There was no unanimity of opinion at the First Zionist Congress. Though this important first step in the Zionist movement is remembered for what led, 50 years later, to the establishment of the State of Israel, it is important to recall that there were disparate voices who raised interesting objections to what Theodor Herzl was trying to achieve. Assembled in Basel that August of 1897 was one vocal group of critics who objected to Herzl’s vision. They feared that the establishment of a Jewish political state would lead the Diaspora Jewish world to lose that certain “something” that has enabled it to survive in exile for almost 2,000 years.
Though this “something” was never defined, in hindsight it can certainly be argued that that same “something” has enabled Israel to not only survive, but thrive, over the course of its 71-year existence.
This small group of critics however, and their concern for the feasibility of the Jewish state and people writ large over 120 years ago, has left me thinking about the development of Zionism over that same period of time – how its founding fathers saw the need for Zionism then, and what they would think about the state of Zionism now.
At the risk of oversimplifying a complex political philosophy, when political Zionism was founded in the late 19th century, there were two distinct views as to why the Jews needed a state of their own. On the one hand, men like Leon Pinsker, Herzl, Max Nordau and later Ze’ev Jabotinsky, feared that the Diaspora would turn on its Jews and that anti-Semitic trends would decimate Jewish lives.
On the other hand, men like Solomon Schechter, living in England, feared that assimilation would make Jews too comfortable in western Europe, and decimate Jewish identities.
Though originating from different perspectives, both viewpoints led to the same belief in the need for a Jewish state.
This need shaped the dialogue at not only the first, but all subsequent Zionist congresses.
It pushed the men and women of the early aliyot to leave their homes and turn to the land in then-Palestine.
It was the reason why Ahad Ha’am, skeptical of immigration capabilities, encouraged the creation of a spiritual (rather than a political) home in Palestine, that would be a model for Judaism all Diaspora communities could turn to for guidance. This need also empowered those like Chaim Weizmann to turn to their own governments in search of practical diplomatic support and solutions.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then this explicit need for a Jewish state sparked an innovative drive that led to its establishment in 1948. It created a passionate, defined Zionism, with followers who not only acted on this ideology, but who wore the Zionist label with pride.
It has now been over 70 years since the establishment of the State of Israel. In that time, we have taken that “something” and have channeled it into a country that should be proud of its accomplishments, and that ought be considered a moral beacon amongst other nations. Israel has survived against the slimmest of odds. Though challenged sometimes by the hubris of its politicians (what nation isn’t?) and external forces that seek its destruction and delegitimization, Israel remains a force.
The source of Israel’s strength however is not only its mechanisms of state, but rather the passion of its citizens – both inside its borders, as well as the Jewish people in its Diaspora. Israel cannot survive without its supporters having a clear understanding of why they need Israel both today and tomorrow: why they are Zionists.
Programs and projects designed to support Israel and encourage ahavat Zion cannot simply highlight the wonders of Israel, but must probe why their participants need Israel, and ensure that this need is known. This need must constantly be re-evaluated.
Take for example Taglit-Birthright. Now almost 20 years old, this program is in dire need of a paradigm shift. Birthright was founded to serve a dual purpose: to get young Jews to fall in love with the land of Israel, and to get them to fall in love with other Jews. As one of Birthright’s founders once told me: “the goal is Jewish babies.”
At its founding, and in its early years, this was an admirable goal. Over the last two decades however, Birthright’s methods and purposes have changed the Jewish world around it, while not itself changing. Birthright has altered the culture of Zionism in Diaspora communities. This is because Birthright is no longer seen as a privilege so much as an entitlement. By its very definition, an entitlement is not something that is needed, but rather something that you get, no matter what. If you are a young Jew between the ages of 18-32 – no matter your background, no matter how many times you have been to Israel before – you are entitled to this free trip, no strings attached.
This is important when Birthright is placed in the broader context of the Jewish community, and the identities of those Jews who inhabit it. As a result of what it has become, Birthright is now, to many young Diaspora Jews, the only way that they express their Zionism, whatever they believe their Zionism to be. “Of course I’m a Zionist! I’ve been on Birthright!”
For this reason, I wonder whether Birthright continues to meet its goals as originally conceived. Of course, there are Birthright participants who still fit the initial aims of the program, but I fear that a fairly easy expression of one’s interest in Israel diminishes the needs-based Zionism that gives Israel its strength.
My critique is not intended to diminish the important, positive impact Birthright has had on the lives of many young Jews. I am picking on Birthright because it is the most important program, in terms of volume alone, that links Diaspora Jews to Israel. It must be successful. If that is the case, then it is incumbent on us to have a serious conversation about where Birthright fits into the dynamic Zionist narrative, and how it strengthens the Zionism of the next generation. If it can do better to strengthen our Jewish and Zionist identities, then it must do better.
It is also incumbent on us to continuously re-evaluate not only our own Zionism, but those programs that profess to propagate whatever they believe Zionism is. The world is changing, and we must change with it. With the amount of time, effort, and money that goes into these programs, they must be goal-oriented, and that goal must be clearly defined.
If, like our forefathers, we need Israel because we fear persecution, then young Jews who are comfortable living in the Diaspora with no perceived threats to their lives must understand how only Israel can protect them from persecution. Likewise, if we need Israel to keep us Jewish, then young Jews must better develop their own Jewish identities, separate and apart from their North American identities, and understand the role that Israel plays in maintaining that Judaism.
If, on the other hand, Israel is needed because we derive our strength from its strength, then we must do a better job of explaining why this interconnectedness can neither fail nor falter. As they say in Israel, ein brera (we have no alternative).
If Israel is needed – and I truly believe that it is – then that need must be defined and internalized by all young Diaspora Jews. It is not enough to assume that the Zionism of our parents and grandparents is as present in their children and grandchildren as it was in them. Young Jews today – especially in North America – do not face, nor see, as explicitly the need the Jewish people once had for Israel, even though that need remains.
Ask yourself and then your child: would you travel to Israel for free? Now ask: if necessary, would you travel to Israel to live? Would you travel there to fight? I imagine the latter question would be answered very differently by Jewish teenagers in 1949, 1979, and 2019.
In Basel, 122 years ago, a small group of critics stood up and warned that if we are going to do this, we had better do it right. Well, we did it. Now it’s time again to look ahead: the future of Israel, and the future of the Israel-Diaspora connection, depends on a thoughtful and concrete definition of Zionism. Let’s make sure that we do it right.