The Real Meaning of Yom Ha’atzmaut

May 8, 2019

Last year, I was in Atlanta on a book tour shortly before Yom Ha’atzmaut — Israel Independence Day. I challenged the audience’s hearts and heads. I urged my listeners to make Israel’s 70th anniversary memorable for their kids and grandkids by serving ice cream for breakfast that day and every Independence Day thereafter. Some donors involved with Atlanta Jewish Academy made it happen just days later, bringing the sweetness of the holiday alive with fudge pops and other goodies.

A rabbi later heard me tell this story and accused me of treating Israel superficially. I found this assertion ironic, given my central intellectual and spiritual mission since last April, which has triggered Zionist salons worldwide: I am inviting Jews to host other Jews to talk about Zionism, Israel, Jewish identity and life itself, as part of a broader project of reading Zionist texts as keys to understanding the real meaning of Israel — and Yom Ha’atzmaut.

Some authors are megalomaniacs, hoping to change the world. I set out a year ago with a more modest goal for my latest book, “The Zionist Ideas.” I said that if we can celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary throughout the year with 70 Zionist salons taking place worldwide, I would declare my book a success. So, yes, I too hoped to change the world, one conversation at a time.

I am proud to say I exceeded my goal.

Over the past year, I have run at least 140 Zionist salons in 32 cities in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, South Africa and Israel. I have been in elegant townhouses and grotty Hillel dining halls; in a Memphis convention hall; Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance; and a sukkah by the Tel Aviv beach. I have addressed groups of rabbis, community leaders, Zionist activists, Jewish chaplains, educators, students, parents and funders. I have spoken to old Jews and young Jews, left-wingers and right-wingers, religious Zionists and Zionist atheists, enthusiasts and skeptics, Diaspora Jews and Israelis. I have had intense conversations with half a dozen undergraduate activists around a table and with 1,100 Zionists in one of those temporary tents holding mega-events.

Through all these conversations, I have come to two contradictory conclusions worth contemplating as we celebrate Israel’s 71st birthday: There’s much more goodwill toward Israel and Zionism than the headlines suggest — but the communal and environmental obstacles to tapping into that goodwill are growing, not receding. Sadly, frustratingly, the conclusion I drew about Zionism in my first Jewish-related book, “Why I Am a Zionist,” still holds true: A century ago, Zionism brought pride back to the word “Jew”; today, Jews must bring pride back to the word “Zionist.”

So, yes, our kids, our friends and we should eat ice cream for breakfast on Yom Ha’atzmaut to experience the sweetness of Israel and make the celebration memorable. You can eat the sweets on the Gregorian calendar date of May 14, too. And this year, add a special prayer for the four new victims of Palestinian rocket attacks: Moshe Agadi, 58; Ziad al-Hamamda, 47; Moshe Feder, 67; and Pinchas Menachem Prezuazman, 21. Reach out to their loved ones or the 234 injured with cards, letters or donations. However, we also should feed our minds and fuel our souls with thoughtful texts and passionate discussions focusing on Israel’s great accomplishments and ongoing challenges to make the day meaningful.

I have come to two contradictory conclusions worth contemplating as we celebrate Israel’s 71st birthday: There’s much more goodwill toward Israel and Zionism than the headlines suggest — but the communal and environmental obstacles to tapping into that goodwill are growing, not receding.

BDS and BDS Obsessions

This approach may be doubly unfashionable because it’s not dealing with the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement or how BDS may strike some people as BDS without the “D.” From the right, it seems that all Zionist and Israel-oriented conversations lead to the big question of how to fight BDS, which some of us call “blacklist, demonization and slander.” We are supposed to be perennially defensive, woe-is-me Zionists — hurt by and obsessed with the ongoing systematic campaign to delegitimize Israel. My right-wing friends don’t realize that making every conversation about Israel be about the conflict and the crisis gives many Palestinians a propaganda victory they don’t deserve. We have spent too many years dancing to their war drum — in Israel and worldwide.

I get it. I have been defending Israel against Bash-Israel-Firsters for decades. But even if our enemies won’t stop attacking us on Yom Ha’atzmaut, I insist on ignoring them that day — and for as many days of the year as I can. Theodor Herzl understood that Zionism had to be visionary and aspirational, not merely anti-anti-Semitism. Our challenge is to defend ourselves fully but not full time, and to fight for some kind of peace as aggressively, creatively and heroically as we have fought so many wars and mini-wars, ideological and military.

