From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

May 10, 2000*: Virtual Zionism?

If the internet had been around in the days of Herzl, would the Zionist movement have developed? I know that there are many too many variables that have to be taken into account in order to actually try and reach some sort of conclusion regarding that question, and I'm sure that many people don't see any point in asking it at all. Still, I find this a fascinating question, precisely because of the predictions and promises that the internet brings us regarding the question of community.

Sometimes hope and fear stride side by side. Many small cultures that throughout the twentieth century continued to cling to their cultural heritage find the onslaught of the internet a particularly threatening blow. Iceland has a serious problem, for example, with Windows. Considering the rather minuscule number of people who use the Icelandic language, preparing an Icelandic interface isn't lucrative for Microsoft, which declared that it wouldn't develop or market such a product. But the people of Iceland know that if they don't compute in their own language, it will fade into oblivion.

On the other hand, many small national units have discovered that the internet offers them opportunities that mass media like newspapers and television don't. Both newspapers and television thrive on advertising, and advertisers go where the readers are. Only if you generate a large enough readership will advertisers take an interest in you, but how are you going to build up that readership if your entire community is only a few thousand people. It's a vicious circle, and the losers are the small communities who, as in the case with Microsoft and Iceland, aren't worth the effort. But the internet offers an opportunity to change all that. The costs involved in maintaining a web site for any small, distinct community are minimal in comparison to what's required to publish a newspaper. Just about any group can (and probably does) maintain a site.

And of course geographic location doesn't have to be a factor. People don't have to live in the same physical community, or even in the same country, to be part of an internet community. Communities that once were dependent on close physical contact can thrive via the internet. Which brings us to Zionism.

Herzl envisioned the Jewish state as a place where the Jews of the world could and would be concentrated. From being spread out throughout the world they were now called upon to create a territorial entity which would permit them to create a unifying culture. Territory was seen as the fundamental element, the necessary pre-condition for generating that process. And of course the Zionist movement undertook that endeavor with a fervor, creating one of the most significant demographic success stories of the twentieth century.

Perhaps the Zionist movement was lucky to have blossomed when it did, because today the pre-condition of territory seems rather unconvincing. The widespread success of internet communities that span the globe suggests that territory isn't necessary in order to generate the feelings of camaraderie, of belonging, that are usually identified with nationhood. And on the other hand, territorial concentration seems to be a very poor means of ensuring that sense of belonging. Within today's Israel it's possible to identify numerous "nations", each of which claims to be a part of the nation (or the legitimate representative of the nation) and at best these groups co-exist side-by-side with only minimal interaction. So perhaps we've entered a new era in which territorial concentration has become passé.

But let's not give too much credit to the internet. The availability of relatively inexpensive airline transportation may well have a greater effect on the retreat from the need for territory than any electronic medium, and the telephone probably influenced this process well before the advent of the internet. What's more, already at the outset of the Zionist movement some visionaries saw the writing on the wall. Moshe Dror, in Judaism: Into the 21st. Century, one of a surprisingly few articles that try to examine how information and communications technologies will influence Judaism raises a number of interesting ideas, but ultimately almost all he writes is very classic Ahad Haam-style cultural Zionism.

The style is, of course different. (And even without the cyber-society jargon, Dror is far from being the elegant stylist that Ahad Haam was.) But the basic ideas, even when couched in info-tech lip-service, are fairly predictable.

There are hundreds of thousands of persons who live in one community , work in another place halfway around the world and have an active cultural and spiritual life in still other sites. This kind of infotech- cyber- telecommuting is going on now and will certainly grow extensively in the next few decades. How might it impact on a new type of Cyber-Zionism.
How  might it? Basically all this means is that people aren't going to be making aliyah, but that it's still possible to include them in the community. Nothing new there. Jews living in the Diaspora probably listen to more "Jewish" music (whatever that may be) than their Israeli counterparts; they watch television program and go to movies devoted to Jewish and Israeli topics, they celebrate on Yom HaAtzmaut. The internet may be able to intensify the sense of belonging that these activities generate, but it certainly doesn't create it. This isn't a case of virtual community, but instead a case of communications technologies expounding on the sense of community that already exists.

So is there any conclusion that can be reached out of all this? Perhaps only that the internet is not only a defining element of our times, but also quite clearly a part of them. It's doubtful that virtual communities could have served as a replacement for territorial Zionism, but they no doubt make a serious contribution to the decline in the sense of need for territory that seems to be rather prevalent today. Maybe there's some sort of lesson here. Maybe face to face interaction isn't always called upon. Fighting wars over the internet may well be, after all, a preferable way of resolving conflicts.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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