A two-part essay for The Peoplehood Papers, volume 22 – “Israel@70: A Peoplehood Perspective”
Excerpt from Part 1:
Here is the story of how Zionism began, according to Mora Chava, my 6th grade elementary day school teacher: Theodor Herzl was a Viennese Jewish journalist covering the Dreyfuss trials in Paris. Dreyfuss, a decorated Jewish officer in the French army, had been falsely accused of espionage and condemned to prison. Herzl was shocked at the antisemitism that the trials exhibited and triggered, even in the country most known for equality. Jews in France had been given equal rights before Jews in any other European country, but even there they couldn’t find true freedom. Of course, Jews had always longed for the Land of Israel. So, Mora Chava explained, put both of these things into a cocktail shaker – two parts longing for the Land, two parts antisemitism – and voila! Herzl has an idea and the Jewish people has Zionism.
But with all due respect to Mora Chava, that doesn’t really add up. Both ingredients had already been agitating in the cocktail shaker for two thousand years without ever before sparking an active political movement of return to Israel. Longing for the land had been a constant, at least in theory. And as to antisemitism, there’s nothing unique about the time in which Zionism emerged. There had been many times in which hatred of Jews was more intense and bloody: the Crusades, which killed thousands; the expulsions from France, England, and Spain; the Chmielnitzky massacres of the 17th century, in which nearly 300,000 Jews were murdered. By comparison, the 19th century was a golden age for the Jews. Yes, there was Dreyfuss, and the pogroms of Kishinev and Gomel, but in most European countries Jews had been emancipated and had equality under the law for the first time in history. Jews had access to business and academic life and were achieving enormous success in both. The very existence of a Dreyfuss – a Jewish army officer – was an unprecedented phenomenon. What’s more, and unlike in many previous cases of antisemitic accusations, Dreyfuss was eventually acquitted due to public outcry. The French people rallied around a maligned Jew.
So why did the relatively mild antisemitism of the 19th century result in the Zionist movement when the much more virulent hate of previous centuries didn’t?
The answer is peoplehood.
Excerpt from Part 2:
To keep Zionism and Jewish peoplehood from coming into greater and greater conflict, the Jewish world needs to rethink our old ideas about how Israel and the Jewish world fit together.
That rethinking needs to be steeped both in our particular Jewish experience and in the specific challenges of the 21st century, which are also upending our traditional ideas of states and nations. The ideas of the 19th century forged the ideas of Jewish peoplehood and nationalism. Jews keenly identified the changes in their context and proposed nationalism as a response to them. In the 21st century, however, the idea of the nation-state is undergoing profound transformations; the notion of collective identity is pulled by multi-cultural impulses and by neo-tribalism; a society centered on the individual experience instead of the collective one poses unprecedented challenges to every and any collective project.