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Can Zionism Save Academia?

Zionism can offer a way forward to address academia’s growing abandonment of cherished liberal values.
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January 11, 2024
Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, leans over the balcony of the Drei Konige Hotel during the first Zionist congress August 29, 1897 in Basel, Switzerland. (Photo by GPO via Getty Images)

Academics love maligning Zionism as racist, imperialist, settler-colonialist. But Oct. 7 woke up many Americans. The professoriate’s stunningly amoral response to the Hamas rampage exposed academia’s moral rot. Harvard’s Claudine Gay lost her presidency only when a plagiarism scandal undermined her academic credibility – equivocating about Jew-hatred wasn’t enough (although Jews are being blamed for her ouster, naturally). It’s time to flip the conversation. Zionism is not the problem. In fact, Zionism could be the solution to many of the academy’s ideological ills.

Although Identity Politics has loomed since the Sixties, this fall’s failures dramatized academia’s fall. Doctrinaire students, professors and administrators have transformed many campuses into Progressive dystopias. They receive billions from the government, corporations and alumni, and from struggling naïve parents, to give our best and brightest a liberal education and the credentials to build America. Nevertheless, the universities created an alternate universe, imposing many values antithetical to their sponsors and to the skills and visions America needs to progress. 

Clearly, not every academic is “Woke” – one shorthand used to describe the ideology which others call “antiracism,” “DEI,” “critical race theory,” “anti-colonialism,” “intersectionality,” “social justice,” or “postmodernism.”  And just because Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis declared a “War on Woke” shouldn’t stop intelligent people who detest those politicians from repudiating an ideology that is not just anti-Zionist, but anti-American.  Woke’s real war is not against conservatism – most Ivy Leaguers don’t take Republicans seriously intellectually. Their war is against the traditional liberalism that long dominated academia, which is why liberals must take back the night.

It’s time for liberals to rediscover Zionism. This movement is liberal at its core.

It’s time for liberals to rediscover Zionism. This movement is liberal at its core. Since the 1880s, many liberals not only supported Zionism, but launched it.

By contrast, consider the illiberal liberalism guiding today’s campus commissars, who confuse education with indoctrination and cancel anyone who dissents.

Oppressor-oppressed reductionism: This Marxist oversimplification now dominates academia – three decades after Soviet Communism collapsed. Karl Marx divided the world into capitalist oppressors and the oppressed proletariat. Often ignoring serious class divisions that economically-based affirmative action initiatives could ameliorate, the antiracist impresarios keep demanding more and more race-based advantages. They romanticize people of color while demonizing whites. They celebrate anyone belonging to those “subordinate groups” they welcome at the “intersection” of politically-correct suffering, while defining those they dislike as “white” – even, say, dark-skinned Mizrachi Jews.

Collective grievances over individual journeys: It’s inevitable. Once you define people by innate characteristics, then leverage whatever they have suffered to help them advance, you create grievance junkies who weaponize differences. This obsession with group identity is often superficial, juxtaposing angry Balkanized politics in public with a superficial “We are the world” universalism in private.  Challenging this racialism is not racist. It is fighting racism in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr.  King wanted his children judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. He catalyzed America’s commitment to individual rights rather than racial categorization, and would never have wanted Harvard’s first black president to blame “racial animus” for her plagiarism-scarred mess — even if some despicable bigots attacked her too.

Jorg Greuel/Getty Images modified

Equitable Outcomes over Equal Opportunity: The Woke war on liberalism began by refusing to build patiently with individual rights and equal opportunities. Instead, a regime of bean-counting, now bureaucratized by DEI – Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity – administrators, judges democratic processes by statistical outcomes of goodies grievance-groups grab, not the purity of the process or genuine achievements. More and more, university classes and professorial careers illustrate what happens when you reason backwards from politicized outcomes, rather than growing forward in systems liberal democrats try making fair and merit-oriented.

Regressive progressivism over expansive liberalism: The intellectual corruption is as dismaying as the Victimology Olympics over who suffered most and thus deserves the greatest payoff. Traditional progressivism was never value-free or uninterested in certain results. But progressives always reasoned forward, using facts to try building a better world. Too many self-described progressives today start with the politically-correct outcome, then fit facts into their worldview.  Postmodernism’s emphasis on “fluid narratives” justifies the intellectual contortionism. These Regressive Progressives buy a European zero-sum approach to politics, economics and society, reflecting the dog-eat-dog pessimism of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. The traditional American approach was lighter, more generous, more John Lockean, assuming the pie would always expand as Americans enjoyed life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 

America as systemically racist and sexist, not a work in progress: Starting America’s story with the first slave ship’s arrival in 1619, rather than America’s emergence as an independent liberal democracy in 1776, cements its foundations in its Original Sin of racism. This framing never explains how anyone ever progressed.  But just like conservatives who don’t conserve institutions, progressives who don’t believe in progress betray themselves. These New Nihilists condemn America to a constant vortex of tension, disillusionment and anger, rather than trying to help America spiral ever higher.

