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Does Zionism Even Exist Anymore?

Haaretz.com 01/09/2022 Anshel Pfeffer

Does Zionism Even Exist Anymore?

A vision, a cypher for bigots, a force for good or for evil? Since Israel became a reality, there's been no consensus on what defines Zionism, what it means and whether, between the Herzl cosplayers and haters, it still survives

September 01st, 16PM September 01st, 19PM

As low-hanging fruit goes, few events are riper for lampooning than the reenactment of the first Zionist Congress that took place this week at the original venue in Basel, Switzerland on its 125th anniversary. It really is too easy. All those clapped-out former politicians, prematurely old jobsworths, vainglorious billionaires and their hangers-on getting together to pretend that their cosplaying has any relevance to life in Israel or its future.

Just about every aspect of it is preposterous. And not only the secret budget of tens of millions expended on the two-day event by the World Zionist Organization, whose head, an anonymous Likud hack named Yaakov Hagoel has a taste for wasting other people’s money on useless PR: earlier this year he paid Channel 12 for a prime-time ad during the “Dancing with the Stars” final.

There's also the inflated self-importance, the sucking-up to oligarchs and the sessions competing with each other to come up with the most meaningless faux-techspeak jargon title, like “Impacting for the benefit of humanity” or “Israel: the ambidextrous experience.” I thought the title “Implementing Zionism in Africa” was especially, unintentionally, poignant as the Zionist movement nearly tore itself apart when Theodor Herzl, at the sixth Zionist Congress in 1903 (his last), suggested just that: implementing Zionism in Africa instead of in Zion.

But since it’s really too easy to make fun of the organizers and participants puffed-up self-importance and total detachment from the real Israel, let’s ask a more difficult question. What was so special about Theodor Herzl’s original Zionist Congress back in 1897?

After all, Zionism – both as a movement in the Diaspora, and as pioneers establishing new agricultural settlements in the Jewish homeland – had already existed for decades. Herzl’s congress in Basel wasn’t even the first Zionist Congress. That title should go by rights to the congress held 15 years earlier in Focsani, Romania, by the Hovevei Zion movement. Some of the delegates at Focsani actually continued from there by boat to Ottoman Palestine, where they built Rosh Pina and Zichron Yaakov, which is a good sight more than the Basel delegates in their formal evening wear did after they wrapped things up at the casino.

Theodor Herzl gives the inaugural address at the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel, 1903: He conjured out of nothing a... Imagno / Getty Images © סופק על ידי Haaretz.com Theodor Herzl gives the inaugural address at the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel, 1903: He conjured out of nothing a... Imagno / Getty Images

But what made the “first” Congress in Basel were Herzl’s incredible PR abilities. He had no real movement to speak of, no pioneers or soldiers of his own on the ground. He had no guarantee that the Turkish Sultan or the Kaiser or the leaders of France, Britain and the United States would receive him. He had precious little realistic understanding of the Arabs (or of many of the Jews for that matter).

But in his journalism, his books, his speeches and his activism, Herzl conjured out of nothing a grand vision of a modern Jewish nation-state in the ancient land of the Jews. A vision that was so compelling, so rich in promise, so right, that it continued to motivate Jews long after Herzl died to fulfill it.

Fifty-one years after the Basel Congress, Israel became a reality. Herzl’s Zionist dream had been fulfilled. No one has been able to work out ever since what Zionism means after that, or if it even still exists in the real world outside congresses and conferences.

The very word has become a cypher for Jews in general, a handy excuse for bigots – as in, “I’m fine with Jews, I just don’t like Zionists,” and a convenient label for virtue gesticulators of all stripes. But there is no consensus on its definition, not among those who claim to be Zionists or those who abominate it.

Burning the Israeli flag in Tehran: Zionists and anti-Zionists have something in common. The real Israel doesn't resemble ... Vahid Salemi/AP © סופק על ידי Haaretz.com Burning the Israeli flag in Tehran: Zionists and anti-Zionists have something in common. The real Israel doesn't resemble ... Vahid Salemi/AP

Another thing that the so-called Zionists and anti-Zionists have in common is how little the real Israel resembles their idealized or demonized Zion. Those who believe in Zionism in 2022, as a force for good or evil, are obsessing about an abstraction as an alternative to dealing with the less exciting, but very real, challenges and moral ambiguities of Israel.

That congress back in 1897 was dealing with the very real challenges facing Jews in Europe. The pogroms, the discrimination, the lack of any security. A sovereign Jewish state was just one of the solutions for the Jewish predicament, and at the time one of the most outlandish ones. But Zionism won. That state came into being. A state which now faces massive challenges, not to its existence but to its character, to what kind of Jewish and democratic state it is becoming.

But none of the panels this week dealt with those real challenges. How could they? They were too busy "impacting," "innovating" and "implementing."

That’s what’s so different between the two congresses in Basel. Herzl had nothing, but from his words and passion a real Jewish state was built. 125 years later, Hagoel and the other nonentities in their pathetic reenactment managed to reverse-Midas a very real Israel into two days of nothing but a pile of empty, ersatz and sterile words.

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