Page last updated at 23:57 GMT, Friday, 9 May 2008 00:57 UK

BBC debate: Has Zionism worked?

By Paul Adams
BBC diplomatic correspondent

Clockwise: Zalman Shoval, Bambi Sheleg, Alon Hilu and Paul Adams
The panellists had strong views about Zionism

After a week or so of travelling the length and breadth of Israel, from the tranquil slopes of the Upper Galilee to the rocket shelters of beleaguered Sderot, we gathered three Israelis together, in Tel Aviv, to discuss the past 60 years.

"Has Zionism worked?" was the question we put to the former Knesset member and Ambassador, Zalman Shoval, magazine editor Bambi Sheleg and novelist Alon Hilu.

And to put everyone in the mood, we met in the modest, book-lined study of Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, a couple of blocks from the beach. With his glasses on the table in the corner and the simple, utilitarian house pretty much unchanged, it was as if the grand old man of Israeli politics had just stepped out of the room, leaving us to talk.

Zalman Shoval was the only panellist who actually knew Ben Gurion, taking his Knesset seat when he resigned from politics in 1970. Mr Shoval highlighted what he called "a certain ambivalence" in Ben Gurion's vision of Israel.

Zionism tried to solve the Jewish problem," he said, "but created a very big problem, which is the Palestinian problem
Alon Hilu

"He said: 'On the one hand I want the Jewish state to be a normal state, like all the others.' But he also said, later: 'I want Israel to be a light upon the nations.'"

It's an ambivalence one still encounters today. Bambi Sheleg said this was hardly surprising. Israel, in her view, has only just begun.

"We are a people in a state of recovery," she remarked, referring to the Holocaust, "and it will take centuries."

Alon Hilu - at 35 the youngest of our panellists - said Israelis needed to re-examine their national narrative.

"Zionism tried to solve the Jewish problem," he said, "but created a very big problem, which is the Palestinian problem."

Using power

Having talked to people over the past week about their attitudes to one of Israel's central institutions - the military - I asked our guests whether they felt that Israel, having discovered power after 2,000 years without it, had used it well.

Bambi Sheleg was emphatic.

"If the Jews want to last, they need an army."

Alon Hilu was more critical, suggesting that Israel had simply become too powerful.

"Sometimes if you're too successful, it can be a disaster," he argued. "This is what happened here. Our identity is too much associated with militarism."

They are hostages to Palestinian extremists [who] want Israeli Arabs to be a fifth column inside Israel
Zalman Shoval
Former ambassador

And what of Israel's relationship with its own Arab citizens, now more than 20% of the population? After all, Israel's first President, Chaim Weizman, had written of his certainty that "the world will judge the Jewish state by how it will treat the Arabs".

'Racist' Israelis

Zalman Shoval said Israel had nothing to be ashamed about. Arabs were much better off in the Jewish state than anywhere else in the Middle East. But he sounded a warning.

"They are hostages to Palestinian extremists [who] want Israeli Arabs to be a fifth column inside Israel."

But Alon Hilu, whose historical novel The House of Dajani tells of Jews and Arabs struggling for land and power in late 19th-Century Jaffa, said this was a relationship Jewish Israelis needed to re-examine.

"We were the minority all the time," he said, "and here is the first time we are the majority, with a minority. How do we treat them?

Hilu went further. "Jewish Israelis are racist," he said, arguing that in order to guarantee a workable long term relationship with its Arab minority, Israel should consider abandoning its "Jewish-oriented" flag and national anthem, the Hatikva.

The views expressed during our hour-long debate were passionately held and eloquently delivered. The ghost of Ben Gurion might have been sitting at his desk, listening in.

You can hear Paul Adams in discussion with Zalman Shoval, Bambi Sheleg and Alon Hilu at 1800 GMT on Saturday, 10 May, on the BBC World Service.

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