These assumptions and visions contradict America’s pantheon of optimistic reformers, from Thomas Jefferson to Barack Obama. That’s not surprising. What is surprising is how many Zionist philosophers – and how much of Israeli history – refute this worldview ideologically.

Clearly, bigotry persists. But good ideas become bad ones when zealots go all accelerator, no brakes. That’s how the necessary attempt to fight hatred degenerated into cycles of accusation, indignation, demonization and ever-escalating demands for compensation. Suddenly, “whiteness” is a crime. Self-styled “antiracists” throw around sexist, racist, essentialist terms like “Karens.” And the Hamas rape and massacre — history’s largest, most publicized and self-promoted act of violence against women — becomes justified and “exhilarating.”

Critical thought and free debate — not cancel culture — prevent such inhuman, soulless, fanatic orthodoxies. You need reality checks, not a star system promoting the same grievance junkies.

Critical thought and free debate – not cancel culture — prevent such inhuman, soulless, fanatic orthodoxies. You need reality checks, not a star system promoting the same grievance junkies. Your ideology also needs some cross-currents, some tensions. Otherwise, simplistic sloganeering dominates. 

Zionism has long tempered its intense ideological debates with pragmatism – because it first needed to solve “the Jewish problem” and today needs to answer Israel’s various problems. Zionists always balanced the Jewish and democratic traditions, filtered through the immediate need to build a state, along with the broader Jewish mission of saving the world. 

Zionism’s three defining assumptions also contain inherent tensions. Affirming that Jews are a people – Am Yisrael — inculcates loyalty, connectedness and responsibility to others, while juggling Judaism with Jewish peoplehood. Recognizing Jews’ rights to their one particular homeland – Eretz Yisrael — roots Jews in their tradition, their history, their story, while confronting them with history’s disruptions, their neighbors’ hostility, and Palestinians’ subsequent land claims. And championing Jews’ rights to establish a modern state on that homeland — Medinat Yisrael — invites Jews to try realizing their inherited ideas, their modern ideals, their visions.

If today’s campus is defined by wagging fingers, Zionism mixes the Bible, the sword, the plow, the pen and the computer – creating richer and healthier fusions.

At the risk of over-simplifying: If today’s campus is defined by wagging fingers, Zionism mixes the Bible, the sword, the plow, the pen and the computer – creating richer and healthier fusions.

Similarly, Zionism’s most influential ideological streams synthesized different ideals. In founding an old-new land – altneuland — political Zionism combined Judaism and democracy, remembering enough to remain grounded while forgetting enough to soar. Socialist Zionists crossbred the Marxist commitment to egalitarianism with the Jewish need for a functional home.  Revisionist Zionists’ intense Jewish nationalism always included individualist liberalism. Meanwhile, Religious Zionists kept Zionism cosmic by incorporating God, the Bible and Judaism into the Zionist story while working, building and fighting when necessary, not just praying and waiting.

While Zionism, too could be imprisoned in grievance, it mixed in infusions of love: for the Jewish people, the Jewish homeland, democracy, humanity. Still, a great Zionist mystery is how this people scarred by such a dark history generated this ideology of light. In Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary “Shoah,” Yitzhak Zuckerman, who helped lead the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, said: “If you could lick my heart, it would poison you.” But in 1949, Zuckerman helped found Kibbutz Lohamei HaGetaot, which today has a population of over 800 people. In the 1950s, Leon Uris interviewed people on the kibbutz while researching his inspiring Zionist novel, “Exodus.” And in 2001, Zuckerman’s granddaughter Roni Zuckerman became the first female jet-fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force. As a peacenik friend once told a Palestinian extremist: “You want ‘justice’ for becoming homeless – that’s an abstraction, you’ll never be satisfied; we wanted to solve our problem of homelessness, so we built our state.”

Zionism was always too busy building the future to wallow in the past. It was about tree-planting not belly-aching, encouraging individual and collective effort to redeem Jews and the Jewish pnot syneople.

Zionism was always too busy building the future to wallow in the past. It was about tree-planting not belly-aching, encouraging individual and collective effort to redeem Jews and the Jewish people. “We believe that salvation is to be found in wholesome work in a beloved land,” Theodor Herzl preached. “Work will provide our people with the bread of tomorrow, and moreover, with the honor of the tomorrow, the freedom of tomorrow.” 

