Obama gets Zionism – why don’t our youth?

Canadian Jewish News, Thursday, 03 July 2008 

True, at the annual meeting of AIPAC, the legendary American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in Washington, D.C., the most powerful American politicians tell some of the most powerful American Jews exactly what they want to hear.

True, at the meeting in June, Barack Obama overstated his commitment to a united Jerusalem, and then backtracked, causing great controversy. True, during the heat of a presidential campaign, anything one says that is positive about one candidate is perceived to be an endorsement of him, regardless of the writer’s intent. Still, it’s worth focusing on Obama’s remarkable riff about Zionism – and challenging Jews in the United States and Canada to learn at least this from America’s Democratic presidential nominee.

Early on in his address, Obama recalled the influence of a Jewish counsellor of his at a summer camp the young Barack attended in the early 1970s. Obama said:  “I first became familiar with the story of Israel when I was 11 years old. I learned of the long journey and steady determination of the Jewish people to preserve their identity through faith, family and culture. Year after year, century after century, Jews carried on their traditions, and their dream of a homeland, in the face of impossible odds.”

Obama explained that as a young man cut off from his roots, not knowing his father, this quest to return and this deep sense of rootedness moved him. “So I was drawn to the belief that you could sustain a spiritual, emotional and cultural identity,” Obama proclaimed. “And I deeply understood the Zionist idea – that there is always a homeland at the centre of our story.”

There are three powerful ideas embedded in this short paragraph. Obama offers a compelling “holy trinity” if you will, explaining some of the ways Jews have maintained our identity for thousands of years, despite adversity. Obama talks about “faith, family and culture.” He speaks about one’s “spiritual, emotional, and cultural identity.” I could add history, the land, and tradition as well. I talk about national and historical identity, too. But what’s important is that Obama recognizes Judaism’s multi-dimensionality. Judaism is not “just” a religion. Jews are a people sharing a common past, certain cultural traits, enduring family values, a binding faith, an interconnected fate in the present, and, we hope, an inspiring and glorious future.

Second, in this speech and elsewhere, Obama talks about the common modern quest for roots, for an identity. He understands that there’s more to life than making money and spending money. True success, true fulfilment, comes from knowing who you are – having a deep, enduring, historical identity.

Both the United States and Canada are remarkable countries, welcoming immigrants throughout the world. But both countries, particularly with today’s modern consumerist popular culture, encourage a kind of historical amnesia, a disconnect from our Old World past. True, Canada is officially multicultural and more sensitive to those concerns than the United States, but the lure of the “I,” of the here-and-now of modern culture, overrides those rhetorical and ideological differences, enticing all of us to jettison our historical identities.

Finally, Obama appreciates the value of having a homeland as an anchor, as a repository of our past, our values, our story – and our future. We need to imagine sometimes what it must have been like for our grandparents and great-grandparents who were cut off from that homeland. We need to imagine sometimes what it must be like for kids like the young Obama, who, while welcomed into the American heartland, know that they are different, know that they have another identity and wish to reconcile it all.

We need to ask, “Do we always remember to keep our homeland – the homeland of Israel – ‘at the centre of our story’ as modern Jews?” Have too many of us, in the comforts of North America, forgotten how lucky we are to have Israel as an identity anchor? How many of our well-educated, sophisticated 40-year-olds speak as eloquently as Obama did about the power of the Zionist idea historically – and to us personally? And if Obama is willing to say “Yes we can” to our Zionism, how come so many of our youth are not?

Advertisements
Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. Three Principles of Zionism « Zionism and the State of Israel

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: