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Israel at 70

It’s time to reclaim the Z-word, Zionism

By Gil Troy

JERUSALEM (JTA) – All too often, when I ask campus organizations that are pro-Israel and deeply Zionist why they avoid using the “Z-word” in their messaging and literature, I’m told, “Zionism doesn’t poll well.”

True, not polling well is one of today’s  great sins. But imagine what our world would be like if our ancestors feared the polls. The American Revolution wouldn’t have polled well. Suggestions that Northerners crush slavery in 1860 wouldn’t have polled well. And proposing a new Jewish state in 1897 wouldn’t have polled well either. At the time, most European Jews believed enlightened Europe was outgrowing antisemitism – that polled well.

Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, leaning over the balcony of the Drei Konige Hotel during the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, Aug. 29, 1897. (GPO via Getty Images)

Let’s learn from our heroic predecessors – and from feminists, gays and African-Americans, whose first attempts to defend their rights didn’t poll well either. Take back the night, resist internalizing our oppressors’ hatred of us.

Reclaim the Z-word: Zionism.

You cannot defeat those delegitimizing Israel by surrendering Zionism, the movement that established Israel. If a century ago Zionism brought pride back to the term “Jew,” Jews and non-Jews today must bring pride back to the term “Zionist.”

In his book on “the strange career” of the “troublesome” N-word, the African-American Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy explains the “protean nature” of political words. Groups can triumph with linguistic magic by defining themselves and their aims; when enemies define them, they lose. Kennedy warns against allowing the hater to define the hated, and that’s what is happening.

First, “shame on them”: Shame on the anti-Zionists who single out Jewish nationalism, meaning Zionism, in a world organized by nationalisms, and call it “racist.” Shame on them for libeling a democratic movement. Shame on them for ignoring Judaism’s national-religious duality, which allows non-Jews to convert into the Jewish religion and join the Jewish nation, making Zionism among the least biologically-based, least racist, most permeable forms of nationalism. And shame on them for racializing the national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians – inflaming hatred, making peace more elusive.

Alas, shame on us, too. Zionism should be a more popular term than “Israel.” Until 1948, Zionism was the movement affirming that Jews are a people with a homeland and that like other nations, Jews have the right to establish a state on that land (others may, too – nationalism involves collective consciousness, not exclusive land claims). Since 1948, Zionism has been the movement to perfect that state.

Like all countries, Israel makes good and bad moves. If you’re anti-Zionist, you reject Israel’s very existence. If you’re critical of Israel somehow, you’re a thinking human being.

America’s president offers an opportunity to understand that distinction. The 77 percent of American Jews who hate Donald Trump still remain proudly American. Why can’t we love Israel and Zionism regardless of particular prime ministers or policies, too?

Here’s the real question for Jews: Do you feel connected to Israel, today’s great Jewish people project? If so, you stick with it because you belong to the Jewish people. And you help perfect that state through Zionism – embracing different schools of Zionist thought. It could be Religious Zionism or left-leaning Labor Zionism or right-leaning Revisionist Zionism or Cultural Zionism.

In honor of Israel’s 70th birthday, I just published The Zionist Ideas, updating Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea. Adding the “s” broadens the conversation, from the 38 thinkers in his book to the 170 in mine. As part of its publication and in honor of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, I am urging readers to host Zionist salons, home-based conversations addressing “what Zionism and Israel mean to me today.”

Establishing Israel in 1948 fulfilled the Zionist idea – that powerless Jews need a state as a refuge, immediately, and as a platform to flourish and express Jewish values, long-term. Seventy years later, debating Zionist ideas welcomes debate from left to right, religious and nonreligious, about what Zionism and Israel can mean to me as Jew, as a person – and how some of these ideas can help Israel become a model democracy.

That’s why Zionism didn’t end in 1948 – the debates continue.

