The Zionist Movement: A ‘Sh’ma’ Roundtable

December 1, 2012
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Is Zionism re-emerging as a central concept for the next generation of American Jews? Over the past two decades, Zionism as a movement to rally Jews and explain the meaning and significance of the State of Israel has diminished.  Recently, however, a growing number of young Jewish leaders in the United States and  Israel are re-embracing the term.  Below, we share the voices of three passionate Zionists to learn what Jewish nationalism means to them and how they think Zionism can remain relevant in the 21st century.

Noam Pianko: The term “Zionism” is far less popular today, even among supporters of Israel, than it has been in the past. Is the term itself still important for you? What is at stake in whether you call yourself a “Zionist?”

Elisheva Goldberg: The term “Zionism” is as important as ever, if only because there are those who claim it from whom I wish to retake it. If I were to stop calling myself a Zionist, it would be akin to an Orthodox Jew announcing that the word halakhic no longer meant anything to them. To be a Zionist is to identify with the historical, cultural, and political tradition of the Jewish people, and for me to disavow it would be a form of heresy.

Kenneth Bob: I call myself a Zionist, as I still believe in the international collective of the Jewish people. Historically, Zionism has always been a “hyphenated identity”; I call myself a progressive-Zionist. The 21st-century version of the ideology that A.D. Gordon, David Ben-Gurion, and others brought from Russia to then-Palestine links tikkun olam, the world’s mending, with Jewish values, and recognizes that secure and just peace with Israel’s neighbors is an essential element of the mending.

Elisheva Goldberg: The phrase “international collective” implies that you believe all Jews should make aliyah. But doesn’t a hyphenated Zionist identity allow for a Jew in America to believe that she or he is an American-Zionist without being compelled to move to Israel?

Kenneth Bob: For me, Israel sits at the center of the Jewish collective, and people — wherever they are — can identify as Zionists. They can express their connection in their own countries or through travel to Israel. As a friend of mine says, “if you commute, there is no galut.”

Aharon Horwitz: The Jewish people have a duty to act as a force for good in the world. Zionism simply updated that imperative for the age of nationalism. And, today, some folks, like our organization PresenTense, are trying to update it for a very new age. Zionist thinkers across the spectrum saw Zionism as a force for good in the world. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who founded Revisionist Zionism and its youth movement, Betar, spends an enormous amount of time on that imperative.

Then, as now, some people who don’t understand the value of a particular collective coupled with the value of action for the greater good will fall off the spectrum; they are ultimately not part of a Jewish mission and should be rejected by those who consider themselves Zionists.

Elisheva Goldberg: Aharon, are you referring to people who would see your argument that the “Jewish people have a duty to be a force of good in the world” as potentially dangerous and imperialist? If you are, then you’re telling much of American Jewry today that they “are not part of a Jewish mission and should be rejected by those who consider themselves Zionists.”

Aharon Horwitz: I’m saying that acting for the greater good of the world as a collective — that is, acting as the Jewish people rather than merely as individuals — is a key piece of what it means to be Zionist. This also implies responsibility for investing energy in the Jewish people. I think many American Jews fall into this categorical definition
of “Zionist” even if they are not engaged with what happens in Israel. It’s an expanding definition. That said, many Americans — and Israelis — are not acting as a force for good in the world as part of our collective.

Noam Pianko: Historically, to be a Zionist meant taking risks, advocating for radical innovations, and passionately arguing with other Jews about the meaning of Judaism. Can Zionism once again come to mean the commitment to debating pressing questions about the meaning of Jewish identity and collectivity at a moment of great political and cultural transformations? In particular, how do you see Zionism remaining relevant in a world increasingly shaped by a number of powerful processes of denationalization — such as globalization, large-scale immigration, and technological interconnectedness?

Elisheva Goldberg: Although nationalism may be on the decline, we still speak in nationalist parlance; it’s our lingua franca. What this means is that, at least for the time being, we’re going to need to address international concerns with national language, Twitter notwithstanding.  There may be a time in the future — if, say, globalization makes nationalist conversation functionally irrelevant; if borders, anthems, flags, and ethnoreligious ties to specific places no longer factor into how we divide up land — Zionism as we know it will cease to exist. But for now, most people still care about those things.

Aharon Horwitz: There is not much left of the classic revolutionary Zionist infrastructure. Over the past 30 years, the youth movements were kneecapped by a combination of mismanagement, Jewish communal politics, and cynical exploitation by Israeli political parties. Though the few remaining sparks are awesome, they are like living fossils.

