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“I am a Zionist”: Our Herzlian Jew-Jitsu Moments Twenty Years Ago

From a full-time American historian, I became a Zionist activist too, trying to trigger a broader communal conversation about what Zionism can mean in the twenty-first century.

“I am a Zionist.”

That phrase has inspired me my entire life. Yet, on Israel’s Independence Day in 2001, when I published those words in the Montreal Gazette, it changed my life. This was my Theodor Herzl Moment — the turning point when I came out of the closet with my identity as a proud Zionist.

Twenty years ago, Israel was reeling. It was the first Yom Ha’atzmaut since Yasser Arafat led Palestinian rejectionists away from negotiations and back to terrorism. I watched the mounting violence in horror from my academic perch at McGill University. The violence was agonizingly personal. One day, a 34-year-old reservist, Amir Zohar, was shot in the usually quiet Jordan Valley — it didn’t help his three young children that, as his widow Orly recalled, he “worked very hard to promote coexistence.” Another day a Palestinian sniper shot a ten-month-old baby, Shalhevet Pass, in the heart. Two days later, on March 28, 2001, a Palestinian suicide bomber walked into a clump of kids waiting for the school bus at “Mifgash HaShalom” — peace stop —  killing Eliran Rosenberg-Zayat, 15, and Naftali Lanzkorn, 13. Eventually, Palestinian terrorists would murder more than one thousand Israelis in their war against the peace process.

Every time I heard about another “pigua” — terrorist attack — my heart skipped a beat, my palms turned clammy. I scoured the names hoping, praying I wouldn’t recognize anyone; hoping, praying that the numbers next to them would say 65 or 74 or something older instead of 1, 13, 15, 34.

Yet, most academics around me, most newspapers I read, blamed Israel for the violence. Although Israel had not been perfect, it had taken major risks for peace — withdrawing from every major Palestinian city. Nevertheless, as soon as Arafat returned to terrorism, the world found Israel guilty — as did many Jews.

This irrational finger pointing against Israel shattered the covenant of complacency that was the foundation of my respectable life as an American history professor. My name “Gil Troy” got me warm greetings at Greek restaurants and, because my last name could be a first name, a high-five from a fellow Teaching Assistant back at Harvard who said “there are so few WASPs like us around nowadays.” (I responded with my heaviest New Yawk accent: “Even fewer than ya tink!”)

I built my career around my ability to pass. I was a proud Jew in my home but a regular American on the street. But now, in April 2001, with buses and cafes exploding in my homeland and anti-Zionist fueled Jew-hatred spreading, I made my stand. I submitted an 800-word essay for Israel’s Independence Day to the Gazette called “I am a Zionist.” I emphasized how lucky we were to be living in a world with a Jewish State — putting our problems in perspective. Using the refrain “I am a Zionist” 14 times — because I saw Jews abandoning the term — I explained what Zionism meant to me, to us.

Beyond hoping for peace, I ignored the Palestinians as I ended the essay. I did not want to knock them down; I just wanted to build our people up. I explained: “A century ago, Zionism revived pride in the label ‘Jew’; today, Jews must revive pride in the label ‘Zionist.’”

I expected to be attacked for outing myself as a Zionist. And I was. Someone wrote a clever if evil parody, “I am a Racist.” What I didn’t expect was how many emails (and back then actual letters!) I received from people saying: “thank you, finally, someone is saying something positive about Israel, even about Zionism!”

That’s why it proved so life-changing. From a full-time American historian, I became a Zionist activist too, trying to trigger a broader communal conversation about what Zionism can mean in the twenty-first century. Central to my message — then and now — was that if Political Zionism’s great twentieth-century success was establishing a functional, democratic Jewish State, today’s great opportunity for Identity Zionism is finding meaning from connecting to that State and to our people, wherever Jews live.

“I am a Zionist” became my Identity Zionism manifesto, which I expanded into the best-selling book “Why I am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.” Before that, I had written books on presidential history, which were well-reviewed. Occasionally, students would thank me for writing something interesting, maybe even illuminating. Suddenly, I wrote something that to this day (some) people say prompted them to change their lives.

Since then, I have written three more books about Zionism: “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism,” “The Zionists Ideas” — an anthology — and “Never Again: Prison, Politics and My People” (with Natan Sharansky). I have also given hundreds of speeches, written thousands of articles and had tens of thousands of interactions with people all over the world about Israel, Zionism, Judaism and life.

Although I felt alone — aside from my wife, who was my partner every step of the way — I later discovered that all over the Jewish world people like me were standing up and going public, not just to defend our people — but to celebrate us.

All over the Jewish world, people like me were standing up and going public, not just to defend our people — but to celebrate us.