If Zionism as an idea asserts that Jews are a people with a homeland, and Zionism as a movement builds, protects and perfects the state, Zionism as a value is more personal. Zionists see it as a way of explaining Judaism as a culture, a civilization, an ethnicity, a tradition, not just a religion. It anchors us in a self-indulgent, throwaway society, providing a sense of community in an often lonely, alienating culture, and a sense of mission in an often aimless world.

Reclaiming Zionism often entails moving from Political Zionism – asking what we can do for our country – to Identity Zionism – asking, with apologies to JFK, what your country can do for you. There’s a reason why Israel ranks 11th on the world “Happiness Index,” despite the nation’s many challenges. Most Israelis are instinctively Identity Zionists. Their identity blossoms from the Zionist state – which appreciates strong family values, robust community ties, deep patriotic feelings – and a broader sense of mission in life. That’s part of the package Birthright participants and other tourists appreciate when visiting Israel. And that’s the recipe that makes so many Israelis happy despite the rush-rush of their society and the roar-roar of some Palestinian neighbors demanding their destruction.

Zionism isn’t the only way or the best way, it’s just my way, my people’s way. I’m not smart enough to improvise another framework.

Identity Zionism includes commitments to Jewish education, Jewish action, to making Jewish ethics come alive, to Jewish peoplehood and Jewish community – these are core Zionist values I, for one, would – in Churchill’s words – never surrender.

Today, the #MeToo conversation spotlights how often victims – especially women – internalize persecution, letting bullies win. Anyone interested in abandoning Zionism first should ask: How much of this internalizes the delegitimization campaign?

If we don’t stand up for ourselves, who are we? If we let those haters win, what are we? And if we don’t start celebrating and reclaiming the Z-word now – at Israel’s 70th – then when?

Gil Troy is the author of The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work The Zionist Idea. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University.



How 1948 changed American Jews

By Ben Sales

(JTA) – One year after Israel’s establishment, in the dead of night, three students ascended a tower at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and raised the Israeli flag.

The next morning, the Conservative rabbinical school’s administration took it down.

David Ben-Gurion, who was to become Israel’s first prime minister, reads the new nation’s Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv, May 14, 1948. (Zoltan Kluger/Israeli Government Press Office via Getty Images)

That act of surreptitious Zionist protest was one of several at JTS during the years surrounding 1948, when Israel gained independence, Michael Greenbaum wrote in an essay in Tradition Renewed, a JTS history edited by Jack Wertheimer. Students supported the new Jewish state. However, the seminary’s chancellor, Louis Finkelstein, opposed American Judaism focusing all its efforts across an ocean, and also needed to appease a board wary of Jewish nationalism.

But the students persisted. Once, they sang the Israeli anthem “Hatikvah” following graduation ceremonies. Another time, they convinced their colleagues at the Union Theological Seminary, the Protestant school next door, to play the anthem from their bell tower.

Today, nearly all American Jewish institutions are vocally, even passionately pro-Israel. But even in the years after the Jewish state won its independence 70 years ago, that feeling was not yet universal.

Before the Holocaust, Zionism itself was polarizing among American Jews. Many, especially in the Reform movement, felt support for a Jewish homeland would cause their loyalty to America to be called into question. The other side was represented by Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court justice, who saw no conflict between American values and Zionist aspirations.

By the time Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948, American Jews, scarred by images of the Holocaust and Nazism and inspired by newsreels of tanned kibbutzniks, were largely supportive of Zionism. But they were not yet turning out for organized political advocacy and mass tourism to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Instead they were getting used to the idea of a Jewish sovereign state – gradually incorporating it into their culture, prayers and religious outlook.

“After the mid-1930s, the majority of American Jews had come to be positive one way or another about the idea of a Jewish homeland,” said Hasia Diner, director of the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History at New York University. “While 1948 on the one hand was very exciting and [had] lots of communal programming and celebrations, it was slightly anticlimactic in the sense that opposition had been gone for at least 10 years.”

North American Jewish support for Israel was turbocharged by the Truman administration’s quick recognition of the state, and by the Israeli army’s victory against the Arab states in its war of independence.

