Identity Zionism: Seeking Zionist and Jewish Renewal

Today, Israel is robust — but the Zionist conversation has turned fragile. 
May 5, 2022

It’s the great Zionist anomaly of today: 74 years ago, in 1948, Israel was fragile, but the Zionist conversation was robust; today, Israel is robust — but the Zionist conversation has turned fragile. 

The studies are chilling. Last year, an ADL and Hillel International survey found that 32 percent of Jewish students on campus experienced antisemitism directly, personally. Showing how antisemitism and anti-Zionism blur, one student reported: “I’ve had swastikas drawn on my notes, been called a ‘kike’ downtown … while I was wearing my hamsa. I’ve seen an increase in people making judgments about me for being Jewish due to the current political climate with Palestine.” Last semester began with the Heritage study explaining why universities ignore this oldest and most plastic of hatreds: because many of those tasked with fighting campus bigotry are anti-Jewish bigots. Examining the tweets of hundreds of university Diversity, Inclusivity and Equity administrators, Jay P. Greene and James D. Paul found that of 633 tweets regarding little Israel, 96 percent criticized the Jewish State. Yet 62 percent of the 216 tweets regarding China were positive. One DIE administrator liked this Tweet: “Y’all love to add the word liberal in front of the most evil things and it’s unhingedddd. Wtf is a liberal Zionist? What’s next? Liberal Nazi? Liberal colonizer? Liberal murderer? Liberal imperialist? Liberal fascist?”

For two decades, I have been trying to “take back” Zionism from its critics. Many advise me to retire the term, because the “Z-word” doesn’t poll well. But its unpopularity is due to a decades-long worldwide campaign of “Zionophobia.” Building on traditional antisemitism, this old-new hatred treats Israel as the Jew of the world, singling out one form of nationalism — Jewish nationalism — as unacceptable in a world still organized around hundreds of nationalisms, including Palestinian nationalism. Too many Blame-Israel-Firsters join the delegitimization derby, escalating from criticizing Israeli policy to rejecting Zionism. 

I’m sorry. I won’t surrender. We cannot let our enemies’ enmity define us. 

Retreating from “Zionism,” which has inspired millions over generations, just because it is under attack violates Zionism’s main mission of nurturing Jewish dignity. Such submissiveness disregards the feminist example of “taking back the night” and the African-American community’s defiant use of “the N-word” among insiders.

At the same time — without striking false moral equivalences — we must “take back” Zionism from some fans, too. Israel’s defenders sometimes become so defensive that they quash the open, critical discourse all democracies — and ideological movements — need in order to mature. Denying any wrongdoing, even any dilemmas, alienates Zionist critics of Israeli policy, polarizing the community unnecessarily. Those who let every conversation about Israel be about “the conflict,” pro or con, fall into the Palestinian propaganda trap. It was Yasir Arafat’s great conceit — he wanted it all to be about him and his people; but Zionism is about us and our people.

Zionism is not a monolithic movement marching in lockstep with the Israeli policy of the moment. Nor is it the insecure movement of yesteryear.

Zionism is more than Israel advocacy. This broad-based movement and values conversation does not belong to the Right or the Left. Zionism is not a monolithic movement marching in lockstep with the Israeli policy of the moment. Nor is it the insecure movement of yesteryear. Good Zionists do not need to negate the Diaspora or limit Zionism — that is, Jewish nationalism — to those who make Aliyah (move to Israel). 

So foes have done great damage — while too many defensive friends have not helped. Even some Jews who accept the Zionist trinity of peoplehood, land and statehood recoil at the use of the Z-word. But if once-abandoned Jerusalem could be reclaimed, Zionism can be, too. 

Zionists should follow their own playbook. The late-nineteenth-century Zionist revolution resurrected symbols and changed images, pulling off an epic Jew-Jitsu: Negatives became positives. From the new cult of the Maccabees to the rediscovery of Masada, Zionists scoured Jewish history, rediscovering muscular role models as a tikkun, a healing, to the internalized, debilitating, stereotype of the beaten, hunch-backed, European ghetto Jew. Today, the term “Zionism” needs a similar makeover.

