Arguing Zionism

“I came to see a clash!” the man bellowed from the back of the audience. “Instead, all I’m seeing tonight is two people getting along.” The man’s out-burst unleashed a mini-clash of its own, as I rudely interrupted him to ask: “Excuse me, Sir, have you and I been watching the same event? I have clashed with my friend Chaim here on a number of important issues.”

At that point, Chaim himself interrupted me to weigh in, while our moderator, Rabbi David Wolpe, seemingly enjoying this impromptu show of emotions, said something to the effect of, “Take it away, guys.”

It was a scene right out of a Tom Wolfe novel — people clashing over the very idea of clashing, in front of a lively community audience trying to make sense of the spontaneous eruption.

It was also a good way to cap the evening’s debate between Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller and me at Sinai Temple in Westwood, which had been billed as “Toward a Renewal of the Zionist Idea.”

The truth is, Chaim and I did clash. He spoke first, giving a passionate and somewhat pessimistic appraisal of the state of Zionism today and offering a number of prescriptions for the renewal of the “dream.”

As some of you might know, Chaim is a good friend. I know how much he loves Israel and how deeply Zionism runs in his blood.

Maybe that’s why I was disturbed by his presentation. There was a negativity in his tone, a sense of deep disappointment. “We’ve lost the dream,” he kept saying. While he certainly included some positive points about Israel, as well as some important suggestions no one could argue with (such as the need for stronger Jewish connection and better education), the general take-away of his presentation was alarmist: Zionism is in deep trouble, and for it to survive, we need “a new Zionism.”

When it was my turn to speak, I discarded most of my notes and pushed back against what I saw as Chaim’s exaggerated alarmism. “Zionism is and always was an argument,” I said. Long before the creation of Israel, Zionism had a bitter history of ideological conflict. Those conflicts were never resolved; they are still playing out today — only now, they’re playing out in a real nation, not a theoretical one.

The greatness of the Zionist story, and, for that matter, of Judaism itself, is that it doesn’t resolve its epic conflicts. The Zionism of “refuge” is still clashing today with the Zionism of Jewish values, the Zionism of Hebrew culture, the Zionism of religion, the Zionism of socialism, the Zionism of land, the Zionism of liberalism and the Zionism of the Messiah.

Considering that each Zionism owns a piece of “the truth,” how realistic is it to stand up today and claim that this or that Zionism ought to win the day?

It is the image of Zionism that is in deep trouble, I said. Our enemies have succeeded in turning Zionism into an evil and contaminated brand, and, subsequently, too many of us have come to see the word itself as a source of shame or something to avoid.

That is the real tragedy. The Jewish community hasn’t been able to find a way to argue about Zionism in a way that would honor its complexity, nourish its evolution and make it a source of Jewish pride.

Under the guise of “tough love,” self-professed Zionists like Peter Beinart launch blistering, one-sided and bitter attacks on the liberal “failures” of Zionism, thus exacerbating the global perception that Zionism is a poisonous and failed enterprise worthy of the harshest condemnations.

While the “tough love” attackers focus mostly on the half-empty part of the glass, the “pure love” defenders make their own mistakes by focusing mostly on the half-full part.

With both sides screaming past each other, there is little room for Zionist critics who look lovingly at the whole glass, with all its conflicts and imperfections, but also all its wonders and accomplishments.

Zionism might be messy, I told the audience, but just as every democracy is a work in progress, Zionism is a “mess in progress.” Over-the-top criticism à la Beinart sets fires rather than sheds light. Enriching the Zionist conversation requires nuance, context, historical narrative, strategic insights and, when it’s called for, loving rebuke — what Rabbi David Hartman calls “the love of a mother, not of a mother-in-law.”

On the subject at hand, Chaim and I agree on a lot of things, but we do have our honest differences. In essence, his priority is to help remake Zionism in his ideal image, while mine is to highlight the complex struggles and debates that already exist. He critiques the state of Zionism; I critique the virulent criticism. He wants to help fix a problem; I want to help rehabilitate a perception.

It was obvious at our debate that we are both deeply loving of the Zionist movement. We might have chosen different ways of expressing that love, but what’s wrong with that? We’re different people, with different upbringings and different personalities.

In any event, our friendly and respectful tone apparently disappointed the man in the back of the hall who “came looking for a clash.”

All I can say is, you missed a really good argument, my friend.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at