Fundamentally Freund: The 'Zionist of the year' award

If that which a nation chooses to honor says a lot about what it values, then what does it say about us that we don't regularly pay tribute to the ideology which gave birth to the state?

michael freund 88 (photo credit: )
michael freund 88
(photo credit: )
These are tough times for the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. Everywhere one seems to turn, Zionism and its values are in retreat. Aliya is on the decline, settling the land is no longer in vogue, and classical Zionist institutions are under attack for promoting the distinctively Jewish character of the state. Last week, the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption announced that a paltry 19,700 people chose to immigrate to Israel in 2007, representing barely two-tenths of one percent of Diaspora Jewry. That is the lowest number to arrive here in the past 20 years. The government of Israel has never looked so weak in the face of an array of external threats, and even bedrock issues such as the unity of Jerusalem are now the subject of political controversy rather than popular consensus. Indeed, even Israel's good friends in the international community, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Jerusalem Post this week, see the country's future on the basis of the 1967 borders and with Jerusalem divided. Rockets continue to slam into Sderot and the Negev, Iran continues to enrich uranium, and our leaders seem at a loss to do anything about it. Even in the realm of ideas, Zionism is losing ground. Israel's media and college campuses have become hotbeds of post-Zionist radicalism. The editor of the country's major Hebrew daily pleads for Israel to be "raped" politically and diplomatically, and hardly anyone bats an eyelash. Meanwhile, over at Hebrew University, a graduate student was recently honored for penning an essay which essentially concludes that Israeli soldiers are racist because they do not rape Palestinian women (Makor Rishon, December 23). Have we all gone mad? Have we lost our minds? It would seem that John Adams, one of America's founding fathers, was not completely off the mark when he questioned the staying power of free societies. "Democracy never lasts long," he wrote. "It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide," Adams said. BUT THAT need not be our fate. With so much going so wrong all around us, it is all the more important to focus on what is right about this country, and to celebrate Zionism and its accomplishments. Instead of bowing to cynicism and prostrating ourselves to defeat, we must redouble our efforts to encourage the Zionist idealism of Israel and its youth. Promoting basic values such as love of country, patriotism and Jewish pride must become a top priority, particularly since these principles are so essential to Israel and to its future. If a recent survey is correct, indicating that one-third of Israeli youth are considering moving abroad, then something has gone terribly wrong in how we as a society are inculcating some of our most basic and fundamental beliefs. There are of course many ways to change this, from overhauling the education system to placing renewed emphasis on national symbols to transforming public discourse. But here's a relatively simple and straightforward idea that can have a more immediate and direct impact: why doesn't Israel initiate an annual "Zionist of the Year" award? Sure, we already have the Israel Prize, which is given out each year on Independence Day in a televised ceremony attended by leading political figures. But the Israel Prize, as its official Web site states, is intended mainly to honor those who have "demonstrated excellence and broken new ground in their fields or who have made a unique contribution to society in Israel." That might include artists, laboratory scientists or academic specialists, all of whom are of course important and worthy of recognition. But what the prize fails to do is to single out and highlight exceptional and distinctively Zionist achievements, and that is an oversight that needs to be corrected. If that which a nation chooses to honor says a lot about what it values, then what does it say about us that we don't regularly pay tribute to the ideology which gave birth to the state? By conferring a "Zionist of the Year" award to individuals, organizations or communities, Israel can start sending an important message regarding the continued vitality of Zionism and its centrality to the future of the country. And it will let young people know that our society and national institutions place a higher value not only on achievements in the field of hi-tech, but in areas such as public service as well. Broadway has the Tony Awards, Hollywood has the Oscars, and television hands out Emmys. It is time for Jerusalem to start giving out Herzls.