Bypassing today’s polarization, we need a Zionist vision rooted in the past, relevant to the present, and inspiring for the future.

Bypassing today’s polarization, we need a Zionist vision rooted in the past, relevant to the present, and inspiring for the future. Zionism is more than pro-Israelism. Good Zionists do not have to approve of every Israeli government policy or any prime minister. But they do have to be open to tapping into the grand adventure of belonging to this extraordinary forever-people, the Jewish people, who remained tied to the same ancestral homeland that has been their anchor and compass for more than three thousand years.

If Zionist triumphalism overlooks Israeli imperfections, a creative, intelligent, supple Zionist conversation should acknowledge problems — and tap Zionist ideas to fix them. To a West increasingly skeptical about liberal nationalism, Zionism offers its constructive democratic nationalism —that nations should stand for something, bound by a sense of the past that enriches the present and builds a better future. To a West that increasingly misreads particularism as xenophobia, Zionism offers its understanding of particularist national identities as value anchors and launching pads for communal good works to benefit others. And to a West increasingly addicted to false choices, Zionist offers its mix of identity and freedom.

If we do it right, twenty-first century Zionism will be what it was for so many in the nineteenth-century — a solution to the Jewish Problem, tackling pressing communal problems while addressing individual needs.

If we do it right, twenty-first century Zionism will be what it was for so many in the nineteenth-century — a solution to the Jewish Problem, tackling pressing communal problems while addressing individual needs.

The “problem,” however, has evolved. This generation needs Zionism to help revitalize Judaism much more than we need a defense against antisemitism. And this generation needs Zionism to find community, meaning, a sense of purpose and perpetuity amid our increasingly individuated, selfish, throwaway and soul-crushing Western culture. True, Jew-hatred persists. And we should rally around the blue-and-white flag during times of trouble. But in going from Gevalt or Crisis Zionism to Identity Zionism, this marvelous, mystical and complex idea of Jewish nationalism helps make us better Jews and better people.

This is counter-cultural in many ways. Donald Trump’s populist nationalism soured many Americans on any nationalism. The word “nationalism” usually appears poisoned by descriptive “first names” like “white” or “extremist” or “xenophobic.” But nationalism is a neutral term. In the 1940s, Jews endured nationalism at its most xenophobic, bigoted and lethal, in the form of Nazism, while delighting in nationalism at its most inspiring, empowering and liberating in the form of Zionism. As an American historian, I cannot explain many of America’s greatest achievements, from winning World War II to creating the first mass-middle-class civilization, without crediting nationalism. Identity Zionism is not a self-absorbed nationalism knocking others down or building-up walls; it is a liberal nationalism that by building us up, individually and collectively, builds others up too. 

Liberal nationalism infuses democratic ideals into people’s natural tendency to clump together with those like them. In the 1950s, the British philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin described this constructive nationalism as “awareness of oneself as a community possessing certain internal bonds which are neither superior nor inferior but simply different in some respects from similar bonds which unite other nations.” Jews used to find one another — back when travel was a verb. We Troys called that “bageling”; when we found fellow Israelis, it was “kremboing,” referencing an Israeli sweet. The click wasn’t about looking down our noses at anyone else, but looking up at a seeming stranger in a strange land — and finding a shared language, common associations, that family feeling.

Today, this nationalist vision is not just politically incorrect: it’s thoroughly unfashionable. Young Americans’ “radical individualism,” creates what the sociologist Robert Bellah calls a “negative” process of “giving birth to oneself” by “breaking free from family, community and inherited ideas.” By contrast, the bar and bat mitzvah define maturation as accepting communal responsibilities, not shirking them. The Zionist reality demanding that young Israelis enlist in the army makes the communal commitments of national service the defining step toward adulthood.

