Zionism cannot be equated with Israelism

To unite the people of the Diaspora and Israel, the Jewish identity must come first.

Shadow of couple on Israeli flag 300 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Shadow of couple on Israeli flag 300
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A recent study released by the IDF journal Ma’arachot, which showed IDF officers as more likely to identify as “Israeli” than “Jewish”, raises important questions about the future of the Jewish people and Zionism.
Zionism is, above all else, founded on the concept of peoplehood – a singular nation returning to its ancestral land. Indeed, none other than Theodor Herzl made the point that just as Zionism grows from the soil of a pre-existing nation, its development only serves to reinforce that nation in ways otherwise unimaginable. As Herzl, ever the prognosticator, told the First Zionist Congress in 1897:
Zionism has already brought about something remarkable, heretofore regarded as impossible: a close union between the ultramodern and the ultraconservative elements of Jewry. The fact that this has come to pass without undignified concessions on the part of either side, without intellectual sacrifices, is further proof, if such proof is necessary, of the national entity of the Jews. A union of this kind is possible only on a national basis.
We can forgive Herzl the use of such loaded terms as “ultramodern” and “ultraconservative.” If anything, we would be remiss to get caught up in such semantics. The point is clear: across the spectrum of Jewish belief and practice, Zionism is a profound force in bringing to action the deepest urges of Kol Israel Arevim Ze Laze. We take it for granted in our own era, but we should not take lightly Herzl’s awe toward the phenomenon of two very different Jews, one driven by a secular commitment and one by a dedication to a religious covenant, converging on the same path. This is in no small way the result of the fascinating, self-generating momentum of Zionism – a natural product of nationhood that in turn provides renewed life to the nation.
Indeed, Zionism without a Jewish foundation would no longer be Zionism but simply “Israelism.” What would make an Israel emptied of a strong Jewish basis any different from any one of dozens of liberal democracies across the West?
The State of Israel: essential for Jews everywhere
Zionism, being focused on Jews, does something Israelism could never do: it strengthens Jews around the world, including those who have never set foot in the Jewish state. That Jews in the Diaspora today (for the most part) enjoy unparalleled freedom and prosperity in no way diminishes this phenomenon.
As early Zionist thinkers noted (many years before the horrors of the Shoah), a Jewish state is essential not just in light of persecution in Eastern Europe but emancipation in Western Europe and North America. With the opening of the ghettoes, the rise of secularism, and the expansion of opportunities to Jews as equal citizens, the pressures of assimilation were rightly seen to pose an existential threat to Jewish identity. Rabbi Solomon Schechter, a luminary of early Conservative Judaism, was so alarmed by these trends as to write in 1906: “It is this kind of assimilation, with the terrible consequences indicated, that I dread most; even more so than pogroms. To this form of assimilation, Zionism in the sense defined will prove, and is already proving, a most wholesome check.” Daniel Gordis, in many ways an intellectual descendant of Rabbi Schechter, today echoes the impact that Israel has had in terms of restoring Jewish pride and purpose in the Diaspora. Pride in the State of Israel, and in its accomplishments, is a cement that unites the vast majority of Jews wherever they live.
The importance of the Diaspora for Israel
But perhaps this dynamic should be increasingly seen as a two-way street. This is to diminish nothing from the State of Israel, which forms the centre of the Jewish people in the world. We were born there. Our religion has its roots in the Land of Israel. Its cycles are Jewish cycles. Its language is the Jewish language. Its values are Jewish values. Even its imperfections are Jewish.
This is to say, rather, that we must recognize the important Jewish communities that continue to exist around the world as urgently relevant to Israelis. The United States, in its size, vitality, willingness to wrestle with Jewish tradition, and (dare we say?) relative power makes the American Jewish community an essential part of our nation. Canada, home to our own Jewish community, is also an important centre of Diaspora life. With some 380,000 Jews (and 180,000 in the Toronto area only), Canada is a model for how a Diaspora Jew can flourish in a binational, multicultural society while retaining a strong attachment to Judaism and the State of Israel. At 600,000 strong. France’s Jews, despite the Islamist anti-Semitic problems they are currently facing, also have a huge role to play as a non-Hebrew, non-English centre of Jewish thought, to say nothing of Argentina’s and Brazil’s communities.
There’s no denying that programs like Birthright are indispensable – every Diaspora Jew (young and not-so-young alike) should visit Israel, learn its language, read about its history and follow current events. But as Gordis points out, if Israel is to continuing to thrive in a hostile environment, Israelis must understand the uniqueness of the Jewish state. But in order to get a fuller picture of Jewish peoplehood, Israelis must also learn more about their Diaspora brethren by seeing our synagogues, community centres, schools, summer camps, and even our dating scenes. Just as we are told in the Talmud that we cannot judge our fellow until we have stood in their place, Israelis will find it difficult to relate to those of us in Diaspora – approximately one-half of the Jewish nation – without having experienced “our place”.
An appreciation of shared destiny is achieved experientially (indeed, this is the brilliance of Birthright). In overcoming our differences, from both sides of the divide, Diaspora Jews and Israelis will not only deepen our commitment to one another. We will ultimately learn more about our own purpose and identity, whether in the Diaspora or in the Jewish homeland.
Richard Marceau and Steve McDonald work at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the advocacy arm of the Jewish Federations of Canada.