‘LET’S DEBATE the meaning of the Zionist Idea today – in Israel and the Diaspora, then compare notes. It’s no longer about establishing the state; it should be about more than defending the state; it must be about perfecting the state.’.
As Passover ends, Israel plunges into the “Yom Has”: Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day; Yom Hazikaron – Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars; and Yom Ha’atzmaut – Independence Day. By reliving defining narratives, these historical holidays help the nation “synchronize sentiments,” to use Prof. Barry Schwartz’s apt phrase. Together, we re-enact the redemptive Zionist drama from Shoah to T’kumah, from the Holocaust’s horrors to the joys of Israel’s establishment. The historical experiences of being slaughtered for being powerless, then founding Israel – followed by repeated sacrifices to preserve the state – remain immediate, vivid, emotionally raw.
If too many American Jews fear celebrating Israel’s triumphs, as I argued last week, too many Israelis go to one of two extremes. Leftist radicals forget our history; rightwing radicals are handcuffed by it. Historical memory is anchoring but can be paralyzing.
Those who don’t know their history cannot grow; those who only know their history, haven’t grown.
Remembering history properly requires a grand strategy and effective tactics. Conceptually, we often face the “Love Story” challenge, echoing that classic movie’s title song: “Where do I begin?” We cannot begin every history of Zionism with Abraham and the Bible; we cannot begin every history of Israel with Arab enmity and the 1948 war – yet we must.
In a recent panel discussion about Liberal Zionism in New York (which, unfortunately, was misreported, including in this newspaper, due to a distorted version that began on an anti-Zionist website), Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove explained how to refute the libel that Israel practices the ugly race-based practice of apartheid. Cosgrove started by saying “Israel is a nation whose Arab neighbors have never acknowledged Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.” Cosgrove’s instinct – to begin at the beginning – acknowledged that the historian’s favorite “text” is context.
Before explaining that the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is national, not racial, before explaining that apartheid is a system of legalistic racial hierarchies yet Israel has never differentiated based on skin color, and before explaining that the Apartheid Big Lie is a manipulative attempt to South Africanize and Nazify Israel, this historically-minded rabbi began with the big picture. To understand the obsessive hostility against Israel and Israel’s necessary defensive moves, one has to realize that despite the amazing sense of security one feels in Israel, despite Israelis’ general happiness because they lead meaningful lives, Israel has never formally known a day of peace: most Arab countries, and much of the Palestinian national movement, regularly call for Israel’s delegitimization – and extermination.
At the same time, history is complex. It must be taught as a multi-dimensional phenomenon not as a simplistic good guys versus bad guys tale. Most Diaspora Jewish day schools fail to teach Zionist and Israeli history or teach it in an embarrassingly primitive, propagandistic way. As a result, many graduates of our finest Jewish high schools arrive on university campuses, discover one flaw about Israel and abandon it, convinced their teachers and parents deceived them.
Truth, in all its messiness, is our friend. Israel hasn’t been perfect – but what country has (and what kind of criterion is that for loyalty to your people)? Fortunately, beyond mere loyalty, our cause is just. We have been more right than wrong – and far more righteous and democratic than our enemies.
An ideological challenge looms beyond the historical one. Building toward Israel’s seventieth “platinum” anniversary in May 2018, Zionist salons should convene around the world. My next book, The Zionist Ideas: An Update of Arthur Hertzberg’s Classic Reader, to be published by the Jewish Publication Society next spring, will provide texts suited for such debates. I am inviting friends, fellow Young Judaea alumni, fellow Zionist Youth Movement alumni, fellow Zionists, to host parties in their homes reading – and arguing about – different Zionist texts: from the pioneering founders through the builders’ generation to today’s torchbearers.
Let’s debate the meaning of the Zionist Idea today – in Israel and the Diaspora, then compare notes. It’s no longer about establishing the state; it should be about more than defending the state; it must be about perfecting the state.
And it’s no longer about just saving Jews; it should be about more than saving Judaism. It must be about learning how to lead meaningful Jewish lives.
While teaching a more complex, resilient narrative, while debating Zionism’s meaning today, let’s also celebrate Israel’s history by teaching key moments in accessible ways. In 1976, building up to July 4, “Bicentennial Minutes,” 60-second snippets on CBS, used celebrities to retell the story of the American Revolution. These moments lifted Americans up when many were feeling down. More recently, the CRB (Charles R. Bronfman) Foundation broadcast re-enactments of Canadian heritage moments – sometimes as television commercials, sometimes as trailers before movies.
Rather than just complaining about how kids don’t know Israel’s history today and won’t defend it, visionary leaders in a generous foundation should make short, punchy, Internet-friendly, multi-lingual “Plattinum Moments” – celebrating Israel’s platinum anniversary – reminding us, as Chaim Weizmann noted in 1947, that “The State will not be given to the Jewish people on a silver platter.”
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