Center Field: Needed: A think tank for the Zionist bookshelf

We need a new Zionist think tank – not just to fight delegitimization, but to relegitimize Zionism.

MORE ZIONIST books needed. (photo credit: REUTERS)
MORE ZIONIST books needed.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I am tired of attending gripe sessions about Israel-Diaspora tensions without hearing constructive suggestions to build unity.
In We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel, Daniel Gordis analyzes the misfires between increasingly universalistic Isaiahan American Jews and increasingly particularistic Davidian Israelis. Rather than concluding with “Kumbaya” unity calls, Gordis specifies how we learn from one another – about passion, patriotism, pluralism, peoplehood – through our differences.
Jeremy Benstein’s Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes changes the usual dynamic. American Jewish intellectuals love lecturing Israelis about their failings, to civilize Israel. By unlocking Hebrew’s mysteries as a supercharged identity-building tool, Benstein returns the conversation Birthright-style to a focus on how Israel inspires Diaspora Jews. And Jerusalem U’s Noam Weissman is cleverly promoting November as Israel History Month – which should spread in Israel in Hebrew, too.
In that spirit, we need a new Zionist think tank – not just to fight delegitimization, but to relegitimize Zionism. In championing a united Jewish people, developing a common Jewish conversation, we acknowledge that by belonging to this extraordinary network called the Jewish people, you’re never alone.
CONSIDER THIS. In the 1970s, a journalist came to the Middle East furious about the refugee problem. Committed to the pro-civil rights, anti-colonialist narrative, she wanted to show how evil Israel had displaced the innocent, native Palestinians.
She had integrity and followed the facts. She discovered – to her surprise – the overlooked refugee problem involving 850,000 Jews banished from Arab lands. She also learned that many Palestinians had not sat in the same spot forever. Many Arabs were nomads; others were newcomers, requiring only two years of residence in pre-1948 Palestine to secure refugee status. Looking at pesky things like census records, she saw that just as Zionists boosted Palestine’s Jewish population from 1920 to 1930, the Zionist-British economic boom attracted Arabs from all over the Middle East.
The journalist, Joan Peters, was not an academic. Her 1984 book, From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine, suffered from inaccuracies, infelicitous language and mistranslations. But Peters uncovered the essential truth that exposed the Palestinian big lie claiming they all were rooted for centuries until the evil Zionists displaced them.
This truth was too threatening. Pro-Palestinian scholars and journalists dive-bombed in, poking holes in her book. They couldn’t deny the main truth, but they obscured her argument by emphasizing every minor misstep.
How come, in the 35 years since, no one has commissioned an academic with impeccable anthropological and demographic credentials to make the case more authoritatively?
THE WAR over Israel, over Zionism, is ideological. The Jewish world spends too much time whining, not enough time winning. For relatively small sums of money deployed strategically – not building buildings just investing in ideas – we could make a big difference by developing the Zionist bookshelf we need.
My award-winning book Moynihan’s Moment first received more rejections from more publishers than any other project I ever proposed. The executive editor of a leading university press was interested – but her editorial board rejected the proposal because of the subtitle: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism. Her colleagues feared the press looking pro-Zionist.
We need a Zionist think tank supporting authors who want to fill in the Zionist bookshelf – from intellectual coaching and mentoring to helping secure book contracts, to funding for research, to PR assistance for marketing. This ZTT should be proactive, matching authors with subjects worth exploring – like the mythical academic anthropologist who should follow up on Peters’ game-changing insight. And we need a ZTT using these scholarly yet popular books – and the many excellent books we already have – as content pools repackaged digitally, creatively, to develop that common Jewish conversation, with a shared vocabulary, uniting Jews and Israel-supporters worldwide.
Again, learning from my own experience, since releasing The Zionist Ideas, I have organized 170+ Zionist salons mostly on my own, traveling to six countries and 35 cities. I now need an institutional partner to ramp up these Zionist salons – which have welcomed thousands into a conversation about what Jewish peoplehood and Jewish statehood can mean for us, individually and collectively, without always obsessing about Bibi, BDS, and the Palestinians. I also need help translating The Zionist Ideas into Hebrew, producing a youth edition and teachers’ guide in English, and using the book as a platform for podcasts, short video clips, holiday-oriented spin-offs, teacher-training sessions, all kinds of prompts to jump-start this new Zionist conversation I see that people crave – in Israel and globally.
Yet, without an institutional partner, I will do a tenth of what’s possible – like many other colleagues. And, as an academic, I will soon pursue another topic, another book project, because that’s what authors do – we need activists, philanthropists, educators to carry the torch further.
An effective ZTT would also be an ongoing coaching center and rapid response team. For students, teachers, journalists, rabbis and others who keep running into harsh anti-Zionism or apathy about peoplehood, having trained trainers, expert academics and savvy activists working together is essential.
A century ago, most Jews weren’t Zionists. Thirty years ago, most Jews were. Today, we all worry that fewer and fewer young Jews are Zionist – or will be. Ideas are dynamic, movements are in flux. Both rise and fall. Active intervention can help. This is the big Jewish ideological battle of our lifetime – internally and externally. If we fail by fighting, shame on them; if we keep flailing without even fighting effectively, shame on us.

The writer is the author of
The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.