Is Israel’s sharp turn away from even a flawed democracy leading prominent Israeli intellectuals to question political Zionism itself? That’s the conclusion I drew from reading Yuval Noah Hariri’s column in the Financial Times, entitled “Israeli Democracy Fighting for its Life.”
Hariri is probably the best known Israeli intellectual today, the author of a bestselling history of the world, Sapiens, and a book about the future of the world. He was in the past a dispassionate high-altitude observer of Israeli politics. In a 2014 interview with the Financial Times, which took place at the same time that Israel was at war with Palestinians in Gaza, he said about the conflict between the two peoples, “The main problem with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the lack of theoretical solutions — you have quite a few of them — it is getting the parties to accept it.” And, he added that the conflict, it “is not my field of expertise.”
In his column this week, he is fully engaged and passionate about the threat that Israel faces from the “authoritarian forces” who control Israel’s government and who seek to establish a “dictatorship in Israel.” He sums up their ideology in revealing terms. “The ruling coalition is led by messianic zealots who believe in an ideology of Jewish supremacy. This calls to annex the occupied Palestinian territories to Israel without granting citizenship to the Palestinians.”
What is revealing is his rejection of “Jewish supremacy” and of a greater Israel that didn’t grant the Palestinians political equality. By rejecting Jewish supremacy in this manner, he seems to be putting himself on one side of an old debate, aligned with an often ignored kind of Zionism.
Jewish history in Palestine and then Israel is often depicted as a conflict between David Ben Gurion and the Labor Zionists on one side, and Vladimir Jabotinsky and the Revisionists on the other. But the conflict between the two sides was not over whether to establish a “Jewish state” — a state in which Jews would enjoy political supremacy — but over whether the Jewish state would incorporate the land that is now Jordan.
There was a different political conflict, which I described in Genesis, that pitted Labor Zionists and Revisionists on one side and cultural Zionists on the other. The cultural Zionists took their cue from Ahad Ha’am, Judah Magnes, and Henrietta Szold. They contended that Palestine should be the center of a revived Jewish culture and Hebrew language. Magnes founded the Hebrew University and Szold Hadassah. The cultural Zionists thought that Jews should share political power with the Arabs, who even on the eve of the formation of Israel, constituted the great majority of Palestine’s inhabitants.
The cultural Zionists achieved some intellectual acclaim. They were supported by, among others, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, and Hannah Arendt. But they were routed in the 1940s in the debate over the future of Palestine. Cultural Zionism is now making a comeback — not within the Israeli government, but among some Israeli and American Jewish intellectuals. I think of my former colleague Peter Beinart and of Bernard Avishai, who covers Israel for the New Yorker and is the author of The Hebrew Republic.
With his rejection of “Jewish supremacy,” Hariri, too, seems to be aligning with cultural Zionism and rejecting political Zionism. Whether, as he asserts, “the hundreds of thousands of Israelis [who] have been resisting the Israeli government in every non-violent way” are also rejecting “Jewish supremacy” and political Zionism remains to be seen. What is true is this: If the Israeli government does, as many Israelis expect, annex the lands they now occupy illegally, Hariri’s position will become the only viable alternative to the ideology of the “messianic zealots.”