Are we living in the post-Zionist era?

This is the Israel season of the Jewish calendar.

I am writing this on Yom Ha’atzmaut, with an eye ahead to Yom Yerushalayim. With all this celebration of Israel going on, it seems odd to raise the question of whether we are living in a post-Zionist era. Isn’t it clear that affiliated American Jews who celebrate Israel’s birth and the re-uniting of Israel’s historical capital are Zionists? And, of course, Israelis are.

Or are they?

A response to this question depends on a definition of Zionism. While there were many forms of Zionism, they all shared certain principles.

First, there was agreement among the various Zionist movements that Zionism was the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. Implicit in this view was that there must be a Jewish state in the Land of Israel with a majority Jewish population.

Second, all agreed that the culture of the state should reflect both historical and nascent Jewish cultural trends.

Third, the state should be the place where a Jew could live a full Jewish life without limitations or the fear of anti-Semitism.

For all these reasons, Zionism of all stripes encouraged aliyah and hoped for the eventual return of all Jews to their homeland.

With the exception of universal aliyah, two-thirds of the classical Zionist agenda has been accomplished. So if Zionism’s main aims have been fulfilled, isn’t the age of Zionism over, and a post-Zionist era beginning?

My answer is “Yes.”

I know that making that statement is likely to upset some people, especially those who have supported the State of Israel all their lives, perhaps even before the State actually came into being. For them declaring Zionism passé is to suffer the loss of something akin to a lifelong friend, and that indeed is sad.

I too am saddened, because Zionism’s decline, if not its demise, is the result of a changed Israeli approach to diaspora Jews, especially to American Jewry, and concomitant changes of heart among American Jews toward Israel.

It is no secret that American Jews, especially young ones, between the ages of 18 and 29, are more critical of Israel than American Jews have been in the past. Generally, they feel that Israel is not doing enough to make peace with the Palestinians. Frequently this view goes without considering the Palestinians’ role in the failure of peace efforts. Too often, this age group blames Israel for every act of violence and unfairness to the Palestinians. But its members fail, time and again, to factor into the equation Palestinian violence against Israelis, or the fact that all Palestinian factions seeking a state agree that it will not include any Jews in its borders.

In another time, it would be this very age group who would make up the leadership of Zionist youth groups, most of which, tellingly, no longer exist in the United States. When this age group is not overtly critical of Israel, Israel simply is not on the radar for them, just as Judaism is no longer their religion. (See the 2013 Pew study, which reports that 32 percent of this age group claimed to have no religion.) For this population Zionism is over, and they are living in a post-Zionist era, though due to their lack of Jewish engagement they most likely are unaware of that and unconcerned about it.

Older, more affiliated American Jews also have pulled back from the unequivocal support they once gave Israel. Several issues have contributed to this. The fading hope of a two-state solution has been one factor in this distancing, but it is not at the moment the primary one. Rather, this sector of the Jewish community is furious about Israel’s willingness to support Orthodoxy as its official Jewish religion at the expense of other movements.

Over and over again, the present Israeli government has made it clear that American Jews’ concerns about non-recognition of Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and other non-Orthodox Jewish religious movements in Israel are unimportant. Promises to provide access to a section of the Western Wall where non-Orthodox Jews could pray without being harassed have not been kept, and that is highly public knowledge in the American non-Orthodox community.

Denominationally affiliated American Jews know that in Israel their rabbis are not considered rabbis and their Judaism is not considered Judaism. Public statements to that effect have been made by the chief rabbis of Israel, who are government officials, by so-called “religious” members of the Knesset, and even by Knesset members who are non-observant! These statements represent a rejection of a major principle of classical Zionism; namely, that the State of Israel is the state of the entire Jewish people.

A publication called “Viewpoints on Zionism: Israel as a Zionist State,” published by the World Zionist Organization, noted, “The strong ties between the State of Israel and the Jewish people will continue to exist as long as diaspora Jewry regards itself as a source of strength for Israel to rely upon, as long as it regards Israel as a basis for its own identity and continuous cultural creativity, and as long as Israel finds in the diaspora a source from which to draw and in turn becomes a support for the diaspora. The moment this dynamic process ceases, the connection will be broken.” Once broken, Zionism as the national movement of the Jewish people is over.

If so, what is the status of the connection between Israel and the diaspora today?

Most Israelis would be hard-pressed to say what they “find in the diaspora as a source from which to draw” beyond money. Iconic Israeli figures opined that Jews living in the diaspora are not real Zionists, or even Jews living real Jewish lives. For example, years ago Ben-Gurion told an Orthodox Jewish audience at Yeshiva University that living in the States was “living without a god” (based on Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 110b). A. B. Yehoshua regularly informed diaspora Jews that they are living in a museum, a place housing interesting and even important artifacts — but dead ones.