Once established, the State of Israel couldn’t divide the world into Jew-haters and Jew-lovers. Israel enjoys diplomatic relations with 164 countries, many still guilty of Jew-hatred. Even today, while Human Rights Watch accuses Israel of apartheid and lumps together every Arab between “the River and the Sea,” Israel sifts. It distinguishes between Israeli-Arabs with full citizenship, Palestinians in Area A, B, and C of the territories, and Gazans — as well as  Arabs from neighboring countries, between those at peace with Israel and those still hostile.

One Zionist leader after another dreamed of peace, defining Israel’s enemies by how they behave, not how they look or to what group they belong. Golda Meir’s saying that “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children,” but “we cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children” judges by actions while envisioning better days. Most Politically Correct essentialism lacks such optimism or subtlety.

True, Israeli society, like all societies, is not prejudice-free. But Israeli law promises every citizen equal rights. On Oct. 7, marauding Gazans killed Israeli-Arabs, Bedouin and Druze. Polls now show majorities of Israeli-Arabs siding with their democratic country, Israel, against Hamas.  Similarly, Israel’s daily death toll reflects its multi-racial, truly diverse society. Israelis equally mourn Ashkenazim, Mizrachim, Ethiopian Jews and Druze as our children, brothers, sisters, friends. 

Similarly, after a rocky start, Israel created a capitalist economy enabling individuals to advance with the sweat and smarts Americans traditionally valued. Start-Up Nation cannot afford to be as clubby as the Labor Party’s Israel was, or as race-and-gender obsessed as today’s campus.

Zionism and Americanism are not synonymous – but they often rhyme.

Zionism and Americanism are not synonymous – but they often rhyme. At its core, Zionism is more Jewish, proudly particularistic, building a liberal democracy that isn’t “one out of many” random peoples. Instead, it offers one people, the Jews, a thriving homeland, while including freedom for all “inhabitants,” as Israel’s Declaration of Independence guarantees.

Israel’s Jewish character keeps Israel more traditionalist and communal than America – just as Israel’s Socialist Zionist tradition still reinforces Israel’s collectivist ethos. But healthy doses of Americanism helped save Israel from the start, making the Socialist Zionists the world’s most successful socialists because they were the world’s worst socialists. 

Shaming every socialist dictatorship, Zionists created the democratic kibbutz and founded a democratic Israel. Both traditional Judaism and American liberalism saved Socialist Zionists from what Marx called the necessary “terror,” which unleashed the socialist tendency to oppress those you’re supposedly saving. After centuries of enduring persecution from others, few Jews would tolerate a dictatorship of Jewish proletarians.

The Ottoman Turks exiled Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion to New York during World War I. Ben-Gurion also visited the Soviet Union in 1923. Both experiences deepened the most influential Socialist Zionist’s commitment to private property, civil liberties, democratic elections and the rule of law. Most of Israel’s socialists were Lockean not Hobbesian, as optimistic as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, forever seeking freedom and happiness somewhere, over the rainbow.

Today, Israel’s meritocracy allows individuals to flourish while maintaining strong family values, a love of tradition and impressive levels of patriotism and national service. Most Israelis reject a faux-universalism that isn’t rooted in family tradition, and group identity. Israelis contribute to the world through collective structures — from medical breakthroughs to IDF search-and-rescue attempts. 

These secure individuals building a healthy society benefiting humanity fulfill Theodor Herzl’s 1896 vision in his Zionist manifesto, “Der Judenstaat”: “We shall live at last as free people on our own soil, and in our own homes peacefully die. The world will be liberated by our freedom, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness.”

Still, modern Israel retains a small-town, Main Street feel. Neighbors know one another, look out for one another, and feel kinship with one another, even while shouting at one another about politics. 

Oct. 7 reminded Israelis that they are forever intertwined for good and bad, a people, also united by common enemies in Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s “covenant of fate.” The common values shaping so many funerals, the passionate commitment to “living as a free people in our homeland, the Land of Zion” with hope, hatikvah, reflect a common sense of mission, Soloveitchik’s covenant, “of destiny,” of purpose. And the Zionist revival of the Hebrew language, the development of Israeli art, music and literature, let alone all the national holidays Israelis celebrate together, reflect what we could call a “covenant of culture.”  The army reinforces all three covenants, generating a sense of unity and mission with its own internal language, culture, and rituals. 

