The meaning of Zionism
"What does Zionism mean to you?" an American friend of mine asked ahead of Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day as well as Memorial Day and Independence Day. "After all, you already have a country." After some thought I replied that Zionism is a process of character-building that is still a work in progress.
Zionism saw shtetl Jews hiding in closets during pogroms, working as peddlers, living off handouts and appearing to exploit their host nations. Zionism declared that not only is Diaspora life insufferable, it is based on false values. Zionism sought to rebuild the Jewish nation and foster a new Jewish character: Creative, fighting, straightforward, honest, glorious. A nation filled with lords of the land, not exploiters. A law-abiding nation, not one that circumvents the law for its own purposes.
Being independent sometimes means having to brandish your sword. But a nation that fights when necessary needs more than weapons and the draft. It needs a fighting spirit. Israel has known how to instill a fighting spirit, and that spirit still exists in some parts of society. However, the 2006 Second Lebanon War was a dark hour for the fighting spirit, as evidenced by the embarrassing flood of medals awarded for evacuating the wounded, not winning battles.
At the same time, a noble nation must treat each individual in its borders with equality and respect. A slave who becomes a king may also abuse minorities, as evidenced by recent letters rabbis and rabbis' wives have sent calling on the public not to rent apartments to Arabs and not to fraternize with them, as well as by the Knesset Admissions Committees law, which allows small towns and villages to bar entry to unwanted residents. A slave who becomes king can also work to segregate Ethiopian immigrants from those whose great-grandparents were Ashkenazim or Sephardim. Another ominous trend is the "Iranization" of Judaism, as demonstrated by sex-segregated ultra-Orthodox bus lines, Kabbalists who encourage mysticism among their followers and disgusting discrimination toward women, including female IDF soldiers, which undermines the foundations of the army.
Zionism used to venerate the values of work and productivity, yet today the number of Israelis who choose not to work is greater than in most other Western nations. Alongside widespread haredi and Arab non-employment, we have a public sector that is bloated and inefficient. For instance, in a country of 7 million citizens there is no justification or need for 250 local authorities or a public broadcasting network that costs NIS 1 billion ($266.4 million) per year.
But even Israel's core demographic, the secular middle class, is morally deficient. The social protests on Rothschild Boulevard and the Trajtenberg report showcased an attitude of entitlement. Someone else should pay my way, the protesters seemed to say. That mythical "someone" should work hard, take risks and create economic value so that his or her tax money can be transferred to the protesters. The Rothschild protests and Trajtenberg report resemble the pre-Zionist haluka system [charity system before the first wave of aliyah], in which some residents of Israel lived off others rather work in the Zionist spirit. A sovereign self-reliant nation cannot live beyond what it can produce through its own hard work. The national treasury belongs to us, and it contains only what we put into it.
Educating Israelis to be masters of their own destiny would help to channel the energy of the social protest into increased productivity and competitiveness. The building blocks of Zionism are Hashomer ("The Watchman"), the pre-Israel Jewish defense organization, the wine growers of Zichron Yaakov, the pioneer youth of the Nahal and the fields of the Tel Hai, Degania and Kineret kibbutzim. The keystones of Zionism are the Technion, the Weizmann Institute of Science, the Israel Air Force's fighter squadrons, covert operations that bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Checkpoint Software Technologies, and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries. The justice of Israeli society is demonstrated in the High Court's defense of Israel's Communist press, as well as its verdicts on female pilot Alice Miller, an Arab family wanting to live in a Jewish neighborhood, the school in Emmanuel that segregated Sephardic girls and the acquittal of John Demjanjuk. And our unique Israeli culture - not one derived from exile in Poland or Morocco - can be experienced in the poetry of Rachel, Natan Alterman, Chaim Hefer and Moshe Shamir.
We must also be stringent in our personal ethics. We should apply the test that the Biblical character Gideon used to whittle down his forces to the best men who were prepared to fight. Everyone who laps from the water with his tongue, as a dog laps shall be rejected, God instructed him. Building each and every Israeli's character begins with educating him or her to be like Gideon – to strive for excellence and uphold Jewish values.