Did Zionism succeed in its aims?

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Did Zionism succeed in its aims?
Zionism, splintered and fragmented as it may be, achieved its most significant aim in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel. This was, and remains, the common goal of all Zionists: what Herzl termed ‘a universal idea…the restoration of the Jewish State’.1 Zionism, an ideology rather than an achievable set of aims, remains an ongoing process in the world today, and portrays itself as the only Jewish representative that can consciously affect the future of them Jewish people.

Nevertheless, Zionism’s record is not unblemished, due to factors both internal and external. The loss of millions of European Jews in the Holocaust, was a near-mortal blow to Zionism, while its inability to rid the world of anti-Semitism, and to provide a place of refuge for world Jewry are two of the major challenges facing Zionism today.

What were its aims? What is a success?

The immediate problem posed by the question is providing a broad definition of Zionism’s aims, and hence what constitutes a ‘success’ for Zionism. The Jewish nationalist movement was, paradoxically, splintered yet absolutist. Its aims were all-encompassing, ‘the redemption of the human spirit and the salvation of the world’2 and shaped by their European context: ‘we should form a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism’.3 Notwithstanding the difficulty of judging a movement that seeks to save the world, some common elements can be discerned, and their success adjudicated.

Herzlian Zionism, influenced strongly by the rise of European anti-Semitism, held that the best means of providing a place of refuge and safety for Jews was the establishment of a Jewish state.4. Beyond the establishment of a Jewish state, Cultural Zionism called for a renaissance of Judaism and the birth of ‘the New Jew’, Socialist-Zionism sought a Jewish state founded on socialism, while Revisionist-Zionism demanded the creation of a Jewish majority on both sides of the Jordan river.5
Zionism was, and remains, a nationalist movement. Consequently it sought to define a people based on a collective past and unite them under a vision of a shared future. Zionism held that the Jews were “One People, Am Echad”, a nation with a common destiny transcending geographical and cultural barriers. Therefore Zionism’s success as a nationalist movement may also be judged by the extent to which its ideas have become part of mainstream ideological discourse.
Israel: A Significant Success

The proclamation of the Israel on May 14, 1948, stands out as the major success of Zionism in the 20th century. UN Resolution 181, which provided international legitimacy for the existence of a Jewish state, was to some extent a vindication of Herzl’s political Zionism, recognising that the establishment of a Zionist country necessitated the acceptance of other states. The resolution was also an ideological victory for Zionism: within half a century of Herzl’s pamphlet, Zionism had transformed the “Jewish Question” to an international issue, and the non-Arab world had acknowledged the necessity of a Jewish state. The creation of a state was a common goal which all Zionists aspired. It was one of the few politically significant events of modern Jewish History in which Jews were conscious actors; for the ‘New Jew’, it was ‘[their] greatest collective achievement’.6 As the realisation of a nationalist ideology, and for its ongoing effect on Jewish life in the Diaspora, the birth of a Jewish state was a major success for Zionism.

The success of Zionism was reaffirmed in 1950, with the legislative approval of the Law of Return. The law states that ‘Every Jew has the right to come to this country’7, and defines a Jew in the same terms as Hitler’s Nuremburg laws. The law makes every Jew a potential citizen of Israel, and transforms the country from a state of its denizens to the homeland of the Jewish people. It is arguably the defining law of the country, effectively entrenching the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.
Failures: Small numbers, no safety
Zionism’s greatest failure was its inability to appeal to and engage a mass audience.

Zionism was a movement of vigorous ideological debate and theoretical meanderings, whose greatest flaw was, ironically a practical one: lack of numbers. Despite all the arguments that, for pragmatic and spiritual reasons, Jews should feel obliged to ‘embark unreservedly upon the enterprise of national revival’8, only a small minority actually did. For the majority of European Jews, Zionism never made the Jewish Question sufficiently urgent, nor its solution sufficiently appealing, to move great numbers from their homes to Palestine. The Holocaust was at once a vindication of Zionist arguments, and a near-fatal blow to the Zionist cause. The very essence of Zionism was that emancipation had failed, that Jews were a nation, and could only be secure in their own sovereign state. Its raison d’être was to provide an answer to the plight of East European Jewry, six million of whom perished before the state of Israel was proclaimed.

