ixty-nine years ago, a 28-year-old rabbi published an essay in Commentary entitled “American Zionism at an Impasse: A Movement in Search of a Program.” What, the young Arthur Hertzberg wondered in that October 1949 essay, will American Jews do now, after the great fight to establish Israel had ended so triumphantly a year earlier, in May 1948?
Hertzberg understood how helping the Jews over there in the Middle East had helped Jews over here in North America. After decades of American Jewish ambivalence about Jewish nationalism, the Holocaust had created an instant consensus for a Jewish state. The fight to create that state galvanized the community, rousing it from depression—and shielding it from guilt. By doing the right thing in the late 1940s, American Jews atoned for their failure to save more of their doomed brothers and sisters.
Hertzberg’s fear that Zionism was “a movement in search of a program” in 1949 proved wildly premature, because Israel would continue to call on and depend on the support of American Jews for its survival. The nation’s creation was followed by a host of new problems and opportunities that kept the global Jewish community engaged with Israel and kept alive the American Jewish connection to “peoplehood”—even as many American Jews abandoned religious practice entirely.
In 1959, Hertzberg published a seminal anthology, The Zionist Idea, for the purpose of establishing the movement’s intellectual and ideological roots. At the time, Israel was fragile and the Zionist conversation was robust. Today, Israel is robust and the Zionist conversation has turned fragile. Israel’s 70th anniversary offers an opportunity to reframe the Zionist conversation—asking not what American Jews can do for Israel, but what Zionism can do for American Jews. Hertzberg understood that Zionism wasn’t only about saving Jewish bodies but saving Jewish souls. As the celebrations of Israel’s 70th birthday begin, Zionism’s capacity to save our souls remains vital.
Many American Jews in the 1950s helped their fellow Jews settle in the new land. The fundraising short from 1954, “The Big Moment,” featuring Hollywood stars including Donna Reed and Robert Young, celebrated the secular miracle. “When you support the United Jewish Appeal, you make it possible for the United Israel Appeal to help the people of Israel,” the short told its viewers. They could help “rush completion of new settlements, new housing for the homeless, the irrigation of wasteland acres…. Israel’s people who stand for freedom must not stand alone.”
Four years later, Leon Uris mythologized the Zionist revolution in his mammoth bestseller, Exodus. “As a literary work it isn’t much,” David Ben-Gurion admitted. “But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the best thing ever written about Israel.” In Uris’s Zionist paradise, New Jews lived noble ideas and heroic lives. Exodus captured the texture of the Jewish return: the trauma of the Holocaust, the joys of the kibbutz, the thrill of rebuilding, the anguish of the Arab fight, the sweetness of idealism, the wonder of mass migration. In the 1960 movie version, Exodus even tackled serious ideological issues within Zionism. As Ari Ben Canaan escorts his non-Jewish love interest, Kitty Fremont, around Israel, the two look over the Valley of Jezreel. They marvel at seeing the “same paving stones that Joshua walked on when he conquered” the land, along with “every clump of trees” Ari’s father planted.
Thrilled that the valley is becoming Jewish once again, Ari proclaims: “I’m a Jew. This is my country.” Kitty dismisses differences between people as artificial. Ari makes the particularist case against universalism: “People are different. They have a right to be different.” They suspend the debate, Hollywood-style, with their first kiss.
In print, on screen, and in song, Exodus cast Zionism in such glowing terms that it condemned Israel to the inevitable comedown. Decades later, Thomas Friedman, trying to justify his anger at the Jewish state as its popularity flagged, would define this mythic place he missed as “your grandfather’s Israel.” Actually, Israel today—Friedman’s Israel—is more compassionate, just, equitable, and democratic than his grandfather’s.
As Exodus climbed the bestseller lists, Hertzberg’s Zionist Idea showed how a series of abstract debates spawned an actual state in mere decades. The texts, Hertzberg’s editor Emanuel Neumann wrote, illustrate “the internal moral and intellectual forces in Jewish life” that shaped this “idea which galvanized a people, forged a nation, and made history…. Behind the miracle of the Restoration lies more than a century of spiritual and intellectual ferment which produced a crystallized Zionist philosophy and a powerful Zionist movement.”
