Zionism isn't what it used to be

That's the good news. The bad news is that Zionism is not what it needs to be.

Theodor Herzl great 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Theodor Herzl great 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Zionism isn't what it used to be. And for that, we all have a great deal to be thankful. Imagine if more than 100 years after the founding of the movement we were still confronting the tragedy of Jewish homelessness and helplessness, of no common language with which to speak to one another, of no collective experience out of which to create a contemporary culture, of no representation in the family of nations, of no sovereign society through which to express the ethos of our traditions and of dependence on the goodwill of others for our well-being. The first century of the Zionist enterprise has been an incredible success by any standard of measurement, and Israel's achievements and contribution to the betterment not only of the Jewish people but of humanity as a whole have assuredly surpassed even the most optimistic expectations of those whose dreams served as the foundations for this most amazing home that we have managed to build for ourselves. But that is the good news. The bad news is that Zionism is not what it needs to be. No one is more accountable for this situation than the few hundred participants of the Zionist General Council, myself included, who are convening this week in Jerusalem to set the future course of the World Zionist Organization. This is the same WZO founded by Theodor Herzl more than a hundred years ago that set the Zionist enterprise in motion, the same WZO that David Ben-Gurion chaired as a government-in-the-making on the eve of Israel's independence. Yet today, many would be surprised to learn that it still exists, and few express any interest in its activities. That's not because either the post-Zionists or the anti-Zionists have been victorious. Sadly, it is because the Zionist movement has ceased to inspire. It is the collective responsibility of all who hold the Zionist cause dear to rectify the situation. There are ways to go about doing that. IMAGINE A ZIONIST CONGRESS as a festival of ideological debate, cultural programs, study, celebration, and strategic planning - as well as a showplace for cutting-edge projects happening throughout Israel and the Diaspora. Imagine a foundation for Zionist innovation supporting novel endeavors proposed by anyone with a good idea, Herzl houses set up in conjunction with Hillel houses and Jewish community centers, conveying the story of Zionism in a compelling manner and serving as stage and studio for the expression and creation of a contemporary Zionist vision. Imagine Zionist havurot, clubs of like-minded individuals meeting regularly to discuss Israeli literature, music, art and film, revisiting classical Zionist sources, and considering what they really mean when they declare "next year in Jerusalem." Imagine social networks created in cyberspace, focusing on varied dimensions of the Zionist enterprise, reaching out to the unaffiliated in a changing world in which virtual communities are quickly overtaking traditional organizational frameworks as the preferred meeting ground of the next generation. These are but a few of the ways in which the Zionist cause might be revitalized and rescued from being reduced to advocacy on Israel's behalf and the defense of Jews everywhere. As important as these causes are, they are not the end-all of Zionism which need include a positive dimension as well, a conscious effort to shape the Jewish future in a manner that gives meaning to our proclamations regarding the centrality of Israel in Jewish life. Fervent ideological discourse, grappling with existential questions, readiness for self-sacrifice, self-realization within the collective and the pioneering spirit both catalyzed and characterized the Zionist movement in its prime. Though the challenges we are facing today are very different from those of a century ago, they are no less deserving of our passion. While the history of Zionism is an illustrious one, there is no guarantee that the same will be said about its future. One hundred years from now, will those assessing the second century of the national liberation movement of the Jewish people be able to point to achievements that are in any way comparable to the greatness of the triumphs that have characterized its first 10 decades? None of us will be around to hear the answer, but all of us are here now, able to impact on what it will be. I, for one, believe that the Zionist idea continues to be relevant to Jewish life; those in Jerusalem this week have the responsibility of ensuring that the WZO remain relevant to the life of Zionism. The writer is a member of the Executive of the World Zionist Organization where he represents MERCAZ, the Zionist arm of the worldwide Conservative/Masorti Movement.