By Einat Wilf
Published in The Tower Magazine
Zionism has a story to tell that is not only about Jews or for Jews. Zionism has a story to tell that, when properly understood, has the power to inspire people and peoples to great acts of daring and sacrifice. Zionism tells a simple story: Victimhood is not destiny. A history of marginalization, humiliation, discrimination, persecution, massacres, and even genocide can be transcended. A people, no matter how downtrodden, can find within themselves the power to change their future.
When the story of Zionism is told, continuity is often highlighted: the continuous presence of Jews in the Land of Israel, the ongoing yearning of a people in exile to return to their homeland, the unrelenting hope for the ingathering of a people from all corners of the earth to find redemption in an ancient land.
But Zionism is as much a revolution in Jewish life as a continuation of it. In the immediate aftermath of the Roman exile, the Judeans might have conceived of their return to Judea as a forthcoming possibility. But by the 19th century, the idea of return was sublimated into a Messianic wish, expressed in ritual and prayer. One day, a descendant of King David would arise and lead the Jewish people out of a fragile existence into a life of dignified sovereignty in a land of their own. It was a passive hope that mandated no action.
Zionism was a rebellion against this Jewish passivity. To the Jewish people, Zionism carried the message that they need not wait for the Messiah. Rather, they should be their own Messiahs. Zionism, born of the enlightenment, embodied the idea of human agency. Rather than wait for God or Messiah to bring about their salvation, Zionism called upon the Jewish people to be the vehicles of their own redemption. Zionism demonstrated that, even when dealt some of the worst cards in history, humans were active agents, capable of changing the course of their private and collective futures.
And change their destinies they did. In a few short years, the Zionist movement put in place the foundations for the future state of Israel, from a fledgling parliament to a banking system. On the eve of World War II, the modern state of Israel existed in all but name and independence. Throughout this time, Jews from around the world immigrated—ascended—to the Land of Israel, launching a process that would ultimately lead the state to be home to nearly half of the Jewish people.
The inspirational power of Zionism lay not only in its call to action, but in its vocabulary of human equality, liberty, and dignity. Zionism called upon the Jewish people to take action to achieve their rightful place among the nations as equals—nothing more, nothing less. This was a simple, but compelling, argument: In a world where nations and peoples were increasingly considered to possess a universal right to sovereignty in states of their own, where they could enjoy liberty and dignity, free from the oppressions of empire, the Jewish nation possessed that right as well.
Precisely because of its potential intersectional power to inspire downtrodden people to take action for their own equality and liberty, Zionism has been subject to decades of persistent attacks. It is in the nature of power that no one ever gives it up willingly. When those who were previously deemed inferior challenge existing power relations, especially long-established ones, they will always face backlash, typically ferocious and violent. This is intended to dissuade them from internalizing the dangerous idea of equality, sending them back to their “rightful” place.
Because Zionism meant that the Jews had the gall to challenge civilizational structures that assigned them an inferior status, it too faced backlash, and had to deal with both physically violent and intellectually sinister manifestations. The backlash was designed not only to put the Jews back where they belong, but also to prevent the spread of its contagious ideas. If Zionism stands as proof of the human will to dignity, then its name must be besmirched and the reality to which it gave birth erased, lest others follow suit.
It is no accident that so many Jews, inspired by the revolutionary idea of Zionism, seek to share it with others, and bring forth its message that victimhood is not destiny. But when they find that they are refused entry to the room where those supporting causes of human equality and liberty gather, on account of their Zionism or support of Israel, their exclusion sadly bears witness to the success of the backlash. Those who exclude pro-Israel or Zionist Jews from supporting intersectional causes of downtrodden people are depriving themselves of the most powerful sources of inspiration to human action.
But Zionism is about rejecting a destiny of victimhood. The backlash against it, in all it ugly forms, should not deter those who understand its story from sharing its powerful message with all.