Tsvi Bisk

Tsvi Bisk – The Optimistic Jew Chapter Three

The Optimistic Jew

I am neither a classical Zionist nor a post-Zionist. I suppose I might call myself a neo-Zionist. I accept the fundamental premise of classical Zionism that Jewish sovereignty over a small area of the earth’s surface is a prerequisite to physical survival and a necessity for Jewish self-esteem and self confidence.






The Optimistic Jew


Reinventing Zionism


I am neither a classical Zionist nor a post-Zionist. I suppose I might call myself a neo-Zionist. I accept the fundamental premise of classical Zionism that Jewish sovereignty over a small area of the earth’s surface is a prerequisite to physical survival and a necessity for Jewish self-esteem and self confidence. In this sense I am an updated version of American Zionism even though I have made Israel my home for the past 40 years. I am always amused when I meet proponents of classical Zionism dwelling in the Diaspora while I, an American Zionist, live in Israel. This curiosity re-enforces a belief that has become axiomatic with me. Modern individuals choose to live where they find the greatest potential for their own self-actualization – whether material, intellectual or spiritual. It is the living individual person and his or her needs and desires that dictates reality, not the abstract principles of some ideology.

From Jewish People to Jewish Person

Classical Zionism dealt with the physical and cultural survival of the Jewish people. Neo- Zionism must concern itself with the Jewish survival of the individual Jewish person. The ideology, policy and strategy of Zionism in the 21st century must be to provide a framework for the optimal self-actualization of the individual Jew. It must deal with the concrete social, economic and psychological reality of the modern, university trained non-orthodox Jew instead of abstract historical and philosophical concepts of “the Jewish people”.

There is no one objectively definable “the Jewish people”. There are, however, many real individual Jewish persons. There is no objectively definable “the Jewish Problem”. There are millions of individual Jewish problems. The preoccupation with the optimal self-actualization of the Jewish person is the precondition for the physical and cultural success of the Jewish people.

Preoccupation with self-sacrifice, literally the sacrifice of the individual self as a precondition for Zionist “idealism” is a prescription for the end of the Zionist Project. This assertion reflects the essential social and Jewish differences between the 19th century and the 21st century. It is a difference that can best be understood by referring to Abraham Maslow’s famous pyramidal hierarchy of human needs:

  • Biological and Physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc.
  • Safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, limits, stability, etc.
  • Belongingness and Love needs – work group, family, affection, relationships, etc.
  • Esteem needs – self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc.
  • Self-Actualization needs – realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

Maslow’s insights enable coherent explanations of various cultural and sociological phenomena. They explain the “generation gap” of the 60’s when the well-off children of depression-bred parents rebelled against their parents’ preoccupation with the lowest two rungs of Maslow’s pyramid and created a culture dedicated to “finding themselves”. They also explain why hundreds of thousands of third world and former Soviet bloc guest workers find Israel such a desirable place to work, live and raise their children while so few North American and European Jews even consider it.

Israel enables the guest workers to satisfy Maslow’s first rung –food, clothing etc. In regards to the second rung – physical safety – Israel is still more physically safe than the countries they come from. It is also often a more desirable country in which to raise and educate their children.

Present day Israel is problematic for most Diaspora Jews – especially those that attempt aliya. Many western immigrants live in an existential dissonance. They made aliya as part of a larger search for self-actualization which entailed a degree of idealization of Israel. Their motive for moving to Israel was the search for Maslow’s highest category. Yet the harsh reality of Israel often forced them to revert to preoccupation with Maslow’s two lowest categories. Hence the dissonance!

This same dissonance is spreading amongst growing numbers of well-educated young Israelis. They are becoming increasingly tired of Israel’s chronic security and economic problems. This phenomenon manifests itself in several ways. It appears to be mostly limited to the non-Orthodox. The self-actualization of Orthodox Jews is inherent in their religious belief. The self-actualization of non-Orthodox Jews is contingent on the economic, educational, social and cultural opportunities provided by the society they live in.

