Last week, at my latest Zionist Salon, trying to launch a new conversation about Zionist Ideas to celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary – this time in Hebrew at Jerusalem’s Menachem Begin Center – someone asked: “the four of you are talking about Zionism – but where do you see Zionism day-to-day in Israel?”
Indeed, the prose of daily life easily overwhelms us. We can fail to appreciate the poetry of our lives – and, weighed down by the prosaic, stop stretching for the profound. Precisely now, when so many see a growing gap between Israel and the Diaspora, Zionism can reinforce the bridges that already exist – as I proposed last week – and build more. Moreover, when nationalism is treated as a dirty word, and Israel faces elections in April, we cannot allow Zionism to become abandoned by one party – or appropriated by the other.
Two Fridays ago, we were driving south from Jerusalem for a friend’s bar mitzvah – where we would get a kick in our Zionist adrenals by reading the Torah portion “VaYigash,” which includes Jacob praying in Beersheba, in Beersheba. We passed French Square, where every Friday, protesters dressed in black shout, “Die L’Kiboosh – End the Occupation.” Across the street, we saw other protesters – but I couldn’t read their signs.
“What do the signs say,” I asked. One of my kids answered, wisely, “they’re waving Israeli flags, they’re from the Right.”
Shame on that kind of Left! Nothing is stopping critics from dressing in blue-and-white, not black, while waving Israeli flags – just as nothing stopped Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni from patriotically naming their left-leaning party in the last election, the Zionist Union.
That Sunday, I had an off-the-record conversation with some leading Israeli reporters who had recently returned from the United States. My push – for a conversation about identity Zionism among Israelis and American Jews – triggered a fascinating back-and-forth. One journalist said, matter-of-factly and not cynically, “Zionism built the state – we don’t need it now. We need patriotism, not Zionism.”
The other responded: “No, I’m a Zionist in my bones – it’s still relevant.”
That disagreement framed Monday’s Zionist salon perfectly. After I took the moderator’s prerogative to endorse a big-broad Zionist conversation, from Right to Left, religious and secular, about identity Zionism – meaning how being a Jewish nationalist and having a state can bring meaning into our lives today – Natan Sharansky spoke. The former refusenik, Israeli government minister and Jewish Agency chairman, established the conversation in our roots, explaining that from connecting to our past, our tradition, we develop and express our values, our ideals.
Another panelist, Rav Yuval Cherlow of Yeshivat Orot Shaul, offered a pragmatic, agenda-driven, nation-building approach. A respected educator, medical ethicist and leader in the Zohar movement bridging the religious-secular divide, Cherlow identified four unfinished missions modern Zionism should help Israel complete: defining our borders; defining who is a Jew; improving our quality of life and improving our relations with the world.
Surprisingly, the panel’s resident, self-designated, “atheist, feminist and Zionist,” Dr. Einat Wilf, propelled the conversation toward a more transcendental realm.
“We must go from rabbanut to ribbonut,” she said, a play on words propelling us from rabbinic rule to democratic rule. But with such a sweeping rejection of anything mystical, traditional, or religious, embracing the kibbutznik’s secular messianism approach so wholeheartedly, the former MK and thought-provoking author triggered a great conversation about Zionism’s more spiritual dimensions.
Sharansky rooted Israel’s moral mission in the tradition; Wilf claimed Israel was no more moral than any other country – just scrutinized more intensely.
This compelling, respectful debate brought Zionism into three dimensions: the personal identity realm, the communal/political realm and the spiritual/moral realm. Without planning it, our three panelists provided a formula for meaning that all Zionists, in fact, all constructive liberal nationalists, should follow.
We start with Sharansky’s mapping: asking where do each of us locate ourselves personally? Here, the Israel of the day-to-day, while not always hava nagila and blue-and-white flowers, expresses different aspects of the Zionist vision and helps anchor us. You can have a moving bar mitzvah anywhere, but reading the Torah in Jacob’s footsteps provides added value. You can be a social activist about anything, anywhere too, but drawing your programming from our past, our heritage, gives it a broader resonance.
Still, as Hillel taught, if I am only for myself, what am I? Cherlow propelled us outward, encouraging us to build meaningful lives while building effective coalitions that can help perfect the state, and complete the work of our founders. Of course, such work is never done – no state is perfect. Once we complete the missions Cherlow identified other will emerge, but that’s the process of nation-building and person-expanding. Finally, Wilf challenged us, no matter how spiritual or pragmatic we might be, to catapult from building ourselves and our surroundings to figuring out how we order our universe, what story we tell ourselves, what deeper meaning we seek to achieve.
Therein is a modern Zionist model: I am not arrogant to say Zionism is the best way or the only way, it’s my way. And if you find an ideology that helps you explain in 3D – who am I, how can I help, and what it all means – you’re way ahead, which is why, in the most utilitarian and profound ways, I am so grateful to have been born into this heritage, this conversation, this framework, this Zionist identity.Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released
The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American History at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American History.
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