Emanuel’s visit reflects ‘big tent’ Zionism and refutes Beinart

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-31-10

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s visit to Israel this week for his son’s bar mitzva helps refute Peter Beinart’s controversial article claiming that modern Zionism and liberalism are becoming incompatible. The Emanuel family has witnessed the real, multi-dimensional, cosmopolitan Israel that disproves Beinart’s caricature of an emerging right-wing theocracy. Even more important, the family’s decision to celebrate the bar mitzva in Jerusalem reflects the kind of “Big Tent Zionism” Beinart and other critics lament as passé.

Media reports of the Emanuel family itinerary suggest they have encountered a country that has much to offer American Jewish pilgrims, of all political stripes. A beach vacation in Eilat showcased Israel at its most mellow, its most charmingly Mediterranean – on the Red Sea. At this resort town, the Zionist dream of Israel as a normal democratic country welcoming all is exemplified by the easy mix of scantily-clad European tourists, native Israeli beach bums, and Sudanese refugees staffing the hotels, grateful to have found refuge in the Jewish State.

Rousing Friday night services at the egalitarian Orthodox congregation Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem’s German Colony demonstrated some of the rich varieties of Jewish expression and experimentation fermenting in Israel today. At Shira Hadasha – and more broadly in southern Jerusalem – the Zionist dream of Israel as the central force for Jewish renewal is on full display. Here, passionate, literate sophisticates reconcile modernity and tradition, spreading their ideas throughout the Jewish world via the delighted visitors who come and go.

Finally, celebrating a bar mitzva at the Western Wall, under Robinson’s Arch, allowed the visitors to soak in the Jewish people’s proud past, exciting present and inspiring future. At the Kotel – which includes the entire western wall of the Temple compound – the Zionist dream of Israel as Altneuland, Old New Land, comes alive, especially when young Jews from all over the world come of age amid the ancient stones linking us to our glorious past. In the area of the Davidson Center, all the different forms of Jewish ritual practice can be expressed, reflecting the “Big Tent” tolerance typifying Judaism and Zionism at their best. With stones seemingly frozen in mid-fall when the Romans destroyed Second Temple 1940 years ago, with some structures still partially standing, that site feels more authentic than the familiar, open but sterile plaza most people call the “Kotel.”

Here are the ingredients for the Big Tent Zionism some of us have championed for years. Big Tent Zionism transcends today’s political fights to focus on the eternal meaning of Jewish nationhood and the quest to build a just, democratic and normal society, living in peace. Big Tent Zionism uses the Zionist trinity of peoplehood, history and homeland, to build identity, seeking frameworks of meaning in the modern world and spurs to Jewish revival. Big Tent Zionism is not about Left or Right but about building a Jewish state in our historical homeland. Big Tent Zionism acknowledges that despite much that divides us certain core values unite us. Big Tent Zionism embraces a Hyphenate Zionism, wherein individuals express divergent opinions about religion, peace, borders, economics, while remaining loyal to the essential dream to build a free state in our own land. Just as before the state, we had Labor Zionism and Revisionist Zionism, Cultural Zionism and Religious Zionism, today we need Liberal Zionism and Conservative Zionism, Environmental Zionism and Entrepreneurial Zionism, along with updated versions of Cultural Zionism and Religious Zionism.

Unfortunately, a few right-wing hooligans taking the my-way-or-the-highway approach to Zionism threatened the Emanuel celebration. Despite modern media sensationalism which allows a rotten apple or two to define the whole bunch, these isolated loudmouths should be ignored. Ironically, they are politically self-destructive brutes. If they hope to keep Jerusalem united, what better symbol of the Jewish people’s eternal bond with Jerusalem could they desire than the Chief of Staff of Barack Obama’s White House celebrating this profound moment in an area many of his White House colleagues deem “occupied.” The smarter move would be to welcome Rahm Emanuel and his family into the Big Tent – or chuppah – despite passionate disagreements.

A Big Tent Zionism is more important than ever to rebuff the systematic attempt to delegitimize Israel and Zionism. Of all countries, only Israel remains on probation, with acceptance into the family of nations subject to good behavior. Consider the benighted government of Pakistan, representing an artificial country carved out of the crumbling British Raj. No matter how outrageously Pakistan behaves, sheltering terrorists, honoring nuclear scientists who share nuclear secrets with the North Koreans, the world accepts Pakistan’s right to exist. But even when Israel defends itself as other countries do, many reject Israel’s very existence.

Big Tent Zionism also shifts the focus away from the Palestinians. Yasser Arafat’s central conceit was to make every conversation about Israel be about the Palestinians. That obsession with the Palestinian conflict leads to one-dimensional caricatures of Israel, rather than complex appreciations of the Middle East’s only thriving democracy. That obsession also feeds the contemporary Palestinian campaign to rob Jews and other Israel supporters of the joy of Israel. If every conversation about Israel is about the conflict, Israel becomes the Jewish people’s central headache, not the Jewish Hope-land; the country of the furrowed brow and the concerned look, rather than one of the modern world’s great technological, political, ideological and economic marvels.

In the spirit of Abraham, Israelis should welcome the Emanuel family to the Jewish homeland with open arms. Their pilgrimage, one of thousands of bar mitzva trips arriving annually, augmented by the tens of thousands of birthright student pilgrimages, further augmented by millions of tourist trips, affirms Israel unique role in the world today, as a bridge between yesterday and today, as an extraordinary experiment rooting a modern, cosmopolitan democracy in the soil of one of the world’s oldest and proudest civilizations.

The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, as well as The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

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