To attribute the lack of massive Jewish settlement in Palestine solely to Zionism invites historical error, by ignoring the context within which the movement existed. The British, influenced by the strategic goal of appeasing the Arab countries in order to obtain vital oil supplies, maintained control over Jewish immigration throughout the Mandate period. The White Paper of 1939 restricted Jewish immigration to no more than 1500 per month, at a time when thousands of Jews were seeking refuge from a hostile Nazi Germany. The outbreak of World War II presented insurmountable difficulties in procuring Jewish immigration, at a time when it was most needed. For the leaders of the Yishuv, these events were not merely damaging for European Jewry, they reduced the pool of potential Jews that could create a majority in Palestine, and establish a Jewish state. While Socialist-Zionists sought the ‘right type’ of Jews, and Cultural Zionists thought Israel need only be a spiritual centre of Judaism, the loss of millions of Jews was a catastrophic blow to aims of Zionism.
Herzl’s Zionism, which sought the establishment of a Jewish homeland to rescue European Jews from their material plight and physical peril, has not been successful. 60% of Jews do not live in Israel, choosing to live in comfort and relative safety in the United States, France or Britain. During the Cold War, the Zionist justification for statehood providing a place of refuge for Jews was partially refuted, with millions of Jews remaining trapped within the Soviet Union. Moreover, Israel, recently the largest Jewish community in the world, is arguably one of the more dangerous states for Jews to be living in. It has fought six wars in its sixty years of existence9, faces ongoing terrorist attacks and is nominally still at war with some of its neighbours from 1948. The country sits adjacent to a terrorist state on its southern border, and within reach of an Iranian regime which calls for Israel to be ‘wiped off the map’.10
The New Jew – an imperfect success

Zionism’s record on creating the ‘new Jew’ is somewhat mixed – perhaps a partial success. The ‘refashioning the individual Jew’11 was one of the primary aims of Zionism – transforming the Jew from the weak, passive victim of pogroms to a hero worthy of Simeon Bar Kochba. The serious existential threats that Israelis have had to face have distorted the shape of the ‘New Jew’, increasing his militarism and ethnocentric outlook. There have been some revolutionary successes: over the last century, Jews did move in numbers to Palestine, and once there, taken up physical labor, created links to the land of Israel and participated in national service. The path from idealism to activism and statehood was a swift one, fifty years, with significant effects on the shape of world Jewry and Israeli identity.

However, the reality of events in the 20th century had a direct, and potentially conflicting, influence on the engineering of the new Jew. The ‘weak, passive Jew’ of the European ghetto has largely disappeared, due more to the Holocaust than Zionism’s revolutionary effect. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Zionists had to withdraw their insistence on only appealing to ‘the worthy…thoses possessed of physical and moral powers’12. In the Yishuv, Jewish youth confused strength with militarism, and their identity became increasingly associated with a detached attitude to the world outside Palestine. Shapira explains how Zionist educators in the Yishuv ‘heaped abuse on [the Diaspora]’13 and created ‘exaggerated patriotic instincts....Palestinocentrism’.14 The keen attempt to develop deep roots in the soil of Palestine came at a cost, as Jews’ ‘horizons were restricted to the horizons of their homeland…their small world’.15 The emphasis on the centrality of Palestine inevitably placed the conflict with the Arabs at the forefront of Jewish thought. During World War II, when the identity of Jewish youth in the Yishuv was consolidated, the border between the ideal of ‘strength’ in the ‘New Jew’ (a narrative set up in opposition to the apparent weakness and passivity of Diaspora Jews) and sheer militarism was crossed. Brought up on images of Diaspora Jews who ‘died like dogs, and they were dead’16Through their experiences, the youth of the Yishuv ‘assumed the role of the fighter’, and ‘realised’ that ‘the determining factor in the world is force, and we can depend only on our force’.17
Ideological Decline

