Zionism’s meaning in Diaspora
After the attacks in Copenhagen, like after the violence and vandalisms that have rocked the French Jewish community, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is urging the Jews of Europe to come to Israel as violence against Jews and Jewish institutions increases across that troubled continent.
This call for a new mass aliyah is being met with opposition by European leaders – including Jewish leaders. In Copenhagen, more than 30,000 people, led by their prime minister, commemorated the victims of the terror attacks. Copenhagen’s chief rabbi, Jair Melchior, told the Associated Press, “People from Denmark move to Israel because they love Israel, because of Zionism. But not because of terrorism. If the way we deal with terror is to run somewhere else, we should all run to a deserted island.”
Coincidentally, in preparation for our upcoming 85th anniversary issue, we were perusing old copies of this newspaper recently. We came across a commentary from July 1948 titled “Zionism should be wound up.” The author argued that the motive for Zionism – the creation of a Jewish state – had been realized and so the global enterprise should be concluded: even as Israel was literally fighting for its survival in the ongoing War of Independence, and so soon after the Holocaust.
Zionism had been a divisive force in the Diaspora Jewish community, including here in Canada. There were pro- and anti-Zionist Jews of left, right and centre politics, and of Orthodox and secular persuasion and everything in between. Some arguments against Zionism as a movement relied on religious foundations, contending that the ingathering of the exiles would coincide with the messianic era. Other arguments were emphatically secular with the left holding, for example, that it was incumbent upon Jews to remain where they are and fight for a better world for all, rather than retrenching to nationalistic or religious-based separations.
Reading the editorial from 1948, one particular sticking point was that community fundraising efforts had been overwhelmingly allocated to the Zionist effort. Now that the goal had been achieved, the author argued, it was time to redirect fundraising and spending inward, to individual Diaspora communities and to resurrect the “kehilla pattern” of community building and security, with each community taking care of its own needs.
Despite the writer’s conclusion, as successive wars and decades of terrorism confronted Israel, Zionism was not shelved. It morphed into a different type of movement. No longer mobilizing for the creation of a Jewish homeland, it became the overseas support group for the country. After 1967, when “the occupation” altered perceptions of Israel at home and abroad, Zionism again became a divisive cause. But for those two decades, the Jewish people were probably as united as they have ever been in support of Israel.
The lesson of the second half of the 20th century proved the lesson of the first half. Close to a million Jews across the Middle East and North Africa were forced, driven or encouraged by various means to leave their homelands. The difference for these people was that there was now a place where Jews control the immigration policy. Had such a place existed in the 1930s, the impact of the Holocaust may have been massively reduced. Nitpickers will contend that it was the creation of the state of Israel itself that led to the expulsion of Jews from the Arab world, but this equivalency, whatever its merits, does not distract from the underlying point: Jews have often lacked security and permanence in places where they are a permanent minority.
However, being a majority is no assurance of safety. Despite Netanyahu’s invitation, all is not nirvana for the Jews of Israel. Violence and terrorism are not unknown, and life is challenging in different ways than in Europe. It also needs mentioning that everything Netanyahu says and does right now must be seen through the prism of political expediency as the Israeli elections approach.
Nevertheless, these events raise a very serious question: What does Zionism mean today for people in the Diaspora?
There are probably more answers than there are Jews and, in a way, this is the question we grapple with, in one way or another, in these pages every week. But this conclusion may be safe to draw: it is not quite time for Zionism to wind up its affairs.