Across the continent, a West Los Angeles family therapist, Roz Rothstein, was equally dazed by the noise against Israel and the Jewish establishment’s silence. The murder of Shalhevet Pass proved particularly unnerving. Rothstein recalls: “As a daughter of Holocaust survivors, I could not take it into my brain that Jews were once again being targeted for murder.”

Twelve days after Yom Ha’atzmaut, on May 8, 2001, terrorists stoned to death two teenagers, Koby Mandell and Yosef Ishran. “That murder was the final catalyst,” Rothstein explains, “the terrible clarifying moment — because it made us realize that there was no great big Jewish organization that could pivot to become the resource that would actively explain what was going on in the moment for Israel and for its citizens who were under attack.”

Two weeks later, on May 21, Roz and her husband Jerry hosted 50 local community leaders for an emergency meeting (serving deli food, naturally). Rothstein asked: “Was there a plan? Anything? Local or National? To stand up against lies and misinformation in the media? To stand up against terrorism? To stand up FOR Israel?” Nothing. Rothstein realized this wasn’t in any organization’s mission statement. “We just needed a new organization to fill an unfulfilled niche. And that gap had to be filled fast.”

Jerry and Roz Rothstein co-founded StandWithUs with their neighbor Esther Renzer. They had no funding — just a desire “to help the Jewish people deal with speaking up and standing tall against terrorism, lies and anti-Semitism.” Twenty years later, their $18 million operation has 150 employees who educate over 100,000 college students and 70,000 high schoolers on five continents each year.

That spring, in tony Boca Raton, Florida, Rabbi Yehoshua Fass was mourning his thirteen-year-old cousin from the bus-stop massacre, Naftali Lanzkorn. “The pain was raw,” Fass explains. “Reciting Psalms seemed like a muted, impotent response. I could no longer be a good Jew pushing for Israel from Florida. I had to move there to take Naftali’s place.” By August, Fass was on his way to Israel and co-founded Nefesh B’Nefesh with Tony Gelbart to facilitate other Jews moving to Israel — seeking to replace each nefesh (soul) killed. By now, the organization has replaced the murdered Jews sixtyfold, easing the immigration of over 60,000 olim — including six members of the Troy family.

Each of us sacrificed a lot professionally, derailing the careers for which we had been programmed, for which we had been trained. But the soul-payoffs have been incalculable.

Following the UN’s World Conference against Racism that turned into a Jew-hating festival in Durban in August 2001, the Islamicists’ mass murders of September 11 and the nightmarish March of 2002, when terrorists slaughtered 131 Israelis, the broader Jewish community mobilized.

“For us, 2002 was a turning point,” Lisa Eisen, co-president of Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, recalls. “With the grave crisis in Israel and resurgence of anti-Israel activity on college campuses, we considered it vital that our community join forces to develop a unified approach to educating and training college students to support and defend Israel. Schusterman established the Israel on Campus Coalition, in partnership with Hillel International, and also funded Hillel’s new Center on Israel Affairs, to lead a proactive strategy for coordinating support for students and deploying resources to campuses.” Fortunately, Taglit-Birthright Israel had just been launched in 1999, and many Birthright returnees, inspired by “Identity Zionism,” joined the fight to defend the country they had just visited, which looked nothing like the country the media described — and often trashed.

Since then, many former students report that those years mobilized them to support Israel — while many once pro-Oslo Israelis reached their breaking points too: they realized that truly being “pro-peace” first requires ensuring Israel’s security and rebuffing Palestinian extremists’ genocidal plans toward Israel.

This Yom Ha’atzmaut, OpenDor Media will mark the twentieth anniversary of “I am a Zionist” by releasing an animated video of the essay. “In sharing that message with our 60,000 YouTube subscribers, our network of 8,000 educators, activists connected to Hillel’s now well-established Center on Israel Affairs and beyond,” says Dr. Noam Weissman, OpenDor’s senior vice president. “We hope to continue this conversation about how to take Zionism personally.”

The murder of Israelis traumatized many of us, but we are not traumatized Jews. We reject Jean Paul Sartre’s notion that anti-Semitism makes the Jew — Anti-Semitism mobilized these already-proud Jews. Our Herzl moments were Jew-Jitsu’s, turning negatives into positives, seizing opportunities to build the Jewish community, reach out and toast Israel. When you attend a StandWithUs Conference, when you greet a planeload of Birthrighters or Nefesh B’Nefeshers, and (I hope) when you read my work, you feel joy, values, a sense of hope — Hatikva!

Here, then, is the Zionist response to trauma. Some run, some hide, some stew; we write, we unite, we build — and in the process end up rebuilding and renewing ourselves.


Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American History and three books on Zionism. His book, “Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People,” co-authored with Natan Sharansky, was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.

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