JWR Israel: Dreams, Realities
May 1, 1998 / 5 Iyar, 5758

Sunshine Zionism, R.I.P.

By David Bernstein

LISTENING TO THE VARIOUS speakers at the launch of Israel Kipen's Achad Ha'am: The Zionism of the Future, I couldn't help but thinking, more than a little wistfully of Figgy Gillon.

Some readers may remember Figgy as Philip Gillon, author of an astringent TV column in the pre-Conrad Black Jerusalem Post, which he used to great effect, to rail against what he saw as the erosion and debasement of an Israel he loved with a passion.

One of the first graduates of South African Habonim to make aliyah in the early years of the State, it was Figgy who coined the term "Sunshine Zionism." He saw Israel, first and foremost, as a marvelous adventure, a kind of never-ending Habo camp. A place where Jews and Arabs, prophets and socialists, ideologues and cynics, atheists and rabbis, saints and scoundrels could all live, build and be built, worship and blaspheme , eat glatt kosher and glatt treif --- and, above all, have fun.

It was sunshine Zionism, too, that drove many of us who arrived in Israel from countries like South Africa and Australia well into the 1960s, and perhaps beyond. Of course, we could always spout some high-minded ideological justification, whether the pull of Chalutzic (Diaspora) aliya, or the push of getting out of an Apartheid-ridden South Africa, or a combination of both; and it was never too difficult to drop the occasional name of some secular prophet or icon: A.D. Gordon, Berl Katznelson, or even Asher Ginzburg (aka Achad Ha'am). But in the final analysis, what brought us to Israel and what kept us there for as long as we could successfully sustain the illusion, was the fact that life in the Jewish State was for us, as it was for Figgy, fun.

Those of us who arrived in the early 60s were privileged to catch what, sadly, turned out to be the twilight years of Sunshine Zionism. It was soon to be shrouded, following the Six Day War, by growing clouds of military triumphalism, nationalist jingoism and, ultimately, religious messianism.

The progressive decline of the secular socialist Zionists who had built the State -- they were not exactly Sunshine Zionists themselves, but were, we felt, kindred souls, sort of Honorary Sunshine Zionists -- and the parallel hijacking of the socio-political agenda by national jingoists and religious messianists, made Israel, for many of us, an increasingly less attractive place to live.

Even the kibbutz, once the initial magnet and playground for many Sunshine Zionists, fell victim to the new post-67 Israel. It began to lose much of its allure as economic rationalism proceeded to corrode the economically irrational -- but marvelously enticing -- fabric of what had been undoubtedly the world's most fun socialist experiment. Credit cards, private cars, hired labor, differential salaries ... might as well stay in Anytown.

There is, of course, a new generation of Zionists making aliyah today who I have little doubt get the very same buzz out of the New Israel as we did out of the old. Bright, young entrepreneurs who are having an absolute ball wheeling and dealing in a buoyant, thriving economy freed from all socialist constraints that had fettered Old Israel. And driven young Israeli Zionists who are getting no less a buzz out of the awesome historical religious challenge of redeeming what they see as their G-d given birthright in post 1967 Greater Israel. But Sunshine Zionists they're not.

I had been involved in editing Mr. Kipen's book, and was impressed not just by Achad Ha'am's clarity of thought and perspicacity, but the author's obvious erudition and commitment.

Yet, I could not help feeling, despite the optimistic title of his book, Israel Kipen and his generation -- the products of the same pre-Holocaust world of literacy, intellect and knowledge that produced Achad Ha'am -- have been passed by by history. Much as Figgy Gillon and we Sunshine Zionists have.

The fundamental questions asked by Achad Ha'am are, it is true, still being asked by many Zionist thinkers concerned about the future of Israel and its relationship with the Diaspora; but they are being asked in a political and intellectual context vastly different from that which existed in pre-Israel, pre-Holocaust Europe.

I don't really know how the dynamic, hedonistic Tel Aviv and G-d-driven religious zealots of Kiryat Arba and Elon Moreh are going to resolve their own differences and leave their imprint on New Israel as it approaches the 21st Century.

But I very much doubt that whatever emerges -- a Jewish LA or a Jewish Teheran -- or some impossible hybrid of both -- will remotely resemble either Achad Ha'am's Spiritual Center for the Jewish People, or Figgy Gillon's Never-Ending Habo Camp for Sunshine Zionists.

And more's the pity.

New JWR contributor David Bernstein is associate editor of the Australian Jewish News.
©1998, Australian Jewish News