Che Herzl Reconsidered


Wanna “Che Herzl” T-shirt? Just surf your way over to Jewlicious and you’ll find it along with all kinds of other swag designed especially for those aspiring to be the coolest of the cool Jews.

Yep, I did a double take when I saw this one.  I know there all too many leftists who are appalled at the sight of Che Guervara turned into a pop T-Shirt icon, but what on earth are we supposed to make of Che Herzl?

Beyond Jewlicious’ shallow hipster-frumster chic, this image raises some interesting assumptions about the very meaning of Zionism itself.  Indeed, there are many who fancy Zionism as the “national liberation movement of the Jewish people.”  This concept was made especially famous by Chaim Herzog during his remarks in response to the UN’s “Zionism is Racism” resolution in 1975:

Zionism is the name of the national movement of the Jewish people and is the modern expression of the ancient Jewish heritage. The Zionist ideal, as set out in the Bible, has been, and is, an integral part of the Jewish religion. Zionism is to the Jewish people what the liberation movements of Africa and Asia have been to their own people.

While I understand the substance of Herzog’s argument, I have to confess that this particular defense of the Zionist enterprise has always rung a little hollow for me. First of all, I’m not sure it’s all that accurate to describe Zionism as a national liberation movement –  certainly not as we’ve come to understand this concept post WW II.

While its hard for us to admit, Zionism is the product of ideologies  (i.e. 19th century European ethno-nationalism) that have fallen pretty far out of favor today. That’s why it feels like Herzog’s comparison of Zionism to the liberation movements of Africa and Asia is more than a little spurious.  After all, those movements were uprisings of indigenous peoples against centuries of colonial oppression. By contrast, Zionism sought to create an ethnic Jewish presence in Palestine and ended up doing so at the expense of its current inhabitants.

Not surprisingly, Che himself considered Zionism “reactionary” (according to biographer Jon Lee Anderson). I know he’d be rolling in his unmarked grave if he knew that his face adorned the shirts of clueless American teenagers; I can only imagine the cartwheels he’d be doing upon learning that his image had now become fused with Theodor Herzl’s.

Anyhow, I’m not sure that reconceiving Zionism as a proto-national liberation movement is even all that compelling any more. Now that we’ve witnessed the post-modern travails of decolonized nations, we’re learning that  “national liberation”  might not necessarily be all that it’s cracked up to be. I’m not sure I have any good answers (certainly not one that would fit on a T-Shirt); I suppose I’m just suggesting  it’s worth challenging the romanticizing of nationalism in all its various guises. 

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