“We need to talk.
“Yes, it has to be now and no it can’t wait.
“We have a good time together, no? You visit me and it’s fun. But then what?
“You come, eat my falafel, and explore my ravines. You see your cousins in Tel Aviv, cry at the memorials and pray in the ancient synagogues. You say you love me, and will keep me in your heart forever. If you forget me, you declare, it would be like forgetting your right hand. As if I haven’t heard that before.
“It wasn’t always like this. Before you had me, you yearned for me. Remember? Remember when the idea of me was nothing but a fantastic dream? Where are we now? Sometimes, it’s like you want nothing to do with me.”
It’s the conversation you dreaded but saw coming.
The Jewish world needs to open the door to the difficult but necessary conversation which stems from the fact that, for many, the roots of modern Zionism aren’t nearly deeply entrenched or relevant enough anymore.
The first step in this direction must be acknowledging that the question “Why should we care about Israel?” cannot be dismissed with a simple answer. Indeed, engaging this very question, on a sophisticated level worthy of contemporary discourse, is entirely necessary if we want to save Israel from falling into total disaffection or disregard.
For Jews in the Diaspora, “Zionism” and “Ahavat Yisrael” are all too often theoretical concepts dealt with solely through abstractions and historical terms, detached from everyday experience and personal identity.
Obscure notions of Jewish peoplehood and nationhood fail to evoke or sustain entrenched personal identities. To the modern Jew, Zionism and anti-Semitism are predominantly historical phenomena belonging to a time and place when Jews were the other in European society. A Jewish state was the answer to centuries of persecution and anti-Semitism. But if we are no longer Alfred Dreyfus, what need is there for a Jewish state?
The Dreyfus affair, perhaps the seminal spark of modern Zionism, is about as relevant to the modern Jew as the Bundist movement, chapters best left to the historians. Dreyfus was a Jewish French artillery officer in the 1890’s wrongly convicted of treason for passing French military secrets to Germany. The then unknown Hungarian-Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl was assigned to cover the trial. Walking through the grand Parisian streets and squares, he was shocked by what he saw. In mass rallies around the city, the civilized and cultured French citizens bellowed, “Death to the Jews!”
Though Herzl wasn’t passionately connected to his Jewish identity, the vicious demonstrations aroused his pintele yid, you could say. “Death to the Jews!” the protesters chanted. Not “Death to the traitor!” or “Death to the guilty,” but “Death to the Jews.”
This unabashed anti-Semitism befuddled Herzl’s beliefs that the Enlightenment, assimilation, and emancipation would allow the Jews to be full members of European society. “I recognized the emptiness,” Herzl writes in his diary, “and futility of trying to ‘combat’ anti-Semitism.”
At this time, supposedly, Herzl realizes that only through their own state could Jews be free. One year later he publishes Der Judenstaat, The Jewish State, effectively setting the Zionist project in motion. The First Zionist Conference is convened one year after that. The ball continues rolling, and the quest for Jewish sovereignty purportedly reaches its climax in 1948.
This is the mythology which frames Zionism. The historical accuracy of the Dreyfus affair’s influence on Herzl isn’t important. What matters is that we are no longer Alfred Dreyfus.
Jewish fears and desires today are radically different than they were in 1896. Anti-Semitism isn’t a tangible motivating factor for most American Jews. That Jews qua Jews have reached a comfortable and protected position in secular society is wondrous in its own right. However, it also forces us to reexamine the notion of Israel as a place of perennial refuge. Israel isn’t important because it’s a safe haven to which we can flee if the tide of American pluralism shifts. And Israel certainly isn’t worthy of our support because cell-phones were developed there.
Why then, should we care about Israel?
We need a new narrative that speaks to the fact that, for reasons outside our control, we were given the opportunity to act in historic times. Zionism did not end in 1948 (or ’67). Zionism, rather, is an ongoing story in which we each have a part to play. It’s a story which consists of an array of multifarious characters and ideologies. The new Zionist discourse must be bipartisan, reflective of this diversity.
Most importantly, we need a Zionism imbued with meaning. For our generation, words like redemption can finally be uttered genuinely and wholeheartedly. We have the choice to play momentous roles in the greatest story ever told. Yet unless we are able to answer the “why,” our grandchildren will inevitably return to weeping along the rivers of Babylon.