The End of Zionism; the Renewal of Diaspora Judaism

By Cantor, Norman F. | Commonweal, November 19, 1993 | Go to article overview
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The End of Zionism; the Renewal of Diaspora Judaism


Cantor, Norman F., Commonweal


The Rabin-Arafat accord has been greeted by the Diaspora Jewish populations in the United States, Canada, and England with a notable restraint. Contrary to the huzzahs in the media and the gloating of the White House officials, and with the exception of the idelological peaceniks on the Jewish Left, there has been only a moderate acclaim of approval for the inauguration of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. The applause from the great majority of Diaspora Jews has been formal, politically correct, but very cautious and scarcely heart-felt, I think. Commentary, the leading organ of U.S. Jewish opinion, and under Norman Podhoretz's editorship for long vehemently Zionist, has had a very hard time expressing enthusiasm for the Rabin-Arafat agreement. The other prime journal of opinion circulating among American Jews, the international edition of the Jerusalem Post, has communicated clearly the actual hostility of most of its editorial staff to the agreement, something it would not have dared to do if it had felt that the majority of its readers strongly supported the accord. The ultimate reason for this moderate response, I would argue, has been the still only partly conscious perception that the Rabin-Arafat accord represents the end of Zionism.

The security and triumph of Israel has been regarded, at least since 1948, as the integrating element in the public culture of Diaspora Jews, the single most important ingredient by far in the affirmation of a Jewish consciousness. Since the 1950s a Jew in America, Canada, and England was someone committed to political Zionism, which meant an independent Jewish state in perpetual victorious conflict with its Arab neighbors, and, at least since 1967, the subordination of Arabs within Greater Isreal or their exclusion entirely. It was as simple as that: If your heart was warmed and your brain positively stimulated by this prospect, you had an identity as a Jew, whether you lived in New York, Toronto, or London.

It was easy enough to say--and Israelis always said it--that the Diaspora Jews provided only moral and fiscal support while the Israelis personally endured repeated wars against the Arabs and frequent danger from terrorist attacks, that the Diaspora Jews were vicariously engaging in an exploitative projection onto Israeli heroism and blood-letting. This view had substance. although it undervalued the fiscal and political support of Isreal from American Jewry which made Israel's survival possible. Its validity does not detract from the reality that Jewish self-identity in the past forty-five years of the Diaspora has depended, in my opinion, much more on political Zionism than on religion. Identification with embattled Israel and pride in its triumphs has been the hallmark of Disapora Judaism, now set on a course of reversal by the prospect of peace with the hitherto intransigent Arab states and especially by accommodation with the hated Palestinians. The political and military triumphs of Israel were the counterbalance in the mind of Diaspora Jewry to the impotence that the Holocaust signified. They were the energized and integrating force in the shaping of a universal Jewish identity. Now that will be attenuated, perhaps in a short time fully superseded.

I suspect that the accustomed clear vision of the Jewish identity is in course of deconstruction and steady erosion as a result of the Rabin-Arafatt accord, and I doubt if the Israelis have thought for a minute about what the reversal of the course of Zionism of the past half century would do for Jewish identity in the Diaspora--how devastating this revolutionary change in policy could be for millions of Diaspora Jews, especially in English-speaking countries, whose public culture, in so far as it had a Jewish ingredient, was predicated on the maintenance of the course of political Zionism.

The Rabin government was pressed to reach a settlement with the Arabs so that Israeli security would be immeasurably enhanced, thus enabling Israel to turn to its festering economic problems.

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