While visiting Los Angeles last week, I had a revelation about the modern Zionist dream. Perhaps it came from the Torah readings detailing Joseph’s dreams. Perhaps it was finishing my project on Theodor If-you-will-it-it-is-no-dream Herzl’s writings coming out for the 125th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress this August.
Perhaps it was hearing tales of woe from well-heeled parents in Beverly Hills worried about their kids’ souls and from superstar students bullied for being pro-Israel or thinking independently. Suddenly, I realized that Israel is strong – no enemy’s ideological attacks can weaken it. American Jews, however, increasingly feel vulnerable. All these anti-Zionists have one powerful effect: they rob American Jews of their Zionist dreams.
There’s still a tremendous love for the Jewish state – it was palpable at the StandWithUs “Festival of Lights” 20th Anniversary Celebration I was honored to address. You couldn’t be pessimistic around the Lebanese-Armenian hero who defended his Jewish friends from Palestinian thugs who swarmed an LA Sushi restaurant last May or when meeting Colonel Golan Vach who leads the IDF’s National Rescue Unit and streamlined the search for bodies after the Surfside condo collapse. But, as New York’s progressive Congressman Ritchie Torres acknowledged via videotape: “There is no country that is a greater target of disinformation than Israel,” despite it being the only progressive force in the Middle East. Tragically, that hatred, that obsession, that dream-snatching, haunts most American Jewish conversations, be they pro- or anti-Israel.
At the conference, I called, again, for a Jew-jitsu, celebrating us as the ever-dreaming people, not the ever-dying or ever-threatened people. Fortunately, I then lived it, sling-shotting from the Israel of the hunched back and the furrow-browed as seen from afar, to the Israel of the straight back and the perpetual grin we live up close.
Returning to Israel, I entered three-day quarantine. Catching up on emails, I started planning the roll-out of a 25-page pamphlet I wrote and which the Academic Engagement Network has published, called Why I am a Zionist. This updated manifesto – along with the five-minute video that Opendor Media produced last spring – celebrates 20 years since my “Herzl moment” when I went public shouting “I am a Zionist.”
While defending Israel and Zionism, I have tried transforming the Zionist conversation, from political Zionism to identity Zionism, from saving Jewish bodies to saving the Jewish soul, too. Zionism has succeeded impressively, giving millions of Jews refuge in a democratic Jewish state. But Zionism remains relevant, with a pressing agenda. While mobilizing us to perfect and protect the state, Zionism offers meaningful frameworks for building community and finding purpose in our lives, individually and collectively.
THAT ZIONIST journey was a Jew-jitsu of the head. Fortunately, I had a Jew-jitsu for the heart too – when I attended a wedding hours after exiting quarantine. The wedding, in the Judean Hills outside Jerusalem, brought alive the famous wedding song “od yishama” – “and these happy voices shall resound” – rooted in Jeremiah’s redemptive vision in 33:10-11 of the voices of joy and gladness, of the groom and the bride, returning to the land.
As we danced and sang and prayed and ate and ate and ate, as the beaming couple celebrated with their loved ones, I was struck by the contrasts I live.
Our enemies may rob Diaspora Jews of their dreams, but in Israel, we fulfill them. Many Israelis don’t just live the Zionist dream, but the American dream too. Our hosts grew up in Beersheba’s toughest slum, and then raised the groom and five other children in one of Jerusalem’s magical communities.
Our enemies try making Zionism a dirty word; in Israel, Zionism is a blessed blueprint, helping the Jewish people flourish. Our enemies try making Israel the world’s greatest problem; here, Israel is the greatest platform for finding meaning – and building a good life. Our enemies try unraveling Judaism, falsely distinguishing the religion’s “good” spiritual dimensions from the “bad” peoplehood and statehood parts; Israel – at this wedding and every day – brings alive the Jewish Oreo cookie, the natural integration between our religious and national identities, cemented by culture, history, fate and faith.
Our enemies try making every Israel-oriented conversation about the Palestinians and “the” Arab-Israeli conflict; but Israel is a multidimensional country with so much more to it than its Palestinian enemies. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s trip to the UAE proves that “the” Arab-Israeli conflict should be rebranded as the Arab-Israeli conflicts, wherein we emphasize “Peace More” – the growing peace we have with Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Morocco and Sudan.
Sun Tzu taught 2,500 years ago: “If you know the enemy and yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles. But if you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will lose every battle. Most Israelis know themselves, their enemies, our identities – fewer American Jews do.
It’s easy to get mired in day-to-day problems. But anyone with any historical perspective should realize we all won the historical lottery. The young Jews marrying today, establishing homes in Israel, are far better off than their parents and grandparents were as they struggled to establish themselves in a war-torn, impoverished Israel, or their ancestors were in benighted, undemocratic, antisemitic countries, be they Tunisia, Yemen, Russia or Poland.
We should continue dreaming up solutions to our problems, while always appreciating how lucky we are to be living the dream, as a free people, with secure identities, in our homeland, the land of Zion, Jerusalem.
The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University and the author of nine books on American history and three books on Zionism. His book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, coauthored with Natan Sharansky, was recently published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.