Today, Zionism must be more than anti-anti-Zionism, too. It’s not just the one cliché still giving off whiffs of the Jews’ galut — exilic — mentality: The best defense is a good offense. Zionism brings alive another cliché and idea: Living well is the best revenge, and Herzl’s poetic slogan, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Theodor Herzl understood that Zionism had to be visionary and aspirational, not merely anti-anti-Semitism.

Don’t Take Israel for Granted Day

Yom Ha’atzmaut is Don’t Take Israel for Granted Day. One personal highlight this year was addressing a group of 100 high school students from NCSY and CHAT — the Orthodox youth movement and the legendary Jewish day school in Toronto, respectively — before the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., in March. I told them about a Birthright organizers’ meeting we held at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel. The dean who greeted us mentioned in passing that seven of the 25 top biotech drugs in the world had been developed there: three drugs exclusively at Weizmann and four in partnership with other Israeli universities.

I said, “Did you hear what this guy just said? Israel is a pimple on the skin of the world — that’s how small we are. We like to think it’s a beauty mark, but it’s really, really small. The Weizmann Institute is a pimple on that pimple. And it developed seven of the top 25 biotech drugs in the world! How come you heard that, nodded, and didn’t stand up and sing ‘Hatikvah’ — the Israeli national anthem? What’s wrong with us? When did we start taking all these miracles for granted?”

I reported that I forced all these grizzled tour operators and educators to stand up and sing “Hatikvah.” These wonderful students heard the story and, as one, stood up and sang “Hatikvah.”

The other BDS I can’t shake is “Bibi Derangement Syndrome,” an obsessiveness about Israel’s prime minister that has many once-patriotic Jews seeing Israel only through the prism of Bibi hatred. Echoing America’s do-or-die electoral warfare, they cannot even acknowledge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s accomplishments in stabilizing the economy and more or less keeping the peace — which many of us who voted against him nevertheless recognize. And, although most Israelis dismiss Netanyahu’s cynical, transparent election-eve cry to annex the West Bank, it’s become the No. 1 conversation topic regarding Israel among many American Jews — who seem far more agitated by Netanyahu’s blustering than hundreds of rockets bombarding Israel from Gaza.

It’s this BDS mentality that produced that sick cartoon in The New York Times’ International Edition — which failed to set off editorial alarm bells against bigotry — of a big-nosed Jewish dog, “Bibi,” leading around the blind, kippah-wearing President Donald Trump (who obviously was taking a break from his usual job of being anti-Semitic). Even the Times felt forced to apologize — grudgingly, at first, then slightly more sincerely — for its “anti-Semitic tropes.”

It’s frustrating that the same American Jewish liberals who admirably won’t let Trump define America for them allow Netanyahu to color their entire perspective on Israel. The “Trump-portunity” should be teaching us all that you can love a land and hate its leader; but too many American Jews apply that lesson only to their home, not their homeland.

Just as every conversation about the United States isn’t about race or poverty, and every conversation about Canada isn’t about linguistic tensions, not every conversation about Israel should be about the Palestinians.

I don’t fear talking about Netanyahu, BDS or Palestinians or any “hot” issue, but I do resent a growing inability to address any other foundational issues regarding Israel and Zionism — and an assumption I somehow am dodging the “real” questions by not getting stuck on those topics.

From Amygdala Jews to Oxytocin Zionists

The American Jewish left and right are succumbing to parallel diseases regarding Israel. I sometimes call it the I.I.I. — the Israel Indignation Industry. A psychologist might call it anhedonia, an inability to enjoy something pleasurable — in this case, Israel or Zionism. Perhaps you are too angry about it, or too angry at those who are too angry about it. I often have walked away from synagogues, organizations and schools feeling that my most pro-Israel audiences were in trauma, emotionally flatlining over Israel, choosing sadness or frustration when there are so many other emotions to indulge.

After one such interaction, I spent the morning researching this phenomenon, learning these terms, and came across a remarkable anthropological insight. Neurologist Dr. Rick Hanson teaches that “To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities).” Warning about this “Velcro” approach to negativity and “Teflon” approach to positivity (nothing good sticks), Hanson concludes, “This is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote quality of life.”

