What if Zionism threw a party and no one came?

The Jewish year 5778 has been declared as the “Year of Zionist Anniversaries” by the American Zionist Movement, the American arm of the World Zionist Organization.

The AZM is the umbrella organization of 26 Zionist movements, representing the different religious and political ideologies from left to right. And 5778 is, in fact, the year that celebrates the centenary of the Balfour declaration (11/02/1917), which was the first document to recognize the right to a Jewish homeland in British Mandate Palestine. It is also the 70th anniversary of the United Nations vote on the Partition Plan (11/29/1947) that authorized the end of the British Mandate and the establishment of a Jewish State. Therefore, it is also the 70th anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel (May 14, 1948, 5 Iyar 5708).

The AZM Year of Zionist Anniversaries also marks the 120th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress (August 29, 1897), when Theodor Herzl and 208 representatives from around the world formulated the platform for political Zionism, founded what would become the World Zionist Organization, and adopted Hatikvah as the Zionist anthem. It is also the 50th anniversary of the victory of the Six Day War and the unification of Jerusalem (6/5-6/10/1967).

These dates and their significance are clear. But what do we mean when we talk about American Zionism?

The Zionist idea was born amid the tenuous condition of Jews as ethnic and religious minorities in the states of their dispersion. The radical solution that Zionism posed was the national liberation of the Jewish people, the return of Jews to their historical homeland, and the creation of a Jewish state there. At the time it was first proposed, Zionism was highly controversial.

The idea of the Jewish people as a nation was unacceptable to many religious Jews, who defined Jews only in religious terms and felt that the return to Zion was an impermissible anticipation of the messiah. At the same time it was seen by many less religious Jews in the West as a formula that could raise the charge of dual loyalty and endanger the progress made over the course of many decades for acceptance and civil rights.

Jewish national identity, self-consciousness, and self-assertion were fundamental; it was Herzl himself who said, “Zionism is a homecoming to the Jewish fold even before it is a homecoming to the Jewish land.” But Jewish nationalism wasn’t the only idea that distinguished Zionism. The Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov was perceptive when he described the Jewish Bund as “Zionists who are afraid of seasickness.”

Today, even though Jews are a very small minority in the United States, the overwhelming majority of them don’t view their position as tenuous. With civil liberties supported not only by law but by a broad social acceptance — the recent re-emergence of American neo-Nazism notwithstanding — American Jews don’t feel a personal or social Jewish problem.

And they aren’t moving. Strictly speaking, for American Jews today, historical Zionism is a non-solution to a non-problem. Overwhelmingly, American Jews see no reason to struggle with the concept of returning to the Jewish homeland.

This wasn’t always the case. Zionists in the first half of the last century were personally involved in programs and plans to move to British Mandated Palestine and the early Jewish state. While many American Jews today are familiar with the SS Exodus, far fewer are aware that the ship’s crew was comprised primarily of American Zionists and that its second in command, one of the three people killed when the British intercepted the boat, was an American Jew, Bill Bernstein. There was a time when Zionists in America, though still a minority within organized American Jewry, comprised a significant and ideologically committed (albeit highly pluralistic) mass movement.

The aftermath of the 1948 War of Independence, and more particularly the 1967 Six Day War, brought a wave of pride and identification with the Jewish state among American Jews. Israel was David and had defended itself against the Goliath of surrounding Arab nations. Not only was Zionism no longer considered controversial within the mainstream American Jewish community, Israel in fact had become the one thing most Jews agreed upon. We prayed in different synagogues, some in Ashkenazi Hebrew, others in a Sephadic nusach, some in English. Some kept kosher, others didn’t. Some did so only at home. We supported and gave to different Jewish causes. The one thing we all agreed upon was that Israel was the shining city on the hill, the light unto the nations, the realization of our shared 2,000-year-old dream.

70 years later…not so much.

Instead of being the unifying center of the Jewish people, Israel has become our greatest point of contention. Most rabbis today avoid even mentioning Israel from the pulpit. Today, with the modern State of Israel 70 years old, Zionism no longer is about the creation of a Jewish state. With the establishment of Israel, the Jewish condition changed fundamentally. Zionists not only had to consider the conditions of the Jewish people in the places of their dispersion, but also the relationship between the Jewish state and the Jewish people in the diaspora. For that relationship to be positive and healthy, it must be premised on shared values.

In this year of Zionist anniversaries, let us explore the condition of that relationship.

