Is Zionism compatible with Judaism

70 years of Israel, 120 years of Zionism

When did Zionism arise?

Like many national movements, the desire of many Jews for national self-determination arose at the end of the 19th century. It originated, which is not surprising, in Central Europe: Like the Czechs, Hungarians, German Bohemians, and Poles, the Zionist Jews who gathered around Theodor Herzl in the Basel congress wanted a nation-state, albeit with the principle difference: This should not in Europe, but in the Middle East, in Palestine. Zionism, a typical European national movement?

Nearly. Because at the heart of the term lurks the word Zion, the biblical name of Jerusalem, synonymous with the whole land of Israel. The word Zion charges the term Zionism with sacred tension. And so the history of Zionism is also marked by a constant tension, between the European wish for a nation-state with a liberal-democratic character on the one hand and the fulfillment of religious promises on the other.

The movement grew rapidly after the Basel Congress. In 1917, shortly before the end of World War I, when the British Empire conquered the historic land of Palestine / Israel from the Ottoman Empire, the Zionists persuaded the leaders in London to recognize the Jewish claims in the region. The result is the Belfur Declaration in which the then British Foreign Minister Lord James Balfur promised the Jews a “national home” in Palestine.

Search and loss of home

The Arab majority of the country was alarmed by this step: In fact, the clashes between the Arab population, who soon identified themselves as Palestinian, and the ever-growing Jewish “yishuv”, or community, increased. In fact, the Palestinian national movement developed vis-à-vis the Jewish, Zionist movement. Some attempts to create a common, local identity, such as the "Brit-Shalom" movement, founded by professors from the new Hebrew University in Jerusalem such as Martin Buber and Felix Hugo Bergmann, did not find broad support.

The Second World War and the Shoah, the Holocaust, dealt a severe blow to the Jewish people and the Zionist movement. Among the victims of the German craze for annihilation against the Jewish people were young Jewish pioneers who were waiting for their aliyah, migration to Palestine. So the Zionist movement came out of the war weakened. But as the world learned of the atrocities committed by the Germans against the Jewish people, sympathies grew for the desire to establish a Jewish nation-state in the historic land of Israel, i.e. Palestine. On November 29, 1947, the newly founded United Nations decided to divide Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The conflict between Jews and Palestinians thus reached a climax; With the proclamation of the State of Israel in May 1948, the war broke out, known in Israel as the "War of Independence" and among the Palestinians as "Nakba", the catastrophe.

Although the Palestinians received the support of many neighboring states such as Egypt and Syria, Israel was able to win the war, albeit with a very high blood toll: 1% of the Jewish population lost their lives in the war. And: Like all states that emerged at that time, whether Czechoslovakia, Poland, Pakistan or India, the opposing civilian population was chased away, driven out and made to flee in the course of the war. 750,000 Palestinians have left their homes; thus arose the reality of Palestinian refugees who are now scattered around the world.

Zionism without Zion?

And what about Zionism? He achieved his goal - the establishment of a Jewish nation state in the historic land of Israel / Palestine. But the holy places - the tomb of Joseph in Nablus, the tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem, the tombs of the biblical mothers and fathers in Hebron, but above all the old city of Jerusalem with the Temple Mount and the Western Wall have remained outside the borders of the young state. The separation between Zionism in its European-secular form and its messianic promise got a solid, geopolitical equivalent. Can Zionism exist without Zion? This question should remain unresolved even then.

In the 1950s, almost all Jews were expelled from the Arab states, which put the young state in financial need. The newly founded Federal Republic of Germany helped out, admittedly also to comply with the wish for national recognition through a gesture of reconciliation to the Jews after the Shoah.

The Land of Israel in those years was a true democracy, albeit with some shortcomings. The Palestinian minority that remained in the country lived temporarily under a special regime, but this too was soon lifted, even if their structural discrimination persisted. All residents of Israel were citizens of Israel and could vote and be elected. The road to a functioning Western-style democracy seemed long, but feasible.

Occupation vs. Democracy

And then came the war in June 1967, also known as the “Six Day War”. Within a few days, the Israeli army closed the gap in the concept of Zionism: Nablus, Hebron, Bethlehem, but above all Jerusalem, were under Jewish control for the first time in 2000 years. In itself, the inner tension mentioned at the beginning should be resolved, Zionism should come to rest, even almost - after reaching its goals - be declared ended. But with the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel occupied millions of Palestinians. In contrast to the 1948 war, they were not granted citizenship. The idea of ​​a western democracy is incompatible with the existence of millions of subjects without citizenship and civil rights. With the return to Zion in all of its holy places, secular Zionism lost touch with its origins.

The tension between the two concepts of Zionism was embodied by two organizations that emerged in the decade after the war. On the one hand, there was "Gush Emunim", the bloc of believers, which declared the settlement of the occupied territories as a goal and immediately accepted it. For Gush Emunim, the 1967 war was "Paame Maschiach", the first steps of the Messiah. The sacred took over the secular, the land of Israel "conquered" the state of Israel. Shortly afterwards, the movement "Shalom Achshav", Peace Now, came into being, which advocated a peaceful solution to the conflict with the Palestinians by returning the conquered territories and dismantling the settlements.

During the 1990s the pendulum seemed to be swinging back in the direction of secular Zionism. The first Palestinian uprising, the "Intifada", which began in 1987, revealed to the Israelis that the occupation was incompatible with their self-image of a functioning democracy. Thereupon the peace process was started with Ytshak Rabin and Yassir Arafat: The Oslo Accords I and II, peace with Jordan, initial talks with Syria seemed to make a compromise between Palestinians and Jews possible. A messianic time of peace? Not for everyone. In their settlements in the West Bank, the settlers saw how their project was threatened, how Zion was losing weight again in Zionism. The shortest civil war in history broke out: On November 4, 1995, the national religious Jew Ygal Amir shot 3 bullets at Israeli Prime Minister Rabin, who died a few hours later from his injuries.

Zionism needs a new vision

Zion and Zionism: Since 120 the inner tension between a religious promise and the western democratic ideal has been tearing the Zionist movement and its subject, the State of Israel. The murder of Rabin was followed by failed peace initiatives, terror attacks, military campaigns, war and lost human life, building walls and settlements, rockets and suicide bombings.

Has the secular project of national liberation lost to the messianic desire for salvation? Does the desire for a safe haven for Jews, under the guise of military security, turn into an eternal project of conquest and colonialism?

Theodor Herzt once had a vision of how Zionism freed Jews from the millennia-old reality of persecution and homelessness. However, this originated in Vienna during the imperial era: Today Israel needs, Zionism needs a new vision. A vision that speaks to the people of the country, both Jews and Arabs. Both Israelis and Palestinians have repeatedly demonstrated the revolutionary energy they hold. Zionism, the State of Israel is always a miracle. His achievements in the fields of culture, economics and science are the result of the visionary work of everyone, Jews and Arabs. Whether we will soon experience a new vision that will replace the tension between Zion and Zionism remains a hope that cannot be denied. Which are supported by many civil society forces in the region on both sides. The fact that these forces receive continuous support from German civil society and the German state is one of those signs that continue to uphold belief in a new vision.

Ofer Waldman is a journalist and musician. He was born and raised in Jerusalem. Today Waldman lives with his family in Berlin and is a doctoral student at the Free University of Berlin. He is chairman of the board of the New Israel Fund Germany.