The Agonies of Liberal Zionism

The Agonies of Liberal Zionism

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Post-Blog

The modern face of Israel is becoming less attractive to young Jews in the diaspora
It’s an article you wouldn’t see in the Jewish Chronicle because,
under Stephen Pollard, the paper has become a Zionist propaganda sheet.  The article below from Ha’aretz, the only
liberal daily newspaper in Israel, shows that despite all the huffing and
puffing from Zionist zealots, Zionism as an idea is not able to hold the
majority of Jewish children and teenagers in Britain?  In a relatively secular and open society, the
racism and bellicose nationalism of Israel is unappealing.  Combined with the fact that Israel portrays
itself as permanently at war (who with?) thus enabling it to have a permanent
state of emergency which conveniently allows imprisonment without trial (administrative
detention), torture, house demolitions, pervasive censorship and a society where
one’s personal  status (marriage, birth,
death) are governed by ultra-Orthodox Jews who insist on niceties like separate
seating for mean and women on buses in Jerusalem.
The article below is fascinating despite the undoubted bias
of Sara Hirschorn who laments that the Jewish teens that she interviewed didn’t
grasp the importance (as well as the
responsibility) of Jewish power, nor that Zionism was intended as a movement of
national liberation.‘
 Hirschorn
observes interestingly that ‘To them,
Jewish sovereignty and power is no longer emotive or defensible in the age of
multiculturalism, where going to “Israel/Palestine” is likely to make them
unpopular with their peers.’

 Equally fascinating
is the fact that Ms Hirschorn discovered that ‘as the discussion developed, it became clear that not a single one
would self-identify as a Zionist.’ 
One
can  only imagine Hirschorn’s reaction to
the fact that ‘when I asked them
pointedly if it would alter their Jewish identity if the State of Israel was
wiped off the map tomorrow, I was met with shrugged shoulders and then more
adamant statements that Israel was not relevant to their understanding or
expression of Judaism’. 

The agonies and hypocrisy of the liberal Zionist are on full
display as Hirschorn says that ‘We have
to find new ways to verbalize what Israel means to the next generation, to
repair our inability to have an open, honest, and real conversation about the
ideas and value of the State of Israel that resonates with teenagers who have
grown up in a multicultural world without borders’. 
Hirschorn never tells us, of course, what
these values are other than that they are not multi-cultural.  When she speaks about the  ‘ need
to reinterpret Zionism as national liberation, while teaching what our
tradition offers about moral and political responsibility‘  
we see why those who claim there are
different strands in Zionism are really talking about different wings of the
same aircraft.
‘Shul’ incidentally means synagogue.
Diaspora Jewish
teens’ radical dissociation from Israel is not about the settlements or the
occupation. They’re ashamed to be associated with Zionism.
Sara Hirschhorn
Oct 31, 2016 8:38 PM 
I spent part of
the afternoon of Yom Kippur with a group of teenagers in my community here in
Oxford, leading a session about Zionism. My mandate was to talk about what
Israel means to 14 to 18 years olds — and it as it turns out, it really doesn’t
mean much at all. My conclusion? “Ashamnu.” We must atone, for we have failed
an entire generation. 
A group of “too
cool for shul” teenagers shuffled into a seminar room — the majority children
of the stalwarts of this proudly Zionist community which ranges from Reform to
Orthodox, although most would describe themselves as traditional.  Most attend excellent state (public) schools
in Oxford (or elite private academies in London) as, unlike in London, there
are no Jewish faith schools in Oxford, although they are active in the
interdenominational “cheder” and other extra-curricular Jewish youth
activities. 
Few spoke
Hebrew well, although they’re conversant in the rituals, festivals, and
traditions of Judaism. All had visited Israel at least once (over 80% of
British teens have done so) and many had relatives there. 
All in all, it
would be fair to characterize them as a Jewishly engaged, and well-educated in
both secular and religious knowledge, not least compared to their American
Jewish peers — and with far more tangible in-country exposure to Israel as
well.  
Zionism as
ancient history
 
