‘The Zionist Ideas‘: A Zionist revival to reclaim Zionism

Last week, an overflow audience of 350-plus – with dozens turned away – talked Zionism at Jerusalem’s Menachem Begin Heritage Center. Ostensibly, we were launching my new book, The Zionist Ideas, updating Arthur Hertzberg’s classic Zionist anthology. But the electricity in the room, the enlightening conversation with deputy minister Michael Oren and former MK Einat Wilf, and the euphoric response, made it much more. Evoking those Christian happenings punctuated by cries of “I believe,” one friend deemed the evening “a Zionist revival.”

Over the years, I’ve been blessed with dozens of book launches that informed audiences, even generated enthusiasm – but I never experienced anything like this. Many participants subsequently emailed me, saying the evening reminded them why they came to Israel; they called it the high point of their year, “the most” intellectually stimulating or personally enlightening or ideologically inspiring event they attended in ages.

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I’ve experienced similar reactions Stateside. Three weeks ago, I suggested toasting May 14’s three 70-year-old miracles with ice cream for breakfast: Israel, the America-Israel friendship, and our American-Jewish-Israel relationship. Members of Jewish Community Centers nationwide – and students at the Atlanta Jewish Academy – ended up waking up to the prescribed celebratory sugar shock.

At the JCC Association of North America’s biennial in Memphis, after I pitched the sundaes as sweet launching pads to more substantive Zionist conversations throughout this 70th-anniversary year, one JCC director confessed: “I had dreaded this session on Israel.” She thanked me for reminding her that there’s more to Israel than Netanyahu and Trump, the Western Wall and Palestinians – while showing how to frame the conversation about the deeper meaning of Israel, Jewish peoplehood and Identity Zionism – with texts and without.

Enough politics! We must engage Israel in more meaningful ways, synthesizing other dimensions of our identity, other passions, with our Zionism. Let’s remember ’s insight that Zionism was spawning a New Jew, transforming our very personalities.

This isn’t about me or my book. It’s about the moment and the message. It’s because people are so fed up, our politics so polarized, our faith in each other and our countries so frayed, and our leaders too busy mass-producing division and despair, not hope and healing. It’s because our foundational Zionist message that night wasn’t about who’s more right and who’s more wrong – or who’s more right and who’s more left – but what unites us as a people – and how those common ideas can enrich our lives.

The Jerusalem Post’s Greer Fay Cashman kindly wrote of the event: “Few things are more thought-provoking than when intellectuals get together for a conversation that can be easily understood by the general public.” Underlying Cashman’s compliment was a spot-on critique: most intellectuals today are so partisan they lack nuance, or so academically nuanced they’re incomprehensible.

“A book launch doesn’t usually draw such a huge crowd,” observed the event’s organizer, Paul Gross, a Senior Fellow at the Begin Center. “It just proves that, for many people, Israel isn’t just a place but an inspirational idea. These people really want to engage in the debates about Zionism and its continuing relevance for our politics and society.”

It’s easy to shout “shame on them”: shame on the delegitimizers who define us only by our controversies and their critique, then reject our right to exist. But shame on us too. Shame on the Left for its occupation preoccupation, only defining Israel through a Palestinian lens or Netanyahu’s blusterings. And shame on the woe-is-me Right for being so defensive many treat any subtlety as treachery.

It was even difficult at the Begin Center, addressing (mostly) idealistic Anglo “olim,” to focus on who we want to be, not what “they” think of us. Still, many Jews, in Israel and worldwide, crave more substantive, respectful, inspirational, and personal conversations about what Israel and Zionism mean to us.

I see myself as a Zionist emissary of our sacred Zionist congregation. I was lucky to be asked by the Jewish Publication Society’s director, Rabbi Barry Schwartz, to update an older generation’s “Zionist Bible,” The Zionist Idea – which inspired so many in that room to move to Israel. Now, with 168 “co-stars” – this expanded anthology’s authors – I issue a invitation to all concerned: join our renewed Zionist conversation. Host Zionist salons, finding guidance at www.zionistideas. Plunge deeper with extended Zionist-mini-courses, and follow my mixed message: live the ideals, don’t just talk about them – but talk about them too, don’t get too busy just living them.

Lone rangers like me will continue fighting. But we need partners: educators, donors, foundations, institution heads, activists – and most of all the Jewish people to transform the conversation. We must take it in Hebrew to Israelis – and to every Jewish community. We must take it to parenting groups, to day schools and Hebrew highs, to college campuses and beyond. And we must go from grumbling and confronting to engaging thoughtfully, debating civilly and dreaming expansively.

Michael Oren, who defines Zionism as Jews (finally) taking responsibility for themselves, calls this a “courageous battle, and one which we’ve been losing for so long.” He sees the evening – and the book – as among various “opening shots of our counter-operation to reclaim Zionism.”

Reclaiming Zionism involves appreciating how far Israel has come, acknowledging, as Ben-Gurion taught, that we’re “not yet” there, and launching a Zionist revival to perfect the state – while stretching ourselves too.

And, as Oren notes, “besides all that, the evening was total [fun]” We need more fun – and meaning – in our lives.
The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, and was just published by The Jewish Publication Society. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter . www.giltroy