We need to focus on the Jews that love Israel, not those who are anti - opinion

The bleak narrative of anti-Zionists overlooks most people who cherish Israel and oppose antisemitism.

 TAGLIT BIRTHRIGHT event at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem in 2017. (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
TAGLIT BIRTHRIGHT event at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem in 2017.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

I could define my first American speaking tour since coronavirus by the angry Jew who called herself an “Un-Jew,” regretted Israel’s establishment, then insisted there is “Good Hamas” and “Bad Hamas.” I could define it by The New York Times article, “Inside the unraveling of American Zionism,” again claiming American Jewry is abandoning Israel. I could join the Israel Indignation Industry in justifiably lamenting the anti-Israel hatred, validated by new American Jewish leaders seeking to undo the Zionist consensus linking statehood, peoplehood and religion – the “un-Jews.” I could note how this anti-Zionism feeds Jew-hatred.

But that bleak narrative overlooks most Jews and non-Jews I encountered. They cherish Israel, oppose antisemitism and cheer a positive celebration of Identity Zionism.

In 2009, the always-insightful Jack Wertheimer called yet-another avalanche of pending-divorce articles discovering American Jews who “loved Israel blindly” but were now “learning to ask hard questions,” the “journalistic cliché of our time.” If the historian Simon Rawidowicz labeled the Jews “the ever-dying people,” hysterics caricature American Jews and Israelis as The Ever-Distancing People. The Jewish establishment and too many Israelis believe this con – empowering the un-Jews, the negators while making the Israel-conversation too defensive.

Calling all demographers – and their funders! We need demographic studies proving that this shrill elite of rabidly anti-Zionist professors, rabbis and activists hasn’t broken American Jewry’s bond with Israel. The Times article was subtle. Its subtitle proclaimed: “How a new generation of Jewish leaders [my italics] began to rethink their support for Israel.” Marc Tracy acknowledged the Pew study showing 82% of American Jews supporting Israel (along with over 70% of all Americans).

Jews aren’t the ever-dying people, but the ever-reviving people – and the Ever-Bonded People. Most of us know our fates and our nerve-endings are intertwined such that when one of us is hurt; many of us bleed, and that when one of us soars; it lifts us all. We don’t need the Israel-bashing Jew-haters who blur into the Jew-baiting Israel haters to remind us that their Israel-obsession reflects the traditional (negative) obsession with Jews. And most of us are not so short-sighted as to allow passing differences to fray this eternal bond.

First Birthright Israel Group from France in Tel Aviv, after the pandemic outbreak (credit: VOLOSNIKOVA ALISA)First Birthright Israel Group from France in Tel Aviv, after the pandemic outbreak (credit: VOLOSNIKOVA ALISA)

The nevertheless popular doom-and-gloom narrative minimizes Birthright’s 700,000 inspired alumni and the Birthright bounce. The number of American Jews who have visited Israel doubled to over 50%. Birthright spawned a new counter-elite confronting the un-Jews.

The entire Israel Experience proves that while Jewish intellectuals go universalistic and Woke, hundreds of thousands of increasingly-secular American Jews realize that without God in their lives they need Zionism as their gateway to Jewish meaning.

I often riff from Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind to explain how Zionism nurtures a counter-cultural identity many young Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish, seek. While researching in India, Haidt disdained Indians’ primitive-seeming rituals – until he realized they were useful props for transcending the self. Haidt summarizes his adviser Richard Schweder’s teaching that everyone needs Identity – the I, which Americans master; Community – the us; and Divinity – the eternal. These three pillars support a bracing critique of secular liberal culture’s self-obsession while illustrating how Zionism delivers community as Judaism offers Divinity.

Nonetheless, I sought a less religious notion because “Divinity” too excludes many. I finally realized what the paradigm misses; it’s what American Judaism often lacks: purpose, a sense of mission.

Rethinking the framework as Identity-Community-Mission creates a more activist model – celebrating being, belonging, and becoming. It’s lovely to be Jewish. It can be comforting, even exhilarating, to belong to this historic people. But we have lasted this long because we were not passive, we are meaning-makers, freedom-fighters, do-gooders, ever-becoming better as dreamers and builders.

Judaism is not just an heirloom. My great-grandparents passed on no valuables. All I inherited from them is something invaluable – pride in being Jewish, delight in belonging to this extraordinary extended family, and a strong sense of mission, not just to stay Jewish but to use my Judaism and Zionism to find meaning in my life while bettering the world.

The corona crisis reinforced how lucky we are to belong to this people – and how much we need one another.

Zionism counters the nihilistic Woke Left’s self-hatred of Israel and America along with the nihilistic, hyper-aggressive Right’s hatred of outsiders. Since establishing Israel in 1948, Zionism’s mission involves defending and perfecting Israel. That doesn’t mean you only defend Israel because it’s perfect; rather, defending Israel includes perfecting Israel – strengthening it from within.

This is constructive patriotism. No people ever improved by hating themselves. Such negativity neutralizes the optimism necessary to stretch, to reform.

Zionism also counters modern society’s hyper-individualism, technological addiction, materialistic madness, and enervating anomie by providing community, human contact, inspiring narratives, constructive values – and work to be done together.

Recently, Israel accused Palestinian human rights organizations of bankrolling the terrorist PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) without first publicizing evidence showing how Palestinians fool the world by slapping on noble-sounding names. A student asked me accusingly what I thought. The “aha” tone suggested – “you see, Israel’s unworthy, why should it exist… ” I replied, “like every move Israel makes in its fight against enemies, as I learn more, I’ll have one of two opportunities: either it’s a chance to again defend Israel, or it’s a chance to roll up my sleeves and improve Israel.”

That is Identity Zionism: fostering a rich, resilient, multidimensional, historically-infused identity in a world that often eviscerates the self; mobilizing our historic community in a world that often invites disunity not unity; and plunging in purposefully, to fulfill the Jewish mission of making our homes, our homeland and our world, better than they were yesterday – even if they are not yet as good as we will make them tomorrow.

The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, 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 just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.