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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.