Because of all this it is generally agreed that Zionism is in crisis. The crisis expresses itself in post Zionism in Israel and a steady decline of identification of young Diaspora Jews with Israel. When the modern Jew, Diaspora or Israeli asks: “does classical Zionism resonate with meaning for me and for the challenges I must face?” the answer is most often a resounding NO.

Some Zionists would dismiss the very question as self-indulgent individualism, reflecting decadence, a loss of values and a decline of commitment to Jewish survival. But does decadence cause the question to be asked or is decadence a result of the question not being answered? Can an ideology truly address the problems of a collective unless it is meaningful for the individuals who constitute that collective? The lack of a positive answer constitutes the emotional foundation of post-Zionism.


Historical Background

Zionism developed on the background of 19th century European civilization in response to the unique conditions of 19th century European Jewry. It drew inspiration from the 2,000-year-old desire to return to Zion but was not synonymous with that desire. It was a 19th century political development and is inadequate to the needs of the 21st century for the following reasons.

  • half of Israel’s Jewish population are of non-European origin,
  • two-thirds of the Diaspora lives outside Europe,
  • 20% of Israel’s total population is not Jewish (and not European),
  • we no longer live in the 19th century.

These compelling facts necessitate a far-reaching reinterpretation of Zionist ideology.

19th century Europe was characterized by the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism, liberalism, nationalism and socialism. These developments released forces that made the situation of the Jews increasingly intolerable but also supplied the means by which they could liberate themselves. Opponents of Zionism asserted that a wasteland could not absorb millions of Jews. Zionists responded that using the new industrial means of production the land could be redeemed, converting it from a wasteland into a garden. In this way the modern industrial reality became both a concrete instrument and a propaganda tool of the Zionist enterprise.

The progenitors of Modern Hebrew language and literature (Bialek and Ben-Yehuda) were part of a universal European historical phenomenon called cultural nationalism. When they appeared, many European nations were already modernizing their language and literature, transforming them into useful tools for their modern national aspirations. The Jews had a longer road to take, considering that Hebrew of any sort was not their daily spoken language, but the project itself was not as unique as we suppose.

Every political party within the Zionist Movement – and since 1948 within the State of Israel – has been rooted in the 19th century European political reality. 19th century ‘isms’, such as liberalism and socialism, provided Zionism with the raw material to construct its political culture. Dependence on 19th century “isms” is characteristic of the entire world’s political culture, but the Jews feel its negative consequences more because of their particular character and their greater need to adapt to the 21st century environment in order to endure and flourish.

The environment of 19th century Jewry was characterized by the lack of a state, abysmal poverty and the lack of basic human rights. More than 80% of world Jewry lived under tyrannical or authoritarian regimes and Jewish life was characterized by what socialist Zionism called an abnormal socioeconomic structure, the so-called inverted pyramid. This concept suggested that “normal” nations possess a pyramidal social and economic structure, with most of the population in industrial and agricultural production, a minority in services, and an even smaller minority in intellectual and spiritual endeavors.


The Preoccupation with Normality

The word normal derives from norm, that which is standard. 19th century Jewry was a reverse image of the period’s economic norm. Unlike their Gentile neighbors only a tiny number of Jews were in agriculture; a slightly larger number were in industry and the majority made their living from services and intellectual pursuits. The consequences of this abnormality, according to classical Labor Zionists, were unhealthy social, cultural and psychological characteristics that contributed considerably to anti-Semitism. After all, why shouldn’t presumably normal peoples be troubled by the presence of an abnormal people living in their midst?

One of the main tenets of Labor Zionism was that the Jews had to cure themselves of their abnormality through the catharsis of physical work. The creation of Jewish working and peasant classes became not only a political, economic and social necessity but increasingly became of spiritual, almost religious, value in and of itself. Out of this was born the myth of the halutz or the pioneer. The early pioneers of what are known as the 2nd and 3rd aliyot (immigrant waves) saw themselves as national, social, cultural and spiritual pioneers. This tiny band produced many of the great leaders of the pre-state entity as well as the early leaders of the state. They included David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Berl Katzenelson, Pinhas Sapir and Golda Meir.

