There is an important conversation that is not happening about Zionism and the American Jewish community. It is a conversation that is as old as the Zionist enterprise itself. One of the central claims of political (as opposed to Messianic) Zionism is that the solution to the “Jewish question” is sovereignty. The Jewish community was a powerless and dependent community during its almost two thousand year sojourn in Exile and it was this powerlessness which left it vulnerable to the predations of the sovereigns of whatever country offered them a temporary home. Equally important was that this political dependence caused a cultural withering and produced a Jewish culture which was perverted by the influence of other more powerful cultures. A true Jewish culture could not take shape until the Jewish community had achieved sovereignty and shook off the chains of both political and cultural dependence. (Shades/foreshadowing of post-colonial theory.)
This argument had great resonance in the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries. The civil and human rights of Jews in every country in the world were fragile, and the Holocaust seemed to be the final, awful expression of this untenable situation. The only way Jews would assume control over their own destiny was “to be a free people in our land.”
From where we are standing now, however, six plus decades after the end of the Shoah and the establishment of the State of Israel, and after the civil rights movement and the ongoing enshrinement of religious and civil liberties in the United States, the discourse of sovereignty does not look the same. There are two ways in which sovereignty (either mamlakhtiyut or ribonut) can be understood. First is the sovereignty of ultimate power. (OED: “The position, rank, or power of a supreme ruler or monarch; royal authority or dominion.”) Translated to the Zionist argument this would be the claim that there is a need for Jewish power, Jewish control of all the levers of government and the judiciary. Only in this way is the future of the Jewish people guaranteed. This understanding of sovereignty demands a Jewish State with a Jewish prime minister, a Jewish legislative body, etc. That is, in some way, (or in every way) the polis must be Jewish.
A different understanding of sovereignty is participation in the governance of the country. (OED: Sovereignty is “the supreme controlling power in communities not under monarchical government; absolute and independent authority.”) This latter form of sovereignty does not require a Jewish supreme ruler, but rather the unfettered equal access of Jews to the levers of power and institutions of government—together with, though not subordinate to, other communities. In other words, what is necessary for this type of sovereignty is a working democracy in which (to quote Abraham Joshua Heschel) “some are guilty but all are responsible.”
This latter understanding of sovereignty should be the understanding of the Jewish community that has decided to reside in the Diaspora. In a democracy, the argument should go, the Jewish community has control over its destiny, not in an autonomous or separatist way, but in necessary collaboration with other communities. It is in this political process of dialogue, disagreement, compromise and collaboration that the country will flourish to the benefit of all the communities therein. This is then a Jewish return to sovereignty with others, in which the sovereignty of others is complementary to Jewish sovereignty. In other words, the existence of the Jewish community within the permeable boundaries of a working democracy.