Thursday, October 28, 2004

American Perceptions of Zionism

Israel is one of the United States' closest allies in any part of the world, and is thus one of the foreign nations about which Americans are most familiar. It is ironic, in this regard, that Zionism, the movement and ideal that gave birth to Israel and continues to undergird its existence, is so little understood in the United States. Like any movement of historic importance, there is not one but many "Zionisms," as it has fragmented and metamorphed in moving between cultural, social, and geographic contexts. Even so, it is remarkable how little American images of Zionism (likewise diverse) resemble any of its real-world avatars.

In historical terms, Zionism was originally the product of a group of secular European intellectuals. The revival of a Jewish state could not perforce be a religious ideal in the rabbinic age, as no biblical models of Jewish statehood were truly amenable to modern politics- a Jewish state without a king, a temple or a priesthood was inconceivable to religiuos believers. Indeed, many orthodox Jews initially opposed any Zionist project in the pre-messianic age on principle as a form of heresy or apostasy.

Thus Zionism was originally a secular movement born among secular Jews, a fact that naturally raises the question "why a Jewish state disaggregated from Jewish religion?" The answer is that Zionism was one of a series of options developed by post-Enlightenment Jewish intellectuals in response to changes in European state and society. The opening of the ghetto and the admittance of Jews to the social and economic life of Europe created new problems and opportunities for European Jewry. One enticing possibility was assimilation- Jews could now opt to put aside religious garb, abjure adherence to restrictive dietary laws, and assume full citizenship in the new nation-states of Europe. Enlightenment ideals of humanism and tolerance promised a new era of full integration in a community structured according to "natural" rather than religious law. Zionism was born out of disenchantment with this promise, once it became evident that European society was pervaded by a new and pernicious form of secular anti-Semitism, a perception that was embodied for the foundational author of Zionist theory, Theodor Herzl, by the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1894.

The fact that even a Jew who had divested himself of his "Jewish identity" sufficiently to serve in the French armed forces (an impossibility for anyone determined to live according to Jewish law) could be persecuted for his "Jewishness" persuaded Herzl and many others that assimilation was an impossibility. Jews would never be safe or able to live with true dignity in a nation in which they were not the majority. Herzl was thus moved to write his seminal work, The Jewish Nation (Der Judenstaat). It is crucial to underscore, however, that Herzl's ideal was not predicated on a reversal of cultural assimilation. The purpose of the "Jewish Nation" was not to allow "Jews to be Jews," but to give secular Jews like Herzl and Dreyfus a realm within which they could freely embody and act upon the modern ideals they had come to embrace without fear of anti-Semitic persecution.

This Zion did not bear any relationship with any image taken from the Torah or the Prophets, but was a new type of state conceptualized by thinkers whose principles owed more to Montesquieu, Hegel, Fichte, and Marx than to Moses, Isaiah, and Hillel. Though many voices have contributed to the concept of Zion over the course of the last 100+ years, the historical "mainstream" of Zionist thought has always been principally a strain of nationalist socialism. Herzl and his successors articulated the concept of the Jewish Nation in the same terms as non-Jewish intellectuals had constructed the emergent nation-states of 19th century Europe and America, as a transcendant ideal laying claim to the ultimate loyalties of the community that nevertheless was only tangentially related to purely "religious" values such as God or the Church. At the same time, socialism was perceived as a particularly progressive and amenable organizing principle of this new community, especially since most of its transplanted members would necessarily arrive in their new home effectively dispossessed. A common stake in the new land was the minimum inducement necessary to make the Zionist project at all practicable.

The fundamental principles of the new Zion were thus modernist, rationalist, and even atheistic in their initial conception. The progressive and antisectarian outlook of the early Zionist founders was reflected in their flexibility over the location of Zion. Any space on earth would be suitable to the national enterprise, demography, not geography was the definitive criterion of the Jewish Nation. Uganda and South America were two locations seriously pursued as possible alternatives.

In the end the situation of Zion in Palestine (and thus the metamorphosis of "Zion" into "Israel") was driven neither by the fundamental Enlightenment rationalism of the early Zionist founders or the intrinsically "Jewish" nature of Zionist ideology. Rather, Zionism itself fell into the orbit of the same antirationalist, Romantic forces that controlled the evolution of nationalisms throughout Europe and the Americas and that ironically had given rise to the same anti-Semitism the Zionist founders hoped to flee. Palestine inexorably became the pole star of the Zionist project because it was the one place to which the regionally and culturally diverse population of world Jewry had a common emotional affinity. While the ultimate realization of the Zionist dream would not have been possible without this shift, it has paved the way for the emergence of a religious Zionism that is wholly divorced from the secularist, socialist roots of the original movement. Because the modern Zion, despite its lack of resemblance to the "Israel" of Torah, is actually situated on biblical terrain (a condition deepened by the occupation of "Judea and Samaria," or the West Bank, in 1967), it has been embraced by some modern orthodox as the stage for a religious prophetic drama.

Americans looking at Israel are rarely able to distinguish between secular and religious Zionism. Because "Israel" is intrinsic to the sacred geography of most Americans they tend to assume that the Israeli nation is religiously constituted and that it embodies a sectarian mission. Even American Jews often fall into this misperception, believing that all Israelis naturally desire that the territorial boundaries of their nation conform to those of Solomon's domain. The foundational Zionist mission, to serve as a bulwark against modern secular anti-Semitism, does not require Israel to have specific or non-negotiable boundaries (indeed, it would have accomodated the placement of Zion in Uganda). Despite this fact most Americans assume that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is motivated by concerns of religion rather than those of strategic security.

The most intense adherents to this form of misperception in the United States are evangelical Christians. Indeed, their engagement with Zionism has been so intense in recent decades that they can be perceived as a new and influential species of Zionist who have transformed the ecumenical culture of Zionism itself. Their Zionism shares certain salient aspects with that of modern religious Israeli Zionists. For these groups the identity of Zion does not rest in such seminal institutions as the kibbutz or the Knesset, but in the restoration of Israel to its biblical borders and the reconstruction of the Solomonic Temple. These goals naturally preclude any end to bloodshed in the Middle East, and are thus profoundly distressing to most modern agents and observers of Mid East affairs.

It is unsurprising that, as is so often the case in all societies, Americans' perceptions of Israel and Zionism are conditioned more by their perceptions of themselves and their own values than by the objective conditions of the Middle East. For many if not most Americans "Zion" is the stage of a soteriological drama that expresses a fundamental yearning of the American psyche. Though there are many reasons why America's call to serve as a "fair broker" in the Israel/Palestine peace process have fallen short, the chronic American misperception of Zionism is certainly one, if not the most important cause. In order to broker wisely and effectively Americans must clearly understand the original rationale and historic mission of the Zionist project and must distinguish clearly between those Zionisms that are conducive to peace and those that make peace impossible.


Kate Marie said...

An excellent and informative post, Madman. But -- you knew it was coming -- I'd be interested to hear how, specifically, the "chronic American misperception of Zionism" has influenced American policy in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Madman of Chu said...

Most recently I suspect that misperceptions of Zionism have fueled the detrimental neglect with which the Bush administration has conducted Israel/Palestine affairs. More generally misperceptions of Zionism distort the discourse on Israel/Palestine relations, so that especially during election campaigns this issue is not meaningfully discussed.

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