In February of that year, Golda Meyerson (later Meir), raised $400,000 in one day (the equivalent of some $4 million today) on behalf of the provisional state on just one stop in Montreal. In the weeks following independence, she started a drive in the United States and Canada for $75 million more (or about $750 million in 2018 dollars).

“There was a sense that once America recognized the state, Zionism had won, and everyone wanted to link with the winners,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University. “It was growing very quickly, it took in all of these refugees, which solved that problem.”

After Israel secured its independence, American Jews began to engage with the new nation in small ways. There was no rush of tourism, but American Jews would show their support by purchasing goods from Israel, reading books about Israel or holding Israeli dance classes in their community centers.

“Here’s this new state they had to kind of develop this relationship with, [and] the cultural realm was really the place it was happening,” Emily Alice Katz, author of the 2015 book Bringing Zion Home, told the New Books Network podcast. “There were these years in which it wasn’t as much about rallying the troops for these massive outpourings of aid or political influence, but it was more of this coming to know Israel.”

Part of the reticence to support Israel stemmed from the ethos of 1950s America, with its focus on suburban growth, the “melting pot” and assimilation. Against that backdrop, American Jews were trying to prove they belonged as social and cultural equals in American society. So again they were fearful of “dual loyalty” charges that could stem from vocal support for a Jewish state.

In a watershed moment in that debate, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion sent a letter in 1950 to Jacob Blaustein, president of the American Jewish Committee, which for many years had been hesitant to throw its support behind the Jewish national movement. Ben-Gurion pledged not to speak for American Jewry or intervene in its affairs, and to dial down his insistence that American Jews move to Israel. In exchange, Blaustein recognized “the necessity and desirability” of supporting Israel in its nation-building.

“The 1950s were the heyday of American Jewish assimilation,” said Sara Hirschhorn, an Israel studies professor at Oxford University. “It was the postwar era, when American Jews were benefiting from the same things everyone else was benefiting from – the GI bill, all kinds of ways for people to move into the middle class – and they wanted to continue to make the most of that.”

Nevertheless, Israel began to show up in American Jewish religious practice. A Conservative prayer book published in 1949 had readings about Israel, but not the prayer for Israel that is now standard in many prayer books. Religious schools gradually shifted their pronunciation of Hebrew from European Ashkenazic to Sephardic-inflected Israeli. Non-Zionist religious leaders, like Finkelstein of JTS, eventually were sidelined.

The biggest shift, Sarna said, was American Jewry viewing Judaism’s history as one of “destruction and rebirth.” That outlook posed the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel as its two poles and, Sarna said, remains dominant in American Jewish thinking today. He noted that Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day and its Independence Day are commemorated about a week apart by design.

“The theme of destruction and rebirth becomes a very important theme in the lives of American Jews,” he said. “So much so that American Jews don’t know the history of Zionism going back, and have bought the idea that it’s all about the Holocaust being linked to the birth of the State of Israel.”

American Jews became more open in their celebration of Israel about a decade after 1948. Exodus, the 1958 novel by Leon Uris that painted Israel in heroic terms, was a national best-seller and was adapted into a popular movie in 1960 starring Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint. In 1961, the Yiddish star Molly Picon starred in a Broadway musical about a visit by American Jews to Israel, “Milk and Honey,” which ran for over 500 performances. A few years later, the Israel Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair showcased the country’s charms. And as Cold War tensions continued into the 1960s, Israel began to be seen as a U.S. ally against the Soviet Union.

In 1967, Israel’s existence was again threatened by Arab armies. Between the anxious buildup to that war and Israel’s lightning victory, American Jewish acceptance of Israel had turned to adulation, placing the Jewish state at the center of their identity. The few dissenters are found on the non-Zionist left, among various haredi Orthodox movements, and in the quiet grumblings of some mainstream leaders and rabbis who think the emphasis on Israel has thwarted the development of distinctly American Judaisms.

“Slowly but surely, Israel became more important for American Jews,” Sarna said. “1967 is at once a reflection of Israel’s growing importance, but at the same time it is a great intensification of Israel’s centrality.”

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