Many American Jews need to learn from their Israeli brothers and sisters to view Israel with a lighter touch and hope in their hearts. Apply Hanson’s quotation to Diaspora Jewish history: It’s a great way to stay stuck fighting anti-Semitism, but a lousy way to promote Zionism or quality of Jewish life. Thousands of years of suffering made us amygdala Jews — with what Hanson calls “the alarm bell in your brain” constantly triggered. In Israel, they’ve become oxytocin Zionists. Oxytocin is that happy hormone that floods us with positive emotions and helps us bond. Instead of “overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities and underestimating resources,” we need a Zionism that neutralizes threats yet seizes opportunities and taps our creative resources.

Many American Jews need to learn from their Israeli brothers and sisters to view Israel with a lighter touch and hope in their hearts.

When I shared this analysis in a follow-up lecture, one of the synagogue’s stalwarts came up to me, a man in his 70s, with tears in his eyes. He said, “I have always been a proud Jew. I never before realized I am a Zionist, too, but I … am … a … Zionist.”

I was deeply moved — but more deeply depressed. This and hundreds of other interactions had suggested to me that as a Jewish community, we have not made the case effectively for profound, identity-oriented, non-advocacy-oriented, nonpartisan, ideological conversations about Israel. The growing noise from campuses, the media, within the Jewish community and from our own amygdala puts too many obstacles in our path. We start too many conversations about Israel with a hunched back, a furrowed brow and a problem. That’s not how we talk about Israel in Israel.

Four Steps to a New Zionist Conversation

Getting to the true meaning of Yom Ha’atzmaut this month and to Israel year-round requires four steps.

Step 1: Learn about what Zionism is. “The Zionist Ideas” updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology of the great Zionist writings, “The Zionist Idea.” Zionism is the movement of Jewish nationalism based on the notion Jews are a people, not just a religion; Jews have ties to a particular homeland, the Land of Israel, which doesn’t preclude others from having ties, as well; and Jews — like the 192 other countries represented in the United Nations today — have the right to establish a state on that land. Today, having established a state, the Zionist movement focuses not just on defending the state but perfecting it.

In 1959, when Hertzberg’s book came out, Israel was fragile; the Zionist conversation was robust. The Jewish people had just talked themselves into a movement and a state! Today, Israel is robust, but the Zionist conversation is fragile. Shame on the delegitimizers, the haters and those who would rob us of our joy. Shame on us, too, who have abdicated, surrendered and abandoned the term because it’s not as popular as the latest Jewish startup or Jewish-produced Hollywood film or Netflix series.

Learning from our African American friends, LGBTQ friends, feminist friends, we should proclaim that we are ready to take back the night, have a Jew-jitsu and turn the negatives into positives.

Step 2: Add an “s” for the 21st century, making the Zionist idea into Zionist Ideas. The “s” should evoke question marks, not exclamation points, according to the teaching of Birthright’s International Vice President of Education, Zohar Raviv. Hertzberg had 34 texts, while “The Zionist Ideas” has 168; Hertzberg ran long manifestos, but “The Zionist Ideas” runs short and punchy for today’s attention spans; Hertzberg had no women and few Mizrahim, yet “The Zionists Ideas” opens the conversation. 

To organize the texts and avoid a Zionist Tower of Babel, I divided the book into three chronological sections: Pioneers, until 1948, the visionaries, including Theodor Herzl, A.D. Gordon, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, HaRav Kook, Rachel the poetess (Rachel Bluwstein) and Henrietta Szold, who conceived of a Jewish state and talked, dreamed, argued and sang it into existence; the Builders until 2000 or so, including David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Elie Wiesel and Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook, who made the state the living miracle it is. Seeking a title for the third section, I asked a friend, “Who are we today? We, our kids, our grandkids?” He said, “The Nothings.” I don’t buy it. We’re Somethings. We are the Torchbearers, heirs to an amazing tradition. As in the Olympic torch relay, after inheriting it from others, we have to tend to it. We might even turn to an alternative energy source, but we keep the movement, the initiative, the flame burning, glowing and inspiring us. We pass it to the next generation.

