A little despair is indispensable to the formation of a great undertaking [weil man zu grossen Unternehmungen ein bischen Verzweiflung in sich haben muss.]--Herzl (1896) The Jewish State.
It is a common trope among friends, and even some enemies, of Zionism that the illiberal features of Israel's political order are either a consequence of post-1967 occupation of a hostile population or, more fundamentally, the failure of Zionists to find an empty land without natives to displace. Both are connected to the first two of Zionism's three enduring strategic failures (recall here and here), that is, (i) its failure to establish permanent borders for the state of Israel; (ii) to settle what kind of political entity Israel should be (so that it can end its near-permanent war-footing and occupation of hostile populations); (iii) (the perception of) Israel's dependence on America's political, military , and cultural support, which ties Israel to America's strategic interests and electoral politics. I have already noted that Herzl is non-committal on the exact location (Palestine or Argentine), but more important, perhaps, is his decision that, at least during the transformative phase of the Zionist project, Herzl opts for the idea the people is the formal foundation, while land is the material foundation [roughly translating: Das Volk ist die persönliche, das Land die dingliche Grundlage des Staates] and -- with a nod to Papal authority -- the formal is more important.
Even so, the common tropes imply, and it is a thought one also finds on the secular side of Zionism and her friends, that if Israel could only get its politics toward the Palestinians and its borders and its attitude toward religion aright then it would fall in line with normal Liberal values. (This recurs in the debate over the "Jewish Character" of Israel.) I am not the first to demur from this consensus not because there is an incompatibility between the Jewish (enshrined in the Law of Return) and Liberal elements of the state, but rather on the grounds that Zionism is the product of and a systemic response to (a persistent) Liberal failure. I identify (recall) two features of that failure: first, liberal states have not secured free movement of people(s) (immigration and emigration); increasingly even recognized refugees are treated worse than prisoners. Second, there are ongoing pressures within liberal democracies that generate enduring threats to the survival and dignity of minority groups; some of these pressures are a consequence of democracy and the intolerance or prejudices of electoral majorities. I had thought that the pressures consequent democracy can be greatly mitigated by the rule of law, constitutional rights, and education (etc.), despite the tragic conflicts within liberalism pitting, say, impartiality and pluralism against each other. Herzl's writings contain a more radical version of this second feature.
Herzl's critique of Liberalism is, in part, more thoroughgoing than my interpretation of the nature of Zionism because he thinks that the causes of modern (nineteenth century) anti-semitism are the unintentional by-product of the proper functioning of paradigmatic, Liberal institutions and norms (political empancipation, impartial rule of law, market freedom, etc.) On his view the "emancipation of the Jews" generated economic conflict with "with the [non-Jewish] middle classes." This non-Jewish middle class was (and is) the pillar of stability and political order, and would have expected to benefit from the post-1848 Liberal order. This middle class resents the rise of the Jews. It is important for Herzl's analysis that this class embraces modernity and that its anti-semitism is not merely the product of un-Enlightened thought. (No doubt he was thinking, in part, of the Dreyfus affaire.) But because of the proper functioning of the (Liberal) rule of law, the Jews became un-touchable, legally and politically, and this turns resentment and loathing in something worse (with the violence of the mob a permanent feature).*
The key insight here can be stated abstractly as follows: market economies generate permanent competition, and the pattern of outcomes of this competition can generate group conflicts among populations that are not homogenous for historical reasons. In particular, Herzl suggests that this becomes problematic when the group that expects to benefit from the Liberal state is frustrated in its reasonable, and thus 'just', expectations. (This distinguishes Herzl from more standard class conflict accounts.) It's this frustrated expectation of the would-be-benificiary of the political status quo that generates the enduring problems within Liberalism and that grows toxic if it can be mapped onto some us/them distinction that allows some us to be the authentic people -- even a moral community -- that excludes would be (inauthentic) members of the people.** Let's call that the 'enduring Jewish problem,' which need not involve Jews at all, or if Jews are involved they need not be them. (See also my recent reflections on meritocracy.) Herzl's position entails that reforming Liberal instutions in order to become more Liberal and Enlightened will not solve the enduring Jewish problem, but will only make it worse. For Herzl this is not a desirable outcome (note his despair), but it requires a political (and economic) response.
Even if one does not shares Herzl's pessimism about the possibility of tackling anti-semitism within Liberal polities (and we need to remind ourselves that the twentieth century was far worse than his pessimistic imagination), the general character of the (enduring Jewish) problem may well be endemic to Liberalism (that is not merely resolved by a cosmopolitan world government). Even if one is unwilling to grant that much, what I hoped to have made clear is that both conceptually and historically Zionism is at odds with the Liberal project. (This is, for example, obscured in the hands of say, Isaiah Berlin, who tends to treat Zionism as analogous to the nationalistic, Liberal projects of the nineteenth century.) Given that Zionism arises out of a fundamental critique of the conceptual commitments of and the historical trajectory of successful Liberalism (leaving aside Herzl's Corporatism, various socialist projects, the messianic strains, etc.), it is unsurprising that there are serious tensions between the Zionist and Liberal elements in the Israeli political order.***
*Herzl suggests that even skilled political leadership and statesmanship is incapable of preventing this dynamic (he mentions Bismarck). Interestingly enough, Herzl also thinks the Liberal state is robust enought not to be hijacked for illiberal ends--here he turns out to be more optimistic than subsequent history.
** I am reflecting here also insights of recent work on contemporary populism by Jan-Werner Mueller and my own colleague Sarah de Lange.
***I thank my undergraduate students in my class on Political Utopianism for their many perceptive comments on Herzl's pamphlet.