When I moved to Israel one of the questions they asked me was what kind of Jew are you? My answer was Shomer, (a member of “Hashomer Hatzair”). A few bureaucrats along the way tried to get me to change my answer to Reform or secular or unaffiliated, but I pushed. I grew up in the community spaces of Hashomer Hatzair, my heroes growing up were the people who fought back during the Shoah, members of the movement like Abba Kovner and Mordecai Anielewicz, and “our” thinkers like Martin Buber. Growing up in the Socialist-Zionist movement as a member of Hashomer Hatzair in North America I was exposed to education about Zionism, Israel, oppression, justice and identity.
At the time that I was growing up in the movement the aim was far less focused on Aliyah (moving to Israel) to build a Kibbutz, than it once was. Instead the focus was on developing critical thinking youth with sense justice and of Jewish identity through the lens of a leftist Zionism. Still, many of the historical ideologies and identities at the core of our history were very much in the background, quietly guiding the education we took part in.
I remember when Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin was murdered. I was fourteen and it was the first time I can remember thinking of Israel as a place, with people, that I was connected to. It was also the first time I understood that it was no fantastic far off place, but a project with broken parts that I could help fix.
As we move forward it is vital to both uncover challenges to who we are and how we see ourselves in our history, and cultivate the examples that we ought to emulate here and now. Our history includes fighting, killing, and dying in Israel’s wars as well as standing up and being with those opposed to militarism, hate and the violent horrors of a society at war. Our history is not free of fear of reaching out, but we are also among those who understand the historical reality that mutually agreed upon peace agreements is the only thing that has actually led to peace for Israel, while continued occupation leads to more violence.
Socialist-Zionist thinkers such as Martin Buber laid out beautiful visions of intimate communities, peaceful partnership, and just societies. Buber wrote about the need to balance oneness and division; solidarity and autonomy. It’s a question at the heart of our literature, our movement and the conflict here; and his ideas were diametrically opposed to others who also called themselves Zionists.
Today Israel is facing a rise in racist violence from South Tel Aviv to South Hebron, government plans to uproot people from their homes in the Negev based on ethnicity, and the continuation of the occupation that oppresses millions and eats away at Israeli society. The Jewish world is finding deep fractures in its midst over these and other issues. In this day and age, nearly fifty years after Buber’s death, Zionism, as an expression of Judaism, must exemplify his vision for a world of justice and equality. Those who see Zionism as an invitation to supremacist ideologies are not only morally repugnant, but strategically short sighted, without a coherent vision for the long term sustainability of Jewish self-determination. It seems they are not really concerned with the liberation of the Jewish people at all.
The 21st century demands rethinking old ideas, reorganizing our conversations, and experimenting anew. As a friend and fellow Shomer pointed out not too long ago, Israel is (in terms of population) the size of New York City and if we start thinking about national policy in a similar way to municipal policy we can radically shift everything here.
Those willing to accept the challenge to think about, for example, the Law of Return, may strike gold and push all of us forward. In this example, perhaps the problem we face today isn’t that the Law of Return allows some people in who call this place home, but that some people are kept out who call this place home too. We need to stand up for the values at the center of self-determination in envisioning a solution for Israel and Palestine. If old solutions aren’t working it is time to look for new ones. Perhaps two separate states or one liberal state are not the answers. What about two states with open borders, or bi-nationalism that enshrines rather than dampens both peoples’ cultures in the national institutions (a stance Hashomer Hatzair held for much of its history)? If support is lacking for the solutions we are used to, we must be strong and courageous in looking for solutions that will work. Ongoing inequality has only resulted in violence and will only end in disaster.
It’s not enough to think critically and believe in solidarity and autonomy as a framework for liberation. Closing the divide between real and ideal requires action. Ours is a movement meant to equalize the Jewish people in the world. It is a movement that has aimed to gain the freedom to develop our culture and the safety we so desired in the place where our culture and people come from in order to share the many great things we have done and can do with the world. We need to reconstruct that idea. These days too many use it as a flag to bear in the systemic oppression of others.
We have a long history of success in Israel and around the world. We can see examples of Jewish life thriving and adding to life on this planet. The revival the Hebrew language, literature and art, the kibbutz as a unique and revolutionary way of life and the built-in democratic identity in the Israeli declaration of independence are examples of that success. Spiritual, cultural and technological exploration, taking part in human culture and art, and participation in justice movements are all a part of that history too. Still, we can see in the humiliation of checkpoints, the endless violence, and the poverty, fear and hate that we have so much still to do.
Now, as we look forward, it is clear that the 21st century demands movements that understand that radical means digging into the roots of an idea and working from there. In the case of Israel, if justice seems out of reach today, if racism is a growing problem, if education is painting a false picture and leaving a growing number of people shocked at the past and present and disconnected from the future, we have to repair these things at the roots.