The gloomy Gusses who thrive off bad news for the Jews should skip this column, because I have some good news from the Zionist front. I recently attended a conference about Israel Education in frosty Chicago and came back energized, particularly by the young “twenty-something” attendees from Israel and North America. This extraordinary initiative, “Israel in the Development of Jewish Identity: Philosophical Reflections and Educational Implications,” sponsored by the iCenter, the Global Coalition for Israel, and the World Zionist Organization, among others, encouraged some cross-generational talk regarding how to educate about Israel and Zionism.
The conference offered the kind of conversation the Jewish world needs. We were Israelis and North Americans, right and left, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, young and, “less” young, mostly educators and activists. One of the younger people noted many of the “experts” constituted a “walking bibliography” for her courses about Israel. I enjoyed meeting idealistic rabbinical students and master’s students forming a new cadre of “Israel educators” in America, along with idealistic Israeli educators and social entrepreneurs.
We all enjoyed the “no ranks” phenomenon. We were equals, trying to figure out how to teach about a complicated, controversial, compelling country and movement in a dynamic, authentic, open-ended, values-centered, effective manner. The many new ideas and initiatives bubbling up in Israel and North America to achieve that were impressive and inspiring.
Still, the conference began on a sobering note. Being Jews, we had to detail the problems in depressing depth before moving toward programmatic salvation. The young North Americans told of being taught from an Israel “right or wrong” framework, experiencing Zionism as doctrinaire, and sometimes feeling frustrated by Israel. One young rabbinic student compared her relationship to Israel to a stormy can’t-live-with-him-can’t-live-without-him romance – but she loved the passion, despite the frustration. Some of the female rabbinical students described not feeling welcomed in Jerusalem, with one saying how hostile some Israelis were when she refused to call herself “secular” but did not match their conception of “religious.”
I was struck by the lack of a common vocabulary among young Zionists and Israel enthusiasts today. In the 1970s and 1980s, the embattled minority of Zionist activists had a common language of dreams, of self-fulfillment, of “Yerushalayim shel zahav,” Jersualem of Gold, of “eem tirzu ein zo agadah” – if you will it, it is no dream,” of “ani va’atah neshana et haolam,” you and I will change the world. That many of the concepts were expressed in song provided a powerful perpetually-reinforcing cultural-ideological feedback loop.
I challenged the students to replace their “Popeye Zionism” – evoking the cartoon sailor’s “I am what I am” passive acceptance of the status quo – with an “Incredibles Zionism” – embracing the aspirational, the extraordinary, not taking Israel as it is but thinking about what it can be, paralleling the animated superheroes’ struggle between wanting to be normal and striving to be special. I also challenged them to move from “Leninist” Zionism, a my-country-right-or-wrong, doctrinaire Zionism evoking the Soviet Communist Vladimir Lenin, to a “Lennonist” Zionism, a movement committed to imagining the ideal world, creating a values nation, evoking the singing searcher John Lennon. And, echoing the consensus, I encouraged the move from Israel advocacy – asking what we can do for Israel – to Identity Zionism – asking what Israel, our country, can do for us, ideologically, existentially.
“I find Zionism today still a dynamic word we can actually use,” said Yiftach, an Israeli fighter pilot now teaching history in Tel Aviv. “Judaism and Israel are too solid. Zionism [invites me to] create what I think Israel should be.” Yiftach understood that Israel is the country, often defined by its actions, mistakes, triumphs, and problems, while Zionism is the movement, freer to be aspirational. Israel’s the reality, Zionism’s the dream.
That was one of my conference takeaways. Logically, critics should be more uncomfortable with imperfect “Israel” than with “Zionism,” the movement to perfect it. Yet more than two-thirds of American Jews support Israel enthusiastically – disproving all the elites’ “distancing” claims about abandonment -- while barely one-third call themselves Zionist. Even more confusing, while most American Jews call Judaism their religion, a majority (52 percent) no longer believe in God but feel that peoplehood thing, that national, cultural, civilizational, ethnic identity which is more Zionist than traditionally, theologically, Jewish.
My two best explanations for this American Jewish Zionophobia is that we are all traumatized by Israel’s delegitimization, so many have internalized the disdain; and many have also been miseducated as to what Zionism is. This gives us a dual opportunity as activists and educators to move the needle, to broaden the understanding of what Zionism is and help all Jews see it as the vehicle for explaining their tribal identity, filling it with aspirations and values, while cementing their bond to Israel as a place which can fulfill some of their dreams and solve some of their identity conflicts as modern meaning-seeking Jews and humans.
The Israelis made it clear that Israelis also need to redefine Zionism, to detoxify it from the way it is used politically. One young educator-activist, Biko, said he invokes the word to distinguish himself from other Leftists who seek a one-state solution. Using the Z-word broadcasts his continuing commitment to a Jewish state.
This week, as Israelis chart their future democratically, as Americans reaffirm their faith in the Constitution, we should renew our commitment to a big broad Zionist tent – as welcoming as possible, but also with certain boundaries. And we need – on both sides of the Atlantic, a revived Zionist conversation, a hyphenate Zionism – with many different kinds of Zionism – identity-Zionism and cultural-Zionism, liberal-Zionism and settler-Zionism, religious-Zionism and environmental-Zionism, singing a new Zionist song, learning about Israel, teaching Israel, reforming Israel – and helping fulfill our dreams in the modern Jewish state.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His latest book , Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism was just published by Oxford University Press.