Revisiting the American scholar Ben Halpern’s seminal 1961 history The Idea of the Jewish State, Donna Robinson Divine sums up its central arguments, and reflects on their relevance today:
Substituting action for prayers gave Zionism its purpose. Work, rather than textual study, would be the vehicle for legitimizing possession, creating community and for transforming sites holy in scripture into a real-life place to call home. Zionists were builders, empowered less as individuals than as members of a kind of collective construction team.
Moving to their ancient homeland could, Zionists argued, lift Jews up to the possibility of a new kind of solidarity, moral development, and new forms of power to shape their own destiny. Building a national homeland would provide Jews with a new kind of redemptive enterprise that would be authorized by their own work and by the civic framework they were called upon to create.
Finally, because Ben Halpern’s penetrating study emphasized that Zionism joined idealistic expectations with empirical reality, it is not surprising to observe that Zionism greatest success—the establishment of a state in 1948—came not from the imaginative potency of its messianic myths but rather from its capacity to set priorities and to adhere to a timetable that had international resonance and produced significant global support. Thus, as Halpern argues, correctly I think, Zionism could not plow through the familiar nationalist ground on the issue of sovereignty. As he put it, Zionism regarded sovereignty “like any other national aim, either as end or means, according to circumstances.”
That Zionism is a mission of high moral purpose doesn’t mean the Jewish state can ignore the cruel realities of regional politics posing dangers to the country’s population if not to its very existence. That is why, whatever its policy failures, Israel cannot escape the judgment of its own citizens or of the Jewish people.