Being pro-Israel is only residually connected to being a Zionist (even AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] was originally the American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs). Zionism is about translating Jewish truths into action as much as it is about creating a safe and secure state. Zionists should be the first to call for change in Israel if its leadership fails in the Zionist imperative. This is best done by living here — by acting and ultimately voting!

We have to realize that change is painful. We should expect to be very uncomfortable over the next 20 years. Israel will be the locus for change and the site of the creativity that will help us chart a path forward — a path where our collective identity will impact the world for the better.

Elisheva Goldberg: Aharon, while living in Israel — that is, being an engaged citizen — may be best, in an age of globalization, we may need to reevaluate your premise.

Noam Pianko: What has influenced how Diaspora Jews think about Zionism over the past couple of decades?

Elisheva Goldberg: I would argue that the most powerful influences on American Jews, when it comes to Israel and Zionism, have been: Taglit-Birthright Israel, which aims to inject both love of Israel and love of Judaism simultaneously, with mixed results; Jewish summer camps, which often contain very strong (mostly Labor) Zionism elements and generally take their campers to Israel to reinforce and encourage such Zionism; and campus Hillels, which, though they claim to remain “neutral” when it comes to Israel, function as loci for Israel advocacy groups, Israeli cultural societies, etc.  American Jews often express their Judaism through their “love” of Israel — and while I find this troubling, given the American Jewish institutional setup, I think it’s easy to see how and why this happens.

Kenneth Bob: Sadly, Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories has distorted the meaning of Zionism for many liberal Diaspora Jews; they incorrectly associate the disenfranchisement of the Palestinians and the objectives of Zionism.

Aharon Horwitz: “Zionism” was an irrelevant term to most of my friends in the public school I attended in Cleveland. Even at the Jewish day schools, it was more something to learn about rather than live. I’d rather put my energy into mobilizing people around a mission than a term. And let’s not compromise in asking them to contribute to that mission; we don’t need to pay or woo them. We need to lead, to act our values, and inspire them.

Noam Pianko: What do you see as Zionism’s greatest success and failure?

Elisheva Goldberg: Greatest success: the establishment of a state where the official language is Hebrew. This has made the country a cohesive cultural body. Greatest failure: I’m torn between two things, though they’re interconnected. First, the “land without a people for a people without a land” mentality that Herzl had, which persists to this day (see, for example, Newt Gingrich’s comment on the Palestinians). The second failure is the fact that the average Israeli does not speak basic Arabic.

Kenneth Bob: The establishment of a sovereign Jewish homeland as a result of the efforts of the Zionist movement should be seen as the prime Jewish success story of the last century. The failure thus far is to fulfill the commitment made in the state’s Declaration of Independence to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex.” The inability to make peace with her neighbors makes Israel, and, by extension, Zionism, a work in progress.

Aharon Horwitz: In addition to creating a Hebrew-speaking sovereign Jewish state, the perception of a mass movement of the people (through the Jewish National Fund blue-box) to “own a piece of the campaign” (regardless of its historical reality) was a wonderful achievement. I always think about this picture: a dreary day in a Polish shtetl, but on the table is a bright blue and white box filling up with hard-earned zlotys. It is an awesome example of crowd-funding.

The greatest failures include problems with klitah, the absorption of immigrants, and also with making the transition to become a people with a state and the responsibilities of sovereignty, which both limits the “Jewish” interests and also expands the opportunity to achieve the Jewish and Zionist imperative we talked about earlier.

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Kenneth Bob is the national president of Ameinu, the Labor Zionist organization of North America. He is also a member of the board of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the executive of the World Zionist Organization, and the board of the J Street Educational Fund. In his professional life, he is an entrepreneur who serves as president of RenewTricity, a solar energy development company.

Elisheva Goldberg works for Molad, a new think tank devoted to the development and promotion of a progressive vision for the State of Israel. She previously worked as the assistant editor of Open Zion, a blog about Israel, Palestine, and the Jewish future edited by Peter Beinart of the Daily Beast. A 2011 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, she has lived in Israel, Egypt, and Morocco.

Aharon Horwitz is co-founder, former co-director, and, currently, a board member of the PresenTense Group. He spent his youth in the Zionist youth movement Betar. Horwitz now leads a technology start-up that helps connect people to quality content ( He lives in Jerusalem with Alieza Salzberg.

Noam Pianko, a Sh’ma Advisory Board member, is associate professor and the Samuel N. Stroum Chair of Jewish Studies at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. In addition, he serves as chair of the University of Washington’s Jewish studies program. He is author of Zionism and the Roads Not Taken: Rawidowicz, Kaplan, Kohn (Indiana University Press, 2010). He moderated the conversation.

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