During this historical phase, the Zionist project was self-evident: to create a Jewish State which, by guaranteeing the civil rights of the Jews, would release their productive energies and allow the creation of a Jewish working and peasant class. This would solve the problems of abject poverty and the supposedly abnormal socioeconomic and psychological-cultural structure of the Jewish people.

Zionism had tremendous impact on the masses of East European Jewry because its analysis and its program resonated with meaning for their lives as individual Jews living in a particular historical context.


The Paradox of Success

Classical Zionism’s primary purpose was to substitute normality for the abnormality of an exilic existence. It succeeded, and this success is the root of our dilemma. We now have a Jewish State in existence for more than fifty years. This fact alone completely changes the character of Jewish existence, not only for the Jews who reside in the state but also for Jews the world over. It is impossible to understand the psychology, organizational structure and behavior of Diaspora Jewry today other than in the light of Israel’s existence. Statehood, not statelessness, is the dominant Jewish fact and the major operating principle behind any analysis of Diaspora Jewry.

Consequently, pre-state Zionist polemics are meaningless for the everyday concerns of the modern Jew, including the modern Israeli Jew. The fact that the educational content and the organizational structure of much of Zionist life still relies on this outmoded paradigm reflects what is wrong with current Jewish life in Israel, in the Diaspora and in regard to Israel-Diaspora relations.

Classical Zionism claimed that the creation of the state would fundamentally alter the character of Diaspora Jewry. They would be prouder, more independent, more autonomous and more self-confident. This has happened, yet Zionist functionaries have not come to terms with it, because it implies the normalization of Diaspora Jews and contradicts their conviction that Diaspora life is inherently abnormal.

A vacuum has been created. The space filled by a story book version of Zionism, which few take seriously, is one cause of the current superficiality of Jewish life. Zionism’s biggest problem is that it has realized its aims and its self-appointed spokesmen have not formulated an up-to-date message that resonates with meaning for modern Diaspora and Israeli Jewry. Zionism is an example of the principle that nothing fails like success. The state exists and Jews are normal, now what? This situation has given birth to a detrimental phenomenon called post-Zionism.

The axioms of Zionism are being called into question even by people who still identify as Zionists. Do the Jews really require a state of their own to guarantee their civil rights? The vast majority of Diaspora Jews now lives in the Free World and possesses more civil rights as individuals than the citizens of Israel. They have more religious freedom than Israeli Jews, are free from the various impositions of the Orthodox rabbinate and they have the freedom to choose any trend of Judaism without fear of discrimination. No censor limits their freedom of speech and they are unhindered by the need to do military reserve duty.

Is the Jewish State a prerequisite to ending Jewish poverty? The vast majority of 21st century Diaspora Jews are not poor. Diaspora Jews usually have higher per capita incomes than other ethnic groups in their respective communities and also higher than Israel’s.

In addition the inverted pyramid has become the norm for the entire developed world. Since World War II, developed societies around the world have been in a process of inverting the pyramid. In the United States, less than 2% of the work force is in agriculture, less than 15% in manufacture and the rest in services or information technology. What was once considered abnormal has become the standard by which all modern societies judge themselves. In this sense, the social and economic structure of much of the developed world has become Judaized. In retrospect, the inverted pyramid was not an abnormality but actually a precursor to what Alvin Toffler called Third Wave civilization (in his book of the same name).The First Wave referred to agricultural society, the Second Wave to Industrial Society and the Third Wave to the post-industrial Services civilization we live in.


Third Wave Zionism

Zionism’s purpose was to solve the problems of living Jewish persons and enable them to enjoy and realize their human being without sacrificing their Jewish being and to realize their Jewish being without sacrificing their human being. This can be the only justification for the existence of Israel and Zionism, and if Israel does not do this then what is its raison d’etre?

