This Normal Life: Rebranding Zionism

It’s the flow of the weeks and months, the punctuation that the holidays provide, that creates a structure for belonging, for cohesion and for peoplehood.

A new immigrant at Ben-Gurion airport kisses the tarmac as he makes aliya (photo credit: REUTERS)
A new immigrant at Ben-Gurion airport kisses the tarmac as he makes aliya
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I interview people for a living.
Many of the articles I write are for publications outside Israel. For these conversations, I don’t usually identify myself as living in Jerusalem – I want the person I’m speaking with to be the focus of the article, not me. I have a US phone number, so there’s no clue on the Caller ID, either.
But sometimes it’s unavoidable, especially when I’m trying to schedule an interview with someone in California, where the 10-hour difference makes timing tricky. Which is how I wound up hearing this at the beginning of a phone interview I conducted last week.
“So, how did you end up in Israel?” asked Todd, an executive to whom I was speaking about his latest soon-to-be killer app.
Now, I’m not one to shy away from questions about my connection to Israel.
But these days, with BDS exploding all over the news and anti-Semitism unmistakably resurgent, the answer to that question isn’t so simple. It’s hard enough when you’ve gotten to know someone in person, but I had nothing on Todd; it was our first time talking and the first thing he asked.
Was his inquiry benign, just curious small talk? Or would I be representing the entire Jewish people with my response? I needed to choose my words carefully.
I went for the simplest, shortest reply.
“I’m a Zionist,” I told Todd.
And then I immediately started second- guessing myself.
My answer was true – that is how I ended up here – but I wasn’t sure how that term is perceived these days in a post-politically correct America where “isms” of all types are passé at best. To someone harboring even the vaguest uninformed negative preconceptions, Zionism might very well be a grotesque variant of nationalism or racism or fascism, which are all definitely beyond the pale of polite society. For better or worse, Zionism has over the years picked up connotations that are just as likely to provoke as to provide comfort and support.
I know – and you, dear reader, know – that they’re not the same, but I’m not sure I could make the same assumption about Todd.
Has the time come, I wondered, to retire the automatic use of the word Zionist when explaining our connection to this place? “No way,” my friend Batya barked back when I shared my dilemma with her.
“You can’t let other people limit what you say. You need to own the term.”
I’m not so sure, though. Sometimes, a rebranding is in order.
COLUMNIST AMOTZ ASA-EL wrote in The Jerusalem Post earlier this year about the crisis that Conservative Judaism is going through.
“The once dominant Conservative Movement, whose following has plunged since 1990 from nearly 1.5 million to less than a million... is [now] thinking with public-relations experts of changing its name,” Asa-El wrote.
He suggested the new moniker of “Traditionalist Judaism,” in part because it’s accurate, but also because “it will sound both compelling and urgent,” wiping the slate clean from the stigma of its mass exodus of adherents.
In an attempt at, if not fully rebranding Zionism, then at least recrafting the “Why Israel?” elevator pitch with people we don’t yet know, I asked four friends, all immigrants from North America, the same question I’d received from Todd. Naturally, as a group of Jews, we had five different answers.
“It’s a great place to raise kids,” said Ruth. “Israel is such a child-centered country.”
“This is home,” said Ariel. “It just feels right.”
“To have sex,” blurted out Sarah.
Our heads swiveled, Exorcist-like, in her direction.
“Well, it was more to get away from my parents. I felt I couldn’t really be myself on the same continent,” she clarified, and we nodded in uncomfortable understanding.
“I came for a job,” I said – which was also true, although I had proactively sought it out. “Maybe I could sing Israel’s praises about being the Start-up Nation.”
Not if Rabbi Dov Lipman has anything to say about it.
In an article discussing why Israel’s hasbara – its public diplomacy – has failed so miserably, Rabbi Dov Lipman, a Jerusalem Post columnist and former Yesh Atid MK, cites a recent poll conducted in the US that found that “only 7 percent of respondents are drawn to support a country because it is ‘modern,’ a mere 6% are impressed if a country is ‘innovative,’ and a country which is ‘creative’ means something special to just 4%.”
Says Lipman: “We have been bombarding the world touting Israel’s groundbreaking technology. We have tried to win support by promoting the Startup Nation with its drip irrigation, solar energy, cellular phone technology and Waze. But that isn’t working.”
Back to my own focus group, though.
“I came because of the calendar,” said Moshe. “Living in Israel means we share the same holidays – the Jewish holidays, that is. Shavuot, not the Fourth of July; Rosh Hashana, not Labor Day.”
Moshe’s take resonated with me.
Holidays, perhaps more than anything else, define a nation. Yes, there are important shared values, like democracy and decency, and the moral and legal truths emblazoned in a country’s constitution.
But on a day-to-day basis, it’s not the money, the language or the food of a country as much as the flow of the weeks and months, the punctuation that the holidays provide, that creates a structure for belonging, for cohesion and peoplehood.
And for the Jewish nation, the most important “holiday” of them all is the one that recurs week after week without fail: Shabbat, the Jewish people’s greatest invention. This is not a religious argument. Shabbat in Israel is a day of distinction, no matter whether you’re deep in prayer in the most ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Bnei Brak, sipping a latte in Tel Aviv or out for a hike and a barbecue.
The streets simply feel different on Shabbat and holidays. There’s a sense that work is far away on this day, even for the most secular Israeli. Indeed, even when I worked in the center of the country, although virtually everyone at my company was non-observant, there was never an expectation that you had to come in on Shabbat. Work emails slowed to a trickle. Shabbat was a day for play; a day of being mindful.
HOW IMPORTANT is the calendar? Hebrew University professor Rachel Elior explains that when the Pharisees were fighting for supremacy over the Sadducees some 2,000 years ago, they introduced a new calendar. The priests held by a solar calendar; the rabbis promoted a lunar one. The two calendars were completely out of sync. Yom Kippur on one calendar would never fall on the same date as Yom Kippur on the other. Only one side could – and ultimately did – win.
If you have a connection to the holidays of the Jews, then there’s no better place – no, there’s no other place at all – where you can live according to the Jewish national calendar than right here.
It’s what, despite the deep rifts in Israeli society, has forged us into a single state and keeps us together.
So here’s my modest proposal: The next time someone asks me how I ended up in Israel, maybe I won’t invoke Zionism, with all its baggage, justified or not. This does not in any way diminish my own feelings of Zionism – I will say it loud and strong to the appropriate groups. But to the Todds I encounter on the phone from time to time, maybe I’ll respond instead: “Because I’m a proud Jewish calendarist.” 
The writer specializes in technology, start-ups and the entrepreneurs behind them. More at