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Towards an Inclusive Framing of 21st Century Zionism

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

In two divided streams the exiles part One rolling homeward to its ancient source, One rushing sunward, with fresh will, new heart. By each the truth is spread, the law unfurled, Each separate soul contains the nation’s force, And both embrace the world Emma Lazarus, “The New Year” 5643

It is time that we move beyond the dispute over whether Israel is a more authentic expression of Jewish existence than that experienced in the Diaspora. This classic debate deflects our attention and energy from the task at hand in the 21st century – to re-assert a strong global Jewish Peoplehood which draws on the advantages afforded by Jewish sovereignty in Israel coupled with the creative vitality of the pluralistic American Jewish identity.

In 1882, waves of Eastern European Jewry had begun to swell into parting streams of refuge. Some embarked for the United States and others for Palestine. In Lazarus’ rendering, both America and Palestine constituted authentic homelands and equally legitimate responses to exile, insularity, and modernity. In accepting the validity of both souls, Lazarus was one of the first thinkers to publicly embody the tension of the competing claims that America and Israel have on Diaspora Jewish existence. At the core of these competing claims are questions that confront every American Jew: are America and Israel unique in the Jewish story, and, if so, what does that mean for me? Lazarus’ struggle is emblematic of the struggle we as a people have faced over the past century-and-a-half. She asked then, as we ask now, “Where is the Hebrew’s fatherland?” Her answer to this question offers us a paradigm of complementary, rather than competing, Zions.

While she romanticized the rebirth and renewal of the Jewish people’s “ancient source,” she saw America as an authentic and viable vessel of Jewish life as well. She yearned for a renaissance of the particularistic Jewish homeland in Israel while also celebrating the birth of a universal Jewish homeland alongside it in America. Lazarus elegantly and profoundly wrestled with the conflicting claims on American Jew: How can I make compatible my particular Jewish identity as manifested in Israel and my universal inclinations as realized in America?

The answer for Lazarus was simple: there is nothing to reconcile. The streams extend to both Texas and Tel Aviv and, though they may divide geographically, they remain linked metaphysically. For much of the later part of the 20th century, this conception of homeland endured. Yet today, the cracks are widening. The next generation of American Jewry is feeling more at home in America and less connected to Israel than ever before. Many of our families have developed thriving roots and a secular faith in America. Moreover, in the 21st century, many of the socio-historical factors that bound earlier generations to Israel have crumbled.

For many young Jews, the Holocaust and Israel’s existential wars are seen as museum relics and not enduring realities. The threats of anti-Semitism and dislocation appear less potent than in previous generations. Young Jews tend to resent what they see as a paternalistic and aloof nation-state looking down at the Diaspora as inferior and impermanent. The romanticism Lazarus held for the dream of a Jewish State is waning among a new generation of Jews unsympathetic to the dream and disappointed with the reality. Confronted with competing Zions, American Jews think they must make a choice, and, overwhelmingly, they are choosing the one they live in. History has shifted; we must shift along with it.

Here are some propositions that might animate a renewed attempt at open and honest conversations in our synagogues, on our campuses, and in our homes.

First, Israel and the Diaspora must re-affirm Lazarus’ supposition that both communities matter and both countries offer authentic expressions of Jewish existence. We need to renew a paradigm of global Peoplehood which legitimizes the values and voices of the Diaspora not because they are seen as endangered or as donors, but because they are Jews.

Second, both sides must abandon their arrogance. The relationship cannot be a vertical one, where Americans see themselves as patrons or where Israelis see themselves as the nucleus. The Jewish community is not unipolar and no one community can claim superiority. We cannot allow the relationship to be one of teacher and student or donor and recipient. We cannot allow any one community to subordinate or instrumentalize the other.

Third, we must find more effective ways to bring the Diaspora and Israel into a global Jewish dialogue. One way to do this is to revive the Hebrew language in America. Imagine the impact if we took just 10% of American Jewish dollars fighting BDS and invested those same resources in Hebrew immersion programs. This would empower American Jews to live more authentically Jewish lives, to embody the legacy of Zionism, and to more immediately connect with Israelis and Israeli society. Another way to do this is to invest more in programs that bring young American Jews and Israelis together, whether in summer camps or service trips. The relationship must be a two-way street. In America, those who wish to practice Judaism must make a conscious choice that requires great effort. Because of this, there are creative models of Jewish engagement in America that simply do not exist in Israel. In Israel, Jewish practice is engrained in the majority culture. Understanding these differences and their implications can enrich our understanding of what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century.

Fourth, we must recognize that our models for Israel engagement today are profoundly misconceived. We fail to meaningfully engage most young Jews between their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and college. We spend more time rebutting negative connotations of Israel rather than developing positive ones grounded in Jewish self-understanding. When we do discuss positive images of Israel, we typically promote one so flawless that it is ultimately untenable, rendering youth distrustful of Jewish institutions. Our engagement is grounded in a reductive model of advocacy which operates out of a prism of fear.

We must develop a multidimensional model of education-oriented engagement which operates out of a prism of complex love.

Finally, we must affirm an inclusive framework for a 21st century Zionism that American Jewry – especially younger generations – can get behind. Perhaps we can discuss the story of Zionism in two chapters: (1) Zionism the Dream and (2) Zionism the Reality. Zionism the Dream is an articulation of the original aspirations for the Jewish State, grounded in Jewish civilization and Zionist ideology. It is here where we can create connection and understanding across divides. Then, in the discussion of Zionism the Reality, we can analyze Israel against our shared understanding of the ideological background for its existence. In this way, we can begin to address some of the schisms within the pluralistic American Jewish community and engage in a more responsible exchange between the Diaspora and Israel.

Zionism has succeeded marvelously in creating a state. Now, the next challenge is for American and Israeli Jews to imbue Zionism with new meaning by developing a dynamic and mutually reinforcing relationship under the banner of our common destiny. Though the streams have parted, our source and our salvation remain shared. We are still one people. It’s time we act like it.

This essay originally appeared in The Peoplehood Papers, volume 22 and was published digitally on E Jewish Philanthropy


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