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Israel at 67 – The Role of Zionism in Contemporary American Jewish Life Today

A conversation with Rabbi Deborah Waxman

By Judie Jacobson

The 67th anniversary of the birth of the State of Israel comes at a complex and challenging moment in the history of Jewish state, as well as in the relationship between Jews living in Israel and in the Diaspora. To tackle some of the complexities and challenges, on Thursday evening, April 23, the University of Connecticut will host a conversation between Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and UConn President Susan Herbst, about some of those pressing challenges.

The first woman rabbi to head a Jewish congregational union and lead a Jewish seminary, Waxman received rabbinical ordination and a Master of Arts in Hebrew Letters from RRC in 1999. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Columbia University, she studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as both an undergraduate and graduate student, and received a Horace W. Goldsmith Fellowship to support her graduate work. She earned a Ph.D. in American Jewish History from Temple University in May 2010.

Recently, the Ledger asked Rabbi Waxman to define for our readers the evolving role of Zionism in American Jewish life.

JL: Historically, how was Zionism defined by American Jews?

DW: There are many different ways to define Zionism, both historically and in terms of Zionism’s goals. The Zionist movement, from its beginning to the current moment, has always had many different camps and expressions. Zionism’s roots were both in an activist political vision emerging out of 19th-century nationalism and in a reinterpretation of age-old Jewish religious yearnings for the coming of the messiah and the re-establishment of the centrality of Zion. Whatever its grounding sources, all expressions of Zionism included strongly held aspirations for the flourishing of the Jewish people in the modern era.

Nineteenth-century European expressions of Zionism were deeply shaped by direct experiences of antisemitism and concerns about a viable Jewish future in Europe. As the 20th century unfolded, such concerns seemed more and more warranted. The predominant strand of European Zionism — the camp that ultimately emerged as the dominant group establishing the State of Israel — promoted a highly political, anti-religious vision that insisted on shelilat hagalut, that is, that there was no future for Jewish life in the Diaspora — including North America.

As Zionism took hold in America in the early 20th century, it was shaped by a belief that America could be a positive dwelling place for Jews even if a Jewish state existed. American Zionism has long been infused with concern that all Jews should have a safe haven from persecution and a belief that Zionism is an important way to promote Western, democratic ideals that support the well-being of Jews and all peoples. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis promoted the Zionist stance infused with a commitment to cultural pluralism that was ultimately adopted by most American Jews: “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must be Zionists.” American Zionists have worked hard — through fundraising, volunteerism and lobbying — to help establish the State of Israel and ensure its survival and security, but have never made massive aliyah the way that many Israeli Zionist leaders have imagined as their ideal. The collective American Zionist vision has always been more cultural, spiritual and existential than about relocation to Israel.

JL: How has this changed since the establishment of the State of Israel?

DW: The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was the achievement of Zionism’s initial goal. Since that time, there has been debate about the Zionist movement’s post-state goals, both within Israel and across the Diaspora. David Ben-Gurion insisted that to be a Zionist, especially after 1948, was to live in Israel and help build Israeli society. Yet, most American Jews have always sought a different expression of Zionism, insisting on a vital Jewish future in America that included supporting and visiting Israel. In recent years, the leaders of Israel and the Diaspora Jewish communities have agreed that Zionism includes a worldwide vision of Jewish peoplehood in which Israel plays an unprecedented leadership role but is not necessarily the ultimate destination for all Jews. However, this understanding doesn’t include a clear action mandate like the financial and political efforts of the 1940s to establish the state, or of the 1980s to rescue Soviet Jews.

In Israel, there continues to be debate about Zionism as the undergirding vision of Israeli political parties. For example, in the period since the Six-Day War, when Israel for the first time held sovereignty over the West Bank, a new strain of Zionism has emerged which marries Zionism’s religious and political expressions into a commitment that God intends Jewish reclamation of “Greater Israel.” How such a vision, compared to a more secular, civil society-oriented vision of a Jewish state responsible for ensuring the rights of minority citizens as described in Israel’s declaration of independence, as well as other visions alongside them, fares is worked out in vocal election campaigns and other political forums.

