American Jews Need a ‘Zionism of the Spirit’

It is somewhat difficult to assess a foreign country or community from afar, but it has certain advantages. In particular, distance tends to give one perspective, an objective view that does not miss the forest for the trees. One can see the whole picture, rather than a morass of infinite nuance that leads nowhere.

From my vantage point as an American-born Jew who has lived in Israel for 20 years, it looks to me as if the American Jewish community is at an impasse. With the rise of pernicious and violent antisemitism on both the right and the left, as well as in the Muslim community, American Jews appear embattled but terribly confused. In particular, their communal leadership seems completely flummoxed by this renewal of the old hatred, and utterly impotent in their anemic response.

At the same time, even more deep-seated problems are obvious: demographic collapse; alienation from Jewish identity; a level of assimilation that has become a serious threat to Jewish continuity; lack of a communal capacity for self-defense; and immersion in a middle-class pursuit of material comfort, undertaken in a fit of absence of mind, that has rendered the community mired in self-destructive decadence.

Two answers to these challenges appear to be on offer. One is Orthodoxy, which does indeed preserve and foster a strong Jewish identity. But while it is true that the Orthodox are the only sector of the Jewish community that is growing, they remain a small minority of American Jews, and their conservative religiosity is not a realistic option for the majority that remains liberal and secular.

The other is a slightly Judaized version of progressive politics, encapsulated in the slogan “tikkun olam.” This form of overt political messianism is popular, but there is no sign that it has reversed the systemic decline of the American Jewish community. In fact, it may have exacerbated it by denuding Judaism of any non-political sense of identity.

It appears, then, that neither of these answers is sufficient. If there is to be a renewal of the American Jewish community, something else is necessary.

It should not be a surprise that, as an Israeli, I believe that a strong connection to the Jewish state could be an important factor in such a renewal. But Israel has made its own mistakes. For the most part, it has offered two options to Diaspora Jews: either support us politically and financially, or make Aliyah. The first is hugely important but also banal, of little direct relevance to American Jewish life. The second is simply unrealistic. The vast majority of American Jews — barring some terrible and unwanted catastrophe — are very unlikely to move to Israel.

Instead, I believe a possible answer may be a kind of “Zionism of the spirit,” to be found in a largely lost tradition — that of Diaspora Zionism itself. Zionism, of course, began in the Diaspora in response to Diaspora concerns. Faced with a precipitous rise of antisemitism at the end of the 19th century, thinkers and activists like Theodor Herzl, Haim Nahman Bialik, Moses Hess, Ehad Ha’am, Nahman Syrkin, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Chaim Weizmann, and numerous others from both the left and the right formulated a fractious but comprehensive ideology and political movement. It was dedicated to the formation of the Jewish state, yes, but also a great deal more than that.

The early Zionists had as much to say to the Diaspora as they did to the redeemers of the Land of Israel who actually undertook the labor of Aliyah. They urged the Diaspora to adopt a veritable encyclopedia of principles and values, all based around the unthinkably radical idea that the Jews are a people with the same rights as any other people. These included pan-Jewish solidarity; political and social empowerment; active self-defense; the revival of the Hebrew language; secular knowledge of Jewish history, culture, and thought; the creation of new and uniquely Jewish works of art; and the integrity of the Jewish body itself. They believed that, as Jabotinsky put it, “We do not have to account to anybody, we are not to sit for anybody’s examination, and nobody is old enough to call on us to answer. We came before them and will leave after them. We are what we are, we are good for ourselves, we will not change and we do not want to.”

It seems to me that these are the principles and values that the American Jewish community now requires, perhaps more than ever. And they can be fostered through a “Zionism of the spirit,” in which the basic tenets of Zionism are given a Diaspora context. It would be something like what my friend, the writer David Hazony, has called an “Aliyah of the mind,” but less specifically Israel-centric. It would accept that Aliyah is desired and commendable, but that a strong Diaspora is essential. After all, the Jews are one people, and have the same rights wherever we are.

This moral imperative is the foundation of Zionism. It is as relevant to the Diaspora as it is to the Land of Israel — perhaps more so — and the American Jewish community should begin the process of reasserting it. The time to do so is now.

This article was originally published by the Algemeiner.

Photo: Akalati at English Wikipedia

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