Reclaiming Zionism

by Brian on November 5, 2022

in In the News,Jewish Holidays and Culture,Politics

When our youngest son Aviv moved to New York this summer, I was worried. Not about him finding his way in the big city, but about what he might encounter on campus when it comes to Israel. 

First Zionist Congress

While The New School, where Aviv will be studying music, has not been a hotbed of anti-Zionist controversy, other schools in the city certainly have.

The most shocking stories have come out of the City University of New York, where an antisemitism watchdog reported that more than 150 incidents have taken place on CUNY campuses since 2015.

Perhaps the most egregious was a 2022 letter that declared Israel to be a “settler colonial state” that commits “ethnic cleansing,” “genocide,” and “funds Nazi militia groups.” The letter further called for Jewish groups to “unlearn Zionism” and labeled the Jewish student group Hillel “a known anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, Islamophobic, and anti-Palestinian organization.”

New York is certainly not alone. I just wrote about anti-Zionist activities at UC Berkeley’s School of Law in my last column. 

So, it was particularly timely that the Magazine recently published a special section marking the 125thanniversary of the First Zionist Congress. Ten influential Jewish leaders weighed in on the question of what the future of Zionism should be. 

The entire section should be mandatory reading for American college students – Aviv included. 

Israeli President Isaac Herzog got first crack at cracking down on the detractors who, he writes, are trying “to turn ‘Zionist’ into a dirty word.” Indeed, “Zio” has becomes the latest antisemitic pejorative.

“We have a duty to reclaim Zionism,” Herzog says. Zionism has created “a powerful vehicle for Jewish collective action. It is through Zionism that the Jewish people are making some of their most dramatic contributions to humanity.” 

Herzog is not saying that Jews on their own can’t have an impact – one need only look at the number of Jewish Nobel prize winners around the world – but rather that Zionism allows those achievements to reflect on the Jews as a whole, not specific individuals.

Moreover, Zionism has created a “safe space,” Herzog notes, “where the Jewish people can continue arguing and debating about their big questions, safe from the fears that had always haunted them.” 

Fears like persecution, on the one hand, and “erasure of their distinctive culture on the other.”

Former head of the Jewish Agency, Soviet refusenik and member of Knesset in the 1990s and 2000s Natan Sharansky shares concern for the second part of Herzog’s equation.

“There are only two factors that can slow down assimilation,” Sharansky writes. “Tradition and Zionism. If you don’t have any connection, neither to tradition nor to Israel, your grandchildren will probably not be Jewish.”

Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2009 to 2013, recalls how, at the height of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014, he was called to an emergency meeting with a major U.S. donor to Israeli causes. The donor wanted Oren to come up with a substitute for the word “Zionist,” one that “was less provocative and toxic.”

Oren “disagreed, forcibly.” Zionism, he argued, “had produced one of the most dynamic, creative, powerful, and unerringly democratic nations in the world – the only “ism” of the 20th century to succeed and succeed massively. All that we would forget just because some American students were labeling Zionism racist?”

Zionism by any other name “would still mean all of this,” Oren writes, “and Zionism by any other name would still be condemned by those who hate Israel.” 

By disavowing the nation-state of the Jewish people, home to the world’s largest Jewish community, “the anti-Zionist Jew is opting out of our nation, a fugitive from sovereign responsibility, a refugee from Jewish history, a footnote,” Oren concludes.

It was Gol Kalev, author of the book Judaism 3.0, who really drove it home for me.

“We are in the midst of a historic transformation of Judaism,” Kalev writes. “Zionism is becoming the organizing principle of the Jewish nation-religion. It is the primary conduit through which both Jews and non-Jews relate to Judaism, whether positively or negatively.” (Which would explain the international obsession with the run up to this week’s elections in Israel.)

Kalev divides Jewish history into three eras: Judaism 1.0 covered the days of the First Temple and a Jewish physical presence in the land. Judaism 2.0 came during our 2,000 years of exile and the development of Rabbinic Judaism. 

For Judaism 3.0, Zionism is “the one aspect of Judaism that cannot be ignored,” Kalev writes. “It evokes emotions, passions, anger, pride and engagement.”

Kalev proposes that more Jews embracing Zionism could take the wind out of the Israel denigrators’ sails. 

“Israel-bashing is by now too entrenched in mainstream society to be countered through rational argument,” Kalev posits. But “once there is a broad recognition that Judaism has transformed to Zionism, Israel-bashing becomes Jew-bashing [and] while being anti-Zionist is a rite of passage in certain circles, being anti-Jewish is a career-ending taboo.” (Witness the slow but steady fall of Kanye West.)

Kalev’s analysis resonates with my own Jewish journey. If I’m being honest, I’d say I made aliyah for the kosher food. That is, my family and I moved to Israel for religious reasons. But as my observance waned, I discovered myself without the religious anchor I had held onto for some 20 years. To my surprise, something else had taken its place: Zionism. 

That said, I’ve been guilty of not embracing my Zionism with the enthusiasm I’m espousing here. When I interview someone in the U.S. for an article and they find out I live in Israel, I’ll usually be asked, “So why did you move there?” 

I’ll typically hem and haw a bit before responding, “This is a historical moment and I wanted to be part of it, to make Israel – which certainly has its share of problems – the kind of place in which we can all be satisfied.” 

That’s a kind of subtle Israel-bashing, too, I realize now. 

Going forward, there’s only one response to that question, one that I’d recommend to Aviv, too.

Because I’m a Zionist and proud of it.

I first wrote about reclaiming Zionism for The Jerusalem Post.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: