Keep Dreaming: Fighting for the Zionist dream

If this is a fight we are going to win, then those of us who live here need to explain why we do to those who don’t.

Panel at Jpost Conference 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Panel at Jpost Conference 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
While The Jerusalem Post conference that recently made headlines was – with its stellar lineup of speakers and an engaged audience of more than a thousand – undoubtedly a success, it wasn’t so for the reasons I would have hoped.
Convened in New York under the heading “Fighting for the Zionist Dream,” there were moments when it might have been more aptly titled “Struggling with the Zionist Nightmare.” The looming threat of a nuclear Iran, the unprecedented campaign of delegitimization being waged against us, the backstabbing rampant among Israeli politicians, and the acrimony between some of them and others who have reached the highest echelons of our security and intelligence agencies dominated the agenda and grabbed the headlines, overshadowing the things I came to talk about.
Which were what? As vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, I was invited to participate in a panel on Israel-Diaspora relations.0 I was there to involve the participants in a dialogue on the meaning of the Zionist dream today, to discuss with them ways of becoming engaged in making Israel all that it might be, to talk about the significance of Israel in contemporary Jewish life, and to listen to what it is that they, as Jews in America, feel they need from us. How trivial.
While the session was well received, it was apparent that for those present these things weren’t nearly as engrossing as a good fight – whether that meant taking sides with regard to our internal affairs or arming themselves against our detractors. I understand that. Moreover, I sincerely appreciate the unabashed support for a strong Israel that was palpable among the conference participants. The Jewish state is under attack, and until such time as its future is secured, anything not to do directly with its defense is perceived as a distraction. My problem is that I perceive things differently.
More specifically, I am deeply worried by the diminishing number of those for whom the need for a Jewish state is axiomatic and for whom the Zionist idea is fundamental to their sense of self. This growing legion of American Jews – those whose backing we can no longer count on, particularly noticeable among the younger generation – are the first casualties of the PR war being conducted against us. And I am concerned about how we are going about winning them back.
Essentially, there are three approaches to the problem, that a plethora of organizations are advancing.
1. Israel makes the world a better place. Change the conversation. Don’t dwell on the conflicts Israel is embroiled in but rather on the country’s incredible achievements, which are both legendary and real. By now any seasoned Israel advocate can recite a litany of them, ranging from drip irrigation to chip origination, and encompassing medical technology, solar energy, desalination and social innovation – all inspired by the likes of those who have made their way onto our impressive list of Nobel laureates, which Israel has more of in absolute numbers than all the Arab countries combined, and more per capita than most any other nation in the world, including the United States, Germany, France, Canada, South Africa and Australia.
My problem with this approach is not with its veracity, but with its implication. What if Israel were not making the world a better place? What other state feels compelled to justify its existence on the basis of its contribution to the advancement of humanity?
2. Israel is an enlightened society, worthy of support. Casting Israel as illiberal is blatantly erroneous and probably pernicious. Despite our many shortcomings (and as regular readers of this column will attest to, I have no inhibition about pointing them out and railing against them), we are among the most broad-minded, tolerant and just societies on the face of this earth. Gay rights and gender equality, maternity and paternity leave, comprehensive health care, freedom of religion and protection of the proletariat are all firmly embedded in our legal system, reflecting the fundamental commitments detailed in our Declaration of Independence to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” in the pursuit of “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.”
And if we didn’t? How absurd that we must defend our record on human rights in an attempt to silence those who would dismantle the nation state of the Jewish people. While calls for regime change are not uncommon, no one ever suggests that even the most malevolent and repressive countries in the world have no right to exist. I sometimes shudder to think what would be if we weren’t “the only democracy in the Middle East.”
3. Facts, facts, facts. Arm our student activists and community leaders with accurate information. Provide them with talking points. Counter the baseless claims of our adversaries with an honest narrative.
Hugely important, but, I fear, largely irrelevant to holding on to our own. Firstly, who cares about our bickering anymore? Secondly, every bit of truth we produce will in any case be countered by another big lie. Never has the expression “Don’t confuse me with the facts” been more pertinent to an argument than the one we find ourselves entangled in today.
Don’t get me wrong. I sincerely commend the efforts of all those who are engaged in promoting each of these three lines of defense and firmly believe that they must continue unabated. I just worry that none of them address a question that is far more fundamental for so many Diaspora Jews: Why Israel? Or more to the point, why do we need a Jewish state in the first place?
To answer that question, those of us who live here need to articulate the reasons we do to those who don’t. I would like to believe that regardless of the deleterious circumstances that may have brought some of us here, we remain not because we are anxious about living elsewhere but because we are enamored of the idea of creating a society that gives full expression to the very best that our civilization has to offer. We are energized by the challenges of applying Jewish values to the public domain, of creating a modern society rooted in tradition, of resolving the tension between being both parochial and universalistic, and of embracing our calling to be at one and the same time both “a chosen people” and “a light unto the nations.”
And we must convey all of this with a keenness that excites others about the possibility of engaging with us in the arduous yet ever so fulfilling task of state building, whatever our critics might say about our efforts. In short, we need to promote Zionist education, to stop fighting and to keep dreaming. That’s the message I hope I succeeded in conveying to those who heeded The Jerusalem Post’s call to come to New York to fight for the Zionist dream. Next year in Jerusalem.

The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of The Jewish Agency Executive.