Recalling this period, Abraham Joshua Heschel would say American Jews took that miracle for granted. We became so used to the Tel Aviv Hilton, he said, that we forgot Tel Hai, where the one-armed Zionist warrior Josef Trumpeldor sacrificed his life for his country. Heschel was chiding American Jews for failing to use Israel to find greater meaning, to revitalize their Jewish identities, to launch “an ongoing spiritual revolution.”
Several political shocks in the 1960s upstaged the cultural and spiritual conversation that Heschel, Hertzberg, and others sought. Having grown up feeling secure as Americans, some Baby Boomers questioned American Jewish silence during the Holocaust. Frustrations at their parents’ passivity “while 6 million died” altered the community’s course—triggering a move toward activism. Cries of “Never again” shaped the Zionist, peoplehood-centered fight that ultimately brought 1.2 million Soviet Jews to Israel even as it nurtured and brought to adulthood two generations of new American Jewish leaders and activists.
The biggest shock was the Six-Day War. Both their fear of losing Israel in May 1967 and their euphoria when Israel won that June surprised American Jews. Many discovered that they were more passionate about Israel than they had realized. This “extraordinary response” led Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and others toward “a strategy of making Israel central in religious and Jewish educational life—if only because thereby we can tap strong loyalties and deep feelings.” The Holocaust and Israel’s founding partially Zionized American Jewry, showing how to live with a Jewish state while living happily ever after; 1967 showed most American Jews that they couldn’t live without the Jewish state.
Zionism became American Jewry’s glue. Israel reinforced a sense of peoplehood and renewed Jewish pride. It inspired the teaching of Hebrew, revitalized summer camps, and invigorated the Conservative and Reform movements. The community learned how to mobilize politically and raise money prodigiously. Indeed, writing in the 1970s, as periodic terrorist massacres kept returning Jews to the traumatic 1973 Yom Kippur War, Hertzberg declared that Zionism had become the only sacred commitment all American Jews shared. “Intermarriage, ignorance in the Jewish heritage, or lack of faith do not keep anyone from leadership in the American Jewish community today.” Hertzberg complained. “Being against Israel or apathetic in its support does.”
But while it was succeeding politically in America, Zionism was failing culturally and spiritually, Hertzberg charged. “Today there is no Zionist education in the U.S., no schools, no teaching seminaries, no commitment by Zionists” to cultivating “a Zionist kind of Jewish personality”—Ben-Gurion’s New Jew. Instead of stirring charges of dual loyalty, instead of adding “to the discomfort of the Jews in the Diaspora,” Hertzberg noted, Zionism contributed to Jews’ “acceptance of themselves and their acceptance by others.”
Today, it seems, personal concerns predominate. Now we wonder how having a Jewish state helps Jews navigate what Birthright Israel calls “their own Jewish journeys” and their quests for meaning. That could seem to be a chaotic souk, an oriental bazaar resulting in a gay Zionism and a Mizrahi Zionism, an Orthodox Zionism and a Reform Zionism, a feminist Zionism and an environmental Zionism. This is not entirely new. Early Zionists also fused their secular, Western agendas with the Jewish agenda—creating the kibbutz and the Histadrut Labor union, among other hybrids of hyphenate Zionism. In fact, a thoughtful Zionism might cure what ails us by focusing on what Israel means “to me, to us.” Which brings us to the greatest contradiction of our age: Succeeding as Americans individually poses a threat to Jews communally. Building careers usually trumps the labor of deepening traditions, morals, or communal commitments. Increasingly, many American Jews are happy being Jew-ish, reducing a profound cultural, intellectual, religious heritage to props, a smattering of superficial symbols to make us stand out just enough to be interesting—and not too much to be threatening.
Academic postmodernism validates that professionally driven Jewish laziness. After slaving away to perfect the CV and GPA, to get into the best college possible, Jewish students arrive on campuses that often caricature Judaism—like all religions—as a repressive system while slamming Zionism as particularly oppressive, privileged, and aggressive. This postmodernist updating of Marxist universalism loathes the kinds of red lines Jews traditionally drew around multiple behaviors and beliefs—among them, intermarrying, denouncing Israel, or indulging in self-indulgent behaviors from tattooing your skin to blowing your mind with drugs or alcohol. But a community cannot exist without any boundaries—it’s as useless as a house with no walls.
