Reviving Zionism (and Jewish Identity)

I don’t personally know Joey Bendah, but I was intrigued to read his Times of Israel blog post from last week, “Zionism is dead”.

I was moved by Joey’s piece for a number of reasons. Like Joey, I am a twenty-something secular Jew who made aliyah and served in the army. What’s more, the exact experience that Joey described happened to me last May, when I also went to an orientation meeting for Taglit-Birthright soldiers, and when I was one of three (out of around 30, mainly secular Israeli soldiers) who picked “Jewish” over “Israeli” as the chief definers of our identity. (Out of the other two, one was wearing a kippah and one had been highly involved in Labor Zionist youth movements all his life.)

After my own experience, very similarly to Joey, I left confused. Could it really be that in Israel, the only place where, I thought, secular Jews can really keep a strong Jewish identity while maintaining their secularism – a state built by idealistic secular Zionists – that in such a place, Jewish identity itself was experiencing a crisis?

Most shocking to me at the time were the reasons the young Israelis gave for choosing their “Israeliness” over their Jewishness:

“I’m not religious.”

“I don’t keep kosher.”

“I don’t keep shabbat.”

“I don’t believe in God.”

So what? I remember thinking to myself. Has their understanding of Jewish identity really been reduced to such simple indicators, even while living in the Jewish state? How was it so clear to me that a strong Jewish identity need not be religious in the least, while these sabras flat-out failed to see that?

And then there were the reasons they provided for feeling Israeli:

“I feel Israeli because I serve in the army.”

“Because I was born here.”

“Because my family fought for this place so we can have a state here.”

Legitimate and deep answers. But why did their families come here in the first place? Was it just some random land for a random bunch of people from different countries? Can we really disconnect ourselves from thousands of years of Jewish history when discussing our Israeli identity?

All these feelings existed and continue to exist within me in light of my Birthright experience. After reading Joey’s blog post, it’s comforting knowing that I am not the only one who feels this way, and at the same time disturbing that I am not the first or last to have such an experience.

However, I don’t agree with Joey’s main conclusion from this experience – namely, that Zionism for secular Jews is dead.

What is behind these identity problems in Israel? I can postulate as to their origins. Maybe they come from the increasingly polarized Israeli discourse between religious and secular. Maybe they’re a byproduct of the identity crisis Europe and the rest of the West have been experiencing, following globalization and the importation of American pop culture. Maybe Israel’s problems with identity are even a symptom of becoming a “normal” country and nation, as the early Zionists wanted? Maybe the “New Jew” that Zionism talked about has become the Israeli of today, replacing the Jew himself?

There may be a number of explanations for this, but I digress. As Joey implies, we do need a conversation on Jewish identity to find ways for secular Jews to reconnect and regain ownership over our culture and heritage.

But the thing is, such a process is already happening. Over the last 10-15 years, Israel has slowly but surely been experiencing a Jewish revival, often in the secular-cultural sense. Secular yeshivot, batei midrash and pre-army mechinot (study programs) have popped up around the country (alongside non-exclusively secular, yet pluralistic ones). The goal of these institutions is to explore our deep Jewish roots and gain inspiration from Jewish texts not as religious texts, but as important cultural and literary works written by our people.

Increasingly, popular Israeli musicians such as Berry Sakharoff, Kobi Oz and Idan Raichel have been incorporating and recreating traditional Jewish themes in their music in an attempt to connect us to our rich culture and origins. Officially coined Hitchadshut Yehudit (literally, “Jewish Renewal” – no connection to the American Jewish Renewal movement), this trend is an organic attempt by Israelis to try and provide an answer to the growing loss of identity and culture in our society. By making Jewish culture more accessible to secular Jews, this movement is starting to break the long-held perception of an Orthodox-religious monopoly on all things Jewish in Israel. By doing so, it is reinserting a deeper meaning into the lives of secular Jews.

In many ways, this process is a revival of the ideology of Zionist thinker Achad Ha’am, who spoke of rejuvenating Jewish culture while maintaining an understanding and connection to the past. The Zionism of Herzl, of founding and maintaining a state for the Jews, has by and large succeeded, although the challenges to our security and well-being remain great. But overall, we have our state, it is nearing its 70th birthday, and it is strong.

The Zionism we must work on now is that of Achad Ha’am – Zionism of the soul. This question of identity is a deep and crucial one. Where do we see ourselves as a society in the coming years? What unites us and connects us to this state and this land? Do we draw inspiration for our day-to-day culture from European and American sources, or do we add to that our rich Jewish experience dating back thousands of years, and originating here in the Middle East? To what extent are we willing to accept ourselves as indigenous to our homeland, and to continue developing our culture in a way that reflects that? And how can we reconcile a particilarist culture with our broader democratic values, taking into account the strangers in our midst?  Exploring these questions is essential to the next steps of the Zionist revolution.

There has indeed been an incredible culture formed here – lively and full of meaning. But over the past couple of decades, as Israel has been influenced by the globalization and consumerism sweeping our world, and as conflict between religious and secular has become more entrenched and polarized, some of that meaning, that connection to our collective past and deeper identity, has started slipping away.

Zionism is not dead, although it may have evolved or changed its focus. Regaining and further developing our shared identity and culture is the Zionism of today and of the future.

About the Author
With a diverse and international background in government, NGOs and the private sector, Tomer is passionate about looking for ways to tackle the complex challenges facing Israel and the Jewish people. Tomer holds a Master's degree in Public Policy from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a Bachelor's in International Affairs from the George Washington University.
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