Center Field: To reinvigorate Zionism, ‘Z3’ should build ‘identity Zionism’ first

Thankfully, the Z3 Conference didn’t degenerate into the III, the Israel Indignation Industry, where liberals lament Israel’s sins, while conservatives bemoan the world’s hatred.

By
December 18, 2018 22:35
4 minute read.
American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative]

American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative]. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Beware, woe-is-me worriers mourning an Israel-Diaspora rupture – good news! Last week 1,100 people gathered in Palo Alto – yes, in California – to talk Zionism. The idea – spearheaded by the Oshman Family JCC’s Zach Bodner and Tel Aviv’s Reut Institute – was to launch a “Z3” movement reaffirming Jewish peoplehood and redefining Zionism today.

“Z3” organizes Zionist history as I do in The Zionist Ideas. Until 1948, the Pioneers imagined Israel. Then the Builders built from 1948 through 1998. I call “Z3s” – the third generation – “Torchbearers.” Heirs to an amazing heritage, we, like runners in the Olympic relay, keep it going, growing, glowing.

Thankfully, the Z3 Conference didn’t degenerate into the III, the Israel Indignation Industry, where liberals lament Israel’s sins, while conservatives bemoan the world’s hatred.

Still, we disagreed. In the opening panel, the moderator, Doron Krakow, heading the national JCC – Jewish Community Center – movement, got three of us debating. Former justice minister Yossi Beilin trashed Israel’s rabbinate before hundreds of non-Orthodox American Jews. Although I share his contempt, throwing such rhetorical red meat to the crowd risked validating those American Jews who use the phrase “Israel-Diaspora relations” as code for “why Israel sucks – and how that justifies our kids intermarrying.” Scapegoating Israel obscures American Jewry’s real challenge: in abandoning Judaism en masse, American Jews abandon Israel, too.

Beyond that hijacking, Beilin and I had a classic American-born Zionist-versus-Sabra and professor-versus-politician clash. I tried pushing the conversation from the horizontal Israel-versus-Diaspora axis to the vertical axis, exploring underlying ideological challenges Zionists face in a hostile world, to articulate a modern Zionist vision. He dismissively said, “Yes, yes, we’re family” – implicitly saying, “that’s obvious, let’s tackle real issues.”

That foundational discussion is Zionism’s real work today. It’s not obvious. American and Israeli Jews often forget we’re family and intertwined. Our neighborhoods set our agendas: most American Jews vote pro-choice and anti-Trump, not pro-Israel; Israelis vote statehood issues, not peoplehood. A sharpened ideological discussion developing mutual needs and agendas too wouldn’t let those political differences obscure our shared identity.

Zionism worked by responding to “the Jewish problem” of assimilation and antisemitism. Today’s Jewish problem is anomie, affluenza, the Western epidemics of loneliness, alienation, loss of meaning. I’m not arrogant enough to call Zionism the answer; it’s our answer, offering a framework for meaning, for community, for caring, that works for many of us.

The politicos and we identitarians battled away. Zionism must acknowledge both: all Jewish communities today face political and existential problems. Identitarians address the existential identity problems first. Let’s sharpen a compelling vision of “Identity Zionism,” using Jewish peoplehood and statehood as frameworks for meaning and mission. Finding depth in our lives and causes that transcend our stripped down, selfish me-me-me-my-my-my-iPad-iPod universe can stir Jews worldwide. Once motivated, cooperating, we can tackle the political problems, from internal ones like the rabbinate to external ones like anti-Zionist antisemitism.

Fortunately, Dr. Tova Hartman, from Kiryat Ono College, called Beilin on his other ideological curveball. “There are two Zions,” he insisted. He’s off by one. “There’s only one Zion,” Hartman exclaimed. She didn’t disrespect American Jews. But there are two Jewish population centers, only one Jewish homeland.

Jews feel at home elsewhere; Israel remains the Jewish home.


Having dueling promised lands confuses American Zionism. Americans assume history flows from the Old World to the New; Zionists flow from the Diaspora to Israel. Inclusion-addicted, superpower-empowered American Jews resent not being in the center of every ideological universe. Z3 must choreograph this delicate dance, acknowledging Israel as the Jewish center while cherishing every Jewish community.

FINALLY, BEILIN proposed a robust deliberative institution allowing American Jews and Israelis to argue constructively – on that we agreed. Recently, in Mosaic, Natan Sharansky and I proposed a Global Jewish Council to meet three times a year, before each Knesset session. It would issue advisory opinions about any contemplated Israeli legislation affecting the Diaspora, while debating broader Jewish challenges, too. Other proposals are bubbling up.

Some kind of Jewish People’s Parliament is the idea of the moment. Creating or reinvigorating such a body is a perfect cause for a renewed Zionist movement. It’s focused, doable, represents peoplehood values, and could address some of today’s frustrations.

Such a council could take tough stands, expressing mainstream Zionists’ repudiation of Israel’s anti-Zionist rabbinate. It would address the Palestinian problem, intermarriage, other hot-button items – even without resolving them. Delegates could brainstorm about how to bring back pride to the word “Zionism” – as liberals self-defeatingly abandon the word “nationalism,” while conservatives try hijacking the term for themselves.

In the disputatious tradition of the Mishna and Talmud, the Sanhedrin and yeshiva, the Wissenschaft and Zionist salons, the Zionist congresses and the Knesset, a truly representative, deliberative body would get us studying, arguing, creating together – offering out-of-the-box solutions to pressing identity questions about who we are, what meaning we can find in life, and to political questions about how we can live together.

It’s John Locke 101. Even when you lose, having input would mitigate today’s anomaly imposing the responsibility of the implicated on one another without consent of the governed.

Start identifying needs – and fears. Zionism was the right solution for the pressing problem of the time. Today, most Jews are free to address more existential yet pressing issues. Peoplehood for peoplehood’s sake, Zionism for Zionism’s sake, risk being static, sterile. Using these tools to stir us, spiritually, communally, existentially, is our next mega-mission, our next Jewish moon landing.

The writer is the author of 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, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.

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