More powerful than these ideological issues is the simple fascism of the clock. Few high-achieving American Jews devote much time in their week to being Jewish. The demands of work and the lures of leisure leave little room in the schedule for much else—especially such unhip, pre-modern, and un-postmodern activities.
Then, perhaps most devastating, once American Jews carve out the time and overcome the static, what awaits them in most synagogues is a stale stew of warmed-over nostalgia. Judaism must be more than gefilte fish and lox, more than some colorful Yiddish exclamations and shtetl tales. The superficiality of so many Jewish experiences inside the walls of the large Semitic cathedrals that fill up just three times a year is so dispiriting that it takes most Jews another year to screw up the courage to return.
No comprehensive cures exist, of course. And Zionism, which is in many ways a conservative cultural initiative despite Israel’s 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. Moreover, the systematic campaign to delegitimize Zionism has done great damage, just as conservative dominance of Israel has tarnished Israel’s luster among America’s passionately liberal Jews.
Nevertheless, Israel and Zionism still have a magic, illustrated by the great counterforce that most lamentations about the Israel-Diaspora relationship overlook: Birthright Israel. Young American Jews on those 10-day trips are thrilled by the experience. The enthusiasm comes from tasting a thick, dynamic, 24/7 Jewish experience that is qualitatively different from their thin, static, fragmented American Judaism. The impact comes from what Jonathan Sacks has aptly called turning Israel into world Jewry’s classroom, its living laboratory demonstrating vibrant, thriving Judaisms in sync with the environment. Seeing Jewish garbage men and police officers normalizes Jewish society, broadening the range of Jewish career paths and class stances, reducing the implicit pressure wherever American Jews look to be the next Zuckerberg, Spielberg, or Sandberg.
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’re Jewish is liberating.
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 upper-middle-class neighborhoods where 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 process of getting in. It 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 America risks degenerating into a Republic of Nothing. The shared past, purpose, and principles produce happier, more grounded, people.
Israeli normalcy risks its own laziness. But it’s the laziness of an instinctive, normalized Judaism in all dimensions rather than a Judaism you need to carve out time for, picking and choosing just what to do and when to do it—while often looking over your shoulder because you don’t want to look like a weirdo or a fanatic.
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 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 Anne Roiphe’s lovely phrase, and demands loyalty in many ways—especially considering Israel’s military situation.
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.
Finally, Israel helps American Jews shift from Anatevka to Jerusalem, from what Irving Howe called “the world of our fathers” to the lives of our brothers and sisters. Israeli Jewish identity is about speaking Hebrew and eating cheesecake on the holiday, often overlooked in North America, of Shavuot. It’s also, unfortunately, about fighting 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 Policy Conference is the rare mass event that parents often attend with their teenage and twenty-something children, Zionism offers something 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.
When done right and understood properly, Zionism can offer an important clarification to all Americans, especially in the age of Trump. In the 2016 campaign, whenever the word “nationalism” appeared in the media, it often came poisoned by words like “white” or “extremist” or “xenophobic.” The reaction against Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Brexit, neo-Nazis, and other manifestations of populist nationalism has soured too many Americans on any form of nationalism.
At its best, what might be called “liberal nationalism” infuses democratic ideals into the natural tendency for people to clump together with those like them. In the 1950s, 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.” Many Enlightenment thinkers, following the 18th-century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, compared this communal impulse with other human “desires” for “food, shelter, procreation, and a minimum degree of liberty.”
Today, this nationalist vision goes against the prevailing cultural tide. Amid what the sociologist Robert Bellah calls “radical individualism,” young Americans experience a “negative” process of “giving birth to oneself” by “breaking free from family, community, and inherited ideas.” By contrast, commemoration of the bar and bat mitzvah defines maturation as accepting communal responsibilities rather than shirking them. The Zionist reality demanding that young Israelis enlist in the army also roots them in communal commitments. In this view, national service is the defining step toward adulthood.
A resurrected, refreshed, Zionist conversation, one that focuses on what Israel does for us, might help Jews see liberal nationalism as a neutral tool that can unite a divided community and make us more determined, more purposeful, and more fulfilled than we can be individually—precisely what the young Arthur Hertzberg proposed seven decades ago.