Is Zionism a bad word?


With characteristic poise, Rabbi David Wolpe turned to the three panelists onstage at Sinai Temple on a recent Wednesday evening, in front of a sellout crowd of some 250 people.

“I’m going to start with a quick yes-or-no question,” he began. “Do you believe that people under 35 are less attached to the State of Israel than they were 30 years ago?”

On either side of me were Rabbi Sarah Bassin, 34, of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, and Sam Yebri, 35, a lawyer, accomplished leaders in their respective Jewish communities, progressive and Persian. Each answered immediately in the affirmative. And then there was me — the only millennial on the panel, feeling intellectually outmatched, my headset pressing uncomfortably into the back of my skull.

“Yes,” I answered quickly.

And yet, in my mind, I was already hedging, picking at the very premise of the question. I scribbled the phrase “less attached” on the legal pad perched on my knee and frowned at it. Of course my generation is less attached to Israel. Is a parent less attached to an 18-year-old child than to a defenseless toddler taking its first steps into the world?

That’s the difference the past 30 years have wrought for Israel: from a state struggling out of its uncertain beginnings to a proud and mighty nation. Over the generations, the meaning of the word “Israel” has changed, and consequently, inevitably, so has the meaning of the word “Zionism.”

“No one in the Jewish community supported a Palestinian state — I mean, no one, post-1967,” Wolpe said at the March 15 panel about young Zionists, sponsored by Hadassah and the Jewish Journal. “Then, a Palestinian state became orthodoxy. Everybody in the Jewish community supported a Palestinian state. Now, it’s becoming unorthodox again.”

The pendulum has swung wildly and often. What began in Europe as a movement of socialists and atheists to re-establish a Jewish homeland these days often feels monopolized by the religious right.

“Instead of creating bridges, we are contributing to the conflict between East and West by our stupid desire to have more.”
—A.B. Yehoshua, Israeli author

Each generation defines and redefines Zionism to suit its needs and circumstances. It’s a task that becomes more and more difficult, as each passing year is another separating today’s youth from the movement’s inception.

By the time I enrolled at UCLA, Zionism was read in many circles as a type of extremism. “Really?” an editor at the UCLA Daily Bruin once said to me after I professed to being a Zionist. “I didn’t expect that.” I read his meaning well enough: How could a person who seems to be reasonable also be a Zionist?

It used to be that the definition was a simpler and easier one, dictated by ironclad concerns of Jewish continuance and survival. Such was the case, for instance, in the Galician shtetl where my paternal grandfather was born, where Zionism meant young people training together in preparation to cultivate the land that would shortly become their only refuge.

In 1939, my great uncle, Mordechai Arom, was one such youth, preparing to join his brother, my grandfather Shmuel, in Mandatory Palestine, when their mother took ill. Mordechai was ready to stay in Poland to care for his dying mother, but she called him to her bedside and commanded him to go. With her dying act, she became the matriarch of a Zionist tradition that still holds. The first day Mordechai arrived in Palestine, he received a telegram that she’d died. His first week in the Holy Land was spent sitting shivah for his mother.

For my grandfather Shmuel, in the years after the war, Zionism meant building an observant congregation in Rishon LeZion even while questioning the God that sent his relatives to be slaughtered en masse. He died in 1964, struck by a car while collecting alms for the temple, later named Neve Shmuel in his honor.

Zionism intruded on my mother at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, on June 10, 1967, when news came over the radio in Mr. Cameron’s 12th-grade history class that Israeli troops had taken the Western Wall plaza. My mother was visibly emotional, so the teacher dismissed her to the library, where she wept.

After college, she got on an airplane — for the first time ever — and flew to Jerusalem, not knowing a soul in Israel, not a cousin, not a second cousin, nobody. She stayed for two years. “As soon as I knew there was a State of Israel, I knew I had to go,” she said.

Those years marked an inflection point for Zionism. It had started almost a century earlier as a whisper, an outlandish notion popularized by Theodor Herzl, a peripatetic journalist and self-identified atheist. It began, if you will, as a bad word, denounced by much of the Jewish establishment as a Messianic affectation. In 1880, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of Hebrew Union College, wrote, “We want no Jewish princes, and no Jewish country or government.”

“Zionism demands a publicly recognized and legally secured homeland in Palestine for the Jewish people. This platform is unchangeable.”
—Theodor Herzl, father of modern Zionism

Of course, the attainment of such a country in 1948 changed everything. My mother was born three years later, and the first 16 years of her life were marked by an aspirational Zionism, with Israel as the David to an Arab Goliath.

That Zionism reached its high point in 1967, with Israel’s astonishing victory in the Six-Day War. Then, Israel enjoyed the world’s admiration. Today, pro-Palestinian activists, including thousands of Jews, see 1967 as the beginning of the occupation — the moment the Jewish people went from oppressed to oppressor.

That unlikely triumph has come back to haunt the conscience of American Jewish youth, who have never known any Zionism other than one of victory and strength.

Meanwhile, the 80-year history of flight, toil and fear of death that my parents and grandparents experienced as Zionism is regularly obliterated by the reductionist slogans of pro-Palestinian groups and their allies, for whom a Zionist is an occupier, Jews are the White Man and oppression in Palestine is no different from oppression in Ferguson, Mo.

Nearly half a century after my mother graduated from UCLA, African-American activist Amy Hunter was invited by Students for Justice in Palestine to speak at UCLA’s campus as part of Palestine Awareness Week.

“We will not be free here in the United States if they are not free in Palestine,” she told a small but diverse audience, their fingers snapping in agreement. “I’m clear about that.”