These views are not things of the past. Just a few days ago, an op-ed column by Irit Linur appeared in Haaretz that caustically deplored the fact that two American Jewish leaders, Michael Steinhardt and Rabbi Marvin Hier, would participate actively in the opening ceremonies on Israel Independence Day. From Linur’s perspective, these American Jews were outsiders. They might be honored observers of the opening ceremonies, but they could not be participants in them.

The traditional and Zionist principle of “all Israel are comrades” was not present at all in Linur’s op-ed.

So, in what manner is Zionism alive and well?

Further, there are no longer any organizational vehicles for ongoing communication between Israeli and American Jewish leaders. Therefore, most Israeli Jews know little about the concerns and problems of American Jewry and the implications of those concerns for Israel. Israelis feel they have bigger, more pressing life-and-death issues to worry about than American Jews’ tzorres. Therefore, they lack awareness of the hurt that American Jews feel when the Israeli government and Israeli thought leaders express the idea that American Jews’ Judaism or Jewishness is insufficient or inauthentic. They also have no time to consider the negative implications for their security such hostility engenders, when it endangers Israel advocacy done by politically powerful and active American Jews.

Similarly, American Jews don’t understand why the majority of Israeli Jews vote for right-wing parties whose platforms undermine the possibility of a two-state solution, which most American Jews see as the only way to peace for Israel. American Jews do not realize, because of the lack of organization-based conversation, that most Israelis consider Oslo a failure and a dead letter.

All this is exacerbated by American Jews not understanding parliamentary democracy, or why there isn’t separation of church and state in Israel.

For their part, Israelis don’t understand why American Jews don’t seem to recognize fully their need for security, their reasonable fear of Palestinian violence, and the struggles in which a Jewish state engages to navigate the relationship between its modern secular and traditional religious Jewish identities.

These failures of communication, and the growing misunderstandings between Israeli and American Jews, means that Zionism, which originally sought to bring Zion and the diaspora together, is either dead or dying.

Having written this eulogy for Zionism, I would suggest that the post-Zionist era nevertheless can be a fertile one if the two major centers of Jewry make important choices.

I believe that American Jewry ought to figure out what is significant about its own experience, without looking to Zion for clues. American Jewry can be proud of its commitment to religious pluralism; its tzedakah efforts, which have enhanced Jewish and secular America; its Jewish values, based social justice activism; its organizational skills, and the specifically American Jewish thought and literature it has produced. American Jewry can build programs on these accomplishments, and enrich Jewish life on these shores.

To the extent that American Jews still consider Israel important — and seven out of ten do, again according to the 2013 Pew study — they ought to be more aggressive about the issues that are important to them. Indeed, some federations already have recognized this. They are consciously considering directing the funds they allot to Israel primarily or solely to institutions that support religious pluralism and peace activism.

In my view, Israelis willing to accept that they live in a post-Zionist era should continue what they’ve been doing since Zionism began. They should continue creating Jewish civil religion, which celebrates the significant moments in modern Jewish history and in the history of Israel. They should remain developers of a distinct Israeli and Jewish culture that expresses itself in art, literature, music, liturgical creativity, the study of the Jewish tradition in new ways, and the production of new Jewish thought. They should continue to build up Eretz Yisrael through scientific and technological advancement.

More challenging, but vital to strengthening the State of Israel’s social, religious, and political fabric, is the need for a constitution. Such a document, if properly conceived, would lay to rest the complexities surrounding Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and its creation should be pursued.

Despite my jeremiad, one aspect of Zionism should and could be resurrected — the intimate connection between Israel and the diaspora as equal partners in the struggle for Jewish identity and continuity. I believe this starts with the creation of formal and ongoing means of communicating with one another.

Therefore, I believe it is past time for Israel and American Jewry — and other significant diaspora communities as well — to facilitate this by allocating resources for bringing together Jewish thought leaders, academics, journalists, political figures, and strategists in different fields to plan for the Jewish future in Israel and in the diaspora.

Zionism helped modern Jewry survive physically. Jewish identity was not a major issue for the Jews Zionism saved. Generally speaking, the post-Zionist age no longer needs a movement to save the Jewish body. It needs a movement that can successfully do battle for the Jewish soul. With good will and renewed Israel-diaspora conversation I believe the much touted “Rosh Yehudi” (Jewish head, “yiddishe kop”) can find a way to guarantee the Jewish future.

To paraphrase the words of the father of political Zionism, “If you will this, it is not a fantasy.”

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Chernick holds a doctorate in rabbinic literature and semikhah from Yeshiva University, and he is the chair of the executive committee of Ruach Hiddush (Rabbis and Cantors for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel).He served as professor of rabbinic literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for forty years.He is an oleh hadash with continuing close ties to the United States. Rabbi Chernck regards himself as "a Jew for all Jews."
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