Zionists get hit from both sides. Many liberal cosmopolitans brand any distinctions between humans as illegitimate, while favoring some nevertheless. Some categories are politically protected, immune from criticism, from feminism and LGBTQ identity to blackness and Palestinian nationalism. Some are not, especially Jewish nationalism, or Zionism. “Intersectionality,” allegedly emphasizing the shared pain of the oppressed, blocks Jews and antisemitism at the intersection, proving to be antisemitic. Calling Israel a bastion of “white privilege” ignores Israel’s delightfully-dizzying ethnic diversity, while arrogantly and crudely viewing Israeli society through an overly-simplistic American racial lens. These racial categories are sloppy and suspicious: Those who celebrate whiteness claim that Jews aren’t white; those who denigrate whiteness, claim that Jews are white.

Humans are tribal; distinguishing isn’t always discriminating. By definition, a community needs boundaries; otherwise there is nothing to belong to. Jews survived for millennia by having boundaries, preserving “our” people. Some white nationalists mischievously call themselves “White Zionists.” The Alt-Right activist Richard Spencer explains: “Jews exist precisely because you did not assimilate to the gentiles … I want my people to have that same sense of themselves.” When Spencer made this claim at Texas A&M University in 2016, a local rabbi sputtered, unable to explain the difference.

White nationalists seeking legitimization and anti-Zionist leftists seeking to delegitimize Zionism insisted the rabbi’s silence affirmed Spencer, exposing Zionism as “illiberal.” Actually, the rabbi’s silence reflected a scandalous educational failure on the part of his particular rabbinic seminary — and American Jewry. Today, many involved Jews can explain why Zionism is not racism and Israel does not practice South African apartheid, noting that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is national, not racial, involving some dark-skinned Israelis and light-skinned Palestinians. Israel has no legislation based on race, meaning appearance, blood, presumed biology or skin color. Security-based distinctions may keep Israelis and Palestinians apart but that’s not apartheid, a race-based, skin-color-driven form of legal discrimination.

Walk down any Israeli street to see radical inclusion at work. Coming in all colors, Jews are united by common stories, values, and beliefs. 

Walk down any Israeli street to see radical inclusion at work. Coming in all colors, Jews are united by common stories, values, and beliefs. The four-term New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan explained that because Jews link peoplehood with religion, and that by converting religiously you join the Jewish people, Zionism was the least race-based and most biologically diverse form of nationalism.

Yet, in fairness to this rabbi, few American Jews could explain why Spencer’s “White Zionism” lie slurred Zionism as well as nationalism. Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa discredited race-based nationalism, especially for whites. Zionism, however, sprouts from an ancient synthesis of ethnicity and religion that yielded a democratic state that, like America, is defined, yet porous. Jewish nationalism is as valid as the other identity cocktails underlying modern democracies. Many national flags have crosses or crescents because religion remains relevant, even for European democracies. 

Zionism and white nationalism are forms of nationalism but are not the same: Ham and gefilte fish are both foods, but they, too, are not the same, and only one is kosher. Jewish nationalism revolves around life-affirming values and is intertwined with liberalism. Remove liberalism or nationalism from Zionism — and you don’t have Zionism anymore. Israel’s Declaration of Independence makes the duality clear.

A resurrected and refreshed Zionist conversation might help Jews see liberal nationalism as a constructive vehicle that can unite a divided community and make us more determined, more purposeful, and more fulfilled than we can be individually. That is why, with all due respect to President John Kennedy, I say, “Yes, ask what you can do for your country, but also ask what your country, our eternal homeland Israel, can do for you, for us.”

Zionism as Countercultural

Zionism has always been countercultural. Before Israel’s establishment in 1948, the small, marginal Zionist movement had to convince the world — and the skeptical Jewish supermajority — of essential Zionist assumptions: Most dramatically, the European Enlightenment’s attempts to reduce Judaism just to a religion failed. We were always an “Oreo cookie” — both nation and religion corresponding to the cookie and the creme. Just as the synthesis itself makes the Oreo an Oreo, the mix makes Jews Jewish. That explains why the Jewish people always needed more than a synagogue as communal space; Judaism cannot be contained within four walls. As the world organized itself around nationalisms, Jews’ unique national-religious fusion earned them collective rights to statehood, somewhere. 

