With the establishment of Israel as a nation, American Zionism found itself in a new era for which apparently nothing had prepared it—like, as someone has said, a mother whose grown children are suddenly no longer in the house, or the father of the bride. In any case, the American movement in all its branches has been casting about to find a role in the altered scene, and a reason for continued existence. Here Jacob Neusner reports on one such effort at revaluation and revival in a key sensitive area—for what hope is there without the youth? And in America the youth to whom one must look for future leadership is on the campus.

 

Zionism was originally a movement to revive the Jewish people; today, one might say, Zionism is chiefly a movement to revive Zionism. Lately it has focused its attention on youth. How else assure recruits for that much desired and much debated Western aliyah—emigration to Israel from the United States? Where else develop Zionism’s leaders for tomorrow?

Last December, the American Zionist Council, the representative body of all Zionist organizations, sponsored a convention at Columbia University in New York City of the Student Zionist Organization, in an effort to gather all college Zionist groups in a new national federation.

According to old-timers, undoubtedly prejudiced as old-timers are, the three hundred delegates gathered in the dingy gray auditorium of Earle Hall were not of the same mettle as those at former Zionist conventions. There were fewer hard-bitten types, fewer specimens of the ancient dogmatists; there was less extreme idealism; and almost no political partisanship. The students, in age from seventeen to twenty-five, were indistinguishable in costume or demeanor from the general run of American college boys and girls.

As everyone knows, the years between 1948 and 1954 have worn hard on political enthusiasts; so it was no surprise that, except for an incongruous delegate of Hashomer Hatzair (Marxist) and a couple of members of Mizrachi (religious), few delegates had any serious party affiliation. So lacking did the convention show itself in the robust vigor of the “old days,” that one observer wondered aloud whether the Zionist revival might not die of boredom. Indeed, it was possible to wonder whether many of the younger delegates were Zionists at all. Asked whether she felt that she was living in galut (exile), one pretty young student wanted to know what the word meant. It turned out that she had never read a book on Zionism except for a novel about “the War of Independence.” At their socials, the delegates went through the expected horas and Israeli folk dances, but without the vigor and conviction they seemed able to bring to the fox trot.

In the end, one could not avoid feeling a certain unreality about the meeting. As one alert student commented, “What we have to fight against is not the anti-Zionist or the assimilationist. Apathy to the whole issue is our real enemy.” Many delegates represented only themselves or perhaps one or two others. One Southerner, for example, confessed that his chapter had six members out of two thousand Jewish students, while an Ivy Leaguer mentioned the “four or five who carry the program and come to meetings” out of a thousand Jewish students. The metropolitan universities in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles reported memberships as high as twenty and forty. But even these figures are negligible considering the total number of Jewish students and the present general concern with Judaism and Jewish affairs on the campus.

On the surface, the current conclave appeared not much different from Zionist conventions in the past. From the first Student Zionist Society at CCNY in 1903 to the short-lived Inter-Collegiate Zionist Federation of America (1945-1953), campus Zionists have been meeting, issuing manifestoes of policy, caucusing, launching ambitious programs, talking a great deal, and fading away. The Student Zionist Society of CCNY expanded into a nine-chapter College Zionist League of America in 1905. By 1915 it had been replaced by the Intercollegiate Zionist Association. This group petered out by 1921, and was succeeded in 1925 by Avukah. Avukah, a hardy plant of fifteen years’ duration, derived its extraordinary vigor more from extra-Zionist activities, such as “anti-fascism,” than from Zionism.

Avukah’s successor, the Inter-Collegiate Zionist Federation of America, a multi-party group sponsored principally by the General Zionist Youth Commission, but sporadically also by everyone from the Labor Zionists to Mizrachi, concentrated on offering non-sectarian programs. IZFA reached a peak of eight thousand members between 1945 and 1949. In 1954, with only twelve hundred remaining, it dissolved for “complicated financial reasons.” IZFA achieved certain results, both in successful chapters and in emigration to Israel (between 50 and 100), but by the spring of 1954 the decline in membership had led to a small, ingrown group of familiars meeting regularly in convention to elect one another to office. A graduation or two proved fatal to some chapters, and a not insoluble financial difficulty served as a pretext for dissolution.

