I recently met with a group of Australian Jewish leaders and discovered that in the land of the kangaroo and the koala they do not fear the word “Zionist.” Not only do eighty percent of Australian Jews embrace the label proudly, they acknowledge how much Zionism has strengthened their community, inspiring many of them personally, while emboldening many of them politically. By contrast, many American Jewish leaders continue to abandon the word “Zionism,” claiming it does not “poll well.”
Abandoning the term Zionism is an act of cowardice. It represents a retreat in the face of the systematic Soviet-choreographed, Arab-fueled, hard left-endorsed campaign to delegitimize Israel which has been going on since the 1970s and has outlasted the fall of the Soviet Union, and the 1991 repeal of the UN’s 1975 Zionism is racism resolution. Running away from the term gives the delegitimizers a victory they do not deserve. It starts the defense of Israel on the defensive. “Zionism” does not poll well because it has been targeted effectively. But pollsters cannot quantify how much credibility American Jews lose when they abandon the term instead of defending it – our allies, our young people, and our enemies can smell the fear.
American Jews’ gutless flight is particularly anomalous because the community is in many ways more Zionist than ever – and primed to accept a robust Zionist message. American Jews are a people-people, more united by ethnic, national, cultural solidarity, than by belief in God. Despite critics’ claims to the contrary, three-quarters of American Jews consistently support Israel, the Jewish state. The most successful program of the last decade, Taglit-Birthright, is a peoplehood project which helps young Jews aged 18 to 26 jumpstart their Jewish journeys by visiting Israel. Moreover, young, idealistic American Jews do not want to retreat or defend, they want to celebrate, dream, improve.
Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. Its fundamental assumptions are that the Jews are a people not just a community of faith, and that Israel is the Jewish national homeland. Having established the state of Israel in 1948, the modern Zionist movement is now dedicated to protecting and perfecting the state. Perfecting the state is about an aspirational Zionism, a values-based Zionism, an inspiring Identity Zionism, not just a defensive Zionism. It moves Zionism away from “Israel advocacy” which is mostly about preservation, toward a more expansive conversation about seeking fulfillment. Given that understanding of Zionism, American Jews should embrace Zionism as enthusiastically as Australian Jews too.
Just as Israel’s Foreign Ministry is wisely evolving away from that terrible term “Hasbarah,” with its implication of heavy-handed, propagandistic explanations, American Jews should shift from talking about Israel Advocacy to Zionism. Israel Advocacy suggests that Israel needs legions of defense attorneys working overtime defending the Jewish state. Israel Advocacy gives the Palestinians a propaganda victory they do not deserve by focusing on Israel as a problem, and obsessing about all of Israel’s problems.
Israel exists and it is not on probation. It does not need to be constantly advocated for, justified, legitimized. Talk of Zionism carves out more room for the normal and the exceptional. Zionist normalcy includes my sons’ baseball league, my daughters’ ballet performance, my wife’s art school – all of which testify to the extraordinary achievement of simply living an ordinary life in the Jewish homeland. At the same time, Zionist exceptionalism includes Israel’s miraculous achievements as Start Up nation, Israel’s soaring old-new aspirations as values nation, and Israel’s beautiful 24/7 Judaism as the Jewish state.
Groups committed to “Israel Advocacy” can only do so much – they can defend Israel, they can rebrand Israel, they can deepen understandings of Israel. But, as its best, a revitalized Zionist movement can help improve Israel and help improve American Jewry too. Zionism challenges Jews to criticize themselves and their community. A robust American Zionism will question why so many American Jews feel so alienated by their Jewish upbringing, in their families, their schools, their shuls, that they need the kind of last-minute intervention Birthright Israel provides. A muscular American Zionism will extend the critique from American Jewry to American life itself, asking why so many Americans feels lost, stressed, distressed, despite living in the freest, richest, greatest exercise in mass middle class prosperity the world has ever witnessed. An expansive American Zionism is broad enough to synthesize many American liberal values with Zionist ones, rejecting the caricature of the two ideologies as incompatible. An effective Identity Zionism for American Jews will then use the power of the Jewish story, the richness of Jewish values, the warmth of Jewish solidarity to help ground American Jews – and launch into a lifelong conversation and confrontation with Israel which draws inspiration and strength from Israel, while both defending Israel and refining it.
Zionism has not always resonated with American Jews. For decades, Reform Jews in particular feared the whiff of dual loyalty that may emanate from an American Jewish community too enthusiastic about establishing a Jewish state. But the Holocaust and the establishment of the State in 1948 helped make the Reform Movement Zionist. Israel’s victory in the 1967 war – and the pride it brought American Jewry – made Zionism even more popular in America. That American Jewish support for Israel remains one of American Jews’ defining tenets, 45 complicated years later, represents an impressive accomplishment. Just as most so-called secular Israelis do not begin to fathom how deeply Jewish they are, most Americans Jews do not realize how deeply Zionist they are. They need to stop ignoring the small group of elites trying to sour them on either the Zionist project or the Zionist label, and proclaim to themselves and the world: I am A Zionist.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.