April 3, 2012
A new Zionism waiting to be born
Power corrupts. But so too does powerlessness. The narrative of powerlessness, of perpetual helpless victimhood, corrupts moral vision. In his cover story, Rabbi Wolpe does a masterful job of diffusing the political arguments of Peter Beinart’s book, The Crisis of Zionism. But he does not address the fundamental and disconcerting questions at the heart of Beinart’s concern: How has the narrative of victimhood warped contemporary Zionism and American Jewish identity? How has it distorted our collective discourse? What new narratives are made possible by sovereignty in Israel and political power in the US? And what shall we do with all our power? Like the Wicked Son of the Haggadah, Beinart is castigated, but his question goes unanswered.
The apposition of Rabbi Wolpe and Peter Beinart echoes an old controversy: At the First Zionist Congress in 1897, Theodor Herzl stood at the rostrum in all his messianic glory and moved the conference with a stirring opening address. Vicious anti-Semitism, he declared, is a permanent feature of European culture. Jews will never live in safety until they gain power, construct a state of their own, and take responsibility for their own political destiny. Far in the back of the hall sat the curmudgeon, Ahad Ha-Am, scribbling in his notebooks. Beware of statehood, he wrote, for power and its emblems are a drug that will distract us from the critical work of rebuilding Jewish culture and twist the Jewish spirit. What we need most, Ahad Ha-Am declared, is not a state for Jews or a state of Jews, what we need is a truly Jewish state.
They were, of course, both correct. Zionism is an expression of collective responsibility. We took power so that we might protect the Jewish people. But the exaltation of power and the pursuit of material survival has never been the aim of Jewish life. Zionism always expressed a Jewish ethical aspiration. We were liberated from Egypt not solely to live without chains, but to aspire to a vision of a holy people. We founded Israel not solely for our own survival, but to gain the capacity to realize our dream of a just society. Within Beinart’s political argument, questionable as they may be, is a powerful yearning for a rebirth of ethical aspiration within the Zionist conversation. Argue his politics. But do not ignore his question or neglect this yearning.
Between Herzl and Ahad Ha-Am, between Wolpe and Beinart, for that matter, between AIPAC and J Street, there is room for a new Zionism, a third way. Their debate makes room for a Zionism that speaks from the sacred center of historical Jewish tradition, from the values and visions of Jewish history and faith, but at the same time, a Zionism that holds, with uncompromised tenacity, our hard-earned realism about the world and its evil propensities, and our responsibility to protect our own. Somewhere in the tension between Wolpe and Beinart, that third way of Zionism is waiting to be born.
On our Seder plate, there will be an ample portion of bitter Maror, in remembrance of our enslavement. But only one portion, not six. And it will be mixed with sweet Haroset, mellowing the bitter with the sweet. That’s the flavor of Jewish liberation. That is the foretaste of a new Zionism.