Rabbi Donniel Hartman’s opinion piece on cultural Zionism and outreach to Jewish students was originally published in The Times of Israel on May 27, 2015
Social media, Federation fundraising videos, and even The New York Times have all placed a spotlight on the growing BDS efforts, anti-Israel resolutions, and verbal attacks that supporters of Israel on college campuses are subjected to on an ongoing basis.
The measureable increase in the quantity of these attacks, as well as in their intensity and viciousness, is indeed profoundly troubling and requires of the Jewish community a significant response. The Jewish world is right to be concerned and right in marshalling forces to protect our students and Israel. The frontline of anti-Israel sentiment, however, is more entrenched and pervasive than that which is exhibited in resolutions or demonstrations. Our challenge is not merely how to confront an enemy on the outside, but rather how to combat an ever-growing alienation toward Israel from within the Jewish student body.
This alienation is not the outgrowth of any single, particular event, such as the latest Gaza War or proclamation du jour by an Israeli politician. There is something more profound going on today in the lives of our students on campus, and unless we recognize it, our efforts will be only partially beneficial at best.
The challenge begins not on campus, but with the meaning and purpose of Zionism, and by extension, Israel itself. Since its inception, the Zionist movement has been divided between two different ideas and impulses. The first may be called Survival Zionism, which saw in the creation of a Jewish state the only viable solution to the existential dangers that Jews faced when living as a minority throughout the Diaspora. If Jews were to live — literally live — it would only be possible in the context of a sovereign state which would serve as the homeland of the Jewish people.
The second, Cultural Zionism, saw Israel as the place where the “Jewish problem,” not the problem of the Jews, would be solved. A Jewish state is necessary, because therein, and therein alone, could a renaissance and healing of Jewish ideas, religion, values, language, and culture be attained. When the Jews would be sovereign in their own land, Judaism could be healed from 2,000 years of malaise inflicted upon it by exile, and a new, moral, intellectual, spiritual, and cultural vitality would emerge. The public space of Israel was to serve as the catalyst, laboratory, and ultimately the reality for this renaissance.
The core foundation for Israel alienation, is that amongst our college students, both meanings of Zionism are not merely irrelevant, but incoherent. The essence of the North American Jewish enterprise in general, and Jewish life on campus in particular, is to provide an alternative solution to the “problem of the Jews.” Just like their parents and grandparents before them, who found a safe and viable home in the United States and Canada, and in fact in much of the Western world, campus life is predicated on the assumption, possibility, and indeed value of integration of Jews into the larger and general society.
For a Jewish student who leaves home to be absorbed within their campus experience, understanding Israel as a safe haven to protect Jews in danger is something which was at best relevant in the past, but which is completely irrelevant to their Jewish experience today.
The same is the case, and in many ways even more so, with Cultural Zionism. North American Jewish life is an attempt to create a Jewish renaissance within the context of living as a beloved minority. From the perspective of most young North American Jews, Israel’s past contributions to their Jewish identities is taken for granted and in fact, to ever-increasing degrees, Israel is the family member by whom one is embarrassed. The Jewishness of our youth is firmly embedded within a liberal ethos, in which Tikkun Olam, democracy, equality, and religious pluralism are its building blocks. While Israel’s Declaration of Independence fully embraces this ethos, the perception from North America is that over the last 10 years, Israel increasingly has been distancing itself from it.
If Israel is neither contributing to Jewish survival nor to Judaism’s moral vitality, for many it is merely unnecessary baggage. While many of our students do experience outsider attacks at pro-Israel events, many do not for they are not showing up.
When confronting an outside foe, the battle lines are clear. But when the challenge is alienation and loss of sense of purpose within our community, there is no simple or short-term fix. We need not merely to protect our students, we need to find new ways to engage with them and to have them engage with the ideas of Israel.
The days of survival Zionism as inspiring and relationship building for North American Jews are largely over, and will, God willing, remain so. The primary foundation for a relationship between young North American Jews and Israel in the future will be Cultural Zionism. Not, however, in its past, chauvinist sense of Israel’s superiority, but in the sense of Israel contributing together with North American Jewish life in the creation of a vital Judaism for the twenty-first century.
The future of viability of Cultural Zionism, however, requires two foundations. The first is a North American Jew who engages with the moral and spiritual challenges, difficulties, and opportunities entailed in sovereignty and feels empowered to build the Israel that can inspire their identification with it. The second is on the strengthening of an Israeli society which is engaged in precisely the same thing. When this occurs, we will still be exposed to enemies from without, but we will be able to rest assured that there is an army within which is willing to stand up with Israel.