Zionism aimed to establish not merely a Jewish state, but a just state. As a nationalist movement, it sought to be both a product of Europe and to radically differentiate itself from that continent. Jewish nationalism was to seek not merely a territory, but statehood founded on universal principles of equality and justice. Borrowing from the biblical commandment to be a ‘light unto the nations’, Israel was to be ‘a model for a parallel social transformation in Europe itself’.18

Herzl’s Altneuland spoke of a transformation of Jewish social structure, a ‘model of social jsutice’.19 Socialist-Zionism, the dominant stream of Zionism for over half the 20th century, held that ‘it is inconceivable that people will agree to the creation of an autonomous state based on social inequality’.20 Zionism was the logical link in the movement towards socialism; Jews were ‘the proletarian among the world’s peoples’.21 Revisionist-Zionists recognised Arab opposition to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, but ‘firmly believed that the transformation of Palestine into a Jewish state is a postulate of the highest justice and that all opposition to it is unjust’.22 Even Cultural Zionists, who did not envision mass Jewish settlement in Palestine saw Zionism as a means for restoring ‘the reign of justice in the world at the end of days’.23 A sense of fateful righteousness lay within all the various streams of Zionism, that this was to be a better nationalist movement, an enlightened movement, founded on principles of humanism and morality

Sixty years after the establishment of Israel, the results of a movement founded on ideals of justice (and, in the case of Socialist-Zionists, equality) can not be termed a success. There is no doubt that Socialist-Zionists, through the Second and Third Aliyot, helped establish the country, and that left-wing parties were in power for the first thirty years of the state. Within Israel today, however, one in three children lives below the poverty line, and Israel now ranks second after the United States in the table of inequality in developed countries24, with particular problems in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors.25 Externally, Israel has entered its fortieth year as an occupying power in the West Bank, settling lands it conquered through war, in contravention of UN resolution 242 and international law.. For an ideology so fixated with convincing ‘the young that absolute justice is on our side’26, the reality of past and present has been a demoralising failure.


The revolutionary nature of Zionism lay in its urgent call for Jews to flee the Diaspora, and a self-given moral imperative that drove pioneers to settle in a backwater of the world

1 T. Herzl ‘A solution of the Jewish Question’ in Paul Mendes-Flohr The Jew In the Modern World

2 Buber, in Paul Mendes Flohr p 449

3 Herzl p 425

4 See particularly Herzl, The Jewish State, New York : American Zionist Emergency Council, 1946

5 Vladimir Jabotinsky – What the Zionist-Revisionts Want (1926) in Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, eds,

6 Yosef Gorney p.236

7 http://www.knesset.gov.il/laws/special/eng/return.htm

8 David Vital p.140

9 In 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982 and 2006

10 http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/30/weekinreview/30iran.html?_r=1&ex=1161230400&en=26f07fc5b7543417&ei=5070&oref=slogin

11 Anita Shapira, “The Fashioning of the “New Jew” in the Yishuv Society” in Y. Gutman and A. Sad, eds. Major Changes within the Jewish people in the wake of the Holocaust (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1993) p.427

12 David Vital, The Origins of Zionism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975) p197

13 Shapira p. 433

14 Ibid p.435

15 Ibid

16 Haim Nahman Bialik “City of Slaughter” in Paul Mendes-Flohr etc.

17 Ibid p.437

18 Avineri p97

19 Avineri p. 95

20 Nahman Syrkin, quoted in Shlomo Avineri. The Making of Modern Zionism: The Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State (New York: Basic Books, 1981) p.136

21 Shapira – Land and Power p 364

22 Vladimir Jabotinsky “What the Zionist-Revisionists Want” in Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, eds, The Jew In the Modern World: A Documentary History (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

23 Ahad Haam in Paul Mendes Flohr p.542

24 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/4833602.stm

25 http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/900677.html

26 Quoted in Anita Shapira p.185

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