Step 3: Educate and embrace nationalism: A 30-something teacher of Israel and Zionism heard me speak at a conference of Israeli educators and hissed: “Every time you say the word ‘nationalism’ or talk about ‘torchbearers,’ I think of Trump, Charlottesville and Nuremburg.”

I felt this young teacher had been listening censoriously rather than generously, listening to take offense, to hear prejudices confirmed, to reinforce the walls of his fortress of self-righteousness, rather than entering into a fellow educator’s world. How do you teach about Israel, Zionism, America itself, without what’s becoming the new “N-word” — never to be spoken — “nationalism”?

When did nationalism stop being a neutral tool, able to shape Nazism and Stalinist Communism at their ugliest and Zionism and Americanism at their loveliest? No one, not from the left or the right, should own “nationalism.” Love him or hate him, Trump has no right to brand his golden “T” on the word. It’s not prime real estate to be auctioned off; it’s an international treasure all should share.

Nationalism is the phenomenon that gives form and meaning to modern politics by uniting humans in large collectives capable of working together through government — ideally, self-government. Liberal nationalism forges democracy and nationalism to create those Western miracles that include the United States and Israel, forging identity bonds among groups of people who grant the consent of the governed, then try fixing the world with shared ideals. 

Nationalism organizes our world politically, providing a framework for finding meaning and taking action. Jewish nationalism, i.e., Zionism, acknowledges we are not just a religion, but a people with a shared history, consciousness, fate, network, stories and values. As a people, we are wired to experience an oxytocin rush when we bump into one another far away from home; when we bump into the Western Wall; and when we work together to build something beautiful and transcendent in our homeland or through other tribal frameworks.

It’s not a question of right or left, or right or wrong, but of rights and responsibilities in a democratic community. It’s because humans are tribal and need some levels of organization more particular and personal than a broad, all-encompassing, identity-negating “we are the world”-ism.

Being “Z-positive,” up on Zionism and Israel, thrusts us into the heart of today’s biggest, most volatile political debate: Can we resist a hyper-individualism that’s too self-indulgent; a distorted-identity politics that unfairly rejects Israel; and a hyper-nationalism that’s turned brutish? A reinvigorated Zionist conversation not only can help us feel better about Israel and Judaism, it can help offer America and the West a complex, multidimensional way out of this all-or-nothing fight between selfish lost souls at one extreme, illiberal leftists at another extreme, and illiberal nationalists at yet another extreme.

Step 4: Embrace different Zionist types. Within the three chronological sections in Step 2, I organized the material into six schools of Zionist thought per period: Political Zionism, Labor Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, Religious Zionism, Cultural Zionism, and Diaspora or Identity Zionism. Even if people disagree with my categorizations, I say, “Let’s argue it out.” It’s a good day when I get an email or someone stops me on the streets of Jerusalem to question which Zionist thinker I put where or whom I left on the cutting-room floor.

I’m not arrogant enough to call Zionism the answer for everyone; it’s our answer, offering a framework for meaning, community and caring that works for many of us.

Most relevant for us is this sixth category that not only welcomes Jews outside of Israel into the conversation but creates a common language for all modern Jews. In the 19th century, Zionism tackled “the Jewish problem” of assimilation and anti-Semitism. Today’s Jewish problem is anomie, affluenza, and the Western epidemics of loneliness, alienation and loss of meaning. I’m not arrogant enough to call Zionism the answer for everyone; it’s our answer, offering a framework for meaning, community and caring that works for many of us.

Identity Zionism goes in two different directions. It uses Jewish peoplehood and statehood as frameworks for meaning and mission. It also can result in a sense of deeper engagement in our lives and a connection to causes that transcend our stripped-down, selfish universe and may stir Jews worldwide. 

Identity Zionism encourages ideological matchmaking. Just as early pioneers took their most passionate secular commitments, such as to socialism, and fused them with Zionism, we should do the same. We should have a Feminist Zionism, an Eco-Zionism, an Entrepreneurial Startup Zionism, a Gay Zionism and a Mizrahi Zionism, among others.

This approach led to another high-and-lowlight. A Jewish Army chaplain at a seminar exclaimed, “Wow! I never connected the conversation about Zionism to my Americanism.” As flattering as that was, it meant this proud, thoughtful American and proud, thoughtful Jew had never connected the dots, or been invited to connect the dots between Zionism and his identity. In short, he, like most of us, had never really taken Zionism personally.