The Land of Israel, Jews’ ancestral homeland, was the logical, legitimate and viable place to relaunch that Jewish national project. Even America, the land of promise, was not the same as the Promised Land. The Palestinians’ contesting land claims do not negate the Jewish title to Israel — other nations also have conflicting land claims without invalidating one another’s essential claims to nationhood. The United Nations does not seem concerned with any of these conflicts except for the one questioning the Jewish people’s longstanding ties to the Jewish homeland. 

Without negating Palestinian claims, the Jews were making history on that land millennia before Mohammad established Islam. Jews are what the Canadian human rights activist and former Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler calls the original aboriginal people, still living on the same indigenous tribal lands, speaking the same language, developing the same culture, reading the same Bible. More broadly, nationalism isn’t an exclusive land deed; it’s an identity-building process based on a shared past or present, what Professor Benedict Anderson correctly called an “imagined community.”

Finally, restoring Jewish sovereignty in Israel was a pressing priority — to save the long-oppressed Jews and let them rejuvenate, spawning a strong, proud, idealistic New Jew.

After realizing this primal Zionist idea in 1948, Zionism evolved. The Jewish national liberation movement now sought to defend and perfect the state — understanding, as the Israeli author A. B. Yehoshua writes, that “A Zionist is a person who accepts the principle that the State of Israel doesn’t belong solely to its citizens, but to the entire Jewish people.” As Israel’s builders steadied the state, this second-stage Zionism revolved around the question, “What kind of nation should Israel be?” The great miracle was not just surviving in a sea of unneighborly hostility, but also creating one of the world’s few democracies. This achievement is particularly surprising considering that most Israelis hail from lands with autocratic political cultures. Israel’s communal unity and dynamic democracy reflect the legacy of Jewish life in exile, which fused communal solidarity with intellectual argumentation.

Zionophobes’ constant attacks distract from Israel’s dual mission: to save Jewish bodies and redeem the Jewish soul. As Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion said, “Israel cannot just be a refuge … it has to be much, much more.” When asked if Israel had fulfilled all of Zionism’s ideals, Ben-Gurion replied, “not yet.” This not-yetism is the catalyst for Zionist can-do idealism — and some Jews’ disappointment with Israel.

Controversies, Challenges, and Dreams

The latest Pew Research Study, “Jewish Americans in 2020,” offers two striking yet not surprising findings regarding younger American Jews. First, many of the youngest American Jews are “unaffiliated” and non-religious, seeing “themselves as Jewish for cultural, ethnic or family reasons.” Second, these “Jews of no religion,” a full and growing 41 percent of 18-to-29-year-old Jews, “feel they have not much or nothing at all in common” with the only other rapidly growing group of young Jews, Orthodox Jews, who constitute 17 percent of that cohort and also feel distant from fellows Jews across the religious spectrum. 

No single-bullet cures exist, of course. And Zionism, which is a tradition-friendly initiative despite Israel’s cutting-edge liberal democracy, faces a hostile environment. American Jews, whose parents and grandparents were once more culturally conservative than the rest of American society, tend now to be far more liberal, less traditional and more universalistic than their American peers and their Israeli counterparts. Moreover, the systematic campaign to delegitimize Zionism has done great damage, just as conservative dominance of Israel electorally since 2001 — and the misleading interweaving of the ongoing Palestinian conflict into America’s racial reckoning — has tarnished Israel’s luster among the most passionately liberal Jews.

Nevertheless, Israel and Zionism have great potential to speak to non-religious Jews by emphasizing the national, ethnic and cultural parts of Jewish identity. Zionism could help the younger generation unite by celebrating their common heritage and shared peoplehood platform, regardless of theology. 

