I’ve started my lessons on the Emergence of the Modern State of Israel, and I must declare to the world that I absolutely love this class. Over the past few days, we have been discussing the origins of Zionist thinking, and the differences within the Zionist ideology. What I find absolutely astounding is that Zionism encompasses many schools of thought, some divided by gaping schisms and some separated by minor nuances. While there was general consensus amongst the Zionists that the solution to the Jewish problem was the establishment of a Jewish homeland and for the Jews to attain power, there were disagreements over what exactly the Jewish problem was, where the Jewish homeland should be (Argentina? Uganda? Palestine?), what the Jewish homeland should look like, and what the new Jew should be like.
These were just the disagreements within the Zionist group. There were many Jews who disagreed completely with the Zionist idea from the very beginning. There were Integrationists, who strongly believed that the solution to anti-Semitism was to assimilate into the cultures that they were in, so that they would shed their Jewish identity and adopt the identity of the British, Germans, French, etc. And of course, these people disagreed vehemently with the Zionist idea because it stood diametrically opposite to assimilation by aiming towards a separate and distinct Jewish state. Then there were the ultra-Orthodox Jews (Haredim) who opposed the secular and anthropocentric nature of Zionism. To them, the idea of establishing a Jewish state/homeland without the Messiah was akin to rebellion against God. This tension between religious orthodoxy and secularism is still ongoing today, even though there has been an attempt to foster tolerance of both lifestyles in Israel. Finally, there were the Socialist Jews who believed that Zionism was a distraction from the real problem at hand – the oppression of the working class by the bourgeoisie. These Jews were predominantly European (Ashkenazi) Jews. To them, Zionism focused on setting Jews apart, when they should be brought into the universal brotherhood of man.
Zionism is a very unique nationalist movement in that it is probably the only example of nationalism in history that developed outside the country of the nation. It also revived the ancient Hebrew language that had been preserved by Jews in the Diaspora for centuries. The revival of Hebrew was a critical element of Zionism – Yiddish was seen as a bastardised version of Hebrew, and so even though most Jews spoke that in the early 20th Century, many Zionists considered it unacceptable in the new Jewish homeland.
More than just nationalism, Zionism is also about the identity of the Jewish people. After all, who exactly is a Jew? This question is deceptively simple, but actually very complex. Are the Jews an ethnic group? If that’s the case, then who can truly be considered Jewish after centuries of inter-ethnic marriages in the Diaspora? Could the Jews be defined by their religion, Judaism? If that is true, then anyone could become a Jew, and the need for a Jewish state would seem less legitimate in the eyes of the world because religious groups do not normally lay claim to territory. Yet, years of anti-Semitism have made it clear that there is a Jewish people, which has miraculously survived thousands of years of persecution – the Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms, the Holocaust, etc. Zionism did not just focus on trying to determine what the Jewish identity is, but also on moulding the new Jew.
In a nutshell, Zionism is much more complex than I thought. I used to think that it was spurred by religious motivations, but now I understand that it is primarily a secular movement, even though it has many religious elements to it and many see the hand of God in it despite its secular nature. One only needs to visit Tel Aviv to understand the secular nature of Zionism. Tel Aviv is a world apart from Jerusalem; it is the epitome of the secularity of Zionism, a deliberate attempt to break away from traditions of the past. The sheer complexity of this ideology is what makes it (and other significant ideologies in history) so intriguing.
I’m so glad to be here in Israel… If I had stuck to my original plan, I would be in Cairo right now, where a coup d’etat has just taken place. In fact, I would be in Cairo University, where people have died in clashes. This is not good luck; this is God’s divine protection, and only He knows how relieved I am to be in Israel right now.
This land is really full of wonder – not just historically, but even geographically. I’m amazed at the variety of beautiful flowers I’ve seen around the country, and the number of small water bodies I’ve seen in the countryside is incredible. This is truly where the desert blooms.
I only have 3 weeks left here, so I’m going to make the most of it. But truth be told, I’m not going to be very sad when I leave Israel, because then I’ll finally be heading back to Singapore 🙂 Home sweet home.