24 June 2008

Zionism: first installment

"Baya wants to sign you up for courses on Zionism," my dad told me this morning at breakfast. (Baya is not my grandmother's real name; it's the family nickname that my brother gave her when he was a baby.) "I think she's taking this opportunity to reeducate you. I didn't think we'd done so badly, eh, Mom?"

"Well, I don't know about נטע (my sister)... but אדם (my brother) and רוני (y.t.) are probably more Zionist than we are."

I'd say that I got Zionism in my mother's milk, except that it came more insistently and explicitly from my grandmother. When I was very young, we spent more time with her than we would later, and she always took care to give us a heavy dose of Israeli civics. When she wasn't around, dinner-table conversations kept me fairly well-informed of the range of Jewish-Israeli perspectives on Israeli political controversies. But until I got to high school, I didn't realize that some thoughtful people didn't endorse Israel's existence at all. I thought that the need for a Jewish state was transparently and uncontroversially the moral of the Holocaust.

In high school, I became friends with a couple of Jews who were (it turned out) anti-Zionists, and learned to my surprise that Zionism is generally considered a conservative political position. And in college I figured out why I'd been so confused. In the European and liberal-American narrative of Israeli history, Israel went from underdog to occupier in 1967, when it acquired/seized/occupied Sinai, Gaza, the Golan Heights and the West Bank. According to the narrative I had learned — a mainstream Israeli perspective — Israel is now and always has been the underdog. As soon as this was pointed out to me, I realized that this segment of my historical narrative was reeling with spin.
They wanted to take the land and throw us into the Mediterranean. They were stronger than we were: more numerous and better armed. But we were clever. While they were getting ready to attack, we surprised them and we outsmarted them. We beat them back and wound up with even more land than we started with.
I had a variety of explanations for why we kept the territory. The main ones were:
  1. We needed it for safety (followed by a description of Golan Heights geography and the strategic importance of keeping our enemies off of the hills)
  2. We needed it as a bargaining token (followed by the story of how we gave the Sinai peninsula back to the Egyptians in exchange for peace.)
  3. But my favorite explanation was — Because we won it, fair and square. (Often followed by "they started it!" and other such inanities. This reason made perfect sense to us, as little kids who argued with each other and didn't know about the Geneva Conventions. It seemed, in fact, to invalidate reason #2. We should get peace without having to give away anything!)
When I was seven, I gave a class presentation on Israel. My mom printed out different maps of the Israeli borders over the years, for me to glue onto a poster. Seeing my familiar little arrowhead-shaped country with big Jordan-colored bites in its side made me feel uneasy. I didn't like thinking that political boundaries could change. I worried about losing the land again — about having to throw away our old globe, and not being able to visit the Dead Sea or the Western Wall.

When I was a kid, I thought all reasonable people supported the existence of a Jewish state (in one form or another). Today, I think all reasonable people support the existence of a Palestinean state (in some form or another). More on that tomorrow.

(25 days left)


  1. I think most reasonable people support the existence of both...

    BTW, did you ever get the reason #3 from anyone in the family???

  2. Abba would never had made any of the above arguments - he always thought that keeping the territories was a BIG MISTAKE, and is always happy to tell other family members "I told you so"...

    I don't think even Motti or Dov would ever make the argument #3...

  3. I agree with your views about 'reasonable people', as well as Elena's above. Their is one tricky problem with any state with a certain identification (this is not particular to the Jewish state in any way) and that is how to preserve that identification. As is well known, there are longterm demographic problems in Israel even with all the residents of Gaza and the West Bank and Palestinian refugees in another state. Compare to Lebanon, where Christians are given a tremendous amount of power in government based on their numbers historically. Though the demographic problems clearly exist, I'd say that's something that Israelis can talk about and figure out in the intervening decades, with no immediate worries about demography destroying Israel's Jewish-ness.

  4. GREAT post. Thanks for the personal touch. I just linked this post from my blog (shameless plug, sorry). I would be curious on your thoughts. Good luck in Israel! See you soon :)