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Israel in a Post-Mythological Age

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FROM: “Israel on my mind” Israel’s Role in World Jewish Identity

a symposium organized by the Dorothy and Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations with Steven Bayme, Arthur Hertzberg, Alan D. Hoffman, Moshe Itzhaki, Aharon Megged, Deborah Dash Moore, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, S. Ilan Troen, and Gil Troy

 Israel in a Post-Mythological Age

 Gil Troy

 Israel—and a dynamic, challenging Zionist identity—should be the answer to the modern Jew’s secular, ethnic, individualistic, nondenominational prayer. Israel should be the premier Jewish identity-builder, inspiring Jews worldwide, be they religious or secular, left or right, Israeli or Diaspora-based.

 Israel should be a living laboratory allowing modern Jews to experiment, in the Jewish people’s fertile, energetic, pluralistic, old-new land, with the different elements shaping their identities. Jews in Israel should be generating exciting formulas synthesizing tradition and modernity, liberalism and Judaism, tribalism and humanitarianism, ethnicity and cosmopolitanism, nationalism and idealism, democracy and spirituality, East and West, the “I” and the “us.” The country’s intimacy, the land’s grandeur, history’s echoes, the society’s vitality, the state’s idealism—all should provide that sense of community, pride in heritage, framework for meaning, vessel of values, vehicle for self-fulfillment, and forum for self-expression that many modern Jews lack in the leisure-oriented, materialistic world we live in, and love. 

 It is easy to blame the obvious suspects for the gap between this idealistic vision and reality: Arab exterminationists, Palestinian terrorists, hysterical journalists, and hostile leftists have battered Israel’s self-image and clouded the Jewish people’s collective vision of the Jewish homeland. In Israel, scheming politicians, unreasonable zealots, greedy rabbis, and carping academics have done damage, aided unconsciously throughout the Diaspora by heavy-handed educators, guilt-generating community leaders, and lazy parents. An unhappy mélange of good and bad intentions has unduly politicized Zionism, making Israel advocacy the primary vehicle for expression of concern for Israel—and often for Jewish identity building.


Obstacles to a Positive Relationship

 Beyond today’s tensions, broader ideological obstacles are blocking a healthier, more positive role for Israel and Zionism in building modern Jewish identity.

 For starters, the narratives clash. The American Jewish narrative, like the narratives of many immigrant-driven Diaspora communities, is triumphal, emphasizing America’s centrality as redeemer. Arrival there was the great leap forward, guaranteeing all ensuing progress. Israel’s narrative weaves triumph with tragedy--“d’vash v’oketz,” “the honey and the sting”--striking a more sober tone, a less assured resolution.

 Also, Zionism posits a different center--Israel. Beyond the obvious ensuing clash of loyalties, competing cultural impulses collide too. Western consumer culture offers the weightless lure of freedom transcending the gravitational force of tradition. We live in a world of radical selfishness, of dizzying pluralism, of contingencies, not commitments. Americans “bowl alone,” Harvard’s Robert Putnam observes, not in leagues.  “Bowling alone” discourages working or singing or praying or building together.  In our throwaway society, being rooted in history or community or morality or faith is tragically unhip.

  Belonging and committing are passé in today’s Western culture of doubt. There is a clash of epistemologies. Judaism teaches na’aseh v’nishma, we will do and obey; the Zionist imperative is livnot u’lhibanot, to build and be rebuilt; to which the lazy, dismissive American responds, “Whatever.” If a previous generation of Jews tended to oversell, idealizing Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir, today we undersell, demonizing promiscuously. Our cynical world, with Jon Stewart and Jay Leno feeding us news, mocks leaps of faith, fostering communities, common mythologies, shared identities. In a post-mythological age of expose, it is hard to build faith in Zionism, Israel, or God. How do we learn complexity and maintain love? How do we acknowledge imperfection while still supporting Israel, America, our parents? 

