When Zionism imagined Jewish nationalism without supremacy

David Ben Gurion seen in the Knesset, February 11, 1961. (Fritz Cohen/GPO)
David Ben Gurion seen in the Knesset, February 11, 1961. (photo: Fritz Cohen / GPO)
Historian Dr. Dmitry Shumsky shows that, contrary to popular belief, the forefathers of Zionism did not envision a state based on Jewish supremacy.

By Meron Rapoport  |  +972 Magazine  |  Jul 21, 2019

…the Zionist leaders envisioned the Jewish state as a multi-national one, or even as an entity within a larger framework, similar to the federalist structure in the United States.

No one was surprised when the authors of the Jewish Nation-State Law decided to write, in its opening clauses, that “The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people,” and “the right to national self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” After all, this is precisely what every young Israeli is taught in school, whether they are Jewish or Arab. Israel, so it goes, is the “nation-state” of the Jewish people, and establishing a Jewish state was the goal of the Zionist movement since its inception.

Even those opposed to the Jewish Nation-State Law did not disagree with this line of thinking. There were those who argued that the law needs to include the principle of equality, as mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, as that would be “the real Zionist” thing to do. There were others who claimed that the law only proves that Zionism was and remains a racist movement. But neither group questioned the idea that a Jewish nation-state lies at the core of Zionism. Those who suggested Israel become a state of all its citizens, or, God forbid, a bi-national state, were perceived as traitors undermining Israel and the Zionist project.

In his book, Beyond the Nation-State, published last year by Yale University Press, Dr. Dmitry Shumsky, a historian of the Zionist movement at the Hebrew University, attempts to prove that this perception is historically incorrect.

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