Harvard WhoDunit: How to foster a civil, substantive, satisfying Zionist conversation

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-1-11

The standard narrative about Zionism on campus today is one of crisis and conflagration, of academic propagandizing and intellectual hooliganism, of Jewish students harassed and Israel defamed. Unfortunately these problems occur too frequently on too many campuses. We must be intolerant of the intolerant, confronting professors and students who violate academic ideals by committing academic malpractice in the classroom, bullying at student events, or distorting the truth in books and articles. But we should not overreact or exaggerate. Every day on many campuses, especially in North America, a civil, substantive, satisfying discussion about Israel and Zionism takes place.

On Monday, October 31, Harvard Hillel invited me to speak about “Building Identity Zionism: Envisioning a Positive, Liberal, Big-Tent Identity Zionism for the Twenty-first Century.” Frankly, I expected a small turnout – and was ready for a seminar-style exchange among a dozen or so thoughtful students. I also wondered whether there would be “fireworks.” Nevertheless, I prepared for the talk I wanted to give – emphasizing modern Zionism’s ideological meaning to Jews today – but thought about how to keep the discussion focused if hostile anti-Zionist forces tried hijacking it.

I had two surprises. First, the lecture hall was quite full – I didn’t count because I was speaking but it could have been as many as fifty people, undergraduates and graduate students, including a senior Israeli diplomat touring North America. I considered that a great turnout for an event billed as ideological not confrontational – conflict, or the anticipation thereof, draws many more in. The second surprise was unpleasant. As I began, a friend whispered: “Two Palestinians students just entered with signs they plan to wave at some point to disrupt your talk.”

I looked into the crowd and saw students, with a smattering of “grown ups.” It was not obvious who the hostiles were – even as I maintained eye contact with the audience during the talk. But I followed my plan. I lectured with a PowerPoint presentation ( available here) for half the time, reserving a solid 45 minutes for questions and comments.

My message was simple. I argued that not every conversation about Israel should be about “The Conflict,” just as every conversation about the United States cannot be about racial strife and every conversation about Canada cannot be about linguistic tension. And I insisted that talking about the meaning of Zionism for us today, in Israel and the Diaspora, asking how this exciting project called Israel answers our deepest needs, addresses our existential concerns, fulfills our souls, expresses our values, is not a sidestep. I am not dodging the real conversation – this is it, I said.

In fact, we all should recognize that wherever we stand on the political spectrum, we are children of the age of delegitimization. We have so internalized the “Israel as problem” mode of discourse that we are too quick to run to our battle stations rather than listen to our muses. Singling out of only one country, Israel, for attack, only questioning its legitimacy, its right to exist, robs us of the opportunity to appreciate how lucky we are to have a Jewish state, to dream about how to perfect it, and to tolerate a range of opinions about what it should be. We need a big tent that accepts all those who believe in a Jewish state as Zionists, encouraging the kind of free exchange universities and all democratic movements should relish. And we need a hyphenate Zionism, a passionate Zionism that fuses strong ideological visions with equally strong commitments to a Jewish state, providing updated versions of the Labor-Zionism, Revisionist-Zionism, Religious-Zionism, Cutural-Zionism that animated the Zionist movement a century ago.

Underlying all this is an understanding that as Jews we belong to a people as well as sharing a common religion, and that as a people we can find our fullest ideological expression with sovereignty in our national homeland. To be is to belong, I insisted, justifying national identity in general. I am not arrogant to say that Zionism is the only way. But it is one way to get traction in this world and make our tribalism transcendent. I also talked about the obstacles facing this ideological conversation – including the pulls of the “I” in the age of the iPod and iPad when Zionism is about “us.” I insisted that they have to be the builders, thinkers, and visionaries to make Zionism relevant, inspiring, effective.

The questions and comments were superb, showing that the audience embraced the message. Students said they rejected youth group graduates’ “canned,” Israel-right-or-wrong Zionism and anti-Zionists’ “nihilistic” rejectionism. They wondered how to avoid feeling neutered as American Zionists, understanding they are not citizens of Israel yet want to contribute. They worried that some segments of Israeli society envision a very different Israel than one they would find acceptable. They asked about triggering a parallel Zionist conversation among young Israelis and about how to confront campus anti-Zionism when it does appear. And they asked about me and my struggles, what it was like working within the university while adopting these controversial positions.

I walked away extremely impressed with these thoughtful, passionate, committed young idealists, who assured me that the typical Israel conversation at Harvard was about Israel and Zionism not about the conflict or the Palestinians. And, by the way, at some point the Palestinians left the room, quietly, respectfully. They had the intellectual integrity to realize that their prepared disruption did not fit the talk and would have made them look foolish – a stance not all their comrades always adopt.

So here is the answer to the Harvard Whodunit – we had a serious conversation about the meaning of Zionism, thanks to smart, idealistic students – and the enduring power of the Zionist dream.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. 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.” giltroy@gmail.com

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