It’s hard to be an American Zionist these days. The media is spreading lies about Israel, college campuses are increasingly anti-Israel and the Israelis keep saying, “if you were really a Zionist you would move to Israel.”
Despite these limitations, American Zionism doesn’t seem to be going away. In fact, 400 American delegates and alternates flew to Israel this week to participate in the 37th World Zionist Congress. At a meeting with the press, the participants discussed how they view the role of the American Zionist.
Unsurprisingly, in these times of widespread misinformation, many of the delegates focused on the subject of education. Rabbi Sion Setton of the Ohavei Tzion slate emphasized the importance of elementary school education for installing a love of the Land of Israel early on, but much discussion was devoted to the issue of the apathy or antipathy of most American Jewish college students to the Jewish State. Yehuda Friedman of Mizrahi asked, “Have we failed to properly educate this generation?” He encouraged the other delegates to rethink the model and focus on programs like Birthright which bring people to Israel. According to Jonathan Kadoch (Alliance for New Zionist Vision), Zionism’s stagnant status needs to be change if college kids are going to connect with Israel.
Education is not just for children. The power of rabbis in shaping community views on Israel was recognized by more than one speaker. Rabbi Rachel Ain of the Mercaz slate pointed out that AIPAC has been investing in rabbis in recent years, because the organization appreciates the ripple effect pro-Israel rabbis have on their congregations. Rabbi Nolan Lebowitz (also of Mercaz) recounted how his extremely Zionist parents made their first organized trip to Israel with their rabbi.
Although the need for education was widely agreed upon, the exact message was not unanimous. Morton Klein of ZOA feels strongly that in order for American Jews to stop feeling embarrassed of Israel, they need a real understanding of the issues, especially the Islamic war against the Jewish State. On the other hand, Hiam Simon (Hatikvah) felt it was more important to allow people to connect with Israel in their own way, without forcing everyone to accept one truth.
With all the efforts Israelis have been putting into refuting media lies and calling out publications for misleading headlines, education seems to be a common goal for American and Israelis alike.
But what about aliyah? As Rabbi Josh Weinberg (ARZA) pointed out, Zionism must be adapted to a reality in which large Jewish communities are not making aliyah. Susie Baumohl, National Program Director of the American Zionist Movement, made quite a convincing argument that there is a strong role for Zionists who remain in the United States. In addition to the educational tasks, which are of paramount importance, American Jews are the backbone of funding for Israeli projects and non-profit organizations.
As long as there is a strong American Jewish community, there will be people who feel a strong responsibility to Israel despite not having any plans to move to the country. The challenge these Zionists have is to provide young people with facts that make them proud of Israel and with the emotional connection to the land which will carry over to future generations.