Central Field: Zionist ‘shlichim’ should be as Chabad ‘shluchim’

Israelis should beware the growing ideological gap with Diaspora Jews.

October 17, 2017 21:06
4 minute read.
Central Field: Zionist ‘shlichim’ should be as Chabad ‘shluchim’

A PARTICIPANT wears a shirt that reads ‘This is what a Zionist looks like’ while participating in a parade along 5th Ave. in New York City, in June. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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I recently spoke to an Israeli friend dispatched to the US to be a shaliach, an emissary, to campus youth.

I am being vague to respect the privacy of the individual and the organization. The advice I offered deviates from what most shlichut seminars or Strategic Affairs Ministry briefings provide. And it applies to student activists too.

I noted three trends. First, our enemies – and we do have enemies – try pitting Israel against the human rights culture, the postmodern ideology, and now the intersectionality craze. The Jewish community should consider how to help rebuild campuses as centers of reason and critical inquiry. We must save true liberalism – a commitment to individual rights and freedom – from the illiberal “liberals” who have hijacked it. And the community must recognize how stressful it is for young Jews to be told repeatedly their most important mission is getting into these top colleges – then find themselves in a university culture that denigrates many values and institutions Jews cherish.

Second, Israelis should beware the growing ideological gap with Diaspora Jews, that goes deeper than the Western Wall controversy or fights over Palestinian rights and wrongs. Most liberal American Jews are trying to create an impossibility: a community without boundaries, without red lines, not on God or Israel or intermarriage.

Some Jewish communal leaders are so “inclusive” they can march with Linda Sarsour who calls Zionism, their national liberation movement, “creepy.” They’re so into outreach they forget that pluralism is a foreign policy, not a governing rationale. They’re so open to everything they stand for nothing – forgetting that Judaism survived for millennia by standing for something. And they overlook the inconvenient fact that American Jewish kids raised in phantom communities are disappearing; the ones who stick around are the ones raised with more commitments, frameworks, restrictions and meaning. A community by definition needs definition; only some unity makes a community.

This resistance to red lines reflects the third trend, an epic and epidemic selfishness. In the Emmy Award-winning Transparent’s new season, a gruff Israeli security guard tells one of the self-absorbed and perpetually dissatisfied Pfeffermans, that, although he attended university after the army, the army taught him the most important life lesson: “you’re not the center of the universe.” US President Donald Trump, National Front president Marine Le Pen and white nationalists have made nationalism a dirty word. But nationalism is a tool that can unite us to cooperate, not just inflame us to denigrate others.

Given these challenges, I propose a counterintuitive strategy: choose your battles carefully – and pick small battles. We usually engage on the anti-Zionists’ terms, responding to attacks, thereby starting off defensive. Anyone who thinks they can defeat postmodern groupthink with one falafel night or one speaker is deluded. So pick small, winnable battles.

Don’t expect to change the university culture immediately – but know you can change some students’ minds – and touch some souls. These incremental victories may be more meaningful and lasting. Political battles are fleeting.

Real education, genuine ideological engagement, changes lives.

Essentially, I offered my vision of Identity Zionism as the more relevant, compelling and successful strategy today, not Political Zionism. Israel exists. We don’t need to justify its existence before biased kangaroo courts blinded by political correctness – or to fanatic anti-Zionists who dismiss facts. We also need to avoid toxic alliances that allow people to caricature Israel as Trumpian or right-wing or hyper-nationalist – because my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

So shift the terms of the debate. Let’s talk about Zionism and me, Israel and me. Let’s build up to Israel’s 70th anniversary this April with Zionist salons: in homes, Hillels, synagogues and board rooms, reading Zionist texts, debating Zionist questions, thinking Zionist thoughts, re-engaging with the defining Zionist ideas. (Yes, mea culpa, I am promoting my book The Zionist Ideas but that’s why I wrote it!) We may succeed more working with 15 here, 25 there, than by mounting some public confrontation.

Remember Franklin Roosevelt’s insight: “judge me by the enemies I make.” Feel free to challenge university groupthink boldly. If these fanatics attack you because they feel threatened by you, you’re doing your job.

And defy antisemitism without being defined by antisemitism. We seek pro-Zionists not anti-antisemites.

Keep perspective: we’re programmed to worry that our enemies are winning, but don’t underestimate our power.

We look cowardly when we accommodate, but sound hysterical when we exaggerate how bleak things are. Most American Jewish students remain pro-Israel. Because tens of thousands have visited Israel on Birthright they support Israel in ways their parents didn’t at similar ages. Your challenge is to inspire these silenced supporters of Israel to defy the campus mob mentality and stand up for the Israel they have seen, experienced and enjoyed, rather than keeping their support for Israel secret so they aren’t blocked at the intersection – rejected by liberal friends who believe in “intersectionality” which links certain kinds of approved oppressions but dismisses Jewish concerns as the whinings of the white-privileged.

Finally, get personal while not taking it personally: don’t feel oppressed. “They” are not after you as an individual.

The best therapy is to invest personally; Zionist shlichim should be as magnanimous, inspiring and charismatic as Chabad “shluchim” rabbis, sharing their hearts, their souls, their life stories, opening their homes, inviting the students to see how happy they are – and why Israelis might live in the world’s most demonized country – yet rank as the world’s 11th happiest people.

The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University.

Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.

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