Better dialogue and, ultimately, unity can be fostered due to a dramatic and often-under-appreciated change in Zionist ideology. Originally, most Zionists “negated the galut,” assuming that assimilation and antisemitism would end Diaspora Jewish life, leaving Israel as the only viable Jewish community. (Most American Jews paralleled that condescension by assuming that Israel’s Jews were on the brink of destruction, making American Jewry the future). Today, most mainstream Zionists embrace more of a partnership vision, understanding that each community has something to teach the other: Israelis may be great partners for Diaspora Jews in combating assimilation; Diaspora Jews are Israelis’ greatest partners in combating anti-Zionism.

Moreover, Israel still has a magic, illustrated by the great counterforce refuting most lamentations about the growing Israel-Diaspora gap: Birthright Israel. Young American Jews on those 10-day trips taste a thick, dynamic 24/7 Jewish experience qualitatively different from what they often perceive to be a thin, static, fragmented and denominationally-focused American Judaism. Seeing Jewish garbage collectors and police officers normalizes Jewish society, broadening the range of Jewish career paths and class stances, reducing the constant careerist pressure to be the next Zuckerberg, Spielberg or Justice Ginsburg.

Turning Israel into what the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks aptly called world Jewry’s classroom, its living laboratory, demonstrates vibrant, thriving Judaisms in sync with the environment. In his 1994 classic, “Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren? Jewish Continuity and How to Achieve It,” Rabbi Sacks insisted that “Jewish life cannot be sustained without Israel at its core.” That is why, in a less menacing but spiritually more confusing 21st century, the Jewish State’s great contribution to Jewish life would shift: “Once, Israel saved Jews. In the future, it will save Judaism.”  

Swimming in a pool of Jewish symbols, traditions, values and stories, Jewish pilgrims to Israel encounter an alternate universe that reveres the past, that seeks meaning beyond the material, that is more communal than individual and is more eternal than last week’s most forwarded YouTube video of cats frolicking. Israel proves Theodor Herzl right: Fitting in, not standing out, because you are Jewish is liberating.

Beyond that, Zionism answers some core ideological conundrums many American Jews don’t even know how to formulate. Zionism resolves the confusion whereby the Judeo-Christian connection in America makes many of these nonreligious Jews feel Jewish even while calling Judaism their “religion.” Zionism welcomes Jews through the peoplehood portal — remembering that Judaism is this unique mix of nation and religion, of peoplehood and faith. Zionism celebrates nationalism as a force for good, cherishes religion and tradition as valuable anchors, providing meaningful “software” of values and beliefs running on the “hardware” of belonging. And Zionism celebrates the virtues of having red lines to respect, as well as blue-and-white lines to affirm. It “rewards togetherness,” in the feminist writer Anne Roiphe’s lovely phrase, and benefits from solidarity — especially considering Israel’s difficult neighborhood.

With Judaism providing the background music to so much that is Israeli, with Israel instilling a strong sense of belonging in visitors, let alone citizens, American Jews encounter new ways of being Jewish. They see total Judaism, immersive Judaism, public Judaism. And, often without realizing it, they see a startling contrast, even with secular Israeli Jews who have figured out how to keep their kids and grandkids Jewish without being religious.

The need for American Jews as allies in that fight continues to offer nonreligious American Jews a passionate Jewish cause, a defining Jewish mission in their lives.

Finally, Israel reorients American Jews from Anatevka to Jerusalem, from what Irving Howe called yesterday’s “world of our fathers” to the lives of our brothers and sisters today. Israeli Jewish identity is about speaking Hebrew and eating cheesecake on the Shavuot holiday often overlooked in North America. It is also, when necessary, about fighting for and defending the state. The need for American Jews as allies in that fight continues to offer nonreligious American Jews a passionate Jewish cause, a defining Jewish mission in their lives. And judging by the fact that AIPAC’s pre-COVID Policy Conference was the rare business-style convention that many parents attended with their teenage and twenty-something children, Zionism offers a commitment, an anchor one generation can pass on to the next.