And despite ongoing battles regarding how to create the world’s first Jewish democracy, Israel’s Jewishness cements Israel’s identity, coats it with historical and spiritual meaning, and fuels an intense commitment to that place and project throughout the Jewish world – and the broader pro-Israel community. 

This miraculous us-ness – “ness” is the Hebrew word for miracle – explains how, despite all its troubles, Israel ranks high on the world happiness index. Israelis enjoy high levels of “trust, benevolence, and social connections,” which happiness experts say support “well-being,” even “in times of crisis.” Since Oct. 7, the voluntarism, support, softness and love amid this harsh war has been overwhelming.

That community spirit, even in a nation of strong individuals, fosters Israelis’ sense of family, community, tradition, history and liberal-democratic nationalism. 

Alexis de Tocqueville understood democracy as a state of mind, not just a governing arrangement. It is defined by the songs of the street, the way people live, think and argue day-to-day. Israel today is remarkably stable, democratic and respectful of its citizens individually and collectively.

Tocqueville identified strong family values as the backbone of a healthy democratic society. Family inculcates loyalty, proportion, commitment, self-sacrifice and a deep, abiding, sometimes complicated but often super-strong, love. Belonging to communities – extended families – teaches citizens to care for others, to cooperate. Israel’s high fertility rate of 3.1 children per woman reflects intense family values and an inspiring optimism. In this small traditional country, where even most self-identified “secular” parents treat Friday night dinners as command performances, there’s no such thing as empty nest — it’s more like revolving door.

In short, Israelis still live in a small, intimate society that runs on trust – and keeps generating hope in a virtuous spiral.  When speaking with Jews and Arabs across Israel, I hear their complaints. Still, when I offer them an imaginary time-machine to go backwards, they admit that Israel 2024 is better than Israel 2004 which is better than Israel 1984, etc. etc. And few Jews would revert to pre-1948, pre-State vulnerability, especially after tasting what Jewish powerlessness feels like amid Palestinian savagery this fall. Jews don’t believe in Original Sin. Zionists see life as dynamic, progressive. They treat problems as mechanical, not systemic, challenges to solve, not curses you cannot break.

For much of 2023, many American liberals assumed their shared enmity toward Benjamin Netanyahu made them just like Israeli liberals. Indeed, Israeli liberals share American liberals’ desire for social justice, a high minimum wage, robust unions, equal rights for all, acceptance of LGBTQ+ lifestyles and peace. 

But, long before Oct. 7, polls show that most Israeli leftists – like most Israelis – serve in the army, are supporters of capitalism who feared the judicial reform would threaten Israel’s prosperity, enjoy Friday night dinner with their families, have children or look forward to having them, fast on Yom Kippur, light Hanukkah candles and attend Passover seders. Studies show that more and more Ivy League liberals are unhappy, pessimistic, lonely, alienated, humorless, angry and scared of being cancelled. Israel’s patriotic traditionalist liberals are happy, optimistic individualists, often known for sharp senses of humor, with little tolerance for cancel culture. In short, Zionism created not just a New Jew but an old-new Patriotic liberal — more Jack Kennedy, the war hero and Cold War liberal, than Ibram X. Kendi.

Chaim Weizmann summed up Zionism by saying, “Miracles do happen, but one has to work very hard for them.” That can-do spirit helped create a remarkably successful state.

Chaim Weizmann summed up Zionism by saying, “Miracles do happen, but one has to work very hard for them.” That can-do spirit helped create a remarkably successful state. It spawned an Israeli people who use history as a guide and anchor, not a set of handcuffs to earlier sins and blind spots. And it counters today’s Poisoned Ivy victimhood, defeatism, racialism, self-loathing, self-pitying groupthink.

Over a century ago, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook articulated an integrated vision that remains remarkably compelling, on both sides of the Atlantic. His “Fourfold Song” starts with those who happily, healthily, sing a song of the self. Others sing a song of the nation, loving the whole Jewish nation. Some transcend borders, singing the song of humanity. And some are so spiritual, they sing a song of the eternal world-to-come. Kook, like most Zionists, most healthy democrats, and most Americans traditionally, embraced them all, “the song of the soul, the song of the nation, the song of humanity, the song of the world.” He, we, know that at our best, individually and collectively, they harmonize.

Since the 1880s, Zionists learned much about how to build a successful liberal democratic society from America. Today, can America’s most educated be open to learning some of those lessons from Zionists – and from their American predecessors too?


Professor Gil Troy, a Senior Fellow in Zionist Thought at the JPPI, the Jewish People Policy Institute, is an American presidential historian and the editor of the new three-volume set, “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings,” the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People (www.theljp.org). 

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