A dose of nuance: What is Zionism really for?

What we need to recall, especially at times like this, is that the Israeli power of imagination is still alive and well.

A man holds an Israeli flag during a protest (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
A man holds an Israeli flag during a protest
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
What has happened to that dream called Israel? It seems that wherever we look, there’s cause for worry, even desperation.
On the conflict front, Muslims are vociferously objecting to metal detectors and cameras that might prevent a repeat of this week’s murderous attack; this conflict isn’t going away anytime soon, no matter what Israel might do.
The tempest between Israel and American Jews has quieted down, but it will be back. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s credibility with most of American Jewry has been obliterated (“forever,” says Rabbi Eric Yoffie), while the newly empowered haredim (ultra-Orthodox) seem unlikely to capitulate on anything substantive.
Again, Israel is awash in accusations of corruption. Maj. Gen. (res.) Eliezer Marom, former commander of the Navy, is now the highest-ranking military official ever to be accused of serious corruption (in a sad coincidence, Marom’s son, Lt.- Col. Elad Marom, was dismissed from the military two years ago after failing a polygraph test). Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon has now stated without hesitation that the prime minister himself was involved in the submarine corruption case and that Netanyahu will “certainly” be indicted. We’ve been here before, and it’s no less ugly than ever.
At Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem, the pediatric oncology unit has been shuttered due to physicians quitting (they claim that the hospital was endangering children’s lives by bringing in “medical tourists” for lucrative bone-marrow transplants, while the hospital claims that the physicians negotiated in bad faith). Israel’s capital city now has no facility for treating children with cancer, and their parents, already dealing with the worst crisis of their lives, have to take their children to Tel Aviv for chemotherapy and related treatments.
No matter who is right, it is an embarrassment to the country we love, the country to which many of us have dedicated our lives.
Is all this what we have wrought? Now is one of those times when we ought to ask, What is Zionism about? What is the Jewish state really for? For the purpose of this brief column, I would propose this answer: The State of Israel is the place to which the Jewish people have returned in order to reimagine what Jewish life might be like, what the Jewish people might be.
It has been the power of dreams, the possibility of reimagination, which has long fueled the very best of what Israel could be. Only decades after Bialik excoriated European Jews for being weak and fearful, Zionism’s “new Jew” faced five standing Arab armies determined to wipe out the newly founded state, and though vastly outnumbered, defeated them while extending Israel’s borders. Finally equipped with heavy machinery after German reparations, Israel did what few would have imagined possible – it built the National Water Carrier and made the desert bloom.
Seemingly bereft of natural resources, a fledgling state decided to make the most of the only resource it had – human intellectual capital – with results far exceeding what anyone could have imagined.
What we need to recall, especially at times like this, is that the Israeli power of imagination is still alive and well. When the Man Booker Prize was awarded last month, two of the six finalists were by Israeli authors (Amos Oz and David Grossman).
Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar won the prize. Of six finalists, two hailed from a country with the population of Los Angeles, writing in a language that 150 years ago virtually no one spoke. That is the miracle of Zionist imagining.
A few weeks ago, Shalem College (where I work) held its first-ever graduation ceremony.
For years, people told us it couldn’t be done. Israel’s very best students would not commit four intensive years to an American-style liberal arts education.
Faculty would not come without tenure.
The money could not be raised. But years after all the nay-sayers, the first graduating class strode across the stage. Haredim and secular, men and women, politically Left and Right, headed in numerous professional directions through which they hope to make this a better place. Israel is still a country where ultra-Orthodox students want to read Plato and Homer, where secular students want to study Bible and Talmud, where together they studied art, music and physics. Those graduates proved once again that this is a country about big ideas.
Barely a kilometer away from Shalem, there’s a minyan called “Zion.” Unlike any other synagogue I’ve ever seen in Israel, it attracts men in velvet kippot with long tzitziot, women in traditional head-coverings, and secular Jews of all sorts, including many not wearing kippot at all. Observant and not, straight and gay, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, white and brown and black – for two hours each Friday night they gather, with music that stirs the soul, in a room where there is barely even room to stand, much less to sit, to bring Shabbat into this southern corner of Jerusalem.
Could anything better represent the “ingathering of the exiles”? A book award, a college graduation and a Friday night service might not seem like very big deals relative to the challenges we face. But they are. For in the end, it is a people bringing its literature back to life (reimagining Jewish culture), and graduations (reimagining what it means to be an educated Israeli) and minyanim like Zion (reimagining what distinctly Israeli worship might mean) that represent what has always made this country great.
Prime ministers will come and they will go. The conflict will persist, sometimes more violently, sometimes less. American Jews and Israel will always have a testy relationship.
What will not change, however, is the dreaming that is at the very heart of the project called Israel. During this period of the Three Weeks, when we mourn the destruction we have often brought on ourselves, it is also worth remembering the miracles we have wrought in this place, and the miracles that, if we are fortunate, will continue to come.  The writer is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, just received the National Jewish Book Award as the 2016 “Book of the Year.”