Reclaiming Zionism

American Jews often prefer to use the term 'pro-Israel' over 'Zionist,' but most do not realize that rejecting Zionism means rejecting Jewish nationalism.

zionists (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
zionists
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Two weeks ago, I started a new job as the New York Regional Director for the World Zionist Organization's Department of Diaspora Activities. Three weeks ago, I was terrified. As a liberal thinker, a secular Jew, and a waffling Israel-lover, my connection to Zionism is constantly in flux. The job description entails designing and leading Zionist education seminars for campuses in the New York area, and I was not sure that I could put my personal doubts about Israel aside in order to best educate students. Defending Israel is exhausting, and I’m not sure I’m up for the challenge.
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It only took me three days on the job to completely reexamine my preconceptions about Zionism. I had forgotten that Zionist ideology, at its most purified essence, simply means believing in the Jewish right to a nationalist identity. I certainly believe in that! In fact, upon further reflection, I am not sure how I would relate to my Jewish identity if nationalism were not a given.
I realize now the urgent need to disentangle the two often conflated, yet fundamentally different, terms of “Zionism” and “pro-Israel.” Zionism is the belief in the Jewish national movement, and pro-Israel is the support of current Israeli government and policy. As I understand current discussions about Israel, people often staunchly hold on to the “I’m pro-Israel” title, and yet shy away from identifying as a Zionist.
Until a week ago, I too misused these titles. I got angry when JStreet did not put “pro-Israel” in their logo, and understood when my campus advocacy group dismissed the label of Zionism in their mission statement. Yet I now realize that I meant to argue exactly the opposite: I accept varying “pro-Israel” or “anti-Israel” stances, yet I maintain steadfast loyalty to Zionist ideology. Only in this framework am I allowed to honor my naturally conflicted and critical reactions to particular Israeli actions, while still upholding my commitment to the Israeli project.
Rejecting Zionism means rejecting the history, heritage, and tradition that defines Jewish peoplehood and that fueled the establishment of the State of Israel. Instead we must reclaim, redeem, and reinvigorate Zionism, allowing its original intentions to flourish in the bounds of the progress we’ve already made.
The Zionist project did not become irrelevant in 1948 – it became all the more crucial to hold fast to the ideology upon its tangible fruition. We have a state; let us now not turn away from the ideology that gave us this miracle, but instead, rise to its call for action. We are impelled to exit the cognitive space of ideology and start implementing the dream itself.
I understand why one might not support the Zionist movement any longer. I empathize with the growing alienation between Israeli and American Jewry due to Israeli policy and Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians. I acknowledge that modern Jewish youth are retreating from religious identity and are therefore further alienated from Israel. I see how the Zionist project no longer answers the Jewish power vacuum that once produced a need for homecoming.
Yet instead of allowing these challenges to Zionism to topple the need for Jewish nationalism, I hope to incorporate these realities into a more relevant, nuanced, and productive Zionist commitment. Remembering the intentions of the original Zionist movement at all times - embodied by my new employers - will serve to inspire me. Only through remembering what the Zionists thought Israel could be – a safe haven, a utopia, and a Jewish state – can I imagine engaging the state's current reality.
School is back in session this week and I will be ready. Educating about Zionism, in fact, does not entail defending Israel. Instead, Zionist education means reminding students about Israel’s limitless potential and its raison d'etre. 

The writer is the New York Regional Director for the World Zionist Organization - Department for Diaspora Activities. She is also the Israel Experience Coordinator for Masa Israel Journey. She has just returned to New York after living in Tel Aviv and writing for TasteTLV.com.