Political Judaism and the Post-Zionist Era

By Avruch, Kevin | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Political Judaism and the Post-Zionist Era


Avruch, Kevin, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


The year 1996 saw the 100th anniversary of the publication of Herzl's The Jewish State, and 1997 the 100th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress at Basel, Switzerland. It is not surprising that a lot of energy, within Israel and outside it, has gone into symposia and seminars that seek to assess the impact of Zionism on Jews and others. But for some time now debate and discussion about Zionism often have been framed in terms of "post-Zionism," and the assertion that Israel now must come to terms with an ideological world in which Zionism has ceased to matter.

Has Israeli society entered a "post-Zionist" era?(1) The very question has generated heated controversy, fueled in part by confusion on both sides - or all sides - on two matters. The first confusion is about what the term really refers to. The sociologist Chaim Waxman has discerned three different ideological loadings of the term. The first is an old (leftist or anti-colonial) anti-Zionism got up in new clothes: "Israel was begotten in sin and . . . Zionism is racism." The second he locates in the internal politics of Israel's universities, especially in history and the social sciences. The third category of post-Zionist thinking, however, is the most interesting one from our perspective, since it involves "some basic questions about Jews, Jewish nationalism, and Judaism." These are old and fundamental issues in Zionism whose roots, as Waxman puts it, "can be traced to the origins of modern Zionism."(2)

This last construction of post-Zionism, which connects it to issues of identity and Judaism, is where the second source of confusion regarding the term has arisen: between those observers who claim that Israel has entered such an era and are speaking "merely" descriptively, and those who are arguing prescriptively, as well. The latter say in effect, Israel is now post-Zionist and it's about time.(3) It is the latter, prescriptive, position that infuriates many "establishment" figures.(4) I think that many who decry the post-Zionist prescriptive claim of the critical camp might agree-with sadness, anger, or resignation - that their descriptive claims have some empirical merit.

The claims of post-Zionism seem to have come from the radical left among Israeli academicians and intellectuals. Indeed, in the recent New Republic "Symposium" celebrating "Zionism at 100," Charles Krauthammer derisively calls post-Zionism "the stance, the affectation of many on the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish Left."(5) Going further, Martin Peretz sees in this affected stance something for stalwart Zionists to crow about. "There is no greater measure of the success of Zionism," he writes, "than the phenomenon of post-Zionism." What the post-Zionists are whining about, Peretz means, is really a sign of the Jewish peoples' continuing "normalization." They are complaining of the complacency and materialism of Israelis, a people now "devoid of a self-critical temper."(6) But what's the problem here, Peretz implies: approaching the millennium, are these not signs of normalcy?

However, not all of these complaints have come from Israelis on the left. Almost twenty years ago I was conducting research on the adjustment of American immigrants to Israel.(7) On the whole they were (and are) an idealistic lot. They felt their subsequent disappointments with the realities of Israel society very keenly, and were articulate in expressing them. One disappointment had to do with the Zionist nature of the state and society. I remember some immigrants remarking to me with some bitterness that they expected to find sabras who were Zionists - as committed Zionists as they felt themselves to be-but found instead Israelis who were merely "patriotic." The opprobrium placed on mere "patriotism" surprised me then, but it wouldn't surprise me now. When I recently went back through my field notes I found this remark about patriotism to have been made by two of my informants. One was a middle-aged American-born socialist Zionist-Ha-Shomer Ha-Tzair as a youth- and the other a middle-aged American-born Orthodox, soon to be involved heavily with Gush Emunim.

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