Zionism was never the gentlest of ideologies. The return of the Jewish people to their biblical homeland and the resumption of Jewish sovereignty there have always carried within them the displacement of those already living on the land.
The Israeli general and politician Yigal Allon defined Zionism in 1975 as “the national liberation movement of a people exiled from its historic homeland and dispersed among the nations of the world.” Some years later, and more crudely, perhaps, another general and politician, Rehavam Ze’evi, a tough right-winger, said, “Zionism is in essence the Zionism of transfer,” adding, “If transfer is immoral, then all of Zionism is immoral.”
In that gap between idealism and pragmatism is the fierce battle now going on in Israel, some 65 years after the founding of the state, about the true inheritors of Zionism.
Are they those who hold to the secular and internationalist vision of the nation’s founders, or are they the nationalist religious settlers who create communities beyond the 1967 boundaries and seek to annex more of the biblical land of Israel?
The earliest version of Zionism based the creation of a Jewish nation on the revived language of Hebrew, to unify the huge variety of dispersed Jews. Beginning in the 1920s and especially with the Holocaust, suggests Bernard Avishai, the author of “The Tragedy of Zionism” and “The Hebrew Republic,” came the idea of “political Zionism,” which required a state and a military both to protect Jews against anti-Semitism and to transform them into a modern state, to defend themselves and, if necessary, to defy the world.
The largely secular founders of Israel, the generation of David Ben-Gurion, had a dual vision of Israel as both “a light among nations” and a state like others, part of the international community of nations, outward looking and socially just.
“When Israel has prostitutes and thieves,” Ben-Gurion said, “we’ll be a state just like any other.”
The “new” Zionists — religious Zionists — see the world, and Israel, differently. They are sure that they represent the future. “We are the real Zionists now,” a settler, Igal Canaan, told me, “and slowly, slowly we will be the majority of the country.” They argue that they are the pioneers of this generation, taking risks to expand the state in the face of dangers from the Palestinians, whom they largely regard, in Mr. Avishai’s words, “as a distraction on the landscape who will eventually be displaced,” as others were before by the left-wing secular Zionists who built the young state. The new Zionists see themselves as honoring God’s commandments and living in shared communities like the early heroes of Israel.
Defiant in the face of criticism, both domestic and foreign, they believe that they are building a religious Israel, not a European or cosmopolitan one.
“Zionism justified a return to the holy land in terms of universalist values,” said Yaron Ezrahi, a political theorist and emeritus professor at Hebrew University. “The idea was to bring enlightenment and cultural development, to bring universalism to the Middle East. But the settlers are the epitome of particularism, of localism, and they give a bad name to Zionism. If Zionism is a European movement,” he said, “the settlers are colonialism in a post-colonial era. They’ve lost the universal values of Zionism.”
Uri Dromi, who was a spokesman for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, said that liberal, secular Israelis feel “besieged and pessimistic” in the face of new security fears and the political power of the nationalist religious and ultra-Orthodox. Rather than trying to be a nation among nations, “today, without saying it, by what we are doing, we are a people that is alone.”
Religious Zionism is a relatively large tent, with more liberal and more nationalist wings. But it regards the settlements as “its most important creation in this generation,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a research center. “There is a growing sense that they are the true future of Zionism, because secular Zionism has been in decline for decades.” They have taken more leadership positions in the Army, have the most vital youth movements and are having a major impact in politics, so “they have a growing sense of self-confidence,” he said.
The real danger to religious Zionism comes not from the Palestinians or from abroad, nor even from the dwindling Israeli left. What settlers are really afraid of, Mr. Halevi said, is the secular right, still largely represented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his party, Likud. He said religious nationalists “have an almost apocalyptic fear” that another pragmatic, secular, right-wing government like that of Ariel Sharon will betray them and undermine the settlement movement.
Mr. Sharon’s decision in 2005 to withdraw all Israeli settlers and troops from Gaza (and from four settlements in the West Bank) was an enormous shock to the religious Zionists. They learned their lesson and sought stronger allies in politics, including with Naftali Bennett of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, the religious parties and younger members of Likud. Mr. Bennett, for example, favors the annexation of what is known as Area C, which is 62 percent of the West Bank and includes most Israeli settlements.
Mr. Bennett is a prominent member of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition government, but they are rivals for right-wing and settler votes. Mr. Netanyahu won last year’s elections after speaking on television of “droves” of Arabs being bused to vote. The left was furious and accused him of appealing to fear, but it worked: Many of the votes that went to Likud at the end came, in fact, from Mr. Bennett’s supporters, who also feel tricked by Mr. Netanyahu.
The relationship of religious Zionism to democracy is another of the hidden dramas now in Israel. The struggle for the future of democracy here, Mr. Halevi said, will be “between those who are legitimate democrats and those who don’t really understand it, who pay lip service to it but come from a nationalist and even theocratic place and view certain democratic norms as a threat.”
Still, the older Zionism is not dead yet and continues to create “facts on the ground,” noted Mr. Avishai. Every high-tech start-up, every new Thai restaurant and every successful film — and the very existence of a Hebrew-speaking, pluralistic, thriving Tel Aviv — speaks to the success of traditional Zionism and its continuing importance in Israeli life.
Steven Erlanger is the London bureau chief, and a former Jerusalem bureau chief, of The New York Times.