How Zionism can get a passing grade on campus today

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-11-10

There is something wrong with this picture: This is a golden age for Jews on North American campuses. Never before have there been so many Jewish college presidents and Jewish professors, Jewish students and Jewish Studies majors. Yet, this is also a golden age for anti-Zionism on campus. Never before has Israel-bashing appeared to be such a popular intramural sport. An unholy alliance of anti-Israel activists and jaundiced professors demonizes Israel and damns Zionism on many – not all – North American campuses. These false but potent poisons injected into the intellectual bloodstream of so many leaders of tomorrow will haunt us for decades.

In preparing for another school year, we do not need another woe-is-me round of laments about the asinine activists, perverted professors and useful idiots who mask Palestinian rejectionism and Arab anti-Semitism behind a veneer of liberal pieties. The pro-Israel community on campus cannot just be anti the anti-Israel-crackpots on campus. We should start thinking about what we have been doing wrong – and what we need to do right – in this fight for Israel’s legitimacy, Jewish dignity and democratic decency. We must improve our defenses, strengthen our alliances, and, most important of all, advance a new vision, engaging Israel in a fresh, exciting way by singing a new song of Zion.

When I visit North American campuses, I frequently am amazed by how lonely and embattled pro-Israel students feel. Although the Jewish community is considered well-organized, even smothering and monolithic, many students standing for Israel feel isolated and exposed. Even more surprising, despite the systematic campaign against Israel on campus, both pro-Israel students and local Jewish communities frequently seem unprepared when targeted. We need more information-sharing, more “cookbooks” providing recipes for how to react, more exchanges via conferences and websites about best practices. At the same time, we cannot forget that the university has its own unique political culture and each campus has its own particular anthropology and sociology. Cookbooks are helpful; cookie-cutter approaches or what seems like outside interference are not.

Students would also feel less isolated if they solidified alliances. Pro-Israel forces should develop a language attacking Islamism on liberal grounds and joining with other campus groups offended by the illiberal, sexist, authoritarian, homophobic, anti-democratic, anti-universalistic impulses menacing the world today, which emanate from Israel’s enemies – not Israel. How come we don’t see stronger alliances between Iranian students and pro-Israel students against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s sexist, homophobic, repressive, nuclear-hungry Iran? How come we don’t see stronger alliances between Indian students, Christian students, pro-Obama students, college Democrats and college Republicans – all of whom should favor Israel as a democratic Western-oriented state in the Middle East over its dictatorial, Islamist enemies?

Internally, the Zionist world should clarify what unites us not just what divides us. We must foster a broad big-tent Zionism that carves out space for vigorous debate about the territories and the settlements, conversion and religion, Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, while emphasizing the core values that make Zionists Zionist. We should define the red lines we impose on ourselves which we shall not cross in debate, knowing that we operate in a toxic atmosphere, agreeing, for example, not to invoke the historically inaccurate, morally mischievous apartheid analogy, because we know it is used to delegitimize Israel and repudiate Zionism.

At the same time we should affirm the blue-and-white lines which we share, the way all of us, from left-wing secular Zionists to right-wing religious Zionists, believe in Zionism as the movement of Jewish national liberation, affirm Israel’s centrality in Jewish life, and appreciate how lucky we are to enjoy a democratic Jewish state in our traditional homeland.

In reaffirming our blue-and-white lines and ties, we will remember that the Zionist revolution is incomplete: Israel remains an unfinished product inviting more input while Zionism’s mission to solve the Jewish problem remains relevant today. We grant our enemies a propaganda victory they do not deserve when we make Israel the central headache of the Jewish world today, when we reduce Zionism only to the Israel Defense Force, when we forget Zionism’s redemptive power. Zionism, like Americanism, like all forms of constructive liberal nationalism, roots individual members in a collective enterprise greater than themselves. Starting with the grounding history provides, Zionism – like all liberal nationalisms – injects meaning into the present by dreaming about and building toward a better future.

It is fitting that Theodor Herzl’s slogan was Eem Tirzu Ein Zo Aggadah, “if you – collectively! – will it, is no dream.” While acknowledging the universalists’ critique that terrible crimes were committed in the name of nationalism, many of the greatest achievements of the modern world resulted from nationalism too. On one side of the Atlantic, consider the American achievement – the world’s most successful mass, middle-class civilization, mass-producing freedom and prosperity for hundreds of millions. On the other side of the Atlantic, consider the Israeli achievement – returning Jews to history’s stage, reviving the Hebrew language, saving millions after the Holocaust and from the Arab expulsion, forging an Altneuland, an old-new land, a modern Western democracy with a Jewish flavor in the Middle East.

In that spirit, we should jumpstart a Zionist conversation that is dynamic not defensive, empowering not pedestrian. We should be Jewishly-ambitious – not just setting career goals, financial benchmarks, and personal growth targets, but Jewish aspirations, individually and collectively. In asking “how can I grow Jewishly,” we can also ask “how can I help Israel thrive.” And in so doing, we will find the ultimate Zionist secret: by seeking redemption for Israel we will also help redeem ourselves. In a modern world that often feels aimless, alienating, and disempowering we will find purpose, focus, roots, as we sing a new, renewed, relevant song of Zion.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his latest book is The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

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  1. How Zionism can get a passing grade on campus today « Together With Israel

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