A few months ago, I participated in a program about Zionism with an Israeli consular official stationed outside New York (the location will remain nameless). My topic was Zionism in Israel’s early days and hers was Zionism today. I spoke about the Zionism of David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett and the other founders of the state. As she began her presentation, she glared at the audience almost angrily. “I am a Zionist,” she said. “My grandparents settled in the Land of Israel even before there was a state, and my family has lived there ever since. I was born in that country. You American Jews are not Zionists. You do not live in Israel and cannot call yourselves Zionists.” Audience members squirmed uncomfortably, and the program soon deteriorated into chaos.
I thought about that program recently when Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar condemned “the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” It struck me that once again Jews — in this case American Jews — were being criticized for diametrically opposed positions, as Jews have been throughout history: accused at various times of being both revolutionaries and capitalists, fat cats and ignominiously poor, too educated or too ignorant. An Israeli emissary tells American Jews that they are not Zionists; a Muslim-American lawmaker tells them that they are too tied to Zionism. Which is it?
Let’s put aside for the moment Omar’s comment, which was clearly anti-Jewish. What can be said about American Jews and Zionism? Can those of us who have loved and cared about Israel, even when we might have disagreed with its policies, call ourselves Zionists? Or are we forever to be outsiders, feeling concern for the state, but not connected to it, because we do not live there? My unequivocal answer is that we not only can, but we must, identify ourselves as Zionists, especially these days, when Zionism is under attack from many quarters.
Some history is called for here. Even before Theodor Herzl introduced political Zionism, American Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, of “The New Colossus” fame, spoke of the need for Jews to return to their historic homeland in light of their suffering throughout the world. Partly influenced by Lazarus and also by Jewish emigres from czarist Russia, Henrietta Szold depicted Zionism as intrinsic to Judaism, at the core of Jewish culture. She went on to form Hadassah, the largest and most successful Zionist organization in America. Although Szold settled in the Land of Israel toward the end of her life, most Hadassah members did not and do not live there. Yet, in their dedication to that land they built a medical system there that rivals the finest in the world, and they continue to devote themselves to Israel’s well-being. Louis Brandeis, eminent associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, galvanized support for Zionism among prominent American Jewish leaders and the community at large. Abba Hillel Silver, outspoken rabbi from Cleveland, worked tirelessly with Ben-Gurion to gain approval for the 1947 UN partition plan.
These people and countless other American Jews regarded Zionism as a national movement for the entire Jewish people, not only for Israeli citizens, a view that Israel’s leaders promoted from the start. Israel was founded, we have been told time and again, as the ancestral homeland of all Jews, wherever they lived and however they practiced — or did not practice — Judaism. American Jews have responded to that image over the years with enormous generosity, providing political advocacy and professional aid along with vast sums of money, all of which contributed immeasurably to the success of the Zionist enterprise. For its part, the Zionist ideal has grounded American Jews, giving them a sense of oneness with Israel and each other, and, for many years, a deep pride in the Jewish state.
Much has been written in recent times about the growing chasm between Israeli and American Jews, as Israel has moved to the right religiously and politically and American Jews have remained, for the most part, in the liberal camp. But now outside forces threaten both sides. While anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic statements like those by Omar and others may be passed off as simple criticisms of Israel, in reality they are dangerous attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the state and American Jewish attachment to it. More than ever, therefore, Israeli representatives need to openly affirm and encourage American Jewish Zionism, and American Jews need to embrace that cause.
“We are not a better breed,” Golda Meir said to American Jews in a fundraising appeal before the state was declared. “I am certain that if you were in Palestine and we were in the United States, you would be doing what we are doing there.” Israeli and American Jews: partners in Zionism then and now.
Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book, “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel,” has now been issued in paperback.