By Alick Isaacs
Numerous sociological studies tell us over and again that American Jews are feeling progressively estranged from Israel. Israel is a hard sell, a presumed object of association that is just too ethically and morally challenging to keep in the market. Israel is a disturbing affiliation for many Jews in America who choose to distance themselves from it. A similarly copious number of research projects and educational innovations have invested in and developed strategies for combating this regrettable state of affairs. Some invest in sending young Jews on trips that offer them an allegiance with Israel as their “birthright.” Others seek to develop curricula and programming for schools, camps and adult educational experiences, all of which are designed to overcome the alienation between the Jews of America and the State of Israel. Some toil in the hope of building a stronger alliance of “peoplehood," mutual concern and support, while others look to cultivate a more robust American Jewish community. But, despite all this varied effort and determination of purpose, the question still surfaces time and again, “Why Israel?”
Why is that? Why does that happen? How come the multiple answers that scholars and foundations and federations and curriculum writers have given to this question don’t seem to make it go away? What is it that is lacking in the contemporary framing of Israel’s meaning for American Jews? What is it that is missing in the notion of the Israel/Diaspora as a seamless Jewish Peoplehood or in the idea of Israel as a living Jewish resource for exploring the depths and breadths of Jewish identity? What is it about Israel’s circumstances that make it so difficult today to generate empathy for her needs as a foundering young democracy surrounded on all sides by hostile Arab theocracies and autocracies? Why is the idea that Israel is the homeland that awaits us in times of trouble suddenly inadequate? Why is the image of Israel as a source of a new vibrant Jewish culture or as the object of our critical engagement not enough to make its place in American Jewish life self-evident? What is it that is missing? Why is it that all of these strategies and more have not managed to clear up the nagging question: Why Israel?
Unfortunately, the answer to this involves invoking an unpopular word – “ideology.” Ideology is unpopular, because it is perceived negatively and with some justification. Indeed, ideology can be a blinker to our sober judgment and a source of conviction that can blind our capacity to engage in dispassionate criticism. Now perhaps it seems clearer what the problem with Israel is. Israel is a country that is connected with an ideology – Zionism. Israel is the realization of Zionism’s dreams. As long as we are uncomfortable with ideology, we (including many Israelis) will be uncomfortable with Israel. I agree – but not entirely.
You see it depends what tense you use to describe an ideology’s purpose or direction…future or past? Ideology is objectionable when an establishment uses it in the past tense to justify – rather than to change – its ways. But, ideology can be very important, constructive, and plausible when it broadens our view of the future. If we could only reboot Zionism and use it to point towards a vision for the future, we would be using ideology appropriately. Zionism as it is points to the past and to accomplishments that have already been signed and sealed in history. What a rebooted Zionist ideology must do is reinvigorate the appeal of Israel by attaching to it our deepest hopes for the future of the Jewish people. It sounds drastic, I know, but what I am saying is that it will take the reinvention and revamping of Zionism itself to make the “Why Israel” question go away. How does one even begin?
Let’s go back to the place where we started…the extreme distance and alienation from Israel that many American Jews experience today. My question is simple: would they feel the same way if Israel were a symbol of peace the world over? If the idea of Israel were connected to a Jewish vision of world peace, if the very term “Israel” sparked associations with that peace and became a virtual euphemism for the Jewish effort to reconcile itself with the nations of the world after thousands of years of exilic disempowerment…. if this was what Israel were to stand for, would it be as alienating? I think not. But even if I am wrong about that, there would still be an ideological vision for Israel – an idea of peace in the future – that could inspire a whole movement full of internal variety, debate, deliberation and most importantly direction, in Jewish education.
Now you may say…and with some justification, “Israel? A euphemism for peace? That’s like turning England into a euphemism for good food! It’s just too far off the mark to be believable. As things are, Israel seems much more tied up in its efforts to come out on top than it is in dropping its guard.” Indeed the political obstacles that must be overcome for this “pie in the sky” vision of peace to become a reality seem insurmountable. But this is precisely where ideology comes in. Ideology serves its best purpose when it is used to inspire a vision for the future that gives education its substance and motivates actions that at present seem beyond our imaginations. In other words, the real Israel of today need be no more peaceful than the real land of Israel was fertile, habitable, populated with Jews, and developed 100 years ago for peace in Israel to work as an effective ideological motivator in American Jewish life. Similarly, the ideology of peace that I am making a case for need be no more connected to the current political debate about how to resolve the Middle East conflict than Zionism itself was contingent upon Herzl’s negotiation strategies with the Turkish Sultan.
Ultimately, this is the case for peace: Peace is the new Zionism. Peace is the value and the vision that can reinvigorate our hopes for Israel’s future, give direction to our programming at camps, schools and seminars and give substance to the Diaspora/Israel relationship. Our curriculum must uncover the peaceful ambitions of Zionist thinkers such as Ahad Ha’am, Herzl, Krochmal, Kook, Buber, and Magnes and it must tease out the centrality of peace to our Jewishness, to our history, to our values and to our understandings of our most sacred texts.
Ultimately the “Why Israel” question is a good one and it is in need of a good ideological answer. No one ever asked it in the first years of the State while Zionism – in its classical forms – remained current and compelling. In this age of conflict, an age in which the classical Zionist dream has already come true, the case for peace is that peace is Zionist ideology rebooted.
Why Israel? Because Israel is the land and State where Judaism’s potential to be a force for peace in the world is as unprecedented as it is unfulfilled.