Many young Diaspora and Israeli Jews have grown distant from Israel in recent years because Zionism is a 19th century ideology trying to come to terms with a 21st century reality. Using Alvin Toffler’s metaphor of the three waves I believe that it is a second-wave instrument trying to answer the problems of a people who, as individuals, are at the forefront of creating a third-wave civilization. This outdated model of Zionism finds it difficult to provide solutions for a growing list of modern Jewish problems. Survey what is wrong with modern Israel and in many cases you will find an underlying Zionist position that ceased to be relevant decades ago. Preoccupation with outdated questions of classical Zionism is depriving many Israeli and Diaspora Jews of the historical space needed to actualize themselves as individuals. Zionism aimed at easing the integration of the Jewish people into modern life. This would enable the individual Jew to realize himself or herself as a modern human being without having to sacrifice Jewish identity. This was to be done in a way that would create specifically Jewish frameworks that give Jewish identity an added value to the individual’s ambitions to actualize his or her capacities.

Such an ambition requires a stress on the future. From Herzl to Ben Gurion, Zionism has been preoccupied with the future and not with the past. Ben Gurion’s desire that Israel be a light unto the nations for both moral and practical reasons sprang from his concern for the future of Jewish existence. The moral and the practical were inextricably linked in his mind. He and many of his contemporaries were repelled by Zionists who moralized in the abstract instead of finding practical solutions.


Ideology, Theology and Ideals

Zionism is an ideology not a religion. It is not a belief system, but an intellectual tool for analyzing the situation of the Jewish People. It is also a program for improving that situation. Ideological conclusions pertaining to a given situation at a certain point in history do not necessarily pertain to a different situation at a different point in history. Nothing is more foolish, therefore, than to continue to endorse a certain program because it worked in the past. A course of behavior that worked in a past radically different from the present is almost guaranteed to fail in the future. Ideologies are based on ideals, but ideology and idealism are not synonymous. Some ideals such as brotherhood, equality, justice, freedom and liberty are positive. One may be liberal, socialist, conservative, or religious and embrace various interpretations of these ideals. Honest people embracing radically different ideologies can sustain civilized cooperation with mutual respect when their basic ideals are the same. This constitutes the very foundation of democratic society. But ideals and idealism can be negative. Adolph Hitler, the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Kamikazes and the Red Guards were also idealists.

This is why when, in the context of the current Israeli political debate, we hear the phrase “at least they are idealists,” we should want to know what ideals we are talking about before we become enamored. If the ideals in question reflect explicit or implicit racism, contempt for judicial due process and democratic procedure or equality before the law, we should not be impressed.

When this kind of idealism is framed by a belief system that presumes to know the will of God vis-à-vis current political questions and is thus capable of morally justifying every kind of outrageous behavior, it is time to draw a line and say: we are no longer one. The ultimate product of such “idealism” was Yigal Amir—the murderer of Yitzhak Rabin. Dogmatic loyalty to old ideas, organizations and ways of doing things is not proof of the purity of one’s Zionist credentials. It is proof of stupidity and is guaranteed to bring failure.

Zionism in the 21st Century

Zionism for the 21st century must undertake to accomplish the following:

  • mobilize and direct the energies of the Jewish People into practical and creative activity as intense as the pre- and early-state eras,
  • transform Israel into a society with the highest possible scientific, cultural and social standards,
  • turn Israel into an economic super power with one of the highest per capita standards of living in the world,
  • enlist the abilities of the entire Jewish People to create new frameworks and services geared to answering vital world needs in the 21st century,
  • Israel must become the tool of Jewish civilization not its aim. Jews do not exist for Israel, Israel exists for the Jews. The recent decision by the Israeli government to invest hundreds of millions of dollars dedicated to making Israel the premier world power in water technology is an encouraging sign in the right direction.

Such a national vision, if expanded into other areas, would:

  • excite the imaginations of our young people,
  • provide them with concrete frameworks in which to exercise their idealism,
  • necessitate solving many social problems now plaguing Israel.

Our national visions ought to evolve into national-universal visions with obligations for a national-universal people. Unless we develop a new paradigm of Jewish existence we will fail to develop the instruments necessary for particular Jewish existence in the 21st century. Israel cannot truly become a Jewish center unless it becomes a world center and cannot become a world center unless it becomes a Jewish center. At present Israel is often perceived to be part of the problem not part of the solution. Becoming part of the solution would strengthen Israel’s international position and world Jewry in general.