Nevertheless, since college societies should be judged not in terms of their own survival but on their contribution of leaders to the community, collegiate Zionism’s record is perhaps creditable enough. Each succeeding organization developed new and distinguished figures for the Zionist cause. From the Intercollegiate Zionist Association, for example, came Mr. Justice Frankfurter, Judges Julian Mack and Louis E. Levinthal, Marie Syrkin, and Rabbis Norman Salit and James G. Heller. One small Zionist club in New York City included Rabbis Abba Hillel Silver, Barnett Brickner, and Abraham J. Feldman.

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In common with past conventions, the SZO seemed to sit interminably and to draw from bottomless wells of speech.

But then there was a lot in the present situation to ponder and talk about. College authorities are, in many places, wary of encouraging anything more political than bowling clubs. And students themselves, as we have noted, by and large avoid political commitment of any kind. Jewish sororities and fraternities have tended to limit any other effort at Jewish identification than that offered by themselves. Assistance from Hillel, the most vigorous and all-embracing Jewish campus enterprise today, depends on the individual directors and members, whose interest in Israel may not be attended by equal interest in sectarian Zionism. Even if Zionism were now a fresh and unfulfilled ideal, campus Zionists would still in the present climate have difficult dilemmas to solve in order to survive and grow.

But the most difficult problem of all is the elementary one of what the term Zionism itself means. In the old days, despite all doctrinal differences, everyone knew what Zionism was. Now that the State of Israel has been established everyone recognizes, but no one is quite ready to define, the distinction between mere pro-Israel sentiment and “true” Zionism; and there is all the difference in the world between the two in depth of commitment and dynamic. What are Zionists to do now that we have Israel?

“Hadassah has its drugs and doctors. What do we have?” asks a delegate. The program committee suggested—quite seriously—that a special function of SZO might be “to send animals to the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem, one for each college: Yale will send a bulldog, Princeton a tiger, Columbia a lion.” “Is this,” someone wondered, “our contribution to aliyah?” Another objected: “What if the Biblical Zoo won’t accept animals not mentioned in the Bible? I don’t think they’d want a Yukon Huskie!” On the third ballot, the motion to dispatch a latter-day ark to Israel was passed by a small margin. It was the only issue aside from aliyah itself to arouse serious controversy. Clearly, even if SZO carries out its less bizarre projects—collecting textbooks, records, and books for the two IZFA kibbutzim (Yiftach and Hagovrim, both of which are already fairly well stocked), and setting up projects to teach Hebrew and disseminate pro-Israel publicity—it will still be as far as ever from a defined and meaningful Zionism.

Debates on emigration to Israel emphasized the stark bewilderment of the campus Zionists about this and about the unhappily inescapable central issue that underlies all Zionist debate today—what is the function of galut Zionism (Zionism in “exile”)—what, as a matter of fact, exactly is galut? In what sense must the American Jewish student think of himself as in exile? The question of aliyah roused passionate emotions, and no delegate failed to express an opinion, however vague or confused. To most students, however, the issue was personally irrelevant, merely an intellectual exercise; only a tiny fraction even think of emigrating to Israel. Yet a motion was produced: “SZO considers aliyah the highest means of fulfilling Zionist ideals.”

One speaker for the resolution said: “How can you be a Zionist without aliyah? We are a student Zionist organization, not Hillel or United Synagogue Youth! The dream of Zionism is redemption through aliyah. Let’s not worry about frightening people away. If we chase anyone away with this resolution, he was not worth having in the first place.” The negative argument rested mainly on the practical danger: “This will discourage people from joining. It is one thing to encourage aliyah. It is another to say that aliyah is the highest form of Zionism. The primary question is whether this will have a negative effect or not. What really counts in SZO is what is in the program, not statements about the highest form. . . . There are many positive Jews, not Zionists but potential Zionists, who will work with us. There must be a place beyond Hillel for the positive Jew and Zionist, between Hillel and an actual aliyah group. This is the place for SZO.” The resolution was defeated by a two-to-one vote, but the chairman summed up: “We all really agree on the motion, but cooler heads have prevailed because no one wants to chase people away.” SZO then decided “to encourage aliyah and to implement an educational program to this end.”

While the substitute motion to this effect passed unanimously, it is obvious that for many of the delegates, personal aliyah is not a Zionist first principle; animals and aid to the halutzim suffice.

