When the Egyptian uprising first began, a blog entry I wrote for a New York Times web forum assessing the impact on the Middle East Peace Process landed me a gig on Russia’s English-language TV. The expected duel followed. Two talking heads described the Muslim Brotherhood as benign democrats while maligning Israel as an anti-democratic oppressor. In response, I challenged Egyptians to create a true democracy respecting the rule of law, basic freedoms, and gays, women, Christian Copts – even Jews. The responses denouncing me on the program’s website were scorching, most laced with profanity. One posted an “old Polish proverb”: “The Jew screams in pain as he strikes you.” Another wrote -- ungrammatically: “Oven dodgers its only a matter of time. That you will be put in your place.” I never heard that term “Oven Dodgers” before. But you don’t need a Ph.D. in history to know what it means when an anti-Semite directs it at a Jew after Auschwitz. Having been born in New York to two American-born parents, whose own parents escaped to America from anti-Semitic Russia and Poland a century ago, I never “dodged” any “ovens,” nor did any close blood relative. But despite being born free, I guess I am an Oven Dodger – and proud of it.I am an Oven Dodger because I am a humanist. Just as I feel the pain of Darfurian blacks, Saudi Arabian women, Palestinian gays, Russian free thinkers, I feel the pain of Jews who were and are threatened, be it by mass murderers or by illiterate idiots on the Internet.I am an Oven Dodger because I am a Jew, and as members of one interconnected people, who live our history deeply, daily, we all are survivors of Auschwitz, to some extent, especially because the Nazis wanted to kill us all – every Jew living then and all future generations.And I am an Oven Dodger because I am a Zionist, and the ethos of Jewish nationalism entails remembering our traumatic past, responding proudly to current threats, while working to ensure a better, safer future for us, our children and the world.Franklin Roosevelt said “Judge me by the enemies I make.” I am flattered that these forces of darkness recognize me as an adversary. But I am not just an Oven Dodger – and that is the secret to our collective successes as well as to my happiness as a humanist, a Jew and a Zionist. I won’t let my enemies define me. Life is too rich with possibilities. Their worldview is too perverted by hatred to grant them such a victory.I have learned from my women friends. Just as feminists march to “take back the night,” for a decade now I have been calling for us to Take Back Zionism – which has become the world’s punching bag.I am happy to report that just a few weeks ago the Birthright Israel alumni organization launched its own campaign to Take Back Zionism – and more than 800 alumni participated at a happening in New York (Full Disclosure: I chair Birthright’s International Educational Committee and I consulted on the project, but only after they initiated it and named their campaign). This campaign takes the right approach to Israel, to Zionism, to Jewish Identity, to life. It invites members of the next generation to define Zionism – on “our own terms, as a young generation who loves Israel.”“You have the power to change the conversation about Zionism,” Rebecca Sugar, Executive Director of the Birthright Israel Alumni Community proclaimed at the opening, defining Zionism as “a proud movement that inspired and ignited the passion and energy of our people for the realization of a better world, a better Israel and a better Jewish community.” Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, defined Zionism “very, very simply,” as “Jews taking responsibility for themselves as Jews.” Then, representing Israel to the young Jews assembled, he added: “The State of Israel is there for you. It belongs to you – it belongs to all of us.One of Birthright’s founders, Michael Steinhardt, said that “Being a Jew, being a Zionist, takes pride and knowledge and commitment to the Jewish future, and probably a commitment to Israel as a central aspect of that Jewish future.Since that launch, hundreds of Birthright alumni and dozens of organizations have responded, posting what Zionism means to them on www.takebackzionism.org. Ameinu calls Zionism “an expression of our progressive, liberal values.” Artists 4 Israel says “Zionism is liberationism.” The Green Zionist Alliance says “Zionism is environmentalism.” Jerusalem Online University says “Zionism is connecting yourself to an extraordinary people, a golden homeland, and a timeless tradition.”More personally, one person wrote that Zionism means “the past, the present and the future of the Jewish people.” Another one called it “What defines us and unites us as Jews.” A third wrote simply, “The right to go home."Zionism is Jewish nationalism, understanding that Judaism is not just a religion but that Jews are a people, with a national homeland, Israel. More broadly, Zionism is the Jewish national liberation movement, dedicated toward building Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, in the Jewish homeland, Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel.Asking “What Zionism means to me” opens the conversation to a rainbow of diverse views while encouraging us to take it personally. It learns from Lester B. Pearson, the Canadian Nobel Prize winner who said “Ideas are explosive.” By redefining this idea, we can revive Zionism, recapturing it from its detractors. And we can show that rather than just playing defense, just being “Oven Dodgers,” we are life affirmers, state builders, truth seekers and do-gooders. That is what inspires me as a humanist, a Jew, and a Zionist, despite our enemies -- not to spite our enemies.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. He is the author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.” firstname.lastname@example.org