What does it mean to be an American Zionist? The American Zionist movement points to the Jerusalem Program, the official platform of the World Zionist Organization, as an essential statement of principles:

  1. The unity of the Jewish people, its bond to its historic homeland Eretz Yisrael, and the centrality of the state of Israel and Jerusalem, its capital, in the life of the people;
  2. Aliyah to Israel from all countries and the effective integration of all immigrants into Israeli society.
  3. Strengthening Israel as a Jewish, Zionist, and democratic state, and shaping it as an exemplary society with a unique moral and spiritual character, marked by mutual respect for the multifaceted Jewish people, rooted in the vision of the Prophets, striving for peace, and contributing to the betterment of the world.
  4. Ensuring the future and the distinctiveness of the Jewish people by furthering Jewish, Hebrew, and Zionist education, fostering spiritual and cultural values, and teaching Hebrew as the national language.
  5. Nurturing mutual Jewish responsibility, defending the rights of Jews as individuals and as a nation, representing the national Zionist interests of the Jewish people, and struggling against all manifestations of anti-Semitism.
  6. Settling the country as an expression of practical Zionism.

This framework has much that still should resonate with the American Jewish community. So why the huge gap? Aliyah as described in the plan is no longer a personal obligation, but instead it is seen as a general ideal. Not so threatening, not too demanding. The challenge is what would even make American Jewry consider something that today seems so alien.

From the platform, it is clear that anti-Semitism is seen as providing a push but, as we discussed, American Jews overwhelmingly don’t see themselves as victims and don’t view themselves as foreigners in this country. But if there is no push, might there yet be a pull? The Jerusalem Program speaks of a democratic Jewish state, open and welcoming to all the many facets of Jewish life. A society shaped as an exemplar, rooted in the vision of the prophets, striving for justice, peace and a better world. All that’s missing is apple pie — and Israel has falafel instead.

This picture of a society that wraps itself in the mantle of tikun olam is one that can speak to many American Jews, nurtured and protected by civil rights in a democratic, pluralist country. Whether or not it is sufficient to engage to the point of stimulating aliyah, it is the foundation for a healthy and positive relationship that can engage American Jewry at some level of identification and sense of connectedness.

But are these the values we really share? In fact, we see that more and more Jews in America respond to the Israeli government policies they see reported in the news by moving away instead of closer to the Jewish state. And those who speak out against policies that they feel damage Israeli society and threaten the values upon which Israel was created are labeled as “anti-Israel,” and this pushes them further away. It is not disagreement that is the most serious consequence of this divergence in values. It is disengagement.

Israeli leadership has been warned of a declining identification and interest in Israel among American Jewry and particularly younger American Jews. Israel views this as a public relations problem. Member of Knesset Michael Oren, Israel’s deputy minister for public diplomacy, believes that the way to fix the problem is with “a team of serious people with a serious budget to work on this in a very serious manner.” In effect, what he proposes is getting the message out better. All Israel must do is bring young Jews on Birthright, in other words, and they will love us again.

But Oren’s analysis of the fix misses an underlying truth — the problem is much more than bad marketing. To engage American Jews, and particularly young American Jews, Israel must live up to its own promise.

Israel is losing support among many Jews not because it doesn’t have good public relations, but because it is doubling down on an unjust occupation, expanding settlements, deporting asylum seekers, and passing laws that undermine its own democratic principles and its promise of religious pluralism.

Support for settlements has become the only defining category for support of Israel. Critics of the occupation in Israel and in the diaspora are treated like traitors. Civil society organizations, human rights activists, and even artists who warn that the country is headed down the wrong path are scorned.

Palestinians are treated less like people with rights and aspirations, and more like a problem, to be crushed with force or explained away with better messaging.

The contract that Zionism made with the Jewish people was not just to create a Jewish state, but a democratic Jewish state, committed to justice, civil rights, and peace. American Jews see an Israeli government that is hamstrung (pun intended) by Orthodox power brokers who disparage Reform and Conservative Jews. That doesn’t make American Jews feel welcome.

Just about half of all the Jews in America are 50 years old or younger. They have never seen an Israel that wasn’t keeping 2.5 million Palestinian Arabs under military rule. They see Israel as Goliath, and it will take more than different messaging to let them see it once again as a light unto the nations.

Post-state Zionism must involve a relationship between diaspora Jews and the Jewish state. A positive relationship between Israel and American Jews is premised on shared values. For the large majority of American Jews, those values include social justice, civil rights, religious pluralism, and peace.

Israel will have to become more lovable for American Jews to love it again.

About the Author
Mark Gold is a Board Member of Partners for Progressive Israel (PPI). He has served as Secretary of the American Zionist Movement, President of Americans for Progressive Israel, and has been a delegate to the World Zionist Congress. Hiam Simon of Englewood, NJ, is the past chief operating officer of Ameinu. He lived in Israel for many years, where he was the dean of students for what is now the Alexander Muss High School, and he served in the IDF as a noncommissioned officer in the artillery.