If I was a delegate at the first Zionist Congress in 1897 I think I would’ve left the conference enthused, inspired, but also frustrated. I appreciate “defining my terms,” creating an action plan based on the terms, and then putting the plan into action. At the first Zionist Congress the delegates adopted the “Basel Program,” but never defined Zionism.
The Basel Program aimed to establish a “publicly and legally assured home in Palestine” for Jews. It promoted moving Jewish agriculturists, artisans, and tradesmen to Palestine, create federations of Jews around the world, strengthen the Jewish sense and consciousness, and taking preparatory steps to attain government grants necessary for the Zionist purpose. These were ambitious goals for a people who hadn’t enjoyed autonomy in their homeland in almost 2,000 years. Yet, with all their plans, they neglected to define what they stood for and how they defined their movement.
The lack of a definition allowed Zionists to stretch the meaning of Zionism to almost absurd dimensions. Looking at the word Zionism one would’ve thought that the foundation of the movement would’ve been a move to Zion – the city of Jerusalem and the land of Israel. Yet, Zionism’s founder and many of his followers accepted Theodore Herzl’s “Jewish State” where he contemplated creating an autonomous Jewish State in Argentina and listened years later when Herzl suggested accepting England’s offer of Uganda as a Jewish state. Creating a Jewish state in Argentina and Uganda directly contradicted the name Zionism, but because Zionists never set forth a definition of Zionism, even Zion wasn’t sacrosanct to Zionists.
As Zionist plans were set forth into action and the Zionist dream of establishing a Jewish state came to fruition, a definition of Zionism became unofficially adopted by Zionists and the rest of the world. Zionism became known as the political movement to support the Jewish right to self-determination in its own homeland, the land of Israel. This definition was predicated on understanding that Jews were Israelites, not solely a people with a joint religion, but an independent nation. Like all nations the Jewish people had inalienable rights. Zionists defined these rights as truths that guaranteed the Jewish people their historic land. Just as every other nation has a right to their historic homeland, the Jewish nation also enjoys that right to its homeland. Just as every nation deserves to determine its own destiny, so too, does the Jewish nation deserve to determine its own destiny through an autonomous state.
The consensus of the definition of Zionism was more recently reached by the Jewish people. While the definition isn’t binding, the principles – Jewish rights to self-determination and its own state on its homeland, are binding. Just because Zionists never agreed to one definition doesn’t mean the Jewish people aren’t entitled to their rights. Zionism became the movement that assured the Jewish people they’d be able to enjoy their rights. Even Jews who didn’t support or opposed Zionism agreed the Jewish people had rights; the dispute within the Jewish people over Zionism was whether it made sense to begin a political effort to achieve those rights.
Over seventy years after the achievement of the first Zionist dream – the establishment of the Jewish State in the land of Israel – Zionists have a range of issues that concern them. External and internal enemies, economic challenges, domestic social issues, foreign policy and so many other issues test Zionists to create a better society for the Jewish people in Israel.
The Sages taught that there are seventy paths to explaining the Torah – they called them the “Seventy faces of the Torah.” While Zionism’s wisdom doesn’t compare to the wisdom of the Torah, its lack of authoritative definition has allowed it to be defined with at least seventy different definitions. There’s little benefit in fixating on the definition of Zionism. With the creation of the State of Israel, Zionism has become an undeniable reality. Whether you agreed with its original goals and methods, it is a part of contemporary Jewish life.
Today’s discussions shouldn’t focus on defining Zionism but should to the burning questions of nationhood. The Jewish people need to begin asking who do we want to become? What are our values and how do we manifest them in our own State? How do we achieve and measure our own success? What are our goals over the next 25 years? These are the questions Jewish scholars should be contemplating, educators should be teaching, adults should be discussing, and politicians should be debating.