It is not for nothing that the secular streams of Zionism – ultimately the dominant streams – were often called messianic. No less than religious Zionism, although distinctively different, their vision concerned the idea of the redemption of the Jewish people.
All of these streams within Zionism had strong and distinct visions concerning the people, the country and the society to be established in the Land of Israel.
We have examined three major aspects of Zionism as it developed in the pre-state period:
- The waves of Aliyah that provided the human resource for the upbuilding of the Jewish national home;
- The organisational developments that provided the structural mechanism for realising the movement’s goals;
- Finally, in most detail, the competing visions that provided the conceptual map for achieving the movement’s goals.
Any attempt to portray Zionism without all three dimensions will do a great injustice to its understanding.
Zionism is an extraordinary new development in Jewish history.
At one and the same time it must be seen as both the continuation of and a rebellion against previous trends in Jewish history. Zionism attempted to adjust the Jewish condition to the new set of circumstances that had been brought about by the modern period. In this sense the demand for autonomy, which had always safeguarded and empowered Jewish life was not new.
However, whilst in the past self-rule had been confined to the parameters of community, the demand now was for national autonomy at least and full sovereignty at best. This engagement in national politics and diplomacy was indeed an innovation.
Similarly, the relationship with the Land of Israel had since dispersion continued to act as an important factor uniting the Jews. Now, an attempt was made to actualise a return whose proportions were of a dramatic nature not merely as a presence in the historic, holy land but as a means of transforming the Jewish people.
In certain very obvious ways the Zionist movement has achieved its basic goals.
- The Declaration of Israel’s Independence in 1948 was the achievement of its fundamental goal.
- The hopes of ingathering the exiles have also been realised.
Of course there will be those maximalists who express disappointment that a large number, indeed a majority of Jews still live outside the state of Israel. Yet, on reflection, the demographic revolution is quite remarakable. From a Jewish population of around 50,000 just over 120 years ago, the number of Jews in Israel has, at the time of writing, passed the 5,000,000 mark. According to demographers, during the next decade Israel is likely to surpass the United States of America as the home of the largest Jewish community in the world.
Israel is, of course, still desperately engaged in a struggle to be fully accepted amongst the family of nations.
This Zionist dream remains unfulfilled, despite the ups and downs of the last two decades.
- The economic blockade on the country that was implemented from the day its establishment has been undermined and Israelis now enjoy almost all of those products that find their place in the high streets of cities in Western countries.
- Israel’s economic performance and standard of living certainly place it amongst the so-called first world, although this does not mean that all of its citizens enjoy prosperity.
In the cultural sphere, Israel has provided a new context for Jewish cultural creativity.
- The revival of the Hebrew language and the expansion of its lexicon to meet the needs of the twentieth and twentieth first centuries has been impressive.
- Through it, music, theatre and literature have been widely acclaimed both inside and outisde Israel.
Despite the limitations of language acquisition amongst Jews in the Diaspora there has been a good degree of success in establishing Ahad Ha’am’s cultural centre in Zion.
Sadly, his vision of a moral society has been compromised by the country’s ongoing conflict with neighbouring Arab communities.
Paradoxically, one of Herzl’s major goals, that through the establishment of the Jews’ State, an end would be put to antisemtism has not ben achieved. Expressions of anti-Jewish hatred have ironically been directed towards the Jewish State and not a few Jewish communities outside of Israel see the reprecussions of Israel’s continuing conflict reflected through attacks on individuals and property.
Perhaps Ahad Ha’am was correct when he said that Zionism would not solve this question.
The Messsianic hopes of Rabbi Avraham HaCohen Kook and his son have not been realised.
- For their followers, the peace process has been a traumatic experience with its demand that Israel relinquish large tracts of land considered a birthright.
- The phyisical presence of the large Palestinian Arab population in the territories has provided a singular challenge to all Zionists. Can one maintain a Jewish State yet at the same time control Judea, Samaria and Gaza without undermining the democratic fabric of the Israeli state?
Such dilemmas continue to challenge the people of Israel.
Zionism was a response to the Jewish condition at the end of the nineteenth century. It was based on the assumption that, in a world where the key organizational framework was that of the nation-state, the Jewish people required self-determination in their own land. Yet, despite the development of global politics and regional economic blocks, the sense of national and ethnic-identity has hardly disappeared.
The key question relating to Zionism and concerning those addressing the future of the Jewish people is the global paradigm and Zionism’s response to it. Some believe that Zionism completed its mission when the state of Israel was born. We suggest here that the work of Zionism is not yet done.