Aliyah of the mind

The future of our people depends on every Jew building their deeper Zionist mental muscles, learning Hebrew, immersing in our history, and then creating communities of action.

‘EMBRACING THE deeper teachings of Zionism, transforming yourself into an agent of Jewish history, can take many forms but in every case will follow the classic Zionist mantra: Build, and be built.’ (photo credit: REUTERS)
‘EMBRACING THE deeper teachings of Zionism, transforming yourself into an agent of Jewish history, can take many forms but in every case will follow the classic Zionist mantra: Build, and be built.’
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘We are slaves to our memories, slaves to our heritage; we are embalmed by traditions and restricting thoughts.” – Micah Joseph Berdichevsky
Are we doing Zionism wrong?
For most American Jews today, the word “Zionism” means supporting and celebrating Israel – through money, influence, advocacy and community events.
But Zionism originally meant something different, and our failure to understand this difference lies at the heart of the crisis we face today.
Zionism was never about “supporting,” but about building and doing. It wasn’t about taking pride in Israel, but in being a Jew. And it wasn’t just about securing a political homeland, but about reviving the spirits and minds of Jews everywhere.
To equate Israel-support with Zionism is like using your Instagram feed to measure how happy you are: At best it’s a shadow, at worst it’s self-delusion. You can’t really understand Zionism without engaging with its deepest teachings.
The failure to understand Zionism has led American Jews to a point of profound anxiety.
They are terrified by what’s happening around them – synagogues being torched and shot up, campuses becoming intolerable for Jewish kids, exclusion from progressive activist groups, accusations of racism and white privilege, decay of institutions they’ve spent a century building, young people disconnecting not just from Israel but from the Jewish community as a whole.
But they cannot see how these are connected. Instead, they blame external forces like Trump or Obama or Bibi or BDS, the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
They don’t realize that their crisis is actually the same one that faced Jews more than a century ago when Zionism first emerged, a crisis of the spirit.
And they can’t tell you what Zionism is. Instead of being a source of learning, inspiration, and self-growth, Zionism has been lost in a dust cloud of adrenaline and advocacy.
Yes, the founders of Zionism disagreed on many things. From Pinsker’s Auto-Emancipation to Herzl’s Jewish State, from Gordon’s belief in labor and love of land to Ahad Ha’am’s spiritual center to Nordau’s “Muscular Judaism” to Ben-Yehuda’s Hebrew renaissance, from Jabotinsky’s Iron Wall to Ben-Gurion’s Bible study and pragmatism – all these clashing Zionist visions really pointed to a single, revolutionary idea.
It was this: The troubles of the Jews stemmed not just from external threats, but from what they had become after centuries of exile. They survived unthinkable turmoil, but also lost the spine, dignity and inner fire that free peoples depend on to command their collective destiny.
They were cut off from the qualities of character that produced the immense achievements of ancient times – qualities that would be needed again to survive the coming horror.
Their movement built the State of Israel. But statehood was never more than a framework for a deeper revolution of the spirit. They cast their arguments in the context of the threats of their time; but their vision about what a Jew can be is just as true today as it was then.
That vision came down to three things.
 First: Zionism Is Jewish Pride
Zionism wasn’t just a new iteration of Jewish life, but a major change in direction. And it began with a radical affirmation of the Jewish self and the Jewish people.
In America today, Jewish pride is a weird thing. Over the last century, American Jews secured their station by building things that were bigger than themselves. In law, journalism and entertainment, Jews created a vast, fortified secular space where antisemitism could not reach them the way it had in Europe. They fought not just for their own minority, but for all minorities; not just for their own rights and free expression, but for everyone’s.
This was an incredible achievement. But the price was a repudiation of Jewish tribal pride. In synagogue or at home, they talked about Jewish movie stars, ballplayers and Nobel Prize-winners; in public, they spoke out about civil rights and free speech.
And so, when African Americans built a museum in Washington, it was a full-throated expression not just of their suffering but also of their achievements. But when Jews built one, it focused entirely on the Holocaust and turned the darkest moment in their history into something that wasn’t about Jews at all, but instead about the evils of intolerance and genocide in general.
Yes, genocide is bad. But why is that our museum?
Today, in the time of the tribes, this kind of self-effacing universalizing of your story isn’t just ineffective, it looks perverse. If we can’t say out loud that being Jewish is a great thing, most younger people, Jewish or not, will come to see “Jewish” as something ambivalent or even sketchy.
Our history spans the ages. We have given the world our Bible and built unfathomable legacies in lands from Portugal to Persia, and yes, there was much suffering but also much glory. Most Jews today know little about it.
Anyone who studies our history, focusing less on powerlessness, pogroms and persecutions than on our resilience, creativity and contributions to mankind, will know what we are talking about. Yet our institutions put everything into teaching us about Israel and the Holocaust – that is, the achievements of Jews who rejected the Diaspora; and those of our genocidal oppressors. Our identity: Get out or be killed.