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The conflict of aim, as between the hard goal of “returning” to the Jewish homeland and the easier one of promoting pro-Israel sentiment and “activities,” was reflected also in the debate on whether SZO is to seek a “mass membership” or a select, intellectual elite. But at no point did a clear-cut choice emerge. Although the members showed themselves firmly opposed to diluting what they thought were the ideals of true Zionism, perhaps only with the object of making the right gesture, they were nevertheless uneasily aware of the mass of the unaffiliated. Significantly, the fear of alienating this mass—which was the only argument advanced against advertising “aliyah as the highest form of Zionism”—appealed to the delegates as deeply pertinent. Likewise, in the discussions on the Hebrew language, some members opposed the use of Hebrew in announcements because “it might frighten people away,” although a Hebrew seminar was proposed to provide the movement with “people who feel a real obligation and sense of responsibility. These people would be an elite to transmit their knowledge of Hebrew and Zionism.”

The adult advisers present showed themselves equally confused on this basic point: for some the objective of the American Zionist movement is to organize small groups of elite, to educate them in Zionism and Judaism, avoiding any kind of competition with large-scale “social activities”; others prefer an “American-style” program of conventions, elections, publicity, and all else needed for “mass appeal.” The students and their advisers apparently aim at eating their cake and having it too, by producing some kind of synthesis of the two ideals. And in actuality, the SZO program tries to hitch small groups, representing some kind of elite, to a program suited for thousands and tens of thousands. Education, propaganda, Jewish National Fund forests, even animals—these are enterprises best carried out by enthusiastic committees and widespread competitions. In aiming at amorphous “masses,” the SZO may run the risk of neglecting its own elite.

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The motto of the convention was Herzl’s “In the beginning is the Idea.” The new SZO did not depart from the traditional ideas of Zionism. In a printed statement, one of the students surveyed the classic arguments for a Jewish state: a refuge, he called it, a place in which to be “normal,” a fulfillment of the messianic dream. He posed as the new problem: “The place . . . of the State of Israel . . . in our lives while we still live in the galut.” As ideas, these are nothing new, nor need they be. From them came the fervor of a Ben Gurion, a Weizmann, a Maurice Samuel; these categories of thought have sufficed for fifty years of political Zionism. Likewise the general aims of SZO are classic and simple. The organization’s first president, Adena Mosevitzky, a Brooklyn-born girl who was graduated from Hunter and expects to settle in Israel in three years, put it thus: “We seek to involve Zionist students in discussion and in action on as many campuses as possible. We seek to educate people about Jewish culture, history, customs, and Zionism. We seek to motivate members to consider that full Jewish living is vital and possible for themselves, and to consider whether it is desirable to fulfill the values and carry on the creative cultural achievement of the Jews in a majority-Jewish culture.” But what ambiguity, at the least, in this last carefully worded phrase.

These objectives bear little realistic relation even to the lives of the present founding core of SZO, whom we may take to be more congenial to accepting them than the sought-for “mass” of Tank-and-file contemporaries. College students, by and large, do not need a refuge; they feel “normal”; and they scarcely comprehend, much less experience, the “messianic dream.” FOR most, the idea of “galut,” of being in exile, is meaningless. The majority culture with which Jewish students are concerned is the majority culture of American colleges. Their real problem is not how to be drawn away from it but how to be Jews and yet be a part of it.

One could not help noting how many delegates at the founding convention, however much they looked the regular, “real” American student, revealed only a tenuous connection to this majority culture; some were, as observant Jews, a precious rarity on their campuses; a few had the stamp of unsuccessful participants in the dominant campus life; some were simply there on a junket, possibly to please their parents, the student Zionists of yesterday. Zionism, to many, apparently provides a handy outlet, a possible compensation; to very few is it a way to full Jewish living through Zion. If some felt themselves in galut, it was not a cosmic or a national exile but a social one.

But even if the SZO had represented a haphazardly chosen cross-section of Jewish college youth, the final picture might not have been significantly different. The average Jewish college student in this country is known to be indifferent and illiterate in Jewish matters, certainly unprepared for any commitment so fervent as Zionism. Since the student intensely reflects the community from which he comes, SZO can only hope to gain members prepared to fulfill its aims when the communities turn out literate and dedicated Jews prepared to maintain on the campuses respectable institutions of religion and culture. When Zionism in the community becomes more than attending dinners and contributing funds, then perhaps students, too, will approach the movement as more than an opportunity for social association and organizational activity.

