concerning the world of CNEWA

Jewish and non-Jewish identities in Israel

by Ron Kronish

Zionism and Jewish identity. Before addressing Jewish and non-Jewish identities in Israel today, the basic principles of Zionism must be outlined. Without understanding Zionism, a meaningful discussion about identity in contemporary Israel cannot be broached.

Zionism is not simply a response to the Holocaust. Rather, its origins trace back some 60 or 70 years earlier — to the late 19th century — when nationalist movements began springing up throughout Europe. In this historic context, Europe’s Jews increasingly turned to Zionism as a modern Jewish intellectual and political equivalent of nationalism. By the turn of the century, the Zionist movement had emerged as one of the central Jewish responses to modernity. Still today, it continues to offer Jews around the world a compelling option for survival.

Generally considered the father of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl wrote the seminal book, “The Jewish State,” in 1895, in which he diagnosed the Jewish “problem” (as Europeans often referred to it at the time) as one of anti-Semitism. He argued Jews no longer had any real prospects for survival in Europe. He cited the centuries of pogroms, blood libels and rampant anti-Semitism, culminating in the infamous Dreyfus Affair in France in 1894.

In his and other early Zionists’ view, there was simply no future for Jews in Europe. The only solution was to leave and return “home.” And where was home? Clearly, these Zionists considered it to be the ancient Jewish homeland, the Land of Israel, with which Jews had been connected since biblical times — the beginning of their history as a people.

The Zionism Mr. Herzl and his contemporaries advocated became known as “political Zionism,” since it proposed a political solution, i.e., a Jewish state. Rather than face an uncertain future in a profoundly anti-Semitic Europe, Jews should establish a state, with a strong Jewish majority, who would “live and breathe free” (in the words of Israel’s national anthem). In this state, Jews would live in a “normal” national society, as did the nation-states of Europe. First and foremost, it would serve as a refuge for Jews anywhere in the world suffering oppression and anti-Semitism.

This notion of Israel as a refuge for oppressed Jews still lies at the center of modern Israeli consciousness. For most Jewish Israelis, it is Israel’s responsibility to assist Jews anywhere in the world where they face oppression and help them immigrate to Israel.

What underpins political Zionism — and all other Zionist theories — is the concept that Jews constitute a people. The Zionist movement — in all of its configurations since its birth in the late 19th century until today — understands the Jews as a national collective, as a people who originated in biblical times and somehow miraculously survived.

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Tags: Israel Cultural Identity Jews Arabs Zionism