A new Zionism for the 21st century

We are for a Zionism that sees the importance of mutual exposure.

By IRIS BERMAN, HYATT ARONOFF, YAHEL HALEVI, RONI ZAK, AYELET KALFUS
June 3, 2019 22:00
4 minute read.
A PORTRAIT of Theodor Herzl.

A PORTRAIT of Theodor Herzl.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Since its inception, Zionism has been an explosive notion, ignited by 2,000 years of yearning for our homeland. At this moment in time, we are lucky enough to have reclaimed the land for more than seven decades, causing the once-romantic idea of Zionism to fizzle into a staler version of itself, an anemic derivative of what it once was.
 
Israeli Jews today are typically more nationalist than Zionist, taking pride in their distinct Israeli identity and the land their people have cultivated. All too often, their main perception of American Jews is shaped by the map-holding tourists swarming about whose endless questions and thick accents make the harried Israelis late for work. Can we blame Israelis for distancing themselves from their American cousins? 
 
At the same time, across the Atlantic, the most prominent form American Zionism takes is the defensive argument, becoming a somewhat burdensome demand for young American Jews to protect their “homeland” from liberal-minded peers, colleagues and professors. The traditional longing for Israel has been rerouted into defending the land of hi-tech and cherry tomatoes against the blights of the BDS Boycott movement and other anti-Israel forces. The majority of these American Jews never experience a deep connection to the Israeli people themselves: is it so surprising that increasing numbers of Jewish American youth no longer identify as Zionists?
 
We are long overdue for a redefinition of Zionism. From its start, Zionism was aspirational. If Zionism was originally born out of a deep yearning for the land, a dream that consumed our prayers, we should embrace the same kind of aspiration today. Modern Zionism should be the yearning for a strong sense of peoplehood among the Jewish nation, rooted in the centrality of Eretz Israel.
We are for a Zionism that perfects community into an art form, blending ancient and modern identities. A Zionism that transcends continents. 


We are for a Zionism that sees Jewish unity as the defining theme of Jewish history. A Zionism where the Talmud’s emphasis on machloket, argument, teaches us to engage when we disagree, rather than rejecting one another. A Zionism where we remember that we wish for the return of the ten lost tribes, where we still feel their absence.
 
We are for a Zionism of inexplicable solidarity after passing a man wearing a bright blue kippah on a hiking trip in Peru. A Zionism of pure Jewish geography. A Zionism where that man is your cousin’s childhood best friend. Or a Zionism where you feel that he must be.
 
We are for a Zionism that focuses on what unites us, rather than what divides us. A Zionism that takes pride in the values we share rather than bickers over designated areas at the Western Wall. Where we understand that peace with our neighbors will only come once we learn to maintain peace among ourselves.
 
We are for a Zionism that recognizes Israel as the home promised to our ancestors. A Zionism where Israel is the birthplace of Jewish tradition; where we recognize that the physical land of Israel allows us to link our past and future to the present moment.
We are for a Zionism that emphasizes education as the most important tool for cultural connection. Where American Jewish day schools bring our common historic language to life, rather than merely kidnapping Israeli women in hopes that their nationality will compensate for a weak Hebrew curriculum. And where the Israeli school system follows suit, teaching about the breadth and diversity of religious practice across the Diaspora. A Zionism where graduates of Jewish high schools feel excited to develop transatlantic relationships. 
WE ARE for a Zionism where Israelis are curators of Jewish culture because only in a Jewish state can Judaism escape the walls of the synagogue and transform the very air that we breathe. Where contemporary Israeli performance artists create installations centered around the idea of genizah, the burial of holy Jewish books. Where Purim spills onto the streets in a vibrant, intergenerational dance. 
 
We are for a Zionism that is constantly in motion and in the process of translation. Where a girl in Connecticut can read Yehuda Amichai’s poetry, and a college student in Chicago can watch debates between Knesset members. Where a shomer negiah boy from Shoham – who doesn’t touch women until marriage – can laugh at Seinfeld, and an Israeli soldier can stream Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song about famous American Jews while sitting in a cafe in Tel Aviv.
 
We are for a Zionism that sees the importance of mutual exposure. Where Israeli youth can pile onto crowded coach buses and tour America on a Diaspora-equivalent of Birthright. Where Israelis see firsthand that Judaism outside of Israel is not limited to concentration camps.
 
We are for a Zionism that believes that criticism and self-reflection can strengthen both of our communities. Where American Jews can vent about Bibi Netanyahu’s relationship with Donald Trump, and Israelis can explain why Barack Obama posed an existential threat to Israel’s security. Where we can challenge each other over a cup of sahlab.
 
Zionism has never been about breezy or simplistic goals, and we believe in a Zionism that remains complicated and ambitious. We refuse to be satisfied with the status quo; our Zionism represents so much more than being caught up in practicalities. The most crucial element of Zionism, we continue to believe, is its aspirational foundation. Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, famously said at Israel’s 20th anniversary in 1968, that the state was “a beginning only.” We are for a Zionism where 71 years is still the beginning: a self-perpetuating Zionism, for there is always more to be done.

All five writers of this Zionist manifesto are recent high school graduates who just completed the Hevruta Gap-Year Program. This pluralistic nine-month program run by the Shalom Hartman Institute includes both North American and Israeli students who spend nine months living and learning together in Jerusalem.


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