In the context of the general indifference, SZO should worry less about getting more members or about developing spectacular programs, and more about how to involve individuals vitally concerned with their life as Jews. It might perhaps stop reaching out, and reach in—to its own membership. To seek a mass following in the near future, especially if it does not pause to raise the Jewish level of its present following, seems futile, and the necessary techniques of sensationalism might even drive off the more committed individuals they seek to attract. “The only time we get big meetings,” said a Midwestern delegate, “is when there is trouble in Israel. At the time of Kibya, we had a very good attendance, because the papers publicized our meetings and the meetings had real punch.” But student Zionism, if it is to achieve a wholesome liveliness, cannot limp from war to war.

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There is, of course, no “one way” to involve students in a cause like Zionism; it is not like manufacturing a need for a commercial product. In seeking ways, SZO may well regard the content of its program as the first consideration. For that content, it must seek out the roots of Zionism, indeed of contemporary American Judaism itself, and these roots lie deep in the religious civilization to which East European Jewry was committed. From that civilization every modern Zionist movement draws its followers; to receive its remnants, Israel was built; and the Zionist appeal, even today, is phrased in a vocabulary designed to move the East European Jew.

Zionism, when it speaks at all, still speaks in this language (can Zionists know any other?). But to the recent generation of college Zionists, even to its most serious members, this language is alien; each year fewer students of any persuasion can be found who know the inner life of East European Jewry, even as lived or modified in America, or who even concern themselves with Jewishness in any form. Zionism can only be understood by the college student in terms of his own experience; to some, then, the idea of religious love of Zion means a kind of Jewish Sinn Fein, while to others, the idea of social-messianic vision represents merely a Jewish form of “New Deal” or “social gospel.” To almost none—perhaps they have all departed for Israel—is Zionism the kind of fervent ideal of which an adult adviser to SZO said: “We who fought in 1948 were fighting that the Law might once again come forth from Zion. Nothing less, and certainly not for only another national state.” Not merely Zionism was at stake, but Judaism itself. If the students, Zionist or non-Zionist, do not understand this language and these ideals, then it seems the task of SZO is to educate them, for the ideals and language will lose their integrity, their validity and force, through adaptation and dilution. In the old days, Jews were Zionists because, for whatever reason, they cared terribly about their Jewishness, as tradition and as future. Unless they care terribly now about being Jews, and what that means and has always meant in essence—that is, morally and religiously—the SZO college students will not be Zionists, or revive Zionism today. (And one remembers that much of the impulse and content of Zionism was originally Jewish cultural. But culture has long since been stripped away by the concentration on political activism and fund-raising; and the question is whether this may not be one of those irreversible processes.)

So it was hardly hopeful to hear delegates at the founding convention snigger when they were told, “To find the cause of Zionism, read the book of Isaiah or Jeremiah.” And when the keynote speaker, Professor Eli Ginzberg, the Columbia economist, urged the delegates, in the question period, to consider “as part of an affirmative Judaism and Zionism the religion of the Jews,” an uneasy rustle in the hall led to this quick qualification: “not necessarily in observance but in belief.” If the Jewish university “elite” and the “hope of Zionism” yawn at Judaism, they can scarcely hope to learn the love of Zion which comes from a profound appreciation of the prayer: “And may our eyes behold Thy return to Zion in mercy. . . .” Nor can they gain more than a superficial notion of the social idealism which is a part of Judaism unless they understand also the prayer:

Remove from us sorrow
And the sighs of fain, and want.
And reign over us, O Lord Thou Alone!
In lovingkindness and tender mercy
.

On a morning whose scheduled discussions were vital to the program of SZO, the convention was to open at ten o’clock. Eleven o’clock found the hall still deserted, except for one delegate, tired looking and bored. He was idly touching the keys of a piano, pressing the keys and making sound, but there was no melody. The notes on his portfolio read: “Weakness—ideology. Messianism? Old purpose eliminated 1948. Israel will have impact on American Jewry.” These are the keys, no doubt; they make sounds, but no melody comes. Fled is that old Zionist music. . . . Forever?

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