Former Israeli Knesset Member Einat Wilf sat with David Hazony, editor of the pro-Israel online publication, The Tower Magazine, on Wednesday of last week, to answer questions about her unique view of Zionism she outlined in a recent article – citing historical precedent to justify her belief that Zionism needs to update its narrative to include Israel’s minorities in order to remain relevant to future generations.
Today, especially when conflict rages between Israel and its neighbors, Zionist ideology is attacked and made synonymous with racism, colonialism, apartheid and other social evils by anti-Zionist protesters and Israel’s enemies.
“Today, we feel uneasy with the idea that ‘Jewish,’ or ‘Zionist,’ is exclusionary,” Wilf told the audience during the event, which was held in the downtown office of The Israel Project, which runs the publication. “Even when we call ourselves Zionists. Even if we’re pro-Israel. There’s a certain unease we feel when we hear that Zionism is racism… . [W]e can argue passionately against it, [but] many of us still have that lingering sense of ‘Maybe it is a little racist? Maybe it is a little exclusionary? What about the Arabs?’ Even as we fight it, we internalize some of the blame.” Wilf, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former Labor and Independence party member of the Knesset, argues that inclusiveness is not foreign to Zionism.
In fact, she says, Zionism’s founder, writer and dramatist, Theodor Herzl, himself envisioned a pluralistic state and was the first to adapt Zionism to include those who were not part of his original vision. Otherwise the idea would not have survived past its infancy.
“Zionism has been historically on a steady trajectory of inclusion,” said Wilf. “It has been from the beginning a national political movement that steadily included, more and more people, more and more groups.” Wilf said that after writing The Jewish State, Herzl’s attempts to motivate the cultured, modern and assimilated Jews of Western Europe fell on deaf ears, because they were more concerned with fully integrating into European society at the expense of their Jewish heritage. Some were also concerned that Zionist philosophy would even hurt their assimilation efforts. Herzl’s original idea looked very much like a utopian Europe.
A secular, modern society that Wilf called a “Vienna on the banks of the Jordan River.”
In the process of touring Europe’s Jewish communities publicizing his idea, he was surprised to find that the poor, traditional shtetl Jews of Eastern Europe, who he, as an Austro-Hungarian Jew, despised, were much more receptive to Zionism and the concept of a Jewish nation. Seeing this, Herzl recast Zionism to emphasize Eastern European Jews as the ideal Zionists, formalizing Zionism’s inclusive nature.
“I argue that this is the moment where the method of Zionist inclusiveness was established, that you take a group that was previously excluded – thought unfit, unworthy – then you bring them in, but you bring them in so completely that it seems that it was never any other way,” said Wilf. Wilf argued that while other nations have created inclusive societies through political or bureaucratic means. In each case, there is “a gap between the claim to inclusion and the reality.”
Although it is unlikely that it will be perfect, Zionism’s advantage is that it is a concept based on a narrative – the story of how the Jewish people would, and have, created their homeland in the Middle East – a story that could be edited to make non-Jews feel just as much a part of the Zionist success story as Jews.
Wilf talked about how the story of Zionism can be recast as telling about how the Arabs tended to the land while the Jews were in exile and later returned, reuniting the original religions established in the region.
The new Zionism should include the stories of Arab and Christian heroes, like the Arab mayor of Haifa during the British mandate, who considered Jews and Zionists “brothers” in building a joint future. “All the instances of retelling the story appeared, at the moment of retelling, as fanciful,” she said, “but from looking several decades later, we don’t know that it was ever any different. So I think there is the possibility out there.”
According to Wilf, as quickly as Israel has assimilated Druze, Russians, African Jews and other minorities into its society – and is now doing again in assimilating Christians who identify as Arabs – hopefully in the near future, Muslims who currently see themselves as Palestinian Muslims or Arab Muslims will identify as Israeli Muslims.
“That can be under one of two scenarios, but they’re not impossible,” said Wilf. “One is peace, so it’s not a confrontation; the other, is that the Arab identity is becoming so brutal and bloody, that the Muslims of Israel would move an inch toward an Israeli identity rather than an Arab one.”
Although hers is a philosophical idea without a time frame for implementation, Wilf believes that the recent turmoil in the region surrounding Israel – where Arab Christians and even Muslims are being persecuted – may give minorities greater incentive to adopt Israeli nationalism. During her three-day visit to Washington, D.C., Wilf also addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Rabbinic Symposium on “why recognizing the rights of the Jewish people to self-determination in their homeland must be part of any final peace agreement,” according to her Facebook page.
JNS.org contributed to this story.