, presented in partnership with the Shalom Hartman Institute.

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