Contemporary Israeli society is perhaps one of the most scrutinized in the world today. The concept of Zionism, or the idea of a Jewish homeland for Jews, originated in the late 19th century as a solution for the growing specter of European anti-Semitism.
Modern-day Israel was only one of the many areas suggested: among the possible sites for a Jewish homeland were Uganda, the United States, and South America. However, the historical significance of Palestine and the religious importance of Jerusalem prompted early Zionist groups such as the World Zionist Organization (WZO) to select Palestine. Today, Zionism is one of the most important facets of Israeli society, instrumental in understanding issues such as the importance of aliya and Jews as one race, the militarization of society, and the impetus of demographic preservation.
It permeates all facets of Israeli political thought, and as a vital part of the Israeli nation, it cannot be disregarded in understanding contemporary Israeli society. While certain issues such as militarization are a product of external politics, Zionism still pervades all issues of Israeli society. Demographic preservation, the development of human rights, multi-citizenry, militarization, the arguments surrounding occupation, and conscription are all issues that exist independently of Zionism in most every society in the world, but cannot be understood unless first examined from a Zionist perspective.
Zionism is a political movement arguing for a Jewish state populated by Jewish people, an ideal bolstered by the notion that Jews cannot trust their livelihood to anyone but themselves. Today, the prevailing feeling of Israeli Jews is that every Jew in the world comprises part of a larger family, that the welfare of one Jew is the responsibility of all Jews. In the creation of the Jewish state, aliya, or ascension (the migration of a Jew to Israel), attempted to galvanize the fragile relationship between the Ashkenazi (Jews of European descent) and Mizrahi (Jews of North African and Spanish descent) populations. The whole purpose behind aliya was the repopulation of Israel; until 1900, less than ten percent (10%) of Palestine was Jewish, most of whom were ultra-Orthodox ashkenazi Jews of anti-Zionist ideologies. Without aliya, indigenous Palestinians would outnumber Israelis more than three to one. Ongoing aliya ensures a majority Jewish state that can protect its own people.
Zionism’s basic dictate of Jewish majority makes aliya all the more important. Israeli society is today faced with the threat of compromising that majority; Palestinian families still typically outnumber Israeli families two to one. Though huge movements of Jewish migration took place between 1948 and 1967, the majority of the world’s Jews still live outside Israel in countries such as the United States and France. As a result, “not only has aliya always been a major national concern, but ‘internal aliya,’ that is, Jewish fertility, has been, and remains, a matter of national policy” (Shafir 2002, p. 96). Since the assimilation Occupied Territories (OT) consisting of the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank, Israel has assumed control over more than three million Palestinians, compromising the balance of Jews and non-Jews.
Today’s Israeli Arabs comprise twenty percent of Israel’s population of 6.2 million (Friedman 1992, p. 208). Combined with the OT population of three million, Israel’s Arab population swells to over four million, making Jews a majority by a scant million or so. This poses a demographic dilemma for the Zionist state: how can Israel maintain its majority Jewish population with an Arab minority that doubles in population every generation? Leaving the OT would not only be conceding defeat, but in many ways stifling the nature of Zionism. As “a pioneering movement,” Zionism’s “expression is settlement” (Friedman 2002, p. 245). The very core of Zionism is rooted in expansionism, as the idea of Zionism was to bring all Diaspora Jews back to historic Israel, an ideal that will not be fulfilled as long as Jewish populations flourish outside of Israel. Ironically, Israel’s greatest supporters live outside the Jewish nation, creating a paradox that both serves to aid in Israel’s evolution as well as stint its social progress.
As a democratic Jewish state, Israel’s population enjoys human rights unparalleled in the Middle East. Zionism’s mandate of a Jewish majority maintained an Ashkenazi political system, as the first Jews to make aliya were from Europe. European Jews brought with them new political ideals, in addition to social movements such as feminism. Because the Jewish majority had to be maintained as Zionism prescribes, Israel’s female population enjoyed rights no other Middle Eastern women could experience, as the culture was uniquely European in nature. Israeli women became leaders, business executives, and enjoyed a higher standard of education than most Israeli men (Friedman 1992, p. 223).
The current demographic crisis, however, has threatened the traditionally liberal Israeli stance on gender as the Jewish-majority facet of Zionism is in immediate peril. As a result, “Jewish women [in the private sphere] have been relegated to the role of mothers and caregivers (at least as their primary responsibility) and are expected to excel in the ‘battle of the cribs’ against Palestinian women” (Shafir 2002, p. 97). In this respect, Zionism is an all-encompassing factor in the Israeli political and social conscious, a kind of defense mechanism when Israeli sovereignty is threatened. Though the argument against social mobilization can be attributed to political needs and not social Zionism, female rights are being compromised on behalf of Zionism.
