“Ghost Zionism” Haunts the World

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-16-10

The 36th World Zionist Congress has been meeting in Jerusalem this week, but few people noticed. The Congress which once shaped Jewish history is a ghost of its former self. Zionism is in crisis, attacked internally and externally, by frustrated Jews, honest critics, and anti-Semites. The Zionist Congress itself – along with most of its constituent organizations – has become so irrelevant critics have not even bothered targeting it. Nor has the Zionist Congress responded to critics effectively.

Post-Zionism has infected many Israeli elites, assailing the State’s foundations and Jewish nationalism’s legitimacy. But more dangerous than post-Zionism is Ghost Zionism. Ghost Zionism is a Zionism that has been distorted by critics who treat the Jewish national liberation movement as some ghoulish expression of the West’s worst characteristics not its highest ideals. They caricature Zionism as racist, imperialist, colonialist, not a legitimate movement of liberal democratic nationalism and Jewish national rights.

At the same time, Ghost Zionism is possessed by pro-Israelism. The obsession with Israel advocacy narrows the Zionist agenda, concentrating on self-defense not self-fulfillment. Most consider AIPAC, the ADL, and the AJC – American Jewish Committee – America’s main Zionist organizations, but they are advocacy organizations. Zionism always had more ambitious, more humanistic, aims to elevate the Jewish soul not just protect Jewish bodies, and by redeeming the Jewish people, redeem the world.

In a recent attack in Tablet suggesting “maybe American Liberal Zionism simply isn’t worth saving,” Daniel Luban mocked the Jewish community’s “constant insistence on changing the subject from the concrete political issues at stake to issues of Jewish identity and Jewish self-understanding. It is the worst kind of narcissism to insist on talking endlessly about our feelings rather than the political realities that stare us in the face.”

Actually, discussions concerning Israel should pivot more on “Jewish identity and Jewish self-understanding.” Not every Zionist interchange should be about Palestinians. Luban’s failure to understand why that is essential not narcissistic reflects the stunning educational failure of Diaspora Jewry, Israel, and the Zionist movement.

Identity Zionism must coexist with Crisis Zionism. Zionism is an affirmative response to assimilation and alienation not just a defensive response to anti-Semitism. Our Zionist dreams should tap into the power of the “us” in the age of the “I,” harness and hone idealism in an age of materialism, deploying Jewish values, Jewish history, Jewish community, and the Jewish homeland in the fight for meaning in a world that often makes people feel aimless and adrift. The Zionist movement should provide an educational framework, an ideological structure, and a vehicle for action. This vision of “Big Tent Zionism” stretching left to right is more sweeping than the latest “Hasbara” campaign.

The Zionist movement – spearheaded by the Zionist Congress – should fill this gap in the Israel conversation, showing that engaging Israel is about who we are and who we want to be not simply what political stand we take regarding the Palestinians. Instead, the Zionism movement today is usually spectral, invisible. Today’s greatest Israel-oriented identity-building initiative, Birthright Israel, is so removed from the World Zionist Congress and its concerns, Birthright avoids the word Zionism. And while 250,000 young Jews have returned from Israel trips in the last decade, the World Zionist Congress has done nothing significant to further their Jewish journeys, to follow up on Birthright’s breakthrough.

The World Zionist Congress should be a forum for embracing creative ideas to renew Judaism through renewing Zionism. Delegates should learn about the concerns of young people – and address them. Delegates should consider Professor Jonathan Sarna’s suggestion that some credible Jewish organization should issue “Klal Yisrael Impact Statements,” warning when politicians, organizations, political parties, individuals, in Israel and abroad, harm the unity of the Jewish people. In that spirit, they should repudiate religious coercion in Israel, emphasizing freedom as a central Zionist ideal. Delegates should tackle what Rabbi Daniel Gordis calls the “40-60” challenge – to reverse the percentage of American Jews who have NOT visited Israel from 60 percent to 40 percent. Delegates should discuss initiatives to determine just what “red lines” supporters of Israel should voluntarily agree not to cross in political debate, and just what blue and white lines we should respect, what common ideas unite us. Delegates should demand that the Israeli education system improve overall and start teaching about Diaspora and Zionist values to enhance Jewish peoplehood. Building on one recent World Zionist Organization success, delegates should learn from the celebrations of Theodor Herzl and brainstorm about devoting 2011 to celebrating David Ben Gurion’s 125th birthday, 2012 to Yitzhak Rabin’s 90th birthday, and 2013 to Menachem Begin’s 100th and Chaim Weizmann’s 140th.

Instead, this year, Shas, having recently joined the World Zionist Organization, is trying to change the iconic Jerusalem Program. That Johnny-come-lately politicos are quibbling over wording while neglecting so many other pressing issues borders on the comic. That the proposed changes will feed stereotypes of Israel and Zionism as conservative, theocratic, and alienating Diaspora youth, makes the episode tragic. This is a Talmudists’ twist on rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs: arguing what the exact wording of the organization’s death certificate should be – if anyone bothers issuing it, or noticing the movement’s demise.

In 2010, we cannot afford a convention of conventional Zionists and bureaucrats. We need a World Zionist Congress worthy of its tradition. We need a modern Theodor Herzl to move us from hysteria to hope, from defending to dreaming, from reacting to crises to creating opportunities. We need a modern Ahad Ha’am to tap into the Jewish homeland’s secular and religious spiritual powers, reminding us of its centrality in our lives and nationalism’s constructive power. We need a modern Max Nordau, whose literary fame in the non-Jewish world elevated the Zionist movement, and who proclaimed: “We Zionists wear our Judaism as a badge of honor.” We need a renewed commitment from the Jewish masses, to embrace a program of deep commitment, inspirational leadership, and bold change.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. He can be reached at gtroy@videotron.ca

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  1. J Street, Elections and the WZO | eJewish Philanthropy: The Jewish Philanthropy Blog

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