Our Hebrew Union College student and contributor to this series, Dan Ross, explains that his version of Zionism, which he calls experimental Zionism, is “not as concerned with Israel’s right to be as they are with what Israel could be.” Dan’s is a visionary, challenging and compelling kind of Zionism. However, in pointing out that he is not concerned with the foundational Zionist claim, he betrays the fact that many of his generation are concerned with it.
In fact, I sense that we face a crisis of Zionist consciousness. Like a good cry, everyone can use a good crisis—a challenging moment of truth that, if wisely channeled, might focus the mind. But the opportunity of crisis requires clarity of vision. In the context of Zionism, unfortunately, genuine but contingent moral quandaries, such as those of occupation, have blurred, rather than helped us focus on, the real source of malaise. That is, American Jews increasingly view Zionism through the prism of its challenges, when we need to do the opposite. American Jews need to grasp Israel’s thorny policy questions through the lens of the Zionist premise.
As long as American Jewry cannot articulate the Zionist claim with self-assurance and evidence, they compromise their ability to speak meaningfully to Israel’s difficulties and the promise of overcoming them. I hasten to stress that I do not espouse a jingoistic Zionism. Rather, in more nuanced fashion, I mean that we should bear our Zionist assertions with sufficient confidence, information and conviction, so as to acknowledge competing claims without being threatened by them.
First, the time has come to reverse Abba Eban’s famous position that “nobody does Israel any service by proclaiming its ‘right to exist.’” Understandably, Eban would prefer to take that right for granted and refuse to re-litigate it every generation. However, as long as our crisis of Zionist consciousness remains internal to American Jewry, we have no choice but to re-articulate and, implicitly, re-argue, the core Zionist position for our own benefit.
Second, our faith in the historical, religious and civilizational imperative of Zionism must inspire the willingness to acknowledge its costs. Zionism does not play itself out in a vacuum; it both encounters and creates significant counterclaims, including many coherent ones. We must find the courage of our convictions, not merely in the articulation of their legitimacy but also in our capacity to accept the fact that they compete directly with other legitimate convictions. That recognition feels risky, but ignoring it only exacerbates our internal crisis, because American Jews widely recognize Palestinian claims, in some measure, already.
In his recent review of Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land in the Jewish Journal, UCLA Professor David Meyers argues that “issuing an apology for the physical dispossession of Arabs in 1948 is not equivalent to accepting the Palestinian right to return.” I am not here concerned with the specific matter of state apologies, but I embrace the spirit behind Prof. Meyers’ point. We must promote a clear-eyed Zionism, confident that concessions do not mean capitulation—not only because Israel happens to be in a strong military position but also because of Israel’s compelling reason for being.
Dr. Holo is the Dean of the Los Angeles Campus and Associate Professor of Jewish History at HUC-JIR/LA. He served as Director of the Louchheim School of Judaic Studies from 2006-2010. Dr. Holo’s publications focus on Medieval Jews of the Mediterranean, particularly in the Christian realm. His book, Byzantine Jewry in the Mediterranean Economy, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2009.