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Zionism Without A State: Ahad Ha’am Relived

January 9, 2011 – 8:48 pm42 Comments

By [Author’s name removed to protect them from ISIS or the otherwise infantalised]

In recent times, an idea has re-emerged in Israeli political discourse that had for a long time been taboo; the suggestion that the piece of territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River should be configured as one, contiguous, democratic state in which everyone is a citizen. No more occupation; no more Green Line. The idea is being discussed—quietly still, but with ever-so-slowly decreasing marginality—in surprisingly disparate circles, mostly on the Left, but also on the Right.

Of course, most Israelis, and most Zionists, remain opposed to the idea—some with good reason; others because of prejudice or complacent comfort with the status quo. Partition into two states remains, in the eyes of the vast majority, the only real long-term option. There are those, however, who are now arguing that a one-state arrangement may be inevitable. This may be correct, or it may not be. And such a scenario may be desirable, or it may be detestable. However, contrary to what many (supporters and opponents) have claimed, a one-person-one-vote situation would not inherently and automatically spell ‘the end of the Zionist enterprise’, nor would it necessarily constitute an end to the story of Jewish nationalism. Pragmatic opposition is, of course, legitimate. So is ideological opposition. But Zionism is not owned only by those who believe in the principles of separation and partition. And it never was.

From its inception, the Zionist movement was a ‘wide tent’ which incorporated many different—and deeply conflicting—conceptions of Jewish nationalism. But so deeply embedded has a particular kind of political, ‘statist’ Zionism become in the minds of many people, that few remember that there is a long history of Jewish nationalist ideologies which conceived of Jewish nationhood and self-determination differently.

A long line of thinkers for whom Jewish national identity was paramount nevertheless did not support, or at least did not emphasise, the manifestation of that identity through a state ‘owned’ by the Jewish people. There was, and is, a spectrum of non-statist Jewish nationalisms; some thinkers, like Ahad Ha’am and Martin Buber, were Zionists. Others, such as Shimon Dubnow and the Bund, though not Zionists, were nevertheless Jewish nationalists. In what follows, I’ll briefly present a small slice of the thought of Ahad Ha’am, considered by many to be the ‘father’ of Cultural Zionism. Greater familiarity with his approach, which considerably pre-dated the establishment of the State of Israel, might help some who care deeply about Jewish nationalism today come to ideological terms with the possibility that we will one day find ourselves living in a reality in which Jewish hegemony in Israel, whether in a one-state or two-state reality, is no longer a given.

Unlike his political Zionist counterparts from Western Europe—chiefly, Herzl and Nordau—Ahad Ha’am (whose real name was Asher Ginsberg) did not believe that ‘Jewish Sovereignty’ was a possibility that could be realised in the near future. Nor did he think that, if a Jewish state were to come into existence, it would solve the most important problems facing the Jewish people at a national level. Responding over 100 years ago to the ideological atmosphere at the first Zionist Congress, Ahad Ha’am expressed frustration at the fact that many Western European Zionist leaders, including Herzl, seemed obsessed with advocating what he saw as a misguided solution to the wrong problem.

Ahad Ha’am distinguished between the major issues facing Jews in Western Europe—which he called “the problem of the Jews; and those facing Jews in Eastern Europe—in Ahad Ha’am’s terminology, “the problem of Judaism.” He claimed that Western European Jews were  unhappy that, even though they had left the ghetto, they weren’t able to fully integrate into the societies in which they lived, and they continued to face discrimination despite their best efforts. The problem of Jews in Eastern Europe, meanwhile, was a different one. In Eastern Europe, Jews remained a separate national group, living a distinct communal life. Exchanging their national identity for another wasn’t a real option. But for them, modernity had arrived as well, albeit differently. Though the Jews of Eastern Europe remained separate and distinct, Judaism was emerging from the ghetto. New ideas and concepts were now making themselves at home in the heart of a national culture that continued to remain deeply Jewish. The serious challenge facing Eastern European Jews was how to adapt Jewish national culture so that it could flourish in the new world created by the religious and philosophical revolution brought about by modernity.

The solution offered by political Zionists such as Nordau and Herzl matched the Jewish problem as they saw it; the Jews, unable to fully integrate elsewhere, should have a state of their own. Jews would rule over themselves and would thus no longer face the humiliation of being outsiders. Ahad Ha’am disagreed with the political Zionists in their identification of both the problem and the solution. Instead of national sovereignty, his vision called for the creation of a national cultural centre in the Jewish homeland. In this centre Hebrew would be spoken, written and read, and there would be Jewish universities, schools, agriculture, and other institutions in which Jews could live, produce and thrive, thus enriching Jewish national culture and radiating it to the communities of the Jewish Diaspora all over the world. It would serve as the ‘heart’ of the body of the Jewish nation, which would remain mostly in diaspora.

Ahad Ha’am’s disagreement with political Zionism, then, was partly ideological: Herzl envisaged a Jewish State in which Jews wouldn’t suffer discrimination; Ahad Ha’am envisioned a Jewish Society that would bring about a renaissance of Jewish national culture.

However, Ahad Ha’am’s disagreement with political Zionism was also in part a product of his realism. He felt that it was impossible to expect that the majority of Jews will come to a newly revived Jewish homeland in Israel.  Millions of Jews are not going to leave their homes in such a short space of time. Furthermore, he argued, the land of Israel is already populated. There are Arabs living there, and they, too, will grow in number. They won’t necessarily take well to the idea of a Jewish state being established in their country, and will likely present serious—and understandable—opposition.

Thus, for Ahad Ha’am, Jewish statehood was both unrealistic and unworthy of being a first priority. The “problem of the Jews” wouldn’t realistically be solved by trying to move millions of people from their homes to a place with an existing population who, in the unlikely event that such a mass influx happened, would not be happy about it. The “problem of Judaism,” of course, also wouldn’t be helped simply by creating a polity ruled by Jews; that problem needed to be addressed at the substantive, cultural level. Statehood couldn’t deliver that: it was neither a sufficient nor even a necessary condition for Jewish culture to flourish in its homeland.

And so, Ahad Ha’am advocated his vision of a Jewish national cultural centre in Israel. A centre that would not be inhabited by the majority of Jews, and which would probably not be majority Jewish (at least for the foreseeable future), but which would be the cultural centre of the Jewish nation worldwide. This solution, with or without statehood, would contribute to Jewish national culture and its flourishing in a modern reality. That is what Ahad Ha’am argued then. Today, the Hebrew-speaking society that now exists in Israel does indeed make just such a contribution to Jewish life. Is it crazy to think that it might go on doing so in the future, regardless of the number of states that exist between the river and the sea?


The author was a madrich of yr 10 in Melbourne Hineni and Head of Hineni’s Shnat Israel program in 2003. He was also Federal Head of Hineni in 2002. He is currently an educator living and working in Boston, U.S.A

This article is part of the Hineni journal, Partition, which was distributed in synagogues around Australia on the 63rd anniversary of the UN’s adoption of the Partition Plan for Palestine. We are publishing a selection of articles from the journal.

The following parties helped make the journal possible:

Frank Levy, JNF, Unger Catering, JMC Corporate Real Estate Consultants, Caulfield Hebrew Congregation, Hagshama Melbourne, Antique Silver Company, shaundesign.com, Danielle Blumberg (editing), Mervyn Chait (formatting)

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