If Zionism and Israel are merely burdens to defend or antiques to appreciate, we all lose. If they are launching pads for personal and collective exploration and fulfillment, wherein we see who we are and who we can be, we can all win. A robust, inspiring, liberal Jewish nationalism can remind us of what nationalism is and isn’t, what it can be, and isn’t always allowed to be.

In that spirit, I am now hoping others will pick up my torch and run their own Zionist salons, following the guidelines at zionistideas.com, which also has synagogues’ and educators’ guides, and at zionistsalon.co.il, which has material in Hebrew and English.

Various topics I mapped out reflect the modern Zionist agenda. “A Zionist salon for those wary of attending a Zionist salon” offers basic definitions and clears up assumptions. The second showcases key Zionist one-liners, from right to left, religious and nonreligious, inviting every participant to pull one quotation provided randomly and either agree, civilly disagree or simply learn about Zionism and life from a great Zionist. The third ponders what Zionism means in the 21st century.

“Will the real Zionist please stand up?” compares sabras born into Israel and into army service with immigrants who chose to move to Israel, framing a conversation about choice, sacrifice, commitment and belonging. “The shadow of anti-Semitism vs. the opportunity of statehood” asks whether Zionism is and should be defensive and reactive or proactive and visionary.

Beyond the general Zionist conversation, there are salons for Feminist Zionists, Religious Zionists, Identity Zionists in general and Progressive Zionists with the theme that, borrowing from Ameinu’s manifesto, “Progressive Zionism is not an oxymoron.” One salon explores Zionism’s Jewish and democratic roots, while “A Zionist salon on the Jewish people” asks, “How do we get along globally? How can we improve Israel-Diaspora relations?”

The co-stars of these conversations are dozens of amazing Zionist thinkers, dead and alive, male and female, Ashkenazic and Mizrahi, Diaspora-born and sabras, left and right, religious and nonreligious. They address deep, enduring questions about tradition and change, universalism and particularism, idealism and pragmatism, being exceptional and being normal. Reading a great Zionist text simultaneously catapults you on two flight plans: soaring into the world of Jews, Judaism and peoplehood, along with the world of people, nationhood and globalism.

But the real stars will be the Jewish people, should they choose to host one, run one or simply attend a Zionist salon to help redefine the conversation about “What Zionism means to me” and to us today.

Hertzberg’s book gathered texts demonstrating how Jews debating and arguing, often on the margins, bubbled over and created a movement and a state. I gathered enough wonderful texts to have a Zionist salon for non-Jews, as well — or for Jews and non-Jews to have a dialogue pushing beyond overlapping advocacy agendas to address shared challenges and articulate shared values.

Looking ahead, we need to translate the book into Hebrew with approximately 70 percent of the texts unchanged to build a common global Jewish conversation, and 30 percent new, reflecting the Israeli accent one needs to bring a desperately needed conversation about Zionism in the Jewish state to the Jewish state. I have run at least half a dozen such conversations in Hebrew and been struck by how thirsty young Israelis in particular are for a more idealistic, ideological and values-oriented Zionist framing that explains this wonderful but challenging country of ours. Before settling on new texts, wouldn’t it be great to host a grass-roots conference with some Zionist heavyweights — but with every member of the audience attending invited to bring a favorite Zionist text, to nominate one voice to add to the Hebrew edition?

This initiative — and the broader vision of spreading Zionist salons globally — requires an institutional partner to spread the word. I hit my 70, doubled it, and am raring to continue. As a community, can we aim for 700? Seven thousand? As with building the state itself and renewing the Jewish people, when it comes to rebuilding the Zionist conversation and renewing an identity-based discourse, Herzl was right: “If you will it, it is no dream.” But Zionism was never a solo act. I cannot do it alone. As Arik Einstein sang, “You and I can defy the skeptics. You and I can and will change the world,” and that is how to bring deeper meaning to this Yom Ha’atzmaut — and to our lives.

Gil Troy, a distinguished scholar of North American History at McGill University, is the author of “The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland — Then, Now, Tomorrow,” published by The Jewish Publication Society.

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