American Jews have a complex when it comes to the word “Zionism.” It makes them uncomfortable.
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A.B. Yehoshua worries that “Zionism” is an overused term. But in the American Diaspora, it is a hardly-ever-used term.
There are many explanations for this. Americans associate Zionism with the ineffective bureaucracy of the World Zionist Organization. Also, unlike in the non-American Diaspora, the primary champions of Israel in the United States do not have the word “Zionist” in their title. And this too: Those who present themselves as Zionists are often on the far right of the political spectrum, creating the impression that this is what Zionism is about. The Zionist Organization of America, for example, once the proud flagship of American Zionism, is now a rightwing fringe group with few members and little credibility.
Israel’s enemies have succeeded in discrediting Zionism. For 40 years, anti-Israel forces in the world have used Zionism as a term of contempt, and some of this invective has rubbed off on American Jews. While they are embarrassed to admit it (as they should be), even the community’s most enthusiastic Israel supporters generally avoid the Zionist label.
And Israeli leaders and diplomats feed into this phenomenon. When in America, they talk about the wonders of Israel, but rarely speak of Zionism.
What all this means is that A.B. Yehoshua is right. The time has come to reclaim the term “Zionism” from the political and psychological cobwebs with which it has become entangled. This is difficult, but as Yehoshua says, Zionism is ultimately a simple matter. And if American Jews can come to grips with their own insecurities, they can help to reassert the essence of Zionism and recapture it for Jewish life.
And what is that essence?
There are two pillars upon which the Zionist enterprise is constructed.
First: Zionism means supporting a Jewish state in the Land of Israel.
Second: Zionism is a movement that was created by the entire Jewish people, is sustained by the entire Jewish people, and that belongs to the entire Jewish people.
These things are the heart of the matter. They tell us that one need not live in Israel to be a Zionist; one can support a Jewish state from elsewhere in the Jewish world. They tell us that without the Law of Return, there is no Zionism, because the Law of Return guarantees that any Jew is entitled to go to Israel at any time, no questions asked; absent such a law, the bond between the Jewish state and world Jewry is severed.
And they tell us something else as well: Every Diaspora Jew is invited to engage in Israel’s affairs and participate in its debates, whether in the form of generating support for its policies or offering criticisms of its actions. Final decisions will be made by the citizens of Israel—Jewish and non-Jewish. But if an American Jew wishes to have his or her say about Israel, even if this means expressing harsh criticism, no special permission is required; the right to do so is inherent in the Zionist mission.
This being said, I would like to offer my own definition: Zionism is the belief that the establishment of a Jewish and democratic state in the Land of Israel is essential for the creative survival of the Jewish people.
Yehoshua tells us that Zionism is not an ideology but a very broad platform for various ideologies—and this is true, up to a point. There are rightwing and leftwing Zionists, Zionists who embrace socialism and Zionists who emphasize nationalism, Zionists who are liberal in the classical sense and Zionists who see religious Judaism—Orthodox or non-Orthodox—at the center of their Zionist principles. Zionism is not identified with any single group; the assumption is that through democratic means, the Jewish state will continue to debate and define its political and religious character.
But all Zionist thinkers, whatever their place on the political/religious spectrum, have historically been committed to a democratic state with a secure Jewish majority—and this too must be included in the definition. Lacking that, the act of ongoing self-definition in the Jewish state cannot continue, and Israel could face the choice of losing its Jewish character or retaining it at the cost of sacrificing democratic values for authoritarian or totalitarian ones. Until very recently, non-democratic Zionism was unthinkable; while that is no longer so for some of Israel’s parties (see Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit Hayehudi’s platform for ‘calming’ the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), the Jewish people—the ultimate owners of Zionism—will simply not tolerate a Jewish state that does not rest on democratic principles.
And if, God forbid, the Jewish state were to collapse, this definition acknowledges that the Jewish people might survive, relying on the resources of their (primarily) American refuge. But survival is not creative survival. Without the vibrancy of a Jewish majority culture; without a place where Hebrew is the language of everyday and where Jews can apply Jewish values to every aspect of life; without the interplay between Jewish sovereignty and Diaspora existence—without all of this, Jewish life would be dramatically devalued. And that is why we must proclaim and take possession of Zionism once again.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.