What would Herzl say?

Diaspora Jews and criticizing Zion

A PROTESTER wears a shirt with Theodor Herzl on it at a rally in Tel Aviv (photo credit: REUTERS)
A PROTESTER wears a shirt with Theodor Herzl on it at a rally in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The rabbis took no gruff: say little and do a lot, they advised, even if they didn’t always practice it. It is not always easy, however, to distinguish between the two. Posting on Facebook is probably not ‘doing,’ but showing up to a rally might be. This dichotomy is even more troubled when it comes to Israel. If a participant walks off a Birthright trip and no one is there to film it, did it even happen? Those who mistake gesture for action misread the Zionist imperative and bless a rhetoric of blame that would have been antithetical to the those who envisioned and formed the State of Israel.
Zionism sought the equation that would solve a key problem of Jewish history. Jews would go home, and no longer would Divine punishment be subcontracted out to Cossacks and Poles, Spanish Inquisitors and Rhinish marauders. Zionism conjured a country, but it could not quite change the world. The hatred and cruelty visited on the Jews in the four corners of the earth came back with them to the four cubits of the globe they sought to make their own. Like Odysseus toeing the sand of Ithaca, coming home is also always a kind of going back.
At the very center of the Zionist revolution was a change in Jewish action and the logic of Jewish cause and effect. The esoteric and erratic causality of prayer, righteousness and suffering would give way to equations of tanks and warplanes, clandestine assassinations and facts on the ground. More importantly – and here Zionism’s radicalism is still astounding – the state was to be a vehicle for Jewish destiny and a means of Jewish action. Jews would be judged not just on their piety, but also on their polity.
It is a misreading of Zionism’s core texts to say that criticism is itself an act, regardless of its larger motivations and consequences. The kind of radical action that built Israel had at its root a realist understanding of the challenges the Jews faced, and a churning intuition of what was to come. The men and women who built the state were providing an improbable answer to an impossible question. Zionism was an achievement of the Jewish spirit, but also a ruthlessly responsible taking of the measure of the threats to the Jewish spirit, and the Jewish body.
The early Zionists, though radical in their vision, were practical. Committees were formed, congresses were convened, people moved to the land and began to develop it with their own hands. Famously, the Hebrew word davar encompasses both words and things. Words can be action, but they have to bear the heft of things and the weight of Jewish responsibility.
Leaving a Birthright trip, criticizing Israel from the sidelines or preposterously ignoring the threats Israel faces as the staging ground for imposing a kind of litmus test on its politics are not continuations of this tradition. They are betrayals of it. The argument that a smaller Israel is a better one, or that Israel, against whom incessant wars of aggression are constantly waged, is itself the culprit cannot possibly masquerade as fruit of the Zionist vine.
Critique is a quintessentially Jewish enterprise. Jews have always in some sense blamed themselves for the disasters that have befallen them; “because of our sins, we were exiled.” As Ruth Wisse has shown, this impulse towards self-criticism was always an assertion of agency that doubled as an extraordinary survival mechanism. However, importing it wholesale into the Israeli context is inappropriate. The claim that “the reality in Israel today is one where the greatest threat to Jewish sovereignty comes from the Jews themselves” merges a laudable instinct towards critique with a solipsism that eschews the clear-eyed reading of reality that Zionism always demanded.
The correct route for American Jews who care about Israel but are critical of some its policies is undoubtedly a difficult one. Short of moving to Israel themselves, how can they influence change on the ground? Should they even have a right to? These are all vital questions. But what is clear is that words unaccompanied by constructive action are not congruous with the Zionist tradition. The kinds of action that Israel demands are as varied as the efforts that led to its creation. The simple truth is that Israel doesn’t need criticism from Diaspora Jewry; it needs contribution.
In specifying the form this contribution might take, pride of place must be given to aliya, albeit reimagined for a global age. The American Diaspora has always been uniquely resistant to the imperative of Zionist emigration, but the equation might be changing.
The shifting demographics of American Jews are by now well known, but the consequences are counterintuitive. Israel, far from the revanchist Rubicon that forces American Jews to “check their liberalism or Zionism at the door,” in Peter Beinart’s phrase, might be the thing that saves Jewish liberalism and liberal Judaism. Protesting in Rabin Square against the new Nation-State Law is far more likely to inflect the course of Jewish history than saying kaddish for Palestinians in Golden Gate Park or Brooklyn. Most American Jews of the left have likely never heard of Meretz. In Israel, they would be plotting its post-Bibi return to relevance.
Just as a friend whose critique can only be funded by undeniable underlying love, so too those liberal Jews who level incessant criticism bear a burden to likewise demonstrate some measure of solidarity if their criticism is to be taken seriously. Too often, they fail this test. Zionism, and Jewish peoplehood, demand more.
The writer holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Harvard University. He is currently a J.D. candidate at Stanford Law School. His first book, This Year in Jerusalem: Israel and Jewish American Literature, is forthcoming from S.U.N.Y Press.