It’s not as if the “Zionism-is-racism” equivalence is news. My mom remembers campus leftists asserting as much in the early 1970s. In response, she and her Hillel buddies walked around with pins that read, “I am a Zionist.”

Those pins still might be a good idea today. In 2017, campus Zionists face a movement that bills itself as a global liberation struggle. In the parlance of that struggle, “Zionist” is a slur, and the connections and political opinions it suggests have become so toxic as to discourage its use, even among many who ostensibly support Jewish statehood. Imagine if people who don’t eat meat balked at calling themselves vegetarians.

Among the reasons for my invitation to speak at Sinai Temple are the many conversations I have in the course of my reporting with members of the Jewish far left, including the group IfNotNow, a diffuse network of young Jews openly challenging the Jewish establishment for its support of the status quo in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

It’s neither the largest nor the most influential pro-Palestinian Jewish group, but it’s the newest and, because of its confrontational approach, perhaps the most worrisome for mainstream Jewish organizations. Lately, I’ve taken to asking members of IfNotNow if they consider themselves to be Zionists.

Unanimously, they decline to be quoted by name and then give variations of the same answer: I’ve moved past the term. It doesn’t apply. It’s beside the point. I don’t identify either way.

These young people are neither Zionist nor anti-Zionist — they’re post-Zionist.

In fact, IfNotNow and its constituency seem to be in the minority of young people in that they care about Israel at all. A Pew Research Cemter poll in 2013 found that among Jews 18 to 29 years old, 32 percent said caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish, compared with 53 percent of Jews age 65 and older.

Within that slice of young Jews, there is, of course, a considerable range of opinion. Among such groups as IfNotNow and J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace, caring means advocating a Palestinian state for the sake of maintaining a Jewish one.

But on the other hand, when the American Israel Public Affairs Committee convenes its annual policy conference later this month in Washington, D.C., you can bet there will be plenty of Jewish youth in attendance for whom caring about Israel means something very different. Just ask Ron Krudo, executive director of campus affairs for the pro-Israel organization StandWithUs, which is active on high school and college campuses across the country. Notwithstanding anti-Israel sentiment, students “are excited to share their stories of being a proud Zionist, and what Zionism means to them.”

“Even on some of these tougher campuses, you can always find a student who’s inspired to take action and be a voice,” said Krudo, 26.

Yet the fact remains that most young Jews can’t be bothered to care, or at least don’t feel their Judaism compels them to. For many, the question of Zionism is so fraught with contradiction that it’s much easier just to swear it off entirely.

I’m not immune to my generation’s ambivalence on the matter of Jewish nationalism. In the vocabulary of my education on a liberal campus, the word “nationalist” is likely to follow the word “white” or “militant” or “ultra.” In other words, mine is a Zionism that’s not without reservations.

“Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with patriotism. Multiple loyalties are objectionable only if they are inconsistent.”
— Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis

But to say that I’m post-Zionist would be tantamount to saying that I’m post-Jewish — which is simple and easy but altogether untrue. The struggle for Jewish nationhood was written into my biography long before I was born.

After all, if it weren’t for the itinerant Zionism that motivated my grandfather Shmuel to drag his wife, the daughter of a cultured and well-to-do German-Jewish family, to hardscrabble Palestine, where they slept in tents and toiled without end, it might very well have been somebody else’s byline on this story; I may well have never been born. Israel is the center of gravity for world Jewry. You may object to its pull, but you simply can’t free yourself from its orbit.

To be sure, mine is not the blustering, self-assured Zionism of my parents. Even having this conversation with my mother sets her singing an interminable series of Israeli folk songs. Recently, standing in her kitchen, I pressed her on whether she truly believes that God gave us all the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. “Listen,” she replied, “I don’t know who gave it to us, but it’s ours.”

I’m not so sure about that. But that doesn’t mean we’re not part of the same movement, she and I, the same multigenerational struggle for identity and soil. The panel at Sinai Temple landed repeatedly on the idea of “big-tent Zionism.” The tent has to be big enough for my parents and me.

Sometimes, that prospect feels doubtful. But nothing could be more necessary for the continuance of the movement. If Zionism is little more than a narrow political creed, it can be shouted down or reasoned away. What ultimately will win over the next generation of Zionists is what Yebri called “the beautiful aspect and miraculous magical aspect of Zionism.”

The miracle, in short, is that in 80 years, we have moved from total disempowerment to a position of such security and strength that we can argue bitterly among ourselves about what to do with it. It’s a compelling narrative, if we can capitalize on it.

“One of the strongest indicators of having a strong Jewish identity, beyond campus and education and peer trips to Israel, is a Jewish grandparent that identifies strongly with his or her Judaism, and I would submit that follows for Zionism,” Yebri told the crowd at Sinai Temple. “So if you’re a parent or a grandparent in this room who feels strongly about Israel … don’t delegate it to school or a book or Birthright, because by that point it’s too late.”

I suspect that many of the Jewish youth who have distanced themselves from Zionism aren’t as familiar with the Zionist narrative of their forebears as they are with today’s more politically charged definitions. If they were, they might be more likely to adopt it, baggage and all. It is, after all, an enthralling story, with no small share of heroes and martyrs.

A decade after sitting shivah for his mother, Mordechai, my great uncle, closed out his own life by sacrificing it to the Zionist cause — cut down while defending his village in Gush Etzion during the War of Independence. This, before Green Lines and settlement blocs and two-state solutions.

If the next Jewish generation wants to be part of a global struggle for liberation, then it may as well be our own.