Is it any wonder that Jews are drifting away? Or that they feel powerless against antisemitism?
At its deep level, Zionism teaches that the best way to fend off attacks on your identity is to live it proudly. It won’t make antisemitism go away. It just makes it matter much less.
Second: Zionism is doing
We hear a lot about the “conversation” around Zionism. Historically, however, it was about action. Around the world, huge numbers of Jews studied Hebrew, farming and fighting – all in preparation for immigration to Israel, aliyah. Then they came to the Land of Israel. They built cities and communes. They built infrastructure, capital, an army and a language. They built new lives as New Jews.
Sure, there were words. Herzl wrote, Ahad Ha’am wrote, AD Gordon wrote. People wrote speeches and poems and songs and novels and pamphlets. But the writing wasn’t about “being heard” or “building our brand.” It was about doing.
What happened? Did we run out of things to do? Has Zionism been so wildly successful that all that’s left is to tell people why Israel is not apartheid? Alternatively, has American Jewish life turned into an amazing, confident, vibrant beacon for a 3,000-year-old people taking charge of its future?
No. It feels more like running from one hole in the boat to another, plugging and bailing.
Have you noticed that in the two decades since the modern boycott campaign was launched the State of Israel has just grown stronger? It’s not because of “fighting back,” it’s because long after Israelis stopped talking about Zionism they’re still a people of action, building the nation’s power and wealth and culture with a silent fury. Zionism gave Israel a legacy of doing.
What is “doing”?
Doing is quiet: When you build a house, feed people, serve in the army, write a novel, learn a language, start a business – you’re not posing or posting. You’re not throwing your genius wit into the maelstrom of talking points and viral memes. You are investing all your energy into building.
Doing is hard: If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not growing. Creating educational communities, spending a year in a foreign country, changing people’s minds – all this is hard. Zionism was hard, too: Overturning millennia of history and habit, fighting off the violent rejectionism of the Arab world and overcoming the smug indifference of everyone else. Let’s be honest: What hard things have American Jewish leaders asked of us lately?
Doing brings results. Businesses are measured by profits, election campaigns by vote counts, and builders by their buildings. Today, however, too much of Jewish communal life is dedicated to goals that are abstract or ephemeral. Huge amounts of money are wasted on self-congratulation, inflated salaries, mission creep, redundancy, wheel-spinning political activism, mismanagement and corruption. None of our deepest problems has been solved, because the system is broken.
Younger people understand this intuitively. Will they respond by detaching themselves from the Jewish fate? Or will they revolt against institutions and build the power and vitality of their people in totally new ways?
Third: Zionism is about you
Forget Israel. Forget antisemites. Who are you? What are you reading? What are you creating? What gets you up in the morning? What are you doing to deepen your Jewish knowledge and your ability to act for your people? How have you prepared yourself, your children, and your friends to stand – alone if necessary – as proud Jews?
Embracing the deeper teachings of Zionism, transforming yourself into an agent of Jewish history, can take many forms but in every case will follow the classic Zionist mantra: Build, and be built.
Naturally, any bold, independent action you take will meet resistance from established Jewish institutions, which will rightfully feel threatened by your words and deeds. But if you’re lucky, you’ll find individual leaders – in outlier synagogues and federations and JCCs and others – who will see your work as signifying a new and different future, and they will embrace it because they know that if they don’t their communities might not be around a generation from now.
Being a Zionist today does not require aliyah. There was a time when it did, when our collective future required a critical mass of Jews moving to the homeland. It isn’t the case anymore.
But just as Herzl promised, the country called Israel will automatically play a crucial role in a resurgent Diaspora life, for it is a living example of what happens when Jews invest energies in their own collective fate, when they get together and commit to action and pride in themselves. When the eternal Jewish fire reaches out to the individual Jew and pulls her in and sets off a chain reaction among her people that cannot be stopped, not by antisemites of the Left and Right, not by the self-aggrandizing, money-wasting, turf-warring Jewish-institutional complex.
Just know this: Israel would never have been built by today’s American Jewish establishment. It was built by people dedicated to spiritual change, Jewish pride, historical self-awareness and action. It was built by Jews who wanted something new and real and personally empowering, and were prepared to do bold things, hard things, quiet things, over many years.
What’s needed today is not aliyah of the body, but rather – to use a term coined by Rudy Rochman – something else entirely: aliyah of the mind.
The future of our people depends on every Jew building their deeper Zionist mental muscles, learning Hebrew, immersing in our history, and then creating communities of action. It depends on parents who proactively set examples for their children, and don’t wait for “convenient moments” and philanthropic “calls to action.” And it depends on older leaders and donors stepping aside to make room for new forms of Jewish life, handing the reins to the next generation, unleashing their energy.
Because what comes next will look very different from what came before, and it will either be utterly desolate or incredibly creative and enduring.
That’s what Zionism was meant to be all along. Can you handle it?
David Hazony is executive director of the Israel Innovation Fund, and Adam Scott Bellos is its founder and CEO.