Beyond that, the excitement — and, to be sure, the frustrations — of working out Jewish dilemmas and governing problems in real time with high stakes to keep this grand Jewish national project alive and thriving, is a lot more compelling than humming “Sunrise, Sunset” as you enter your synagogue.

Why Israel Won

Even more surprising, unlike the media’s dystopic portrayal, Israelis are happy and fun-loving. Israel’s recent score of 11th on the world happiness index comes on the heels of reports about American mass unhappiness, especially in the “blue” upper-middle-class neighborhoods where many American Jews live. The findings that half of Yale’s undergraduates at some point in their four years will experience severe psychological distress goes far beyond the anxiety produced by the crazy pressure-cooker process of getting accepted. The anomie epidemic suggests a specific sort of soul sickness that an elite life increasingly stripped of community, tradition, nationalism, God, group responsibility and virtue produces. As the occasionally embattled Jewish state in an old-new land, Israel remains a Republic of Something, even as too many Westerners fear they live in a Republic of Nothing. The shared past, purpose and principles produce happier, more grounded, people.

The Zionist idea proved hearty and fertile, triggering Jewish civilization’s post-1948 renaissance. Zionism was the great miracle maker. It was one of the most remarkable progressive success stories of the twentieth century — an ism, that unlike Communism and Fascism, was rooted in the democratic, humanitarian, and egalitarian values of the center left and not only survived but thrived. It reestablished Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland as Israel cumulatively welcomed three million refugees from the Holocaust, the Arab expulsion of the 1950s, Soviet persecution and Ethiopian dislocation. It returned the Jews to history, transforming the world’s perma-victims into robust actors on history’s stage, with rights and responsibilities. It established a Western-style democracy in the hostile Middle East with a significant minority of Arabs and a majority of Jews, mostly from undemocratic countries. It empowered women, from the female pioneers to one of the world’s first female prime ministers, Golda Meir. It started a Jewish cultural revolution: reviving Hebrew, modernizing the Holy Tongue into a language for blessing — and cursing. And while facilitating ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox revivals, it generated creative religious inspiration that revitalized Jewish life worldwide and offered the most viable home for perpetuating secular Jewish identity.

Today’s Israel is robust. These miracles have become routine realities in a high-tech, science and pharma behemoth; a breeding ground for do-gooding civil society NGOs; and a laboratory for creative Jewish living whose population has grown ten-fold, as its gross domestic product has multiplied thirty-fold — per capita. 

Zionism’s Jewish dream-catching and wish fulfillment is rooted in four pillars — four “mems,” mem being the thirteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the one associated with water and other essentials for life. We start with Masoret, the welcome chain of tradition. Humans want to be linked to somewhere and feel deeply connected, implicated, a part of something rather than apart from everyone. We can’t just float around in cyberspace. The second mem is Moledet homeland, the space to live out our ideals, making tradition come alive. The Jewish ideal is lovely — whether or not you live in Israel, Israel can always live in you. The third mem is Musar, an ethic. We have a Zionist ethic, we have Zionist morals, including holding our army to those morals. Liberal nationalism cannot lift up our souls if our liberal nation doesn’t have a soul itself. The fourth is family, Mishpacha. Without that sense of love, without that sense of connectedness, without that glue, where are we, who are we?

The Zionist idea succeeded: It exists, it works. This is a project of the Jewish head, the Jewish heart and the Jewish soul. Today’s mission involves studying, questioning, dreaming and fulfilling different Zionist ideas. The challenge is to look back accurately, with a dash of romance, and to look forward creatively, with a touch of rigor, weighing what Zionism can mean and become, today and tomorrow.

Gil Troy is the author of nine books, including his latest, written with Natan Sharansky, “Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People.” This article is an abridged version of a pamphlet commissioned by the Academic Engagement Network, and reprinted with permission.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.