Rather than just lament and often exaggerate the supposedly unprecedented gap between Israel and the Diaspora, and rather than lament and often exaggerate the supposed loss of idealism in Israel, why don’t we do something about it? Starting this Sukkot and continuing through the fall, Jews everywhere should host Zionist salons in English and Hebrew. Let’s return to core questions of who we are as a people, what Jewish nationalism – that is, Zionism – means, and what we want our Jewish state to be and become.
Since the Jewish Publication Society published my updated anthology, The Zionist Ideas, this spring, I have run more than 40 such Zionist salons – some Young Judaeans and alumni hosted others. This fall we’re scaling up. The book has not been translated into Hebrew. Nevertheless, a crack team of educators and I created 10 workbooks in Hebrew and English showcasing foundational Zionist texts and step-by-step instructions to help people run Zionist salons in their sukkot – then in their homes, schools, synagogues and board rooms over the next few months.
This pilot project, rounding out Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations, including public lectures and social media, is in collaboration with the Menachem Begin Heritage Center
, co-sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel, and funded by generous American philanthropists.
In the 1970s, a North American rabbi made aliyah. He said he finally started following his own sermons. Wondering how Israelis, these new Jews, celebrated the holiday, he visited some secular kibbutzim on Independence Day. Years later, in still-broken Hebrew, he recalled: “We arrive and the place is deserted. Driving around, we follow this smell we can’t quite identify at first. Eventually, driving deep into the fields, realizing it’s the smell of burning flesh, we see the whole kibbutz there. What did we discover? Mango!”
I heard him tell that story to secular Israeli educators at a seminar about bringing more Judaism into their schools. There was a puzzled pause. Then as one – enthusiastically, laughingly, lovingly – they all yelled “Mangal!” – the Hebrew word for that Israeli holiday ritual, the barbecue.
Herein lies the Zionist salons’ challenge and opportunity. We speak different languages and live different realities. Translating the booklets – and the discussions – involved navigating cultural and political differences, not just linguistic ones. But this story also emphasizes all we have in common and how, with goodwill, we can discover our common language.
Israeli Jews’ central challenge when talking Zionism today is to get beyond the politics and the headlines and ask “Why bother?” Diaspora Jews’ central challenge when talking Zionism today is to get beyond the politics and the headlines and ask “Why bother?” The static is similar: Bibi, Palestinians, anti-Israel boycotts. The existential questions differ.
SOME DIASPORA Jews wonder, “Why bother being Jewish at all?” Others, content in their American or Canadian or British Judaism, wonder, “Why be Zionist? Who needs Israel? We’re happy here.” Some Israeli Jews ask, “Why bother being Zionist? Who needs that ideology? We have a state, let’s just live like normal Jews – or better, like normal people.”
A robust Zionist conversation can bridge the gap by acknowledging different agendas. Ultimately, Zionism’s foundational texts, the core ideals, address all these issues. In our cynical, transactional society, we want to understand what being Jewish means, and how it helps us develop, flourish and live. In our hostile, delegitimizing world, we should understand why having a Jewish state is the great Jewish adventure today. It is an oasis of meaning, significance, identity, idealism, connectedness and community amid much selfishness and alienation. And in our messy, still-growing, still-improving state, we should appreciate Zionism as a value and a tool – a vehicle for perfecting Israel, not just defending it, as well as a platform for finding meaning in our lives.
The 10 topics reflect this modern Zionist agenda. The first – “A Zionist salon for those wary of attending a Zionist salon” – eases in, offering basic definitions and assumptions. The second showcases basic Zionist one-liners, from Right to Left, religious and non-religious, inviting every participant to pull one quotation provided randomly and either agree, disagree – civilly – or simply learn from one great Zionist or another. The third ponders “What Zionism means in the 21st century.”
“Will the real Zionist please stand up?” compares sabras born into Israel and army service, with olim who chose to move to Israel – framing a conversation about choice, sacrifice, commitment and belonging.
The fifth, “The shadow of antisemitism vs. the opportunity of statehood,” asks whether Zionism is – and should be – defensive and reactive, or proactive and visionary. Two others examine particularly controversial Zionisms today. One assesses “The successes and failures of religious Zionism,” while another insists, “‘Progressive Zionism’ is not an oxymoron.” One looks at Zionism’s Jewish and democratic roots, while another explores “Identity Zionism: Finding meaning in Israel today – wherever you live.”
Finally, “A Zionist salon on the Jewish people” asks: How do we get along globally? How can we improve Israel-Diaspora relations?”
The co-stars of these conversations are dozens of amazing Zionist thinkers, dead and alive, male and female, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, Diaspora-born and sabras, Left and Right, religious and non-religious. But the real stars will be you, should you choose to host one, run one or simply attend a Zionist salon to help redefine the conversation about “What Zionism means to me” – and to us – today.
All the conversations for the Zionist salons can be downloaded in Hebrew and English at www.zionistsalons.co.il.The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas (Jewish Publication Society), an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University and the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. More at Zionistideas.com.