Peace movements have existed in Israel since the 1967 war, for example, but have only mounted in frequency and urgency once Israeli political and military stability was established. Zionism is the reason Israel and Israelis exists the way they are today, the driving force behind the perceived welfare of the Jewish people. When threatened, society turns to its founding Zionist principles, not matter the sacrifice. The Jewish state becomes a homeland, and no matter the fractious nature of Israeli Jewish society, the common denominator is belief in Zionism, including the necessity of a Jewish majority. “Israeli feminism” is just one aspect of society that “has been hampered by” the “colonial frontier context” of Zionism (Shafir 2002, p. 108). The unique multiple-citizenship identity of modern Israelis constitutes a requirement for prioritization. As more than a quarter of Israeli citizens were born outside Israel, their loyalties must always lie with the Jewish state. For Israelis who are of multiple citizenries, loyalty to Israel means de facto loyalty to Zionism, a constant ideal of settling land for a Jewish country.
Another social tie to Zionism is the militancy of the population. “Army service is the right of passage for Israelis”, whose country’s [population] pales in population compared to neighboring Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan (Rosenthal 2003, p. 49). Because of the larger armies of Israel’s enemies, most all Israelis are subject to military service. The loss of even one war would terminate Israel’s existence; consequently, compulsory military service developed as a product of Zionist aspiration. Militancy is a part of Israeli society, manifested by Zionist identification. Because Zionism takes precedence over all other allegiances, military service comes hand in hand with the ideology. A large part of Zionism’s unification process over the population has to do with the current Arab-Israeli conflict; “nothing unites [the] contentious country more than a belief in the importance of the army” (Rosenthal 2003, p. 49).
The most unique aspect of Israel is a political connection to all facets of life; the militarization of the populous is intimately tied to the government and, in turn, the expansionist movement of settlers started in 1967. Funded by the government, the settler movement began with the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza following the Six Day War. Israel funded “a new colonial drive,” also taking control of Syria’s Golan Heights (Shafir 2002, p. 19). “ A common goal of religious ideologues and secularists, the settler movement is regarded as one of the most internationally recognized aspects of Israeli society. The opposing contentions of religious zealots and secular nationalists are set aside as the settler movement benefits both groups.
For the religious right, the OT represents the Biblical lands promised by God to Abraham’s descendants. For the secular nationalist contingency, annexing the West Bank and Gaza means creating a buffer zone between Israel proper and its Arab neighbors, and also allows for the expansion of Israel strategically and geographically. A strange paradox emerged from Israel’s conquest of the OT, however; in keeping with the Zionist dictate of a Jewish majority, assumption of the territories both threatened the Israeli population as well as provided protection from outside threats. The Palestinians living under Israeli rule find themselves in quite the dilemma, as following “increasingly massive Jewish colonization” they remained “non-citizens under Israel’s military rule” (Shafir 2002, p. 19). Two Zionist positions emerge in addressing the demographic crisis of occupation: 1) Israel should withdraw from the territories, creating a Palestinian state, and 2) Israelis should populate the OT, forcefully “relocating” the indigenous Palestinian populations to neighboring Arab states.
The first postulation draws justification not only from the demographic compromise, but also from the fact that there is no need to create military buffer zones. Unlike the war years of 1948 – 1973, “the struggle for sheer survival [has] past” and there is no need to gamble Israeli stability for a minor advantage such as land (Raviv 1998, p. 225). Though Zionism calls for a Jewish homeland, it does not call for conquest or imperialism. Opponents of the occupation voice their opposition within a Zionist framework, arguing that occupation would plunge Israel further into war, going against the Zionist ideal of an existing, peaceful, Jewish state among foreign neighbors. In addition, the added weight of an endless military campaign of attrition would not only burden Israeli taxpayers, but would also earn Israel added enmity from its Arab neighbors. The Zionist demographic crisis of being outnumbered by Palestinians in the next twenty years is a very real prospect, one that is sure to upset the equilibrium established by Israel’s founders.
Supporters of the occupation, however, also argue using Zionist points. One of the Zionist military strategies was that in the event of a war with Israel, military action should be taken inside the countries of foreign armies, as the limited size of Israel would not allow for a separate battlefront. Moreover, taking the OT is a necessary precaution, and arguing against war is futile as “Israelis have always lived in a state of war, or semi-war, in a country that has never had permanent borders” (Rosenthal 2003, p. 51). The general public, though fiercely nationalist, has grown weary of an occupation campaign that has lasted 37 years; like the Lebanese Occupation, the Palestinian Occupation has cost Israel hundreds of lives, both civilian and military. That the religious right and secular left are at odds only exacerbates public unity, especially given the tendency of the Orthodoxy to forgo military service.
Zionist militarization’s unique nature was meant to be one purely of defense. The Talmud expressly prohibits the Jewish people from “rising up against the nations” therein regarding true Zionist military action as purely defensive. This evokes great passion from the Israeli people, further emphasizing the importance of military conscription as a rite of Israeli passage. The issue of military conscription and the citizens of whom are responsible for military service has long been one bitterly contested by the Orthodox population. The majority of Israelis are Reform and Conservative Jews, whose religious adherence does not prohibit military service.
