Opinion |

It’s Time to Update the Zionist Ethos

Yizhar Hess
Yizhar Hess
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New Olim arrive in Israel from the U.S.
New Olim coming from the U.S. land in Israel. Credit: AFP
Yizhar Hess
Yizhar Hess

I am an Israeli and a Zionist who loves the State of Israel. I dream every night in Hebrew. As a father I taught our children that this is the place to live because, for us, there is no other. And as one who hoists the State flag with great pride and who celebrates the exquisite, unequivocal and dazzling success of the Zionist dream, as all of these things, I believe that we need to update the ethos of the Zionist Movement, and do so without fear.

When Zionism first took shape and form, the ethos of “Shlilat HaGalut” (literally ‘Negation of the Exile,’ the Zionist ideology which holds that no other option apart from living in Israel has true meaning) was not only necessary but crucial. Without this commitment we might not be here today. Today, however, after almost 75 years of independence, with more than 40% of the Jewish People living in the Jewish homeland; when the centrality of the State of Israel in Jewish identity and discourse can no longer be contested; when the number of Jewish works (in literature, poetry, music and philosophy) published each year attests to the undeniable victory of the Zionist dream over its adversaries – Zionism has finally found a solid footing, so much so that I am confident enough to say that the time has come to adopt a broader approach to the original ideology which was crucial to our Zionist existence.

Fortunately, language beat us to it. The word Exile (galut) has long been replaced by Diaspora (tfutzot) – a word which should be devoid of negative connotations. And from a place of Zionist confidence I am more than willing and happy to celebrate the success and prosperity of Diaspora Jewry. I do so without feeling threatened or undermined in any way for the choices I have made and the path I have chosen as a Zionist.

Moreover, from a historical perspective, after fulfilling the Zionist dream, which turned out to be far more successful than its greatest visionaries had ever imagined, one might cautiously say that two miracles befell the Jewish People in the 20th Century. One might even call them resurrections. The first, of which I am most proud, is the Zionist resurrection of the Jewish People returning to its homeland, Israel. The second is the Jewish civilization that developed and flourished in North America: the spiritual, religious, academic, cultural, political and economic achievements of the greatest Jewish Diaspora.

Between the years 1880-1940, approximately 270,000 Jews migrated from Europe to the Land of Israel and remained (I use this term because a significant number of those who came during the five aliyot, the waves of immigration, left soon after). In that same period of time, about 2.7 million Jews immigrated to America – you heard right, tenfold.

That was the biggest wave of immigration in Jewish history. Did we learn of this massive immigration in our Israeli schools? Were we told of this dramatic event in our people’s history? Hardly. We were taught (and justly so) about the minutest detail and every iota of information concerning the five aliyot to the Land of Israel. Our teachers were right in wanting us to be proud, and indeed we were and are. However, they were so focused on disclaiming our existence in exile (i.e., outside the Land of Israel), that they did not want to teach about the multi-faceted success and the way Jewish life developed in North America. I don’t blame my teachers. Those were different times. But the Zionist Movement today is so firmly rooted that it should be confident enough to also commend the second pillar of the Jewish People’s resurrection.

The achievements in the Diaspora are enormous. We are talking of a Jewish civilization that is both energetic and fascinating: philosophy and reasoning; Torah and Halacha; culture and music; literature, feminism and law; Brandeis; Pulitzer; Wise; Rebecca Gratz; Schechter; Szold; Heschel; Annie Leibovitz; Kaplan; Gershwin; Betty Friedan; Isaac Stern; Emma Lazarus; Saul Bellow; Bella Abzug; Kissinger; Spielberg; Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Leonard Bernstein; Streisand; Leonard Cohen; Arthur Miller. This is only a fraction. Twenty five percent of Americans who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature were Jewish. 40% of Americans who received the Nobel Prize in Science and Economics were Jewish.

I am proud of my brothers and sisters. We are one family despite any difference of opinions, our place of residence, or the synagogues we go to (or do not go to). We are brethren even when we are angry at each other. This kind of love is called Peoplehood. Zionism 2021 has to raise the banner of Peoplehood.

I full־heartedly celebrate the success of North American Jewry, and it makes me no less of a Zionist. Our resurrection here in Zion is my personal resurrection. I live in Jerusalem. But “Babylon” is no less worthy in my eyes. Not only in retrospect, but right from the outset. Let us not forget that some of the great Jewish philosophers and scholars throughout the generations would not have been who they were, had it not been for the constant contact with other nations, and the reciprocity that existed between Jews and Gentiles. Maimonides would not have been Maimonides if he had not been familiar with the beauty of Japheth and made a place for it in the “tents of Shem.” We might find an allusion to this very idea in the words of our Sages (tractate of Pesachim 87:2): “An act of charity it was that God dispersed the People of Israel among the nations.”

Does all this mean we forsake aliya? Of course not! God forbid! The Zionist Movement must continue to invest in aliya, in immigrants, and in practical Zionist fulfillment – an ideology responsible for bringing most of us here. But this should not be carried out with an air of arrogance; nor with the belief that we are better than those who live in the Diaspora; nor with the assumption that Israel is the only place where Jews and Zionists belong. There are passionate Zionists who do not live in Israel.

We cannot keep holding blindly onto the belief that bringing all the Jewish People to the land of its forefathers should be the ultimate goal of Zionism in 2021. The Jewish People is strong enough and Zionism is sufficiently firm and stable to celebrate Jerusalem while commending Babylon.

Dr. Yizhar Hess is the vice-chairman of the World Zionist Organization

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