We first spoke
of Israel as an idea — the prayers uttered on holy days, the longings of
generations of a people in exile, as the site of the future ingathering of the
Diaspora.  They were very active
participants, vying to show off their knowledge of Jewish liturgy and history.
Yet, when talk to turned to the State of Israel today, this group of British
high-schoolers quickly schooled me that the hope of 2000 years is ancient
history. 
This elegant
British born Australian movie star never plays ‘Funny Games’ on the red carpet.
Instead, she’s done ‘The … 
It was easy to
understand why the “Israel as refuge” argument was no longer compelling to
teenagers in a quaint college town —and they turned the argument on its head,
speaking of Israel as the locus of terrorism and constant conflict reported on
the news, claiming to feel far safer in tranquil Oxford than in a war-zone
thousands of miles away. Despite acknowledging the latest anti-Semitism
scandals in Britain, most were quick to quip that “it isn’t France,” and they
don’t feel physically threatened in the UK. To them, a State of Israel was no
longer necessary or able to save the Jews from strife. (Fair enough, they
wouldn’t be the first of their generations to make this point.) 
Yet as the
discussion developed, it became clear that not a single one would self-identify
as a Zionist. A ‘State of the Jews’ was “so old school” and they were
consciously willing to dismiss all the reasons for Jewish self-determination
that Zionists have suggested for 100 years as well. 
The social cost
of supporting a Jewish state 
To them, Jewish
sovereignty and power is no longer emotive or defensible in the age of
multiculturalism, where going to “Israel/Palestine” is likely to make them
unpopular with their peers (the experiences they relayed sounded troublingly
like bullying, to my mind, although the group brushed these concerns aside.) 
Despite the
recent Brexit vote, these English teenagers were convinced that the national
state system was going out of business anyway — plus, it just wasn’t PC to have
your own sovereign entity anymore, especially if motivated by the symbols and
values of Jewish particularism, which all just seemed too parochial to their
sophisticated pluralistic palates. “Who wants to be like Saudi Arabia?” they
asked me, although when I noted the number of (at least nominally) Muslim and
Christian states (including the one in which they live and don’t feel troubled
by) compared to the one State of the Jews, my comments were met with stony
silence. 
Yet, despite
what Peter Beinart and others have contended for years, the group did not cite
the occupation or the settlements as responsible for their distancing — for
them, it went far deeper, to the very premise of a self-defining State of the
Jews, back to 1948. 
They didn’t
sense the urgency of a Jewish haven after the Holocaust nor the singularity of
self-determination after thousands of years. 
They didn’t grasp the importance (as well as the responsibility) of
Jewish power, nor that Zionism was intended as a movement of national
liberation.  And they certainly didn’t
see the ingathering of the Jewish people in an ancestral homeland as a historic
event.   Zion was only a much-too-promised
land, and to them, the State of the Jews was synonymous only with xenophobia,
colonialism, displacement, chauvinism, fundamentalism, and illiberalism. 
However, what
emerged most emphatically was the lack of any emotional ties — despite recent
visits over the summer and relatives abroad. 
As one precocious young woman informed me, “Israel is just another
foreign country that I can fly to on EasyJet — it’s a nice place to visit, kind
of like Canada, but I don’t feel anything there.” 
Moreover, when
I asked them pointedly if it would alter their Jewish identity if the State of
Israel was wiped off the map tomorrow, I was met with shrugged shoulders and
then more adamant statements that Israel was not relevant to their
understanding or expression of Judaism. While I was impressed that they do not
idolize Israel (or the Holocaust) and that aloof teenagers would willingly
admit to finding rich meaning in Jewish textual study, prayer, celebrating the
holidays, performing rituals, and taking part in Tikkun Olam  – all acts and values at the core of our
tradition –  it was certainly food for
thought during the fast that Israel no longer has any place at all in these
teenagers’ minds or hearts. 
It’s not the
settlements, or the occupation. It’s the idea itself 
The day of
reckoning is here, Liberal Zionists: we have been judged and we have been found
wanting by the next generation. While we may pray that the policies of the
Israeli government will change, that the Palestinians will put violence aside,
that a peace accord is on the horizon, it will not change whether the
contemporary generation cares about Israel. 
We have to find
new ways to verbalize what Israel means to the next generation, to repair our
inability to have an open, honest, and real conversation about the ideas and
value of the State of Israel that resonates with teenagers who have grown up in
a multicultural world without borders, who take the safety of the Jews in the
Diaspora as an article of faith, who have seen only the cycle of violence in Israel/Palestine,
and who don’t feel that there is anything special or desirable about the
world’s one State for the Jews. 
The teenagers I
spoke to can’t be blamed for expressing the post-modernist relativism they’ve
grown up within, nor for lacking a broader historical perspective than the
moment they’re in. But we can provide that, and relate to where they are now:
That the twentieth century saw deadly conflicts between liberalism and
nationalism, religion and state, the individual and the collective.  That the fortunes of the nation-state and
supranational institutions have also waxed and waned over the past fifty-odd
years.  That the policies of both the
Israeli government and the Palestinian authority are often harmful, that both
sides resort to illegitimate violence, and that a peace treaty is not on the
horizon. 
A new narrative
about Israel 
We can’t deny
or delegitimize these trends — they have to be part and parcel of demonstrating
why Israel can and should exist today. 
We must explain why a State of the Jews is not incompatible with the age
of multiculturalism — that Israel is and can be a multi-ethnic,
multi-religious, multi-lingual democracy for all its citizens and aspire to
offering a model for other states.  We
have to talk more creatively about how Palestinians and Israelis can co-exist,
by ending the occupation and seeking new political configurations — including
confederation. 
We need to
reinterpret Zionism as national liberation, while teaching what our tradition
offers about moral and political responsibility.  We can’t evangelize with talking points or
myths and facts. We need to engage the next generation in constructing a new,
nuanced narrative. 
Moreover, we
can’t only make negative or defensive argument — we need to offer ideas that are
positive, claims that are palatable, and examples that are plausible to the
savvy cosmopolitans in high schools and universities and can travel and
resonate on social media.  Above all, we
can’t only catalogue the (many) shortcomings — we must constantly and
convincingly express what still makes us proud — in spite of it all — in the
State of Israel today.  If we can’t do
that in a selfie, a tweet, a Facebook post, an op-ed or a face-to-face
discussion, we must take a hard look at how we have not only failed ourselves,
but our future. 

Dr. Sara Yael
Hirschhorn is University Research Lecturer and Sidney Brichto Fellow in Israel
Studies at the University of Oxford. She is the author of the forthcoming City
on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement Since 1967
(Harvard University Press). Follow her on Twitter: @SaraHirschhorn1. 

 

 

 

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