It Is By Now No Secret Rejoinder

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Clearly, Dan Ross and I agree on the affirmatives: We love Israel, and we want to see it succeed as a “country of lofty ideals.” Even more than that, we probably share a sense of what those ideals look like, and I applaud him for his forward gaze. It appears, additionally, that we agree that our Western interlocutors, as defined by Ross, do not go out of their way to question Israel’s right to exist. But here’s where I think we disagree: the West’s acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state—not Netanyahu’s call for a diplomatic formulation as such but, more generally, the concept itself.

To be sure, the institutions of Israel’s statehood are firmly in place, and the West generally accepts that fact. And I am not an alarmist about the threats to Israel’s existence.

But I’m not at all sure that Europeans, just as an example, feel that the Jewish character of the state has any legitimacy, nor that that character is worthy of promotion or defense. Closer to home, the Presbyterian Church recently published the controversial “Zionism Unsettled,” a study-guide and DVD that questions both the current policies of Israel and its Jewish character.

More to the point, “Zionism Unsettled” conflates those policies and character as morally and inevitably twinned, and therein lies the difficulty. We progressive Zionists hold that Israel embodies a simultaneously (if imperfectly) Jewish and democratic character, and that destructive or short-sighted policies do not fundamentally belie or de-legitimate it. As such, we struggle against the policies, while we defend the state and its particular character.

I believe that, between these two positions, most people outside of the United States follow some variation on “Zionism Unsettled.” That is, they perceive the progressive Zionist position to be either paradoxical or quixotic and, in any case, impossible to uphold. They oppose the same policies that we progressive Zionists oppose. But insofar as they see those policies as a natural outgrowth of Zionism, they point to them as proof of the illegitimacy of Zionism itself.

And I believe that a subset of American Jewry is increasingly inclined to agree—passively, superficially or only incipiently—but to agree nonetheless.

So, when Ross specifically queries “to whom Dr. Holo believes we should be addressing ‘our Zionist assertions with sufficient confidence, information and conviction,’” I answer, as I had attempted to do in my initial posting: American Jewry. Secondarily, as per this posting, I might also address our Western interlocutors.

And here is my message: I am in unqualified agreement with Ross and his call to look to the future. And I want something additional, as well. I want progressive Zionists to re-articulate the Jewish claim to sovereignty, because it’s a compelling argument, and because American Jews may be losing sight of it. And yes, it is fundamentally an historical argument, but without it, Israel as such has no future to aim for.

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.

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Response to Dean Holo

To read Dan’s original post, click here

To read Dean Holo’s response, click here.

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In response to Dr. Holo’s, assertion that many in my generation do not identify with the foundational Zionist claim, I ask why should we be?  I’m not entirely certain to whom Dr. Holo believes we should be addressing “our Zionist assertions with sufficient confidence, information and conviction.”

The world’s most prominent anti-Zionists—those who reject the foundational Zionist claim—are not amongst the ranks of those with whom we find ourselves arguing about Israel on a regular basis; rather, they reside in Tehran and Cairo and Riyadh and Ramallah.  And the folks in those towns are not going to be convinced of the foundational Zionist claim any time soon.

Instead, the key aspects of the current political conversation in the West surrounding Israel are the peace process with the Palestinians, the continued occupation of the West Bank, and the appropriate response to the Iranian nuclear program.  While the Palestinians, Iranians, and the other nations of the Arab and Muslim world may continue to question Israel’s right to exist, they are not party to our Western debates.

In New York and Berkeley and Amsterdam and Paris, I don’t believe that most people question Israel’s right to exist as must as they question Israel’s many misguided political and military decisions.  And they are further skeptical as to Israel’s continued insistence that it is in constant existential peril.  Instead, they see an Israel with the strongest military in its region and a burgeoning—if inequitable—economy.

The fact of the matter is that the Jewish state that was dreamed of for centuries is a fact.  A fact on holy ground.  Most of us accept, embrace, and even cherish this reality.  Our challenge then is to ensure that the state founded on this holy ground continues to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, a country that lives up to the lofty ideals that the first Zionists imagined this place could embody.

Israel exists.  Perhaps I’m naïve, but I don’t see that changing any time soon.  Thus we must look towards its future, not back at its past.

Dan Ross is a first year student at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. 

It is by now no secret

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.

Towards Experimental Zionism

About ten years ago, I fell out of love with Israel. I don’t remember exactly how, when, or why this process started. When I was in elementary school I wasn’t sure who I’d side with in a war between the US and Israel and when I was in 8th grade, at the beginning of the Second Intifada, my social studies teacher once told my mom that she was afraid that I was going to enlist in the IDF. But by the time that I was a sophomore in high school, I had already started questioning Israel’s actions and eventually I came to a situation in which merely expressing some doubt as to the wisdom of Israeli policy led a good friend of mine to stop speaking to me for three days.
Since then, Israel has been a topic I’d rather not discuss. I’ve been cowardly: I’ve been fearful of both the punishing silence of lost friends and the vicious volume of loud strangers. I retreated into a silent, irritated indifference. Poisonous politics spoiled any possibility that I might have had of appreciating this place for its own sake.
Until now. When I began rabbinical school at the Hebrew Union College, knowing that I would have to spend my first year in this country, living on this land, speaking its language, meeting its people, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to break down the concrete barriers in my mind and find a way rebuild my relationship with Israel out of Jerusalem stone. But fortunately, this has changed thanks to HUC’s exceptionally thoughtful approach to Israel studies—dedicating a weekly daylong seminar to soaking in the rich milk and golden honey of voices that constitute this society—and to a two-day colloquium on Israel engagement that I participated in with my fellow HUC students and students from other liberal seminaries. It has been a gradual process, punctuated by periods of powerful repulsion and profound appreciation. However, especially through my conversations with other Americans about their own ways of connecting with Israel, I believe that I have discovered the intellectual architecture with which I can reconstruct my collapsed connection with this place.
I call it experimental Zionism. Experimental Zionism understands Israel to be the grandest experiment in the history of the Jewish people, a messy exploration of what it looks like to create a society of Jews, by Jews, and for Jews. And the experimental Zionist’s first reaction to this society is fascination: it is something to study, to examine, to behold. But fascination alone—like unconditional, unquestioning love—is not enough to be Zionism. Zionism requires something more: vision.
Thus, experimental Zionists are not as concerned with Israel’s right to be as they are with what Israel could be. We quickly learn through our observations that this place is as imperfect as we are imperfect, but also that it is as perfectible as we are perfectible. Thus we concern ourselves with a more fundamental question: what do we want this Jewish society to look like, to sound like, to smell like, to taste like, to feel like, to act like? And just as important, how can we test these hypotheses in this world and see the resultant Jewish society that they create?
Admittedly, after all this time, I find myself surprised to be able to once again call myself a Zionist. But I can no longer say that I am indifferent to the state of affairs in this country; instead, though I still expect to spend my life in the diaspora, I also plan to support the ongoing, challenging, but essential evolution of Israel towards my hopes, a Jewish state that can truly be a light unto the nations. Among my hopes is that all of us who have found ourselves in a state of silent, irritated indifference when it comes to Israel can find our way to experimental Zionism: instead of talking about Israel’s impossible politics, we can imagine its possible wonders. We can start with the dream, and then will it to be.

Dan Ross is a first year student at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.