The Israel-American Jewry connection has been unravelling for more than a decade now, bemoaned more by American Jews than by Israelis. In the recent interview that Andrew Silow-Caroll held with Eric Alterman, it became clear from Alterman’s point of view that Israel, which had along with the Holocaust become so much a part of Jewish identity, no longer plays that role.
There are a number of reasons. A high degree of Jewish assimilation combined with little Jewish knowledge and a high degree of secularization common to most Americans has made Israel more or less irrelevant to young and even middle-aged Jews. Polls may still show that these Jews say they are proud of Israel, but to the extent they are paying attention to what is going on there now, being proud of Israel has become a feat.
Alterman, whose book, “We Are Not One,” was published recently, restated something that has been said over and over by those who watch Israel with a loving but critical eye. Israelis, and certainly the Israeli government, do not care much about what American Jews think. They no longer need our money, since Israel is one of the world’s major start-up states, and consequently they don’t need our advice.
We are partly at fault too, since too often we kept silent when we should have been outspoken about certain Israeli policies. Too often we excused that silence on the grounds that we don’t live in Israel and therefore do not have to deal with the issues of security that Israel must. This allowed Israel to become dismissive of the views of American and other Diaspora Jews on the grounds that we neither understand nor experience their situation. This Israeli attitude has had the effect of putting off American Jews, who despite their support for Israel feel slighted by it.
Those who have invested deeply in Zionism know that Israel formally proclaims that it is the state of the entire Jewish people and often claims to speak for world Jewry. Unfortunately, neither statement is a reality, given the state’s current government. Which explains my parenthesized title, “W(h)ither Zionism?” My question asks where Zionism is going, and whether it has already reached its destination and is withering, or if it already has withered fully.
Where is Zionism going? To answer the question, we must deal with three matters: the Zionist dream, the Zionist myth, and
The Zionist dream was about the creation of a national homeland for a constantly endangered people. One belief that informed this dream was that if Jews had a country like every other nation, antisemitism would grind to a halt and world Jewry would be safe, perhaps even respected. Another significant belief was that in their own state Jews would realize their prophetic calling to be a “light unto the nations.” For Orthodox Zionists, the state also would be the “beginning of our messianic Redemption.” But if we look carefully at the Zionist agenda in its early theoretical pre-state moment, both secular and religious Zionism were messianic movements in the sense that they both dreamed about completely ameliorating the situation of the Jews and the world.
The Zionist myth came into existence in the wake of the War of Independence and statehood. World Jewry, including Israel’s Jews, were told that the displacement of the Arab population from what became the 1948 State of Israel essentially was their own fault. They all fled because the five Arab states that attacked Israel immediately after its birth promised them that they would return home upon the destruction of Israel in the few days or weeks to come.
From Ari Shavit’s widely read “My Promised Land” and the academic work of the post-Zionist academic historians, we discovered that the Arab population of what was becoming Israel often was driven out of the urban and rural sections of the country that they inhabited. In some cases, they were massacred. These activities against Arab interests did not start in 1948. Kibbutzim that were formed at the beginning of the Zionist enterprise in what was then Palestine often diverted water supplies that served Arab villages to take care of the needs of these fledgling agricultural collectives.
These facts in no way exonerate the Arabs whose violence and terrorism from the 1920s on made mutual enmity a root cause for Israel’s actions. Now, knowing these historical facts takes away a considerable portion of the luster of the magnificent Zionist dream.
So, whither Zionism? I think the answer lies in wither Zionism. Zionism, which was mostly if not completely about creating a Jewish state, achieved that goal in 1948. From then until 1985, Zionism was still alive and well. It generated the life force needed to make the state viable as it dealt with the constant threat of war; the ingathering of Holocaust survivors and other Jews who faced existential danger in Middle Eastern countries, North Africa, Ethiopia and Russia; and the creation of a well-developed and robust economy.
The Zionist dream ended for most Israelis with Israel’s shift from its socialist beginnings to a capitalist economy in 1985. If there are any sectors of Israel’s populations that are still Zionists, they are elderly veteran Israelis, people who have grown up in the heavily ideological kibbutz and moshav movements, politicians who still run on so-called ideological platforms (actually power and pocketbook issues), and settlers.
Up-and-coming Israelis who have benefited tremendously from the move to capitalism are not ideological enough to be living and breathing Zionism as their forebears did. Nor are they particularly motivated by Zionism’s early dreams or thoughtful about Israel’s less-than-perfect history. They are mostly patriotic, but love of your country as it exists does not mean that its generating idea still has relevance. And being the creator of a start-up does not leave much time to concentrate on much else.
The true ideological Zionists are the settlers, especially the Orthodox ones. They claim to be still building the state, and they believe their activities will bring the Messiah. Unfortunately, they often are building the state on stolen land, and they have so little respect for the goyim that being a light unto them is the farthest thing from their minds. Just consider Israeli minister Bezalel Smotrich, who wants to annex the entire West Bank, with its 2.7 million Palestinians. Consider his fellow minister Itamar Ben Gvir, convicted of racist incitement, who considers all Arabs terrorists if not subhuman.
This is withered Zionism at best, and an ugly caricature of classical Zionism at worst. It is not the Zionism that created the State of Israel and its Declaration of Independence. That Zionism’s time has passed.
There are troubled times for us who still love Israel, if not its present government, and who have friends and family there. We have to come to terms with the end of Zionism. I am not an anti-Zionist or a non-Zionist. In a sense, both terms are irrelevant since you cannot be anti- or non- in relation to something that doesn’t really exist anymore.
I am pro-Israel and strongly so, and I think that pro-Israel works for us now.
Despite the present political mess there, “od lo avda tikvatenu,” as Hatikvah says. I haven’t lost hope. I believe the Israeli people will not stand for a diminution of their rights, the destruction of the checks and balances that keep their democracy safe, and capitulation to charedi control of their lives on one side and messianists courting Israel’s diplomatic isolation as a racist pariah state on the other.
For pro-Israel American Jews I would counsel support of the Israeli NGOs working toward societal cohesion between Jews and Israeli Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, religious and secular Israeli Jews, and institutions in Israel and the United States that support education, health, and economic welfare in Israel. Go to GlobalGiving Explore projects Israel on Google. You’ll find many ways to make the hope referred to in Hatikvah a reality in Israel as it faces one of the most critical moments in its post-Zionist history.
Rabbi Dr. Michael Chernick of Teaneck received his doctorate from the Bernard Revel Graduate School and rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. and he is professor emeritus at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.