The Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies at Concordia University hosted a conference this month, with researchers from Ben-Gurion University. While the theme was Israel at 70, the conference actually showcased Zionism in three phases: an early Holocaust-scarred phase; a midterm phase of learning to work together; and today’s phase of identity Zionism – seeking a mutual relationship that helps Israelis and Diaspora Jews build fulfilling identities together.
Held at Samuel Bronfman House, the conference evoked the Canadian liquor magnate and Zionist philanthropist whose name adorns the building. “Mr. Sam,” as he was often called, reflected the early Diaspora Zionists who affirmed loyalty to their new homes, while helping their fellow Jews rebuild the homeland. “Those of us who live in a free country like Canada should express (our) gratitude by making it possible for other Jews to find freedom and security in Palestine,” Bronfman explained in 1938. During the Second World War, he lobbied Ottawa unsuccessfully to welcome more Jews into Canada before the Nazis murdered them. After the war, Bronfman mobilized Canadian Jews to raise money for Palestine, then Israel – taking a young Shimon Peres to lobby Canadian officials for armaments. But first, Mr. Sam had his limo stop, so Peres, a kibbutznik, could replace his unfashionable white socks with black ones. Then, Bronfman and his equally generous wife, Saidye, raised much-needed funds for the young state by telling Montreal’s leading Jews just how much each could afford to give.
Another philanthropist, the Israeli-Canadian developer David Azrieli (whose family helps fund the Azrieli Institute), epitomized the second phase of Zionism.
As Israel shifted from a poor, socialist developing country to a high-tech power, more mature partnerships among Israeli and Diaspora Jews became possible. It’s true that the man born as David Azrylewicz in Poland represented the Holocaust generation. He escaped to Russia when the Nazis invaded in 1939, finally arriving in Palestine in 1943 – with the assistance of another Zionist legend, Moshe Dayan.
But for David Azrieli, his building projects became ways of fulfilling his Zionist ideals – while thanking the country that saved him from the Holocaust. After moving to Canada in 1954 and building his family and his fortune, he returned to Israel in the 1980s to build the country’s first enclosed shopping mall. He coined the Hebrew word for mall, kanyon, and became the country’s master builder, culminating with its largest real estate development, the three tower Azrieli Center in Tel Aviv. Last month, his daughter, Danna Azrieli, continued the family tradition by presiding over the opening of the Azrieli Sarona Tower, Israel’s tallest building.
David Azrieli championed “the new halutziut (pioneering spirit).” He argued that it “is still possible to be a Zionist pioneer in Israel, a halutz, but the new halutziut is economic in nature. Israel’s new halutz, for example, is a pioneer in advanced technology and design, or the salesman of Israeli products who allows Israel to compete on world markets.”
That Zionist vision made Azrieli a transitional figure to today’s third phase. As I argued in the keynote address I delivered to the conference, ours is the era of Zionist ideas – a big, broad, rollicking conversation from right to left, including young and old, religious and non-religious. This old-new conversation will hone identity Zionism, wherein all of us, in Israel and the Diaspora, don’t just ask “how do I help Israel,” but wonder: “how does having a Jewish state help me?” By framing the question this way, Zionism becomes a vehicle for personal fulfillment, not just a way to help a Jewish charity case. The Zionism that will emerge will be more mature, deeper, more meaningful – and thus more resilient to pressures from haters from without and doubters from within.