WHAT IS SELF-DETERMINATION?
Self-determination is the idea that peoples who share a national identity — not to be confused with nationality — have a legal right to choose their own governance. In other words, people have a legal right to independence, if that is what they wish, rather than being forced into living under the thumb of an empire. Self-determination is a basic tenet of international law, applicable to all peoples.
The definition of Zionism — as agreed upon during the First Zionist Congress — is the following:
“Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Eretz Israel [the Land of Israel] secured under public law.”
There are two main arguments in favor of Zionism: (1) Jews have a legal right to self-determination in our ancestral homeland, and (2) a Jewish state is vital to the survival of the Jewish People.
My posts usually emphasize the former. I do not believe I’ve ever really explicitly addressed there second point. However, this post will do just that.
History has shown us, time and time again, that Jews cannot depend on the goodness of non-Jews to remain safe. It’s a difficult reality to come to terms with, but at some point, after 2700 years of persecution, it’s only natural to take preventable measures to protect ourselves. That does not mean that we are absolving antisemites of responsibility. But for our own survival, we can’t wait around all day for the rest of the world to stop being antisemitic. We have to take matters into our own hands, even if it’s unfair.
The earliest antisemitism in history was not the antisemitism of conspiracies and scapegoating, but rather, the antisemitism of political subjugation.
In 720 BCE, the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and exiled many of its inhabitants, predominantly those of the political elite. This exile was nothing out of the ordinary; it was customary in ancient times for conquering empires to exile and forcibly assimilate those who might pose a threat to their rule.
For the Israelites, however — both the Samaritans to the north and the Judahites [Jews] to the south — this event was deeply impactful. In 587 BCE, the Babylonian Empire conquered the southern Kingdom of Judah and exiled about 25 percent of its inhabitants. The Jews, determined not to suffer the same fate as their northern neighbors, began the process of canonization of the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible]. Prior to the exile, Jewish culture and spiritual life was deeply centralized around the Temple in Jerusalem. However, with the Temple destroyed and the Jews displaced, the compilation of Torah texts allowed the exiled Jews to continue practicing their culture from afar.
For Jews, the issue of political autonomy has always been intimately intertwined with the issue of physical and spiritual survival.
During the Greek occupation of Judea, for example, the Greeks sought to Hellenize (i.e. assimilate the Jews into Greek culture) the Jews, chipping away at our cultural and national identity, destroying us culturally and spiritually, if not physically. This led to the successful Maccabean Revolt, which we commemorate every year during Hanukkah. After the Jewish-Roman wars between 66 and 135 CE, up to a million Jews were either massacred or enslaved by the Romans. Losing political autonomy in Judea meant the near destruction of the Jewish People. It is a testament to our resilience, strength, and ingenuity that we are still here.
THE GREAT DEBATE
The mid-to-late nineteenth century was a period of rapid change in Europe and the Middle East. Nations previously loyal to the empires which subjugated them unified under the banner of various strands of nationalism. After thousands of years of marginalization, persecution, segregation, and oppression, the Jews of Europe were finally emancipated.
For the first time in thousands of years, Jews were not confined to ghettos. They joined the rest of European society. They assimilated. And yet: antisemitism persisted.
Jews were no longer marginalized just for being different; they were marginalized even when they tried to become the same as everybody else.
This resulted in a great Jewish debate: should Jews integrate into European society? Or, at a time when various nations across Europe, the Middle East, and even the Americas were beginning to demand independence, should Jews also pursue self-determination in their ancestral homeland?
By the early twentieth century, there were two main Jewish political movements: Zionism and Bundism. Bundists were non-Zionist — not anti-Zionist, as many anti-Zionist Jews claim today — and argued that Zionism was a form of “escapism,” that instead, Jews should seek to integrate into their nations of citizenship, while maintaining a strong sense of Jewish national identity through Jewish culture. In other words, their version of Jewish nationalism was not tethered to a place.
Bundism didn’t work. The Bund was dissolved by the early 1920s. And the early to mid twentieth century saw the greatest antisemitic massacres in human history.
The Holocaust — and its ugly aftermath — put the final nail on the coffin to the hope that, through social integration, perhaps Jews could one day successfully be safe among gentiles.
It was Germany — the western, advanced, socially progressive Germany, where Jews were much more integrated and assimilated than their counterparts in Eastern Europe — that had birthed Nazism. This was deeply shocking. Even supposedly “civilized” nations behaved monstrously toward the Jews.
Zionism was certainly the most popular of the Jewish political movements before the Holocaust, but after the Holocaust, Jewish support for Zionism — and Zionist activism — became almost universal. The Displaced Persons camps (i.e. post-Holocaust refugee camps) were hotbeds of Zionist activism. This was compounded by the fact that thousands of Jewish survivors who attempted to return to their old homes in Europe were massacred by their former neighbors. There was no future for Jews in Europe.
SELF-DETERMINATION IN ACTION
The State of Israel has saved millions of Jews from genocide and ethnic cleansing in the Arab and Muslim worlds, the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, Poland, and more.
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