Zionism in the 21st Century: Jerusalem panel tackles weighty subject

A panel discussion in Jerusalem on the meaning of Zionism in the 21st century turned into a debate on religion and the power of the Israeli rabbinate.

By Atara Beck, World Israel News

In what many refer to as the post-Zionist era, patriotic Israelis are asking themselves what it means to be a Zionist today and whether the Zionist mission has been completed.

A panel discussion Monday evening at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem addressed the topic: What does Zionism mean today? What can we learn from the original Zionist thinkers? What ideas will help the continued prosperity of the State of Israel?

“Whoever thinks the debate ended in 1948 or 1967 is mistaken,” Herzl Makov, president of the Center, said in his introduction to the event. He also praised historian and author Gil Troy, one of the panelists, whose most recent book, The Zionist Ideas – building on Arthur Hertzberg’s classic, The Zionist Idea – tackled the subject of the evening’s discussion.

Troy, at a book launch earlier this year in Manhattan, said he hopes readers will see The Zionist Idea “as an invitation to appreciate the breadth of the Zionist conversation, from right to left, from religious to secular, over the last 250 years,” The Jerusalem Post reported at the time.

At the Jerusalem event, he embellished on that theme, noting the Zionist diversity among his close family members, ranging from the leftist Shomer Hatzair to the religious Zionist B’nei Akiva.

“Shame on our enemies,” he stated, but if we do not begin a new discussion among ourselves, despite the political and religious differences, “we’ll have a problem.”

Another panelist was Natan Sharansky, who spent nearly a decade in Soviet prison as a refusenik and has since served in senior Israeli government positions and, for nine years, as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Sharansky, in fact, had written a foreword to Troy’s book, saying it “demonstrates that we now live in a world of Zionist ideas, with many different ways to help Israel flourish as a democratic Jewish state.”

The other panelists were former Labor Member of Knesset Dr. Einat Wilf, a self-described “feminist, Zionist and atheist” and a recipient of the Menachem Begin prize 2018 for her “determination in defending Israel around the world”; and Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a leading Religious Zionist who was among the founders of the Tzohar organization, which seeks to build bridges between the secular and religious worlds.

The evening focused largely on the secular-religious divide, with Wilf insisting that the rabbinate has too much power.

‘Secular Zionists are the Messiah’

Many Israelis are “passive Zionists,” she said. The majority do not focus on Zionism in their everyday life, which is “a wonderful accomplishment, natural … shows Zionism has succeeded … a great victory.”

“I am still a Zionist. So why do I hold on to it?” she continued.

“The struggle has not ended. Secular Zionists consider themselves to be the Messiah … You don’t depend on anything, you can change the story … We are still, to an extent, in the galut (Diaspora). We have to get used to the idea that Jews now have power to govern themselves. For the complete redemption to happen, a nation has to know that governing ourselves is our goal rather than being dependent on others,” she stated.

Wilf explained that she is not advocating for Jews to discard thousands of years of Jewish history, but that they need to change, for instance, they way they celebrate their holidays, which are based on the continuing story of the Jewish People.

“We are the commentators on Judaism just as much as the rabbis of previous generations,” she asserted. “I disagree with institutions like the rabbinate. For example, I, as a member of parliament for the Jewish state, should have more say in ‘who’s a Jew’ than the rabbis.”

Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, was a Zionist who saw the establishment of the State of Israel as part of the process of Redemption. In that vein, Cherlow said that the difference between his vision, as a Religious Zionist, and Wilf’s Zionist vision, is not huge, despite their theological disagreements.

“When speaking about the lives of individuals, even though we believe everything comes from God, we each have a responsibility to do our own work, just as we would when it comes to making a living. So, it’s the same thing, which is why we can cooperate as Zionists,” he said.

In the Former Soviet Union, Sharansky said he saw nothing Jewish, unless you count anti-Semitism, but suddenly, after Israel’s remarkable victory in the Six Day War in 1967, there was an awareness.

“Israel is the home for all Jews … the opposite of a melting post, bringing Jews from all over the world,” he said, calling for a return to the vision of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism.

‘Stop blaming the haredim’

However, he disagreed with Wilf, saying that if the rabbinate was relevant only to the galut (years of exile from the Land of Israel), “then what is Judaism?”

Responding to another comment by Wilf regarding the apparent rift between Israel and the Diaspora – i.e. the rabbinate versus Reform and Conservative Jews – Sharansky said, “Stop blaming the haredim (ultra-Orthodox),” adding that “Oslo” and the security situation is more important to the Israelis, which is evident in the national elections. Wilf responded that he was taking a political stand.

“It doesn’t matter if you believe in God or not. What’s important is to continue to tell our story,” Wilf reiterated.

“That’s the difference between us,” Cherlow commented. “God comes back into the story … We have to fulfill what the Knesset decides … but we don’t see Zionism as everything. Zionism is one of the central points of my life.”

Taking the historical approach, Troy noted that in the 19th century, the focus was on Jewish identity – “What am I as a Jew?” But in the 20th century, the focus became national, he said, comparing the persecution and subsequent establishment of the modern Jewish state to the biblical Jacob’s dream, during which he was battered and bruised but ultimately triumphed.

‘It’s a problem, the Z word’

One of the reasons Troy wrote The Zionist Ideas was to tackle what he sees as the current challenges.

“Today it’s a problem, the ‘Z’ word,” he said. “Some may think [the question of] the ‘Messiah’ (i.e. religion) causes problems, but people are talking about the ‘occupation.’ These are our biggest challenges now. It isn’t important whether God chose us or we chose him… Judaism is integral to Zionism. Judaism is our roots.”

As for the fact that the entire discussion on the future of Zionism essentially became a religious debate, Troy, in discussion with World Israel News, commented that “it’s really a discussion of identity. Religion is a part of that.” Since this particular debate took place in Jerusalem, such a focus should not be surprising, he added.