Zionism With Hope

Just 11 minutes after its independence was declared, the State of Israel was recognized by the United States. But up until the last moment, President Harry Truman had opposed the establishment of a Jewish state. For months, a battle waged between the State Department and Zionist leaders for Truman’s allegiance, and he was weary of the issue. The State Department had persuaded him that a Jewish state in Palestine would never survive the threatened Arab invasion and advocated shelving the partition plan and turning Palestine over to U.N. trusteeship. When New York’s pro-Zionist senators met with him, Truman erupted: “You cannot satisfy the Jews anyway. … They are not interested in the United States!” He washed his hands of Zionism and Israel, and refused to discuss it further. As a last resort, the Zionists brought Truman’s old Army friend and business partner, Eddie Jacobson, to the White House to request one last meeting with Chaim Weitzman, one last appeal for Jewish independence.

Sitting with a crowd of 10,000 at the national AIPAC Policy Conference just 63 years and a few blocks from the White House, waiting for President Barack Obama to arrive and address us, I thought about Eddie Jacobson. I imagine him sitting nervously in the antechamber of the Oval Office, wondering what he would say to his stubborn old friend. Could he convey to the president, born of America’s heartland, what this moment meant to the generations of the Jewish people?

How did he feel carrying on his shoulders two millennia of Jewish hopes and prayers? How was it that Providence chose him, Eddie Jacobson, a simple Kansas City haberdasher, to deliver an ancient people’s dreams?

For a student of Jewish history, the AIPAC conference is a breathtaking experience. How far are we from Eddie Jacobson? This time, the president came to us, and early on a Sunday morning. On Monday, 70 senators and 270 members of the House sat down to dinner with us. On Tuesday, the prime minister of Israel received 29 standing ovations from a joint session of Congress. Zionism was about changing the Jewish story. Zionism was about gaining sufficient power so that the Jewish people would have a place in the world and would never again suffer the indignity of helplessness.

Sitting in front of the president at AIPAC, one can’t help but reflect on how the Jewish story has changed in one generation. And how it hasn’t changed.

We are still a nervous people. Throughout the conference, the president’s words were parsed and analyzed with talmudic acuity. Is he for us or is he against us? Is he our best friend or our worst enemy? The threats facing Israel are very real. And they are dutifully recited at each session of the AIPAC conference like a litany: Iran’s unabated march toward nuclear weapons. Hezbollah’s missiles. Hamas’ spirituality of murder. Abbas’ confused intentions. This coming September’s vote at the U.N. Rising Islamicism in Egypt. European boycotts and disinvestment. Israel’s international isolation. Amid all the remarkable gestures of our miraculous, new-found political power, AIPAC is an exercise in Jewish anxiety. 

Exile and its indignity, the Holocaust and its horrors have left us wounded. Sixty-three years of spectacular sovereignty have not yet healed the wounds of the Jewish spirit. From those wounds grows an overwhelming fear that all we have gained could be lost in a moment. That fear flows fluently into rage — too often, rage directed at our own. It flows into suspicion, the inability to distinguish friend from foe. It flows into drunken, chest-thumping bravado.  Eventually, its energy dissipates and it flows into despair and indifference. The great Zionist curmudgeon Ahad Ha’am warned that we might gain a state but lose our national soul.

The threats to Israel are existential and very, very real. They must be met with resolution and strength. That’s why I belong to AIPAC and support it passionately. But we must take care in deliberating our strategy of response. We are an old people. We have known existential threats before. And we have learned how to respond with wisdom in ways that bind community closer, instead of separating and isolating, and in ways that uplift us, instead of turning us cold and angry. Zionism grew out of that wisdom. Zionism was always about hope. Zionism always spoke in the language of Jewish aspiration. Zionism is a modern expression of ancient messianism, reaching beyond the bounds of the Jewish people to envision a world redeemed and made whole. With all our glorious new political power, I missed that spirit in our community’s advocacy for Israel. I miss the hope, the vision and the language of our higher aspirations.

On Monday evening, following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address, we exited the convention center and were met by a knot of anti-Israel demonstrators screaming rather vicious epithets. The huge AIPAC crowd soon surrounded the knot of demonstrators. Thankfully, there was no violence. Instead, they began to sing. The demonstrators’ hateful slogans were roundly drowned out by “Am Yisrael Chai!” and “Oseh Shalom,” until the whole neighborhood rang with Hebrew song. As the police came to remove the demonstrators, the crowd began to sing “Hatikva.” This time, hope had the last word.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of American Jewish University.