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  • Introduction(Special issue, Israel Studies, 19.2)
  • Ilan Troen (bio) and Donna Robinson Divine (bio)

Has Zionism lost its relevance? Some Israelis assert that the Zionist mission was completed on 15 May 1948 with the establishment of the Jewish state. They argue that Israel’s founding rendered Zionism irrelevant and ushered in an era of post-Zionism. That assertion has recently encouraged others to contend that while Zionism provided invaluable insight into the thinking of how to deal with the past, it has little value for addressing Israel’s problems today. However, Zionism’s legacy did not end with Israel’s founding partly because the visions it supported did not totally recede into the cultural background even as they were reconfigured. Zionism, in fact, still generates many of the most significant idioms comprising the country’s public discourse. It places a value on some issues over others and helps frame how they are understood. Like any canon, it has not remained static nor uncontested. It has been expanded, revised, and enriched as the world has changed and as the challenges confronting the Jewish state have been altered. All participants in the Brandeis Conference on Zionism in the Twenty-First Century acknowledged that Israel cannot be understood without interrogating the deep and complex contributions of Zionism to the country’s culture and public life.

The essays assembled in this special edition of Israel Studies explore how Zionism framed and shaped the experiences of living in a Jewish state and impacted cultural and political change. The new Jewish state meant new possibilities. Zionism reinstated the Hebrew language and restored a designated geographical location where the Jewish people could achieve sovereignty. While Israel has become something its founders might neither fully recognize nor totally embrace, the vocabulary of Zionism is still used to engage in an imaginative communion with the country’s past, present and future.

Many of the past conflicts within and about Zionism persist. There are controversies concerning religion, ethnicity, minority rights, economic [End Page v] equality and opportunity, but these contemporary debates are enacted in Hebrew and deploy a vocabulary invented through the evolution of Zionist discourse. Many of the concepts for articulating and defining the country’s fault lines and for grappling and living with the tensions that accompany them are rooted in Zionism. Even the fiercely pious who claim to reject Zionism are affected by its lexicon. It frames how they, too, confront the issues touching their lives. For nearly all, communal obligations typically take priority over personal rights: Israelis more frequently speak of ‘we’ instead of ‘me’. Yet there was never a single, monolithic Zionism; one form of Zionism-labor, religious, general did not supplant another. Rather, Israel’s polarized cultural and social norms co-exist, albeit in tension. The country is at once reflexively religious and secular, capitalist and socialist, pluralistic and contentious.

In its formative years, Zionism was preoccupied with creating a new Jew. The social engineering imperatives issued by many of its founders called for shedding Diaspora traditions, but they were not uniformly obeyed. Customs and practices were maintained even when these were labeled an impediment to the nation’s advancement and excluded from the developing ‘authorized culture’ given prominence in poetry, song, theater, and school curricula. As a result, public culture began to change, and in 1977 the Labor led political movement that had been in power since the country’s founding was voted out.

Israelis came to view national identity as a political construct and as a central task of politics. National identity not only affected mapmaking but the distribution of power and resources. Giving expression to a national identity is intended to show people how their interests are best served and how they fit into the larger society where they reside. The early Zionist account celebrated the selfless energy and sweated labor of pioneers whose shared ideals of national responsibility, freedom and equality rooted them in the land. But this narrative ignored the contributions of later arrivals, and was dismissed as either naive or shackled by dogmas for failing to acknowledge the other men and women who eked out a living in cities or were sent to make their way in...


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