In the tension between the ephemeral and the eternal. We build flimsy huts through which we can see the stars, to symbolize how transient life can be. Yet, typically, we Jews have turned this lesson in evanescence into a lasting tradition. This paradox is a central Zionist tension, which the founder of modern Zionism Theodor Herzl, captured in his novel Altneuland (Old-New Land), spurring homeless Jews to erect a modern state on our ancient homeland.
For every day of Sukkot, we will provide a text from Gil Troy’s newest book, an update of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic Zionist anthology, The Zionist Idea. Troy titled his update, The Zionist Ideas, to open the conversation, from right to left, religious to secular, traditional to modern. He organizes the book into three defining periods: Pioneers until 1948, Builders from 1948 until 1998, and Torchbearers – modern Zionists. In each time period, he identifies six schools of thought – whose ideas echo in all these essays: Political Zionism, Labor Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, Religious Zionism, Cultural Zionism, and Diaspora Zionism. Since April, thousands of people have participated in Zionist Salons, reading these texts, developing their Zionist Ideas.
The Democracy Must Be Jewish, An Excerpt from The New Jewish State
by Shmuel Trigano (b. 1948)
“A generic state exists nowhere in the world: No one asks whether France can be French and democratic.”
To Shmuel Trigano, Paris University emeritus professor of sociology of religion and politics, the agonizing pitting of “Jewish” versus “democratic” reflects the neurotic emancipated Jew’s internalization of Marxist, now postmodernist, antisemitism. Every democracy, he argues, expresses a collective national identity. Polities that reject a particular peoplehood and seek a universalist utopia become dictatorships.
An Algerian-born Jew, Trigano spent most of his academic career as a sociologist and political philosopher in Paris before moving to Tel Aviv. From this outsider perspective, he has questioned some of the Western Enlightenment’s governing assumptions, seeing its negation of genuine Jewish self-expression as exposing its narrowness. His “otherness” also helped him recognize the antisemitism in France at the start of the twenty-first century as an epidemic, when most French Jews and leaders still denied it. His cataloguing of hundreds of antisemitic incidents finalized his break with French leftists, who rejected his defenses of Israel and French Jewry. Trigano concluded that modern France is no longer a welcoming place for proud Jews.
Trigano’s 1979 book, The New Jewish Question, rejected the Western obsession with normalization, replacing it with a Mizrahi reading of Zionism rooted in Jewish ethics and ideals. This analysis inaugurated his decades-long quest, in more than two dozen books, to articulate a Hebrew-based political theory endorsing particularist collective identities as keys to healthy democracies. To him, the post-Zionist cry for Israel to become a “state of all its citizens” shorn of its Jewishness threatens Israel’s democratic character, as well as its national mission and identity. His fluency in postmodern theory and rootedness in his non-Western narrative makes Trigano a formidable advocate for Zionism as an authentic, truly postcolonial, movement. In the shadow of this summer’s harsh debate over Israel’s Nation-State Bill, Trigano raises important questions about the need to belong and to be free, as well as the often unfair standards by which Israeli democracy is judged.
“There Is No ‘State of All Its Citizens,’” adapted from The New Jewish State, 2015,
To become citizens and benefit from the French Revolution’s “emancipation” in 1791, Jews had to renounce their specific collective status as a people. The birth of “antisemitism” forty years later proved that generic human rights don’t work; without national civic rights, without a state, courts, and a military, individuals were unprotected.
The Dreyfus Affair taught Herzl that lesson. The Shoah and the expulsion of Jews from ten Muslim lands (1940–70) proved this later too: the Jewish fate is collective and therefore political. These historic events explain why a Jewish nation state responsible for the Jews’ collective destiny had to be declared.
Who would have expected that in this Zionist state of Israel a new ideology would emerge, “post-Zionism,” advocating the renunciation of Jewish national identity in Israel to create a “state of all its citizens?” This strange phenomenon stems from “post-modernism.” This post-Marxist ideology inherited the Marxist hatred of any identity, especially Jewish identity.
Post-Zionism also stemmed from the impulse with Zionism that seeks “normalization.” Even though Zionism tried correcting the Emancipation’s approach of only granting Jews rights as individual citizens, this movement of Jewish “auto-emancipation” echoed the essential principle in creating a generic “Israeli,” the product of a new state, not a three-thousand-year history. The citizens of this new state thus experienced the same condition modern Diaspora Jews experienced. The place of Jewishness, of Judaism, became the problem.
Today, a new version of “normalization” demands “a state for all its citizens.” But this vision would again reduce Jews to being anonymous holders of rights in an exclusively constitutional state which undoubtedly would stop being called “Israel” soon enough.
Finally, post-Zionism reflects a weakness within modern democratic doctrine. If the nation simply results from a “social contract” among individuals, the collective identity disappears. Within this vacuum, modern national identities emerged—but so did the totalitarian movements praising a “universal” state, lacking any historical identity. Post-Zionism and postmodernism reflect a new, totalitarian, democratic utopianism claiming we have entered a post-national era: but it’s just not true.
This background explains the typically “Israeli” dilemma: Can Israel be a Jewish and democratic state? Interestingly, such a question is asked only about the State of Israel. No one asks whether France can be French and democratic, or if the United Kingdom, whose Queen heads the Anglican Church, is really democratic. Behind the question about Israel lies the gnawing doubt—inherited from the now-obsolete Emancipation—about the Jews being a people.
The title “Jew” indicates the collective, political, legal entity, which is what counts in a democracy. After all, “democracy” means “rule of the people.” The Tower of Babel teaches there is no “universal” people. If there is a Jewish people there can be a Jewish democracy, without reservation.
Democracy developed only within the framework of the nation-state, tapping into the majority’s historical identity. When a democracy goes from a national regime to a utopia promising a “universal democracy,” or the universalist’s democratic individualism causes some kind of social disintegration, it jeopardizes the collective’s national identity—and totalitarianism erupts. Viewed in this context, the post-Zionist slogan of a “state of all its citizens” is clearly demagoguery. A generic state, a universal society without a particular identity, does not exist anywhere in the world (and certainly not in the Muslim or broader postcolonial worlds). Obviously, the future of a country so “pure” is expected to be swallowed up by the Palestinian Muslim minority or a future Palestinian state—which, according to its planned constitution, will be declared as Muslim (its official religion), Arabic (belonging to the Arab nation/ “Ummah”), and Palestinian. The “monotheistic” religions would be reduced to the “dhimmi” status Jews already endured for centuries under Islam.
Multiculturalism, as well as the universal utopia of a state relying only on its constitution and not on a national identity, fails to address the problem of singular collective identity. No being can exist without an identity, even an alienated one. Every “universal” identity is an imperialist one. Today, postmodernism is the ideology of a new European empire, a truly non-democratic regime: the European Union.
This challenging dilemma concerns more than the Jewish case. Perhaps a creative Israeli solution allowing identity and justice to coexist can open horizons for European democratic regimes too.