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Twenty-First Century Zionism: Not your great-grandfather’s Israel

The days when people support Israel “just because” are mostly over.

From disengaged Gen Z to polarized Boomers to struggling millennials, the challenge of creating connection to and engagement with Israel spans across generational divides and has never been harder.

For Zionism to survive and Israel to thrive, we need a new, compelling rallying cry to mobilize a new generation around what 21st Century Zionism truly stands for. This week, we observed the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress. It’s a time to reflect on Zionism’s transformation — where it’s been, where it stands, and where it can go to capture the imaginations and hearts of the Jewish people today and moving forward.

How Zionism’s rallying cries have changed over the years

“A Jewish homeland should exist” was the rallying cry of 19th Century Zionism. Amid pogroms and the Dreyfus Affair, Herzl decided that the Jewish people needed their own country in order to escape antisemitism and tried to rally the Diaspora around that idea. While Herzl did not live to see the creation of the State of Israel, he did mobilize a movement.

Herzl also inspired the rallying cry of 20th Century Zionism which was, “Israel must exist.” David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, moved to then-Palestine in 1906. In the wake of the Holocaust, Zionism became an urgent movement with a focus on immigration. The need for a Jewish homeland became clear to everyone and in just three years after the end of the war, Ben-Gurion announced Israel’s independence.

Ben-Gurion also foresaw the future of Zionism. Where others saw Israel’s swamplands, he imagined a thriving metropolis State. Where others saw a desert, Ben-Gurion imagined the Negev blooming. And where others saw insurmountable problems and obstacles, Ben-Gurion saw opportunities and solutions.

Israel’s Earned its Right to Exist

Zionism has changed immensely since the times of Theodor Herzl, and even David Ben-Gurion. Today, Israel has earned its right to exist, but as a democratic state, it is also far from perfect. Israel must continue to live up to its promise as a beacon of light to the world by helping to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges.

How does Israel achieve this new narrative? By drawing on Ben-Gurion’s legacy, and by imagining a better future. Imagination is hard when the reality we face is stark but it takes vision, hope, and tenacity to make change, and when that happens, incredible events unfold.

So, what is the rallying cry for the next era of Zionism?

Ben-Gurion famously said, “Israel’s future lies in the Negev.” Ben-Gurion could see the desert’s potential, and through the Negev and the impressive scientific and technological research and innovations coming out of Ben-Gurion University, we can see the answer to our next rallying cry.

Israel, the Negev, and Ben-Gurion University are now the source for addressing global issues — from climate change to water, and with technologies from artificial intelligence to cyber defense.

With 15 million Jews in the world, eight in the Diaspora (six in the US, two in the rest of the world), and seven in Israel, Zionism must continue to be a Diaspora-driven movement. That begins by ensuring that Jews are actively involved in delivering Israel’s greatest gift to the world — scientific innovation and ingenuity.

A movement focused on solving the world’s greatest challenges

Several years ago, I was traveling to Israel with the Governor of Colorado when he shared some of the state’s joint efforts with Former President Shimon Peres. Peres responded, “Some people work on peace by talking about it all the time. And other people work on peace by doing it — and you’re actually doing it.”

Twenty-first-century Zionism is not simply about investing in Israel to ensure the existence of Israel.

It’s about investing in Israel because Israel is the light the world needs.

About the Author
Doug Seserman is CEO of Americans for Ben-Gurion University. By supporting a world-class academic institution that not only nurtures the Negev, but also shares its expertise locally and globally, Americans for Ben-Gurion University engages a community of Americans who are committed to improving the world. David Ben-Gurion envisioned that Israel’s future would be forged in the Negev. The cutting-edge research carried out at Ben-Gurion University drives that vision by sustaining a desert Silicon Valley, with the “Stanford of the Negev” at its center. The Americans for Ben-Gurion University movement supports a 21st century unifying vision for Israel by rallying around BGU’s remarkable work and role as an apolitical beacon of light in the Negev desert.