Gil Troy: Center Field: Conservative Rabbis should foster Zionism before pushing Aliyah

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-24-09

At its recent annual convention in Jerusalem, the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly launched a campaign to boost Aliyah – immigration to Israel. The slogan “A Call to Action – Putting Aliyah on the Map,” illustrated that Aliyah barely ranks on American Jews’ agenda. With 399 Conservative North American olim (immigrants) in 2008, this campaign has nowhere to go but up. But trying to boost Aliyah among American Jews is like trying to encourage virtuosity among music ignoramuses. The goal, while noble, is out of reach. Before pushing Aliyah, the Conservative Movement should stimulate a more pressing conversation about what Israel and Zionism can mean to American Jews.

Pushing Aliyah usually alienates American Jews – and has distorted attitudes toward Israel and Zionism. Although when I speak about Zionism I neither push Aliyah nor negate the American Jewish community’s validity, questioners frequently accuse me of both. So many speakers before me have pitched Aliyah so aggressively, that as soon as I mention “the Z word” the already alienated questioners become defensive. Actually, many American Jews reject Aliyah as a goal. For them, it is like trying to sell ham in a synagogue.

Moreover, I have experienced particular hostility from some Conservative rabbinical students who bristle during their mandatory year studying in Jerusalem, because of the religious politics. Angry at Israel’s parallel Masorti movement for rejecting gay rabbis, alienated by the fact that a woman cannot feel comfortable wearing a kippah or a tallit publicly in Jerusalem, they yearn for their promised land of Southern California or the Upper West Side. I often respond that many share their contempt for some not all Israelis’ intolerance and oppose the Israeli rabbinate’s authoritarianism. But just as no rabbi wants congregants judging Judaism by the parts that least speak to them, we should not judge Israel by the aspects that most bother us. Still, I worry about how some of these future leaders will teach Israel to their congregants, let alone respond to perceived “pressure” for Aliyah from their movement.

Too many heavy-handed Israelis make matters worse. Coming from a command-and-control culture, too many Israeli speakers have barked too many orders to too many American Jewish audiences, regarding how to think, where to live. Ham-handed American Jewish tour operators are also guilty. One student recalled A.B. Yehoshua haranguing her and her young peers on her first Israel trip. Yehoshua negates the Diaspora as a valid Jewish home – except when it comes to collecting lecture fees from there. American celebrity worship blinded the organizers to the damage Yehoshua’s Israel-or-bust message might cause.

A healthy, constructive approach to Zionism would start by addressing some of the central contradictions between America’s cosmopolitan dream of liberation from Old World traditions and the Jewish commitment to ritual, history, faith, tradition. American Jews also try reconciling love for two Promised Lands, Israel and America.

Zionist thinkers from the past can help. Ahad Ha’am conceived of Israel as a center for Jews without negating Diaspora Jewry. Judge Louis Brandeis was a great American and a great Zionist who explained that being American frequently means maintaining a different ethnic, religious and even national identity. Mordechai Kaplan posited Jewish peoplehood as a touchstone for Jewish unity, Jewish pride in Jewish civilization, and Jewish equilibrium between modern seductions and the call of the past.

We also must stop seeing Israel through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was Yasser Arafat’s central conceit to make almost every conversation about Israel be about the Palestinians. Just as every conversation about America is not about race, so, too, we need a broader multi-dimensional relationship with Israel.

Even more important, we must stop treating Israel and Zionism as the Jewish people’s central headaches and start seeing both as potentially redemptive forces. We need new Zionist thinkers relating to today’s challenges, and today’s Israel. A New American Zionism should begin by critiquing the American Jewish community – and the modern condition. Just as European Zionists in the 1890s built an ideologically-diverse, Israel-based response to their central challenges of anti-Semitism and the fallout from industrialization, modern American Zionists should explore how Zionism can solve today’s problems.

Learning from Israel, building a communal, peoplehood-oriented, Israel-based identity to counterbalance assimilation, alienation, media-sated materialism, excessive individualism, post-modern cynicism, will establish a richer relationship with Israel.

Engaging Israel in many different ways will also revitalize American Jewish Zionism. The Conservative Movement would have much more impact if it dedicated itself to teaching Hebrew, opposing American Jews’ drift away from the Jewish people’s language. A Hebrew revival can open gateways to Israeli culture, professional exchanges, intellectual ties, more emotional and personal bonds. More Hebrew speakers would embrace the key formula for future American Jewish vitality: 2 DW = 1 il, meaning the cost of two Disney World trips for most could yield one Israel trip. Birthright Israel’s happy experiences teach that more interactions with Israel and Israelis, especially in Israel, would not only orient more American Jews toward Israel, it would spark an American Jewish revival by importing more Israeli energy, creativity, chutzpah, and pride. And, of course, we need a spirit of true mutuality – a more robust friendship would benefit Israelis, Israeli Judaism, and Israeli Zionism.

All these approaches will advance American Jews up what the legendary educator Mel Reisfield calls “the ladder of Zionist achievement.” Aliyah is most appealing when it bubbles up naturally, from powerful Israel trips, inspiring experiences with Israelis, and, alas, still in this world, the occasional Diaspora-based trauma, be it anti-Semitism or another alienating force. Once a Zionist revival makes Aliyah a possibility, then the practical help the Conservative Rabbis offered will prove beneficial. But, as with most ideological and educational initiatives, first lay the proper groundwork – and do whatever damage control is required – before rushing ahead.