The against-the-odds success story of the state of Israel, preparing to celebrate its 75th birthday next year, is one even its fiercest critics cannot but acknowledge. Considered a poor, inflation-ridden economic basket case within living memory, it has now become one of the most robust economies in the world, notably joining the list of twenty countries with the highest GDP per capita in 2020 (and in the midst of a global economic crisis at that). This economic prosperity has been successfully leveraged to end its regional isolation, a new free-trade deal with the UAE being only the latest on the list of once-inconceivable diplomatic triumphs. Where good relations are still not possible, Israel’s impeccably equipped and highly sophisticated army is the terror of the Middle East. And, of course, its Jewish population continues to grow by leaps and bounds, buoyed both by uniquely high fertility rates (for a Western country) and new immigrants driven not just by ideology, but, increasingly, by the belief that Israel is a Jew’s best option for a prosperous and happy life.
The Zionist ascendancy is all the more remarkable because a mere twenty years ago many observers worried that the project was on the brink of collapse. Critics portrayed an Israeli elite that had given up on Zionist ideals, resigned itself to an Arab demographic tsunami, and planned to give up the Jewish heartlands of the West Bank and perhaps even the old city of Jerusalem—while at the same time turning the rump entity left behind into a “state of all its citizens” shorn of any national basis.
Pessimistic predictions of post-Zionist dissolution, though, proved false, and Israel’s resurgence has been accompanied by the decline, decline, and further decline of the post-nationalist Israeli left and a dramatic re-commitment to the principles and practice of nationalism. The dominance of the Israeli right today is perhaps even more far-reaching than that of the Labor Zionist Mapai party during the 1950s and 60s: all Israeli political movements with any hope of forming a government are proudly members of the “national camp” (or at least like to assert that they are). Indeed, around the world, aspiring nationalists now look to Israel’s leaders as an example of what can be achieved in a global climate that is largely hostile to their aspirations.
It is easy then, and not inaccurate either, to tell a story of Zionism renewed, battle-hardened by the tribulations of the Oslo era, and thriving in the 21st century. Nevertheless, I will try to convince you here that at the same time, in some ways Zionism has quietly admitted defeat on what was once considered perhaps its most crucial goal: the creation of what it called the New Jew, whose soul and character would be purged of the disfigurements impressed upon the Diaspora Jew by millennia of exile. Instead, in the process of building a thriving modern state, Zionism has gradually become less a force for revolutionary disruption in Jewish history and more a vehicle for the renewal of the old Jew, and, what is more, the old Judaism.
Visions of the character of the New Jew varied widely from one Zionist thinker to another. Some, like Max Nordau placed a general emphasis on physical strength, vitality, and the cultivation of masculinity. Others more directly emphasized the military aspect of this manly ethic, espousing a “sword morality” like Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, or even, like Yakov Cohen, a “sacred cruelty.” Others still, like A.D. Gordon, eschewed the military side of the newly masculine Jew and instead saw agricultural labor as having an almost metaphysical ability to bring about moral regeneration. There were those, like Nahman Syrkin, who saw a socialist economy as a sine qua non of a revived Jewish society, opposed by others like Jabotinsky who favoured a culture of Jewish bourgeoisie, and still others who entertained Theodor Herzl’s vision of a Jewish aristocracy. What united all these streams was a belief that negation of the Diaspora, and thus the last 2,000 years of Jewish history, was necessary to create the New Jew. Each Zionist thinker differed in identifying which aspects of the Old Jew were particularly objectionable, and thus which aspects of the New Jew were most crucial to inculcate, but all agreed that something had gone drastically wrong in Jewish history which went far beyond the persecution that Jews had suffered at Gentile hands.
Of course, the early Zionists were substantially motivated by the visibly rising tide of violent anti-Semitism; their dire predictions of what might befall the Jews of Europe if they did not escape were, before too long, fulfilled in the most tragic way possible. In their quest to rescue the Jews of Europe, though, the Zionists aimed for much more than merely physically protecting the Jews from those who wished them harm. Instead, their goal was to permanently change the relationship between Jew and Gentile by changing the Jews themselves. This ideal was based on a profound and often highly critical analysis of how Jews had lived in their 2,000 years of exile, and the effect the Zionists believed this had had on the Jewish character.
The Zionist project of national rebirth can be synthesized into a program of four parts, all representing an aspect of Herzl’s insight that “whoever would change men must change the conditions of their lives.”
First, on the economic level, the Jews would abandon the high-yield fields of trade and finance in which they had specialized, the price of which was not only chronic insecurity and the animosity of the surrounding population but also an enervation of the Jews’ own moral character. Instead, they would occupy themselves with agriculture and manual labor, believing that, as Herzl put it, “salvation is to be found in wholesome work in a beloved land.”
Second, after a nearly 2,000-year hiatus, the Jew would once again learn the arts of war and achieve the same kind of martial prowess once displayed by the Zealots, the Maccabees, and the heroes of the Tanakh.
Third, through this return to the soil and cultivation of military virtues, Jews would no longer have to employ the tactics of the “court Jew”—pleading with the Gentiles—but instead earn the respect due to a flinty nation that relied on no one else for its bread or board.
Finally, and most ambitiously, the Jew would forge a new culture, one that would look back to the pre-rabbinic era of Jewish valor and forward to a new age, abandoning the heritage of rabbinic Judaism that they characterized as effeminate, sterile, and ridden with casuistry.
Yet when judged by the standard of those whose sacrifices made it possible, the state of Israel that actually exists today looks more like an inversion of that vision than its realization.
The first plank of the Zionist dream to run into serious trouble was the economic one. The socialist version of the Hebrew economy implemented by Mapai, with its promises of a just and corruption-free society where the honest worker was given his due, was plagued by intractable problems, and the attempted reforms of the first Likud governments only made things worse, with inflation rising to as high as 114 percent. Eventually, the solution came in the form of Bibi Netanyahu, who, first as finance minister and then as prime minister, set about implementing monetarist reforms inspired by those of Reagan, Thatcher, and other leaders of the neoliberal revolution. After much in the way of growing pains, what emerged was a dynamic, fast-growing economy, but one that is substantially the opposite of the original Zionist vision. Israel’s highly financialized economy leans heavily on the pursuit of technical innovation and the identification of untapped profits in emerging industries. Israeli agriculture is productive and profitable, but much of that work is done by Thai guest workers, while young Jews dream of a high-tech career in the “start-up nation.”
On each occasion that Ben-Gurion retired from politics he embodied the national ethos by living in the humble kibbutz of Sde Boker, even if in practice he spent more time at his desk than the haystack. The new economic ethos, however, is personified by Israel’s current prime minister, a man who made his millions working as a software entrepreneur in Manhattan before returning home to promote his particular brand of nationalist politics, which includes further market deregulation and the lifting of barriers to foreign trade. Whereas Zionist pioneers emphasized the critical importance of Israel producing for itself what it consumed, and typically advocated a spartan lifestyle that would make this possible, modern Israelis have a much more traditionally Jewish relationship with money: find the most profitable market, and use the profits from that to buy whatever else it is you need.
While the Israeli economy was being transformed into one that focused on innovation, high profits, and the fast flow of capital, its military strategy also underwent a quiet revolution. Israel’s victories in 1948, and, most stunningly, 1967 were characterized by boldness and derring-do. The shock of the Yom Kippur War, however, demonstrated to Israel’s leaders that Joseph Trumpeldor’s famous dying words “It is good to die for our country” had passed their sell-by date. Then, the quagmire that followed Israel’s initially triumphant 1982 incursion into Lebanon, resulting in the shocking massacres committed by Lebanese Christians in Sabra and Shatila, showed the downside of devil-may-care military heroism. Ariel Sharon riding his tanks through the Sinai to take as much territory before the great powers imposed a ceasefire had served Israel well in 1967, but by the 1980s the drawbacks of excessive bravery and military adventurism had come into sharper view. In response, Israel adopted a strategy of overwhelming technological superiority over its enemies, based on possession of the most up-to-date missiles and missile-defense systems to deter attackers, relying heavily on air power to avoid direct combat. Indeed, in its unmatched emphasis on protecting not only its (and its opponents’) civilians but its soldiers, Israel now embodies the traditional Jewish doctrine of “whoever saves a Jewish life, it is as if he has saved the whole world”—a profound departure from the death-defying martial culture that Zionism once thought necessary, not only to survive, but to thrive too.
Of course, the latest military technology doesn’t come cheap and, as successful as Israel’s market economy is, its 21st-century military strategy is underwritten by the more than three billion dollars of military aid it receives annually from the United States. He who pays the piper, though, calls the tune, and it is hard now to imagine an Israel that would repeat the 1981 go-it-alone raid on the Osirak nuclear reactor, let alone attempt the sort of stunt that precipitated the Suez crisis, in which Israel conspired without the U.S. to try to conquer the Suez Canal from Egypt. The closest 21st-century parallel to these kinds of gutsy solo operations was the 2007 attack on a Syrian reactor, an action that was taken after consultation with the White House, that was supported in Congress, and that received official condemnation only from Syria itself and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Israel’s role as a special beneficiary of American military aid became possible only through abandoning the ethos of autarky and forging a close relationship with the world’s leading power. It is, of course, true that the pre-state Zionist program included intense lobbying efforts, from Herzl’s meetings with the German Kaiser and the Ottoman sultan, to Chaim Weizmann’s efforts to secure the Balfour declaration. There is a qualitative difference however, between lobbying for a state, and lobbying as a state, and particularly lobbying in a way that entails ever-greater military, economic, and political intermeshing of the American and Israeli governments.
In the years after it was founded, Israel was a fiercely independent country, with much in the way of international sympathy but little in terms of formal alliances. The American foreign-policy elite was dominated by Arabists, who were unsympathetic, at best, to the idea of a Jewish state in the Middle East. Thanks to patient and expert diplomacy on behalf of Israel’s interests, diplomacy that builds on a strong tradition of broad American public support, Israel now benefits from a greatest-ally status, but this has come at the cost of abandoning a core Zionist moral principle and returning to an older Jewish pattern of relying on powerful Gentile guardians, whose ongoing protection must be secured through the techniques of political maneuver and intrigue.
Finally, when we turn our attention to culture, the inversion of the Zionist project comes into starkest view. The vision of the New Jew inspired a remarkable literary flourishing consciously designed to be the basis of a new Hebrew culture, but even the most passionate devotees of this literature will not claim that its broader vision has been achieved. It is not for nothing that when one is tasked with finding something distinctively Israeli that has no particular religious association, the answer that so often comes up is hummus and falafel. Israeli culture, for all its richness and diversity, lies on fundamentally the same spectrum as that of Jews in the Diaspora, with participation in a Western liberal culture on one side, and traditional Jewish observance—whether Ashkenazi, Sephardi, or Mizraḥi—on the other.
Exilic Judaism, in fact, is flourishing in the Holy Land. Far from being rendered irrelevant by a new Hebrew society, traditional talmudic scholarship is thriving in Israel’s network of yeshivot and kolelim like literally never before. So too observance of the rules and regulations found in the pages of that Talmud and the later halakhic tradition is healthy and growing. The observer Shmuel Rosner has recently hailed the existence of a large cultural cohort of “Jewsraelis,” who unlike the Orthodox or strictly secular minorities, mix rituals like kiddush on Friday night with shopping on Sunday morning. However, with the obviously significant exceptions of celebrating Israeli Independence Day and reverence for the army, it is hard to pin down specifically Israeli elements of this cultural blend that are not also shared by any citizen of a modern liberal democracy. Meanwhile, Israel’s most dynamic cultural movement today is Breslov, a ḥasidic group that has managed to bridge the gap that divides Ḥaredim from religious Zionists, Ashkenazim from Sephardim and even, to some extent, the secular from the religious. It is neatly symbolic of the new Israel that has emerged that their annual highlight is a mass religious pilgrimage to the burial site of the movement’s founder in Ukraine.
If we put all this together, the state of Israel presents to us a profound irony. The Zionist project has been far more successful than it would have been reasonable to expect, but in its success, it has jettisoned its core revolutionary principle of creating the New Jew, instead reproducing the traditional patterns of diasporic Jewish existence that it sought to extirpate, but on a bigger scale. To deepen the irony further, of all the early Zionist thinkers, the Israel that has emerged most closely resembles the vision of Ahad Ha’am, who advocated for a cultural hub of world Jewry, in which traditional Jewish culture would not be replaced but updated and invigorated for the modern world. Ahad Ha’am, however, with his skepticism about the rush to statehood and concerns over the fate of the Arabs, would certainly be written off in today’s Israeli climate as a snooty, treacherous leftist.
Diaspora Judaism, it turns out, is more resilient than some hoped and than others feared, reasserting itself precisely where the most determined campaign was conducted to transcend it. The endless capacity of Jewish history to surprise is a function not of Am Yisrael’s propensity for novelty, but its remarkable facility for staying the same.