In America today, there isn’t a clear sense of how to be Zionist or, clearly, what it means to be Zionist. Many people feel stuck somewhere between Brandeis’ vision — we can be good Zionists and remain in America — and Ben-Gurion’s insistence that living in Israel is the most powerful and legitimate way to express one’s Zionist voice. For many American Jews, a predominant expression of American Zionism seems to be equating support for Israel with support for the current government of Israel, whatever its policies — that is, to be Zionist is to be pro-Israel with no opinion, and to ensure that the U.S. government is similarly pro-Israel. This is extremely different from conversations about Zionism in general, Zionism in Israel, and what Zionism is and could mean for American Jewish life.

JL: In what way has that impacted the conversation?

DW: Such a single-minded approach is far less sophisticated than the very complicated situation of Jews in Israel, in America and around the world requires. It is also having a significant and, I think, negative effect on Israel engagement, especially with younger Jews. Millennials were raised to have a voice in American politics. They witness the energetic, even chaotic, debate in Israel. Many people of every age feel concerns about the derailment of any diplomatic path toward peace with Palestinians and over the conditions in the West Bank. Many are passionate about finding the best balance between Jewish and democratic values, and are concerned that current Israeli government policies privilege Jewish control of greater Israel over democratic values. An insistence — spoken or otherwise — that American Jews must have only a positive relationship to Israel, that there is no space to offer critique or demand change, leads many to disengagement, distance, even a sense of betrayal.

When we don’t have a clear working definition of what Zionism is in America, it’s hard to know precisely what anti-Zionism in the Jewish community is. I reject the view that criticism of the State of Israel is equal to anti-Zionism. Only a very small minority of Jews argue that Jews do not need a safe haven or that there is no need for a place for Jews to live in a primary Jewish civilization. However, I do hear many Jews say that the Jewish state is not an end in and of itself but should be the highest expression of Jewish values. I understand this to be a long-standing debate within Zionism. It’s a vitally important conversation to have, and we need to foster it. What are the values we want to undergird our Jewish communities — in America as well as in Israel — and how do we foster those values? How do we invest in institutions and programs that build up these values?

JL: Where do we go from here?

DW: We have a lot of work to do to learn how to have such essential conversations. We need to commit to learning and practicing civil discourse around Israel — talking and listening in a manner that enhances understanding and that promotes a sense of connection across our differences. We can learn from Israelis how to have such conversations. Translating civil discourse into Jewish language, I call this much needed work “covenantal conversation.”

The American Jewish community needs to articulate a positive vision for how we can flourish — as an independent community, in relation to Israel, and as part of the worldwide Jewish community. If we truly believe Jewish life can thrive in an open society like the U.S. that embraces Jews, we need to invest in major ways in building that future. This vision should be the foundation from which we educate our children to shape their Jewish identities, and to respond when they are threatened as Jews. Such a vision includes a commitment to the notion of community, a commitment to pluralism within that community and a means to work out our moral obligations as Jews in ongoing conversations across our diverse community. In America, we need to commit to preserving and celebrating Jewish distinctiveness while keeping ourselves open to the transformations that an open society offers us, and guarding against those who would threaten or punish us for our distinctiveness. Israel is a partner, an inspiration, a challenge, a resource, in this ongoing and exciting project. This can be our rationale for American Jewish life, inclusive of Zionism.

This can also be the place from which we respond to antisemitism in the U.S. Antisemitism persists in America, both on the extreme right and left, but we should understand against the background of recent surveys showing that Jews are the most respected ethnic group in America. When we hear criticism of Israel, we must listen closely to hear whether it makes use of antisemitic stereotypes and canards. We must object strenuously whenever and wherever that happens. The rise in antisemitism fueled by a rise in anti-Israel feeling is an opportunity to teach about where are the lines between legitimate critique and unlawful discrimination.

“What is Zionism’s Role in North American Jewish Life Today?” A Public Dialogue with UConn President Susan Herbst and Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Thursday, April 23, 7-8:30 p.m.; Konover Auditorium, Dodd Center, UConn. For information or to register: uconnalumni.com/judaicstudies, rsvp@uconn.edu, (860) 486-1038.

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