 Of course, few of these hyper-discerning doubters acknowledge how addicted they are to the latest fads and celebrity demigods.  We consider ourselves savvy because we did not buy Janet Jackson’s claim that her wardrobe “malfunctioned,” but we are not self-critical enough to consider what it means that so many months later, so many of us still have an opinion about the same football halftime show. Still, this “whateverism” encourages holding back rather than plunging ahead, prizing individuality and disdaining community. We seek custom-fit, idiosyncratic notions rather than collective “isms” and enduring ideals.


Sources of Continuing Vitality

 Considering the sobering headlines, failed leaders, clashing narratives and loyalties, epistemologies and sensibilities, the continuing vitality of Israel-Diaspora ties appears almost miraculous. Decoding that ongoing miracle provides the potential genomes for redemption. And acknowledging that many of these cultural challenges have been exported to Israel and embraced by young Israelis suggests that a renewed Zionism could help Jews in Israel as well.

 Modernity not only offers freedom from age-old constraints and contemporary truisms. We also have “freedom to”—freedom to commit, to take stands, to be bold. My mother warned me, “Don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out.” To live is to choose, to stand for something, to be one thing and not something else. Better to choose with integrity, for you can choose consciously or unconsciously. Not choosing is also choosing.

       Thank you, Yasir Arafat.  Arafat’s war, waged in Jerusalem and Mombasa, not just Hebron and Gush Katif, launched against women and children, and assailing Israel’s very legitimacy, imposed a moral clarity lacking during the easy-living 1990s. Arafat returned us to the fundamental building block of Jewish and Zionist identity—our shared destiny as a people. The Jewish people’s nerve endings are uniquely entangled; when one is cut, many of us bleed and mourn. Jews who were mystified by Western Christians’ silence when Christians were enslaved in Sudan or slaughtered in Pakistan demonstrate that they take this peoplehood thing so for granted that they ignore its uniqueness and its grip on our imaginations, emotions, and identities.

 While these last bloody years have evoked comparisons to the horrific 1930s and 1940s, it may be more instructive to consider the 1960s and 1970s. Both the 1967 and 1973 wars galvanized Diaspora Jews, solidifying Israel as a central pillar of a modern, upbeat, secularized Jewish identity. Even while the stereotypical “sixties kids” fled to ashrams or rebelled against their parents and upbringings, the Jewish activist baby-boomers triggered an ideological and institutional renaissance and redirection.

      We are now poised for a similar communal jujitsu, transforming the negative force of Palestinian terror into a positive force for Zionist and Jewish renewal. A generation that “feels Jewish”—often without an accompanying theology or much Jewish education—can embrace the Zionist trinity of peoplehood, history, and homeland. If we ask, “What’s Israel got that America doesn’t?” we see that Israel’s got ancient history and contemporary mystery, which fosters fascination; it’s got intimacy and intensity, which invites engagement. Isaiah Berlin said that Winston Churchill in 1940 lifted “a large number of inhabitants of the British Isles out of their normal selves, and, by dramatizing their lives and making them seem to themselves and to each other clad in the fabulous garments appropriate to a great historic moment, transformed cowards into brave men, and so fulfilled the purpose of shining armor.”  Plunging into Israel’s story, both “the honey and the sting,” can similarly transform modern American Jews.


A Ladder of Israel Identification Initiatives

 In fact, over the last five years, at every stage of a young Jew’s educational journey, new initiatives have buffed this “shining armor,” building a positive, contemporary Jewish and Zionist identity:


·        Jewish day schools and camps -- enjoying their own 1990s-fed resurgence -- have pioneered new curricula for teaching Israel. These initiatives acknowledge the complexities of Israeli politics while celebrating the strengths of Israeli society and delighting in the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of Israeli culture.

·        Resurrecting an idea that the 1970s Soviet Jewry movement popularized, many bar and bat mitzvah celebrants have begun twinning with Israeli children victimized by terror. The best of the twinning projects use the Israel link to push bar or bat mitzvahs beyond materialism, shifting the questions of celebrants from “What did you get?” to “What did you give?”

·        And speaking of rites of passage, the group trip to Israel has begun embedding itself in the American Jewish mind as a new “rite of passage,” thanks especially to birthright israel’s magic carpet ride for young adults between the ages of 18 and 26, with a follow-up program of growing effectiveness in building Jewish identity through a positive group Israel experience.