However, the Orthodoxy is forbidden by their religious beliefs to serve. This discrepancy is reflective of the internal dispute of Israel, and whether it should exist as a democratic Zionist state, or a religious, Jewish, non-democracy. Further instigating the rift between secularists and the religious right was the 2002 passing of the “Tal Law legalizing the divisive practice of granting military exemptions to ultra-Orthodox men enrolled in yeshivot (religious schools)” (Rosenthal 2003, p. 52). Proponents of Tal Law argue that Israel’s existence is to preserve the Jewish religion and the practice of Judaism. They are quick to point out that Herzl, one of the first Zionists, intended to keep “rabbis in their synagogues and the soldiers in their barracks” (Shafir 2002, p. 137).
Opponents argue that because Israel exists to protect the Jewish people, all Jews should be subject to military service as all Jews are equal under the Zionist political ideologies. The argument begs the question: should Israel regard Jews as a race or as adherents of a religion? It is true that Jews were persecuted as a race, but the Christians and Muslims equally singled them out for being of another faith. As a Zionist state, many argue Israel should remain secular; it is only natural to assume so, as the founding fathers of Israel were secular Jews. However, the preservation of the practice of Judaism is equally as important as it is a way of life. The struggle between religious states and secular nations has been one that has plagued the modern Middle East; Egypt, Iraq, and Syria constantly quell rebellions and face civil war because of the conflict of ideologies.
Israel is unique among these nations as the lines between secular and religious ideologies are skewed. Zionism is itself ambiguous in its application in Israeli society; “students of Zionist and Israeli politics have been puzzled, over the years, by the accommodating, even subservient, attitude displayed by the Zionist movement and the Israeli state towards Orthodox Jews, many of them non- and even anti-Zionist” (Shafir 2002, p. 137). Despite Zionism’s secularism, the people of Israel still highly regard the Orthodoxy as their Judaism is irrevocably linked to the Biblical and historical implications of the land. The frailty of the Zionist state is a natural manifestation in a dynamic state such as Israel; its political progression and evolution, however, remains in check because of the religious population it serves and protects.
Always a tumultuous political climate, Israel is engaged in a fiery debate over the future of the state. A 1995 poll showed that “72.6 percent of Israeli Jews agreed with the current definition of Israel as a state of the Jewish people” (Shafir 2002, p. 129). Laws in the Jewish state are irrevocably based on Zionist values and ideals. The interpretations of Zionist values, however, are hotly contested, as many Israelis believe in a progressive society whose traditions should be taken with a proverbial grain of salt now that the future of the Jewish people is secure.
Particularly alarming to Israeli progressivists are the recent marriage of “two strains of Zionism—the uncompromising, expansionist vision of the secular Jabotinsky, and the militant mystical-messianic settler crusade of the fanatically religious Gush Emunim”, a radical group who were caught trying to bomb the Dome of the Rock (Friedman 2002, p. 245). The religious right’s intimate connection with the settler movement provokes the Israeli public, many of whom have no interest in settling the OT. The clash between secularists and the religious right is further ameliorated, as many argue “Jews loyal to ‘Greater Israel’ have the right to overthrow the state if it betrays the dream of Zionism by relinquishing any part of the OT” (Friedman 2002, p. 247).
The proclivities of the Israeli people and the society that surrounds them are revealed to be dynamic, as opposed to the static nature presented through Western media. In understanding the Israeli people, it is most relevant to study Zionism and its application in both the creation of Israel and contemporary Israeli society. Today, some 66 years following the start of the Holocaust, the Israeli people are no longer driven by the same motives they once were. Though the need for a Jewish state still exists, the desperation felt by the founders of Israel is no longer applicable to a new generation looking to forge a new identity. The nature of the identity is shrouded in question, as the Israeli people have yet to determine whether to continue as a secular democracy favoring Jewish people or a uniquely Jewish state, inspired by secular nationalists but continued by religious idealists.
By examining Zionism and understanding the precepts that comprise its ideology, understanding the unique Israeli culture becomes somewhat simpler. Contemporary Israeli society has survived a Holocaust as well as the eradication of the state to emerge as a pioneer in Middle East human rights. Despite its treatment of the Palestinian non-citizens living in the OT, Israeli public opinion may very well change the way the Zionist state functions.
With a growing Arab population, both in the OT and Israel proper, Israeli society is posed with imposed change. It is a society forced to defend its existence, both morally and militarily. There are potentially two very different Israeli nations: one is a nation striving to be accepted by the rest of the world, trying to find its own identity as democratic and irrevocably Jewish. The other is one that believes in a Jewish state ruled by the Talmud, where one religion exists in one state, and adherents of other faiths and members of other races should accede to the will of a majority.
Zionism is an important component of Israeli society, the driving force both creating and solving the problems and issues facing Israel today. Whether examining Israeli social issues such as immigration (aliya) and the problem of demographic preservation, human rights, multi-citizenry, militarization, occupation, or conscription, Zionism can always be found at the root of every argument. Without first understanding Zionism, it is impossible to fully grasp the internal and external struggles Israel’s society today endeavors to conquer.
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