The small nation-state is becoming an economically irrelevant concept even as ethnic and cultural nationalism increases throughout the world. Economically, Israel is not even a country. Its GNP is equivalent to a medium-sized city in the developed world. The concept of the sovereign nation-state is being supplanted by a profusion of transnational nation-states interacting with one another in a growing complexity of human activity.

Transnational nation-states would be capable of preserving the cultural integrity of ethnic groups or nations while facilitating their economic and political integration into the new transnational reality. Integration into the new transnational reality is becoming essential to the preservation of the national and cultural sovereignty of small peoples. A transnational Zionism is required for the 21st century; a Zionism that reflects the transnational character of the Jewish people and, increasingly, the human race.


From Pioneering Outpost to Global Metropole

A transnational Zionism would recognize that Israel’s population is smaller than greater Boston or greater Philadelphia. It would understand that an entity the size of medium-sized cities and isolated from its immediate geographic surroundings cannot pretend to copy Japan or the United States or even Korea and Taiwan.

I believe that Israel’s models should be Boston and San Francisco. We are in competition with them for the hearts of the modern Jew. They, not, Damascus, Tripoli, or Teheran are Zionism’s greatest survival challenge. This being so, we must transform our self-perception from pioneering outpost to global metropole providing services to the entire world, thus reflecting the aspirations and utilizing the skills of a “world people” (Am Olam as it is called in Jewish tradition).

An estimated quarter million university students reside in greater Boston and generate billions of dollars of economic activity. Boston’s other major economic activities include health services and science-based industries as well as other related services. Boston serves not only Massachusetts and New England but the continental United States and the world. It is not a regional city but a world city, a metropolitan node within the planetary communications and services system.

Israel can become such a metropolitan node. Israel’s multicultural, multilingual human resources enable it to surpass other metropolitan nodes in many areas. The model of Boston should be a light unto the Jews. Modeling itself on Boston turns Israel’s disadvantages into advantages and makes it a more suitable instrument to serve the needs and aspirations of the modern Jew.

When Israel properly understands and exploits modern telecommunications it can become a world-class supplier of educational, engineering, health, legal, financial and other non-tangible services. These services would enable the growth of new science-based industries as well as the absorption of many communications and medical personnel, scientists, lawyers, engineers, and educators – professions the Jewish people prefer.

From Talking Theory to Solving Problems

Could the Boston analogy help us solve many of the problems facing Israel and world Jewry? Let us engage in a mind experiment and see.

Population Increase and Immigrant Absorption

Israel has had trouble absorbing its own native born children, as well as skilled aliya in the rewarding and interesting occupations they desire. By constructing a society, culture and economy based on the inadequate paradigm of the second-wave nation-state, we have created frameworks and policies that are dysfunctional to our national interests.

Transforming Israel into a world metropole serving the needs of the world economy would create a chronic shortage of academically trained personnel and raise the standard of living. The advent of Israel as Silicon Wadi is a sign that Israel has already begun this process. And notwithstanding the periodic crises of the so-called New Economy, it is evident that Israel’s future lies in this direction.

Jewish Work and Foreign Workers

Moralizing about Jewish unwillingness to work has assumed the dimensions of a national sport. This judgment, however, is drawn from an image of work left over from the classical Zionist myth of the inverted pyramid and the need to create a new Jewish class of peasants and proletarians. In truth, Jews have traditionally been allergic to poorly paid, boring work and are not impressed by Tolstoyan ideologues singing the praises of physical work which supposedly raises the spiritual level of the individual. They know that boring, by any other name, is still boring.

On the other hand, those connected with Israel’s knowledge-based economy know that well-paid, interesting employment often produces a work ethic higher than the Japanese or the American. Unfortunately we have inherited a “pioneering” economy unsuitable to the temperament, aspirations and skills of the third-wave Jewish people.

Economic development depends as much on temperament and cultural characteristics as on economic theory. The Japanese succeeded because they built an economy which reflected the relative strengths and the mentality of the Japanese people. We must build a Jewish economy which reflects the relative strengths and mentality of the Jewish People.