·        For the same age group, a new generation of Israel advocates who are hipper, savvier, more individualistic, more careerist, more media-fluent have emerged -- with armies of blue-blazered undergraduates convening across the country to develop a new pro-Israel language tailored to today’s ambivalences and complexities.

·        Academically, students are not just challenging the anti-Zionist orthodoxies of so many Middle East studies departments, but developing a new branch called Israel studies. This model builds on the proliferation of Holocaust studies, while delivering a message of pride and empowerment, not just pity.

·        And the latest Jewish Agency undertaking, MASA, seeks to increase the number of young Jews studying or living for six months to a year in Israel from 5,000 to 20,000, thus providing an exciting culminating step to this emerging ladder of Zionist achievement and Jewish identity building.


      Each of these initiatives reflects a key idea essential to building a positive Israel-Diaspora relationship. The curricular revolution—with a positive, proactive, yet authentic Israel-oriented curriculum—focuses on education and could be transformative. The twinning programs, transcending the traditional model of Diaspora Jews as social workers or philanthropists to emphasize Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews as friends— cultivate empathy. Birthright israel and other programs emphasize experiencing Israel, not just reading about it, or even defending it. A new brand of Israel advocacy provides young Jews with an opportunity to engage Israel, honing important skills, cementing emotional, social, political, and ideological ties among fellow Zionists in Israel and at home. A wave of Israel studies courses will enlighten American Jews, going beyond the depressing facts of Holocaust victimology. And MASA will promote entanglements—those messy, complex, often emotionally draining and confusing, yet enriching and inspiring ties to a home six thousand miles away—encouraging friendships to bud, professional associations to sprout, and serious connections to Israel to take root.

 These new stops on the Jewish journey should become as ubiquitous as Hebrew schools and bar mitzvahs were in the 1960s and 1970s—but hopefully far more inspiring, and constructive. If this happens, Diaspora Jews will enjoy a richer relationship with Israel and their own communities, as demonstrated by the birthright bounce, the epidemic of enthusiasm that birthright returnees have been spreading these last few years.


Learning from birthright

 With birthright as the model, a renewed Israel-Diaspora relationship will benefit Israelis, too. One unexpected consequence of birthright has been a birthright bounce among Israelis, the positive impact of “Mifgash” meetings between Israeli and Diaspora peers on the Israeli hosts. Even brief, two-day mifgashim have taught Israeli soldiers about their role on the world stage, shining their proverbial “armor” to participate in the Jewish historical epic. Many IDF education officers have become quite enthusiastic about giving soldiers days off to get turned on to a new appreciation for Israel’s role in Jewish history and the modern Jewish world. Other so-called secular Israelis have described—with tears in their eyes—their excitement at discovering from North American Jews different forms of Jewish expression that have nothing to do with the either-or of a “rabbi’s way or the highway,” a stereotype nurtured in too many nontraditional Israeli households (and fed by a ham-handed rabbinate).

 Savvy Israel advocates have discovered that pro-Israel students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, respond to retail not wholesale approaches.  Customized messages work better than mass sloganeering, and the most effective Israel advocacy is the result of a positive relationship with Israel, rather than being the only dimension of an Israel connection.

  Similiarly, the Zionist rebirth here envisioned cannot be mass produced on either side of the Atlantic, nor can it be too politicized. We need a big-tent Zionism—broad, inclusive, using Zionism as a response to the challenges of modern world and the lure of assimilation, not as a social work project, a political initiative, or a guilt trip. The ingredients are there; the need is growing; the timing is ripe, for a step-by-step Zionist resurgence. Perhaps we can start by taking back the term “Zionism” from its enemies and its more cynical friends, making it again a term of pride, openness, and one-on-one, culturally savvy creativity. One hundred years ago, Zionism brought pride to the label “Jew”; modern Jews need to bring pride back to the label “Zionist”—not just for Israel, but for ourselves. 


Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University, is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, soon to be released in a revised and expanded edition, and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s.   

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