I teach Israeli and American 18-year-old participants in the Hartman Institute’s gap year program, Hevruta. I recently asked the Americans how central Israel was to their Jewish identities before they arrived in Israel. One answered, “not much.” Most of what he learned about Israel, he complained, was very “indoctriny” – coining a vivid term. A second student said that for her, Israel barely made up “ten or fifteen percent” of her Jewish identity. Still, she added, “we did get a range of views on Israel back home, from very right-wing pro-Israel to BDS.”
Both answers dismayed me – and highlighted the central challenges to Israel education, before, during, and after this Corona crisis. Our virtual teaching experiences might make us more techno-savvy. Our shared plague-related traumas might invite some comparisons that resonate. But Israel Education’s two overlapping crises remain in full force. Too many educators teach Israel defensively and romantically; they offer a one-dimensional, Hava Nagila, blue-and-white flowers Israel which you must love and defend, right or wrong. Too many others – in reaction – teach Israel politically; they peddle an equally superficial, headline-driven Israel as the Jews’ central headache—or biggest heartache. That approach is all about picking a side, right or left.
We must escape this overly politicized Zionism, which usually is distorted by guilt trips that demand that we either support Israel or apologize for the occupation. Instead, let’s embrace Identity Zionism, which invites Jews to use Zionism, Jewish peoplehood, and the Israel connection as frameworks to chart their own personal pathways toward finding meaning through community and history.
Identity Zionism is about befriending Israel rather than defending it. It’s about joining an old-new, 3,900-year-old conversation about how to build a meaningful life and valuable communal structures – from synagogues to states – that can boost us as individuals while bettering the world. It starts with the great Jewish anomaly: Jews automatically inherit both a religion and a membership card in the Jewish people. That dance between belief and belonging helps us become better people – especially when we can be free in our own Land of Israel – or be free to engage with that Land.
The Zionist movement’s success in leveraging Jewish peoplehood into Jewish statehood allows us to use Israel in various ways. It’s a refuge if necessary, but more likely something else. From up close, Israel offers a platform for living a 24/7 3-D Judaism. From afar, this grand experiment in Jewish-democratic statehood opens doors to learning about our own identities. In short, engaging the Zionist trinity of Am Yisrael–Eretz Yisrael–Medinat Yisrael (the Jewish people, the Jewish homeland, and the Jewish-democratic state) offers a richer and more affirmative lens through which to view Israel education.
From that perspective, four Corona-related takeaways emerge. First, Zoom should enhance Israel trips, not replace them. The virtual revolution may have triumphed over spatial limits but teaching and building community through Zoom is like kissing through a handkerchief (to borrow from Hayim Nahman Bialik’s description of reading poetry in translation). There’s nothing like the real thing. When Israel trips resume, our Zoom-fluency will transform identity pilgrimages from sprints to marathons. Orientations for Israel trips can facilitate encounters between Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews well before arrival at Ben-Gurion airport – and continue long after the tearful goodbyes. Beyond that, all the Jewish community’s groundwork creating partnership opportunities from P2K to twinning schools can now flourish, welcoming many more people who have become far more comfortable interacting online.
Second, we’ve witnessed a Corona-imposed mass global teach-in on our need for community, human contact, and group experiences. That deep existential need is doubly met by a Jewish tradition addicted to communal life. Even Israel’s extraordinary success in distributing vaccines illustrates its rich communal life, collectivist Zionist values, and abundant social capital – especially compared to America and Europe. This foundational block of Judaism and Zionism will be much easier to teach post-Covid.
Third, the crisis proves yet again that if the malign forces of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism cannot be ignored neither should they define us. Jew-haters have demonstrated anew how Jew-hatred and Israel-hatred overlap, from the “Covid-48” hashtag to the attempt to blame the IDF for American police brutality, to the ugly new phrase that Israel reflects “Jewish supremacy,” to the libel that Israel’s efficient vaccine delivery to all its citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, was somehow an assault on Palestinians. The Jewish State still serves as the Jew of the world — the target of an obsessive assault wherein Jew-haters connect the dots between Israel and the great concern of the moment: in the 1980s, it was fighting apartheid, today it’s anti-racism. Israel is always in the docket, and always found guilty.
Finally, during a time of a growing repudiation of nationalism, the Coronavirus crisis has reinforced two essential overlapping lessons that Zionism taught and Israel epitomizes. On the one hand, we all need homes, borders, nations, even fences, both to shelter and to nest – to protect our bodies and soothe our souls, especially when threatened. On the other hand, we’ve learned that we are one global mass of humanity, sometimes facing common threats that require international cooperation to overcome. That duality lies at the heart of all healthy expressions of liberal-nationalism, and that inherent juggling act between universalism and particularism is characteristically Zionist.
David Ben-Gurion called Israel an ark for refuge, and a covenant for hope. A sophisticated, multi-layered conversation about how Israel embodies both an ark and a covenant can advance the reclamation project so urgently needed to recover from the Trump era’s false choices.
This article is republished with permission. It appears in the inaugural issue of Sources: A Journal of Jewish Ideas, a quarterly print and digital journal of longform essays that promote informed conversations and thoughtful disagreement, published by the Shalom Hartman Institute.