The Challenges of Success

Secular Zionism since 1948

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If the focus of pre-state Zionism was simply the establishment and securing of Jewish sovereignty, it was without a purpose after 1948. The major state-building efforts of the Zionist movement--self-defense, settlement, and immigrant absorption--were now performed by the young government. land of israel quiz

Consequently, many argued that political Zionism had run its course. David Ben Gurion, the first Israeli prime minister, argued that the term "Zionism" was now devoid of meaning. He sought to bolster Israel's strength not by alliances with the various Diaspora Zionist parties, but rather with Jewish philanthropists, who supported Israel while remaining indifferent to Zionist politics. 

In the first three decades of the state's existence, Israel faced three overriding political issues: setting up the government, defining the nation's borders, and formulating a societal character. On each of these, the dominant tone was set by labor Zionism. The smaller right-wing parties, the moderate liberals, and the more hawkish Herut Party, led by Menachem Begin, advocated minority positions. In opposition to Labor, the right-wing parties advocated for a less welfare-oriented government; supported territorial expansion; and articulated a vision of Israeli society influenced by Jewish tradition, the cultural heritage of Middle Eastern Jews, and conservative values.

Arabs in Israel

The different streams of Zionism also held opposing positions on the relationship between the Jewish and Arab populations within what became the state of Israel. The right-wing revisionist movement (the forerunner to the Likud)--led by Ze'ev Jabotinsky--accurately identified early Arab hostility to Zionism as nascent nationalism but argued that only one national movement could find its expression between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Jabotinsky offered Palestinian Arabs full civil rights as individuals under Jewish sovereignty throughout the Land. 

The left-wing labor movement initially believed the benefits of socialism and economic and technological progress would transform the Palestinians into allies of Zionism. After 1948, and especially after 1967, left-wing secular Zionism recognized the rights of Israeli Arabs to equality within the state and the rights of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to political independence.

The End of Labor's Hegemony

The Six Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973 were watershed events in the dissipation of Labor's dominance of Israeli society. The inclusion under Jewish sovereignty of East Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria--areas that were central to biblical Israel--shifted the focus of settlement and nation building from a secular-labor orientation to a national-religious drive focused on building up the newly acquired areas.

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Ilan Wagner

Ilan Wagner directs Makom in North America, the Jewish Agency's effort to enhance Israel identity in local communities. He was previously the Director of Student Activities for the Department of Education of the Jewish Agency.