Israel-Diaspora Relations

Israel-Diaspora relations have been based on self-righteous Israelis preaching about immigration, or Diaspora Jews giving money to or lobbying on behalf of Israel. The relationship is still primarily based upon Diaspora philanthropy and political activity on behalf of Israel. In recent years both the percentage and the absolute number of people contributing to Israeli causes have dropped. More contributors are looking for different kinds of Jewish causes to support and the real value of the Diaspora’s yearly contribution to Israel has greatly declined. Significant investments in Israel can involve only a small percentage of the community and therefore cannot constitute an alternative model to contributions.

In addition to fundraising and investments, we should be developing a United Jewish Appeal of human resources enabling educators, scientists, engineers, artists, media personnel, and managers to contribute their skills and not only their money. The conditions that would enable us to absorb unlimited immigrants and Israelis would also enable us to exploit the talents and energies of many professional Diaspora Jews in meaningful activity centered on national-universal projects.

The revolution in transportation, telecommunication and information exchange enables us to redesign our concepts of Zionism and Israel-Diaspora relations. Air travel time from New York to Los Angeles is 6 hours and New York to Tel Aviv 10 hours – a difference of only four hours. Moreover modern communications enable instantaneous contact. Thousands of American Jews move from coast to coast every year. Given the proper conditions why couldn’t they also move to Israel?

This model of Israel-Diaspora relations can assist in the fight against assimilation by investing our practical and educational endeavors with new future-oriented content. This will stimulate Jewish ambitions by exciting idealism and satisfying self-interest within Jewish contexts. An Israel that becomes a light unto the nations is capable of doing that.

The Social-Ethnic Gap

Only a third-wave society is capable of erasing the disgrace and danger of Israel’s social gap. Social solidarity is not only an ideal. It is a practical necessity for a healthy society. Israel’s social gap is a greater danger to the success of the Zionist enterprise than the Arab armies.

We require tremendous resources to close this gap. We cannot generate such resources from a second-wave economic base; just as we cannot close the income gap on the basis of what industries in competition with India, Pakistan, and the Philippines can possibly pay.

Those who might boast about Israel’s past success in creating a “real” Jewish working class should note that most of those workers were Oriental Jews who did not want to be workers. They certainly did not want their children to be workers and resented the Ashkenazi ideologues who praised physical work that they themselves would not think of educating their own children to do.

Not only is the existence of a Jewish working class in Israel not part of the solution to the Jewish problem, as early Zionism required, it is now a major part of Israel’s social problem. Conventional industry in competition with cheap-labor countries creates a strong vested interest in keeping educational and social levels low to create cheap pools of labor. This perpetuates the gap.

More than one million Israeli workers earn less than $750 a month. The existence of a Jewish working class in the 21st century has resulted in a Jewish serf class. Knowledge-based enterprises, on the other hand, have a strong vested interest in raising educational and social levels to create a talented labor pool. It is time that Zionism undertook a conscious rejection of the inverted pyramid myth.

Jewish-Arab Relations

The strategy of enlightened Zionism was and must continue to be to integrate peacefully into the region. Our relations with the Arab countries, the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs cannot, however, rely on such empty concepts as trust, goodwill or the brotherhood of all men. They must reflect our own long-term interests rooted in a foundation of power. Power and enlightened self-interest, not holding hands and singing “we shall overcome,” must underlie our relationship with the Arab world and the world at large. Only a third-wave Zionism, based upon the concept of Israel as a world metropole, can provide the requisite power to confront the Arabs as we move into the 21st century.


None of the above is Pollyanna-like fantasy. It is within our capabilities to accomplish all of it. The only question is, do we as a people have the will? As Herzl said: “if you will it, it is not a dream”.


The Optimistic Jew

tsvi bisk

Tsvi Bisk is an American­-Israeli futurist. He is the director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking (www.futurist-thinking.co.il/) and contributing editor for strategic thinking for The Futurist magazine.

He is also the author of The Optimistic Jew: A Positive Vision for the Jewish People in the 21st Century. Tsvi is available as a lecturer or as a scholar in residence as well as for strategic consulting


Tsvi Bisk

The Optimistic Jew

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