The death of the ‘Zionist dream’

Contrary to the caricature of Israel as an expansionist and arrogant aggressor, the 60-year-old nation is suffering a severe identity crisis.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics World

Expansionist, imperialist, ideology-driven, US-propped, arrogant aggressor.

Chances are Israel just popped into your mind. This is how the now 60-year-old state features in many people’s imaginations. But as Israelis wave flags and set up the traditional beach barbeques in celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day), and as Palestinians and Israeli Arab citizens take to the streets in protests marking the sixtieth Naqba (Catastrophe Day – which is how many view Israeli independence), Israel does not appear to be a particularly coherent or confident society.

There may still be a lot of national pride around – hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic Israelis gathered in streets, parks and beaches to watch lavish firework displays, flypasts and parades over the weekend. And when it comes to crunch time, many are prepared to defend Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’, as evidenced by the widespread support amongst the public, media and government for the so-called second Lebanon war in July 2006.

Yet the apparent determination in 2006 to show the world that Israel will do ‘whatever it takes’ to protect itself against hostile neighbours – with or without the blessing of the ‘international community’ and even if it means becoming more unpopular – quickly gave way to a severe crisis of confidence. The government-appointed Winograd commission of inquiry into the war issued damning criticism of prime minister Ehud Olmert and his generals.

It seems that it takes more than sloganeering and military might to win a war, even if it is against a ragtag guerrilla force. After all, the 2006 conflict with Hezbollah paled in comparison to the wars and invasions of 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 or even 1982. While the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) at those times did not have access to the advanced weaponry it has now, it did have far more advanced levels of commitment, zealotry and patriotism.

Last month, by contrast, the IDF rolled out an Honourable Discharge scheme as part of a series of new initiatives to boost motivation for military service. This followed new IDF statistics showing that well over one quarter of army-aged men avoid enlistment. In 2007, the number of young men avoiding service constituted 27.7 per cent of the total number of service-eligible men; in 1991, the figure was 18.2 per cent. As for women, 43.7 per cent of eligible women did not enlist in 2007, as opposed to 32.8 per cent in 1991 (1).

It seems there is also a general sense of fatigue and disillusionment with political life in Israel as a result of never-ending political crises – both in terms of the violent conflict with the Palestinians and continuous corruption scandals. The current probing of Olmert regarding an alleged bribe by an American businessman prior to Olmert’s induction in office overshadowed much of the news of the sixtieth anniversary celebrations.

The very formation of the ruling centre-right party Kadima (Forward) in 2006 – by then prime minister Ariel Sharon, before a stroke knocked him from power – seems to have been a way of giving Israeli politics direction simply by naming a political party rather than by having a genuine sense of purpose.

Beyond the IDF, other institutions and practices that have been central to the Israeli state and to Zionist ideology have changed radically in recent times. Immigration from ‘the Diaspora’, for instance, has historically been considered crucial for retaining the Israeli state’s Jewish character. But in the past decade there has been a steady decline in the number of immigrants to Israel. In 2007, there were just 18,075 immigrants, compared to 66,221 in 1997 (2). Most new arrivals are not motivated by the idealism of the early settlers, and the absorption of immigrant groups such as Ethiopians and those from the former Soviet Union has not been smooth.

Last year, eight teenage immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were members of a neo-Nazi cell (but probably more accurately described as a bunch of disgruntled youth) were arrested in the Israeli town of Petach Tiqva, sparking new discussions about Jewishness, and the law of return, according to which it is enough to have one Jewish grandparent in order to be allowed to settle in Israel. This debate bears many similarities to corrosive Western identity politics.

Another clear sign that the times are changing is the rebranding of Israel’s kibbutzim as ‘eco-villages’ (3). The kibbutz movement, which was part of the Labour Zionist enterprise of creating ‘Jewish land, Jewish labour and Jewish produce’, is launching an advertising campaign this summer, targeted at an ‘eco-aware generation’. The kibbutzim have experienced a decline in foreign volunteers, while younger generations of kibbutznikim chose to move to the hip and cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, or to travel in order to pursue careers. Such practical realities partly explain the re-branding – yet this is also a clear snapshot of the hollowing out of Zionism. The kibbutz movement is appealing to younger Israelis and foreigners not through old ideals, but by appearing ‘relevant’ and hip and by not mentioning the Z-word or their ‘dirty past’ as exclusivist settlements designed to colonise Palestinian land.

The very task of Judaising space, traditionally the responsibility of the state, is being outsourced to various private agents, as reported by Israeli academics Neve Gordon and Erez Tzfadia in the Guardian last year. They described how the Israeli government is effectively ‘privatising Zionism’, contracting personnel agencies that hire temps to oversee house demolitions. Contractors are hired to plan and build Jewish towns in the cleared areas. Even some military checkpoints have been handed over to subcontractors. The authors concluded that the ‘corporate warriors’ who man these checkpoints are ‘Israel’s Blackwater’ and that ‘Zionism’s privatisation does not symbolise a strategic change but rather a tactical one’ (4).

This misses the mark. As Brendan O’Neill pointed out in relation to last year’s scandal involving a squad of fighters from Blackwater, a security firm based in North Carolina which has hundreds of men in Iraq, the most striking thing was that it showed ‘the American state’s readiness to share its means of coercion with others’ (see Mercenaries in Iraq: Dogs of Indecision, by Brendan O’Neill.) As with the US, the Israeli state is outsourcing its military authority – and this is not merely a tactical change. It signals a loss of confidence in its own ability to carry out what have so far been fundamental tasks of the State, and its inability to convince its own people of the political case for carrying those tasks out.

In Western activist and media circles it is popular to view the Israel-Palestine conflict as a David and Goliath case, a clear-cut struggle between victims and aggressors, and to denounce Israelis as a bunch of Zionist imperialist land-grabbing ideologues. While Israel clearly is still aggressive towards the Palestinian territories, where many are suffering terribly, this Western view is a caricature, revealing great ignorance about the character of Israeli society today. Rather than celebrating the fulfilment of the ‘Zionist dream’, Israelis’ dreams have changed and in its sixtieth anniversary the country seems to be having a profound identity crisis.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked
Mick Hume argued that Israel is not what it was and pointed out that Western ‘culture wars’ have been exported to the Middle East. Frank Furedi dispelled the myth of a powerful Israel lobby and looked at what’s behind the ‘new anti-Semitism’. Brendan O’Neill said Gaza had been imprisoned by the peace process. Nathalie Rothschild asked who’s afraid of Israeli academics. Or read more at spiked issue Middle East.

(1) IDF will Issue Honorable Discharge Cards to Raise Motivation, Arutz Sheva: Israel National News, 1 April 2008

(2) See statistics for migration and tourism at the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics website.

(3) Israel re-brands kibbutzim to lure eco-aware generation, Observer, 13 April 2008

(4) Privatising Zionism, Guardian, 14 December 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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