Political Zionism led by Theodor Herzl would not have come into existence were it not for anti-Semitism in Europe, pogroms in Russia and a fear lest the emergence of the Jews from the ghetto and their integration into the economic, political, media and academic systems of the day provoke a sharp and violent reaction against them. There were alternative Jewish movements aimed at reaching the Land of Israel on the basis of religious motives or in order to build a new society founded on agricultural settlement and social justice. But that was not the Zionist movement as established in 1897.
The real dream of most of those who established Zionism at the end of the nineteenth century was to integrate into Europe. Since they concluded that this was not practical, and considering that a return to religious life in the ghetto was not desirable, they adopted a fallback option whereby the Jewish people would move to a state full of Jews that by definition could not be anti-Semitic. The awful failure of the Zionist vision was that it was realized after and not before the Holocaust. The existence of a nascent Jewish "Yishuv" in the Land of Israel saved a few hundred thousand Jews from the Nazi destruction machine but not the millions for whom the gates of the world were locked. The main importance of Israel in my view is that it is the only place in the world that is unconditionally open to Jews wishing to come.
Herzl’s vision described a country with a fully empowered Arab minority living in amity with the Jewish majority, a country living at peace with the world and accepted by it. In the prevailing reality prior to the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, Israel was a foreign implant in the region, living by its sword, boycotted by the entire Arab world. This was the exact opposite of the original vision.
But Israel of the 1990s was the Jewish state closest to the vision of Herzl and his colleagues: the Arabs living in Israel enjoyed relative prosperity and a far higher level of equality, the Arab boycott was partially abandoned and 13 Arab states engaged in discussion with Israel concerning regional development (in the multilateral talks on water, economic cooperation, refugee rehabilitation, environment and arms control). The peace process encouraged many countries to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, and Israelis were proudly welcomed by the world in view of their rapid economic development and scientific and other achievements. The original Zionist dream, which delegated to Israel a global mission in the fields of international law, human rights, aid to developing countries, etc., was very close to realization. Our status in the United Nations and in other international organizations was never better.
The past ten years were ones of dramatic reversal of Israel’s global status. Without asking whether this is exclusively Israel’s fault (I don’t think so), the facts speak for themselves. Against the backdrop of the violent clashes of the second intifada, the Second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and, most recently, the events surrounding the Gaza flotilla, Israel finds itself in a situation reminiscent of the 1970s, when the UN adopted the insane decision (rescinded only 17 years later) to define Zionism as a racist movement.
Israel of today has been pushed almost completely out of the Arab world, the Arab boycott has returned to its earlier dimensions and formerly friendly countries are turning their backs. Various parties in international academia and the trade union movement are passing resolutions to boycott their Israeli colleagues, and representatives of the government of Israel have a hard time completing their prepared remarks even in American universities.
There is little the current Israeli government can do to change the world’s attitude, combat the boycott efforts and neutralize the attempts to turn the country into a new ghetto–one from which it is inconvenient and even embarrassing to depart. The country is led by an extreme right-wing coalition most of whose spokespersons are busy vindicating the arguments of our international critics. Israel’s number one diplomat, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is perceived as a fascist-leaning racist. He cannot hold an intimate conversation with a single serious actor anywhere in the world.
In order to extricate itself from this new ghetto, Israel needs to change its policy. Were the present government to do so, Israel would be forgiven the composition of its leadership. But the likelihood of this happening is slim because Israel’s leaders believe in the path they have chosen: some of them suffice with lip service to peace while others don’t even bother with lip service and state openly that they don’t believe in peace. None are prepared to pay the price for peace.
In this reality, the only possibilities for change are a strong American policy that leads both sides to peace, or waiting for the next elections. Meanwhile, Israel will continue to pay an unbearable price of isolation from the world.