IF ASKED TO DEFINE the concept of Zionism in one word, I would choose “borders”; allowed one more word, I would add “sovereignty.” These two words alone elucidate the profound connection between the Zionist revolution and the essence of Diaspora Jewry. The integral structure of Jewish identity is borderless, flexible, wide-ranging, and able to incorporate different identities, thus allowing it to preserve itself even within the territory and life fabric of other nations. Jewish identity is self-sustaining solely by imagination and self-awareness; it is like a traveler moving from hotel to hotel while preserving its core identity at each stop. By adapting to other cultures and creating a symbiosis of one kind or another with them, Jewish identity remains intact.
This existential lack of borders deprives Jewish identity of sovereignty. Therefore, it cannot be practically, morally responsible for the sum of an environment that is not Jewish in essence. Jews can individually participate in the responsibility of a foreign sovereignty, but their participation must be, at least theoretically and morally, in the general interest of the nation or country in which they live, rather than to serve Jewish interests or moral considerations.
To take a contemporary example: American Jews may support or oppose America’s war in Iraq solely for American reasons and not to serve Jewish interests, because the war is being fought mainly by non-Jewish Americans.
The narrative of Jewish identity without borders and sovereignty is the core of Jewish history. It is not only the chronicle of generations of assimilation that greatly reduced the number of Jews—from five million in the first century C.E. to one million at the beginning of the eighteenth century, it is also the story of the greatest tragedy in Jewish history, the Holocaust. It is the story of annihilation for the sake of annihilation—not for territory, or ideology, or property.
If all Jews at the beginning of the twentieth century had thought like Marshall Berman—”When anti-Semites don’t kill them [Jews], Jews know how to be fully alive”—neither Zionism nor the State of Israel would have come into being. In which case, instead of visiting Israel and recording his impressions in Dissent, Berman would have had to visit Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe and to write his impressions from there. The State of Israel came into existence precisely because the Jews wanted to change themselves and their situation without waiting for the anti-Semite to stop killing them. Zionism established the fact that in the destructive interaction between the Jews and the world, change could not occur in the world alone—Jews also had to change and normalize their situation. After all, thinking about changing humankind and humankind’s ability to change is basically liberal.
The fact that a state has borders does not mean that it has...
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