Last week a young member of Knesset named Stav Shaffir stepped up to the parliament’s podium and delivered a 3-minute speech that soon became a social media sensation. It was the sort of cri de coeur Capra would have loved: With her shock of red hair, flailing arms, and an innocent conviction all too rare in a legislative body whose members are more likely to pour water on each other than pour out their hearts, Shaffir’s speech was a young woman’s J’accuse.
“You forgot about the Negev and the Galilee in order to transfer 1.2 billion shekel bonuses to the settlements,” she thundered at her colleagues on the right. “You forgot Israel. You lost Zionism already some time ago.”
It was the most eloquent expression to date of the campaign theme Shaffir’s Labor party is hoping will carry it to electoral victory this March. When it was joined by Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua last month, the veteran party changed its name to The Zionist Camp and began arguing that while the settlement-obsessed right has hijacked and corrupted the nation’s founding ideology, it was only Labor, the party of David Ben-Gurion, that could recapture Zionism’s lost vitality and rekindle its original flame.
It may be a winning strategy—The Zionist Camp currently leads the Likud in the polls, 25 seats to 23—but it’s also highly problematic. As students of history know, Zionism is notoriously elusive. Conceived as a movement to create a national homeland for Jews, the ideology had always contained multitudes, accommodating those who believed that Jews should settle only in the Promised Land and those who were willing to settle for Uganda, those who saw Zionism as a cultural undertaking and those who understood it as a socioeconomic quest, those who sought answers in the heavens and those who planted trees in the ground. It could welcome the pragmatist Ben-Gurion and the hardliner Jabotinsky, the agnostic Nordau and the pious Rabbi Kalischer. It was, by design, extremely elastic.
As such, Labor’s attempt to redefine Zionism with its own narrow political agenda is an affront to the very thing that has kept the movement vibrant and successful. And it’s more than a small slight: Look deep in the heart of Zionism, and you’ll find a spiritual core that Labor’s current pronouncements have all but extinguished.
To better understand this argument, begin with the following experiment: Mosey over to any part of Italy, and ask anyone you meet whether or not they define themselves as Garibaldists. Most likely, they’d laugh—Italians, in 2015, do not define themselves in terms of a 19th-century nationalist liberation movement.
But Israelis do. That they continue to self-identify as Zionists even long after a Jewish state has been established tells you that they believe, as their founding fathers believed, that Zionism, more than a simple pragmatic political movement, is a thoroughly messianic one whose goal isn’t just to build a homeland for the Jews but also to perfect that homeland so that it truly becomes the biblical promised land.
This is why so many Israelis, even avowed secularists, still find it hard to speak of a Zionism independent of Judaism. For them, the founding ideology isn’t just a blueprint for a sovereign polity; it’s part of a miraculous process that even the faithless study in school as history. Ben-Gurion understood this well: Speaking at the Knesset in January of 1956, he made it clear that his ultimate vision for the state was otherworldly. “I am one of those,” he said, “who believe that erecting the state is the beginning of our redemption.”
His successors in the party he helped build have no use for such messianic terminology. As Shaffir’s speech makes clear, for them Zionism is about the shekels, and about reshuffling national priorities away from one community of Israelis and toward another. That’s a perfectly reasonable political agenda, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the idea of Zionism.
Why, then, go to all this trouble to reclaim the ancient ideology? Why not just run, as generations of Labor leaders have in the past, as purveyors of new hopes rather than old ideas? In part, it’s because doing so would require Labor to state just how it distinguishes itself from Likud when it comes to safeguarding Israel’s security, a question that, in light of the Palestinian reluctance to engage in good-faith negotiations, is growing more and more difficult to answer. Livni herself was Prime Minister Netanyahu’s chief peace negotiator and was in agreement with the government’s policies on everything from the John Kerry peace initiative to last summer’s war in Gaza. She and her new partners in Labor can hardly claim to have an agenda that provides new answers to the tough questions of war and peace Israelis face each day. Instead of looking to the future, then, Labor is gazing longingly at the past.
When they do, they may want to recall a few other historical lessons. Petty political divisions roiled left-leaning Zionists for decades prior to the birth of the state of Israel and continued to bedevil them for decades thereafter. Then, as now, these divisions weren’t so much about ideas as they were about individual personalities: True to historical form, Labor’s other major campaign theme this year is “it’s us or him,” an exhortation to voters to choose Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni simply because they are not Netanyahu.
As her beautiful speech reached its crescendo, Stav Shaffir stated eloquently that hers and her party’s was “a politics of hope, a politics that looks forward.” Sadly, that’s not the case. If the Zionist Camp wants to win more than seats, it would do well to leave the sloganeering aside and engage in a real discussion of what Zionism truly means to most Israelis today. The products of such a discussion may not please Labor, but they’ll provide a vital service to an electorate increasingly devoid of direction or clue.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.