Thanks for coming to Saturday night’s Zionist Salon in Newton. Going around that crowded living room – double the number our hosts expected – evoking our favorite Zionists, unleashed nostalgia, pride, idealism and, yes, love, for Zionism, for Israel. As an improvised group of academics and activists – about two-thirds Young Judaea alumni – we ZioNerds enjoyed our Zionist Hootenanny.
We toasted A.D. Gordon’s Labor Zionism despite our comfy-capitalist lives. We decoded the salutes to Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionism as mischievous tweaks to the crowd’s liberal Boston groupthink (one salon-goer outed himself privately as a Trump supporter, well aware that publicly affirming that thought-crime would not have been tolerated). We glowed with pride at mentions of our modern pioneering friends in Kibbutz Ketura, Tel Aviv, and my new neighborhood, Jerusalem. And we shared many of your frustrations with some Israeli policies, while resisting your sweeping self-designation as “jilted Israel-lovers.”
So far my Zionist Ideas Book Tour has tapped into a similar euphoria in Zionist salons nationwide, with old and young, students and activists. Many happily release the fountains of goodwill toward the Jewish state running within most Jewish souls.
For once, the headlines don’t dictate; we stop being so defensive about Israel. And many are signing up at www.zionistideas.com to run their own Zionist salons, seeking that Jew-jitsu: turning negatives into positives, by returning to first principles.
Israel talk usually pivots around the latest controversy, editorial attack, or terrorist threat. Zionist salons are foundational. The Zionist Idea recognizes Jews as a people exercising their collective rights in their homeland to establish a democratic Jewish state. The Zionist Ideas broadens that conversation, indulging possibilities, dreaming about perfecting the state, fusing the best of the West with traditional Jewish visions to find personal fulfillment. Let’s celebrate Israel’s 70th birthday year by spreading these conversations.
Viewing Israel through a pre-1948 lens demonstrates what Israel has done for us. Zionism, like democracy, began in conversation. It emphasizes Jews’ opportunities, what we can become as New Jews with a free democratic Jewish state.
Most people are relieved to talk Israel and Zionism without mentioning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or the Western Wall, the Palestinians or US President Donald Trump. We resurrect Henrietta Szold’s ideal, drawing “spiritual nourishment” from a Jewish “center.”
That’s why your jilted lover status is so jolting. Israel bashers won’t even attend Zionist salons. Most of those ZioNerds’ charming children wouldn’t bother coming; they’re disinterested, not disaffected. And I respect your anguish: I demanded Netanyahu’s resignation in July.
Still, repudiating Israel seems categorical, politically immature. You’re defining Israel by some policies and pols, not its national essence – and mission. Your approach sounds probationary – accepting Israel contingent on “good behavior,” while loving America unconditionally.
Grumbling about what “Israel” says and does “to you” is outsider talk. In America you target “the Republicans” or “Trump” – that’s nuanced insider talk. I get it. You can’t give up on America, you live there. And by watching up close, distinctions emerge easily.
Democracies are too complex to be reduced to their leaders. Besides, how did “Obama’s America” become “Trump’s America” overnight? How did 26% of 2015’s vote make it “Netanyahu’s Israel?” Beware false nostalgia: Zionist dreams have always been lovelier than Israel’s reality. When did Israel’s flaws become irreparable, unforgivable? Disagree away with Israel – countries are imperfect.
Then double down on the Zionist ideas, deploying Zionism as a change agent. But declaring Zionism or Israel a “disappointment”? Then you’ve lost me.
Are you mourning our sovereign Jewish state, three million oppressed Jews rescued, the national revival, the cultural renaissance, the scientific contributions, the proud, powerful, creative New Jew that emerged? You denounced the Israelis for supporting Trump, “even though he leaked Israeli secrets to the Russians, etc.” You’re living that toxic story 24/7. Most Israelis aren’t. They’re just thinking “Jerusalem.”
Condemning others 9,000 km. away, expecting them to know what you know, believe what you believe, and assess your country’s interest not theirs, is narcissistic. I say the same to Israelis who grumble that you – like most American Jewish liberals – are pro-choice, not pro-Israel when voting. Few American Jews are one-issue “Israel” voters; most Israeli Jews are one-issue assessors regarding American presidents.
Rather than overgeneralizing, then rejecting, apply the same nuanced insider’s perspective we use on ourselves – on our communal partners.
Just as you can’t give up on America, we can’t give up on Israel. The philosopher Michael Walzer wants “the state to be as good as it can be, but above all I want it to be.” The novelist Amos Oz’s Zionism isn’t easy, “it’s hard and complicated.” The late journalist Leonard Fein loved Jews for juggling normalcy and idealism, defending the body and uplifting the soul, risking “a collective nervous breakdown.”
The writer Hillel Halkin agrees that national sovereignty risks abuses. But without “the responsibility of sovereignty” we’re “ethically incomplete.” This “Jewish obsession with justice” is “hypocritical,” he fumes, “if you decline the opportunity to express it in a Jewish state of your own.”
Indulge Israel as you indulge America, hating your leader, loving your country, trying to fix what you dislike. Acting like jilted lovers is passive and superior.
In Boston, I had a Catholic Uber driver who married a Jew. She’s trying to give her daughter some Jewish identity. I suggested she follow my new tradition: “Serve ice cream for breakfast this Thursday.
Make Israel’s birthday memorable.”
She loved the idea – we all should. Supplement your Zionist salons with special rituals, celebrating this human miracle unabashedly, like engaged Jews, not jilted lovers.The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, and was just published by The Jewish Publication Society. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy, www.giltroy.com.