The idea that Zionism could be a solution to the 19th century Jewish problem assumed that it could replace Judaism’s mainly religious existence with a national existence that could serve as a moral model for what in Talmudic Hebrew is called “Tikkun Olam” (perfecting the world). This national existence, predominantly secular, was created in Palestine in the period between the inception of Zionism and the Six Day War. In this time Israel was in the midst of building both a Jewish nation bringing together Jews from different dispersions and a society inspired mainly by the ideal of social equality. It was led by social democrats and symbolized by realizing the sublime idea of the Kibbutz.
But then came the War and the occupation, which made it possible to realize very different interpretations of Zionism: ultra-nationalist, proprietary and Messianic. Menachem Begin came to power in order to implement this agenda. He did so by provoking civil strife among Ashkenazi and Oriental Jews, by inciting the less well off against the Kibbutzim, by starting a process of fierce privatization, and mainly by establishing Jewish settlements in the territories occupied during the Six Day War. Netanyahu has invested years in carrying through these four projects using methods Begin would not have dared to imagine. Instead of exemplifying civic solidarity, Israel today exemplifies bitter civic strife. Instead of striving for and exemplifying social equality as it used to do, it excels among the nations of the world in social disparities.
The idea of Zionism as a solution for the misfortune of the Jews and as a means of bringing an end to their millennial persecution envisaged making Jews politically and militarily independent and self-governing. The Six Day War, which ended with a dazzling military victory for Israel, could have been considered to be the final move in demonstrating that Zionism was indeed the solution to the misfortune of the Jews. But then again came Menachem Begin, who turned the settlement of the occupied territories into a state policy that has priority over all other state policies, social and political. Even his most important achievement, the peace with Egypt and Jordan – let alone his most important failure, the first Lebanon War – was subordinate to it.
The Six Day War, which could have been considered the final move of a successful Zionist solution to the misfortune of the Jews, turned out to be the opening move in the creation of a new misfortune for both Judaism and for the Jews. The new misfortune of Judaism is the deterioration of its Israeli branch into an instance of sheer colonialism and apartheid. The new misfortune of the Jews is the exposure of their Israeli branch to threats that, at least in the long run, are existential.
Ahad Haam identified two problems under the rubric of the 19th century Jewish Problem. The first he dubbed “the misfortune of Judaism”, which resulted from the deterioration of religion as a basis for the Jewish collectivity. The second he dubbed the “misfortune of the Jews”, namely, the persecution of individual Jews for being Jewish. If we think of Zionism as intended to solve these two problems, then the Six Day War stands out as an event occurring in the midst of solving the first problem, and as arguably constituting the final move in solving the second, at least if we think of it as creating the urgent necessity that justified the Jewish colonization of parts of Palestine. However, in the fifty years that have passed since this war it seems that it has constituted rather an opening move for new misfortunes of both Judaism and the Jews.
Chaim Gans is a political philosopher and a Professor of Law at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of The Limits of Nationalism (CUP, 2003), A Just Zionism (OUP 2008) and A Political Theory for the Jewish People.