Toward a 21st Century Alternative Zionism

Mordecai Kaplan, A.D. Gordon, and the future of Israel-Diaspora relations.

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There are those in Israel who argue that Zionism, as an ongoing enterprise, is no longer relevant or meaningful. The dream of a Jewish state was realized decades ago. A vibrant Jewish culture based in the resurrected Hebrew language has taken root and flourished. Those Jews who want or need to immigrate to Israel can and do. Zionism was about working together against a verdict of history in order to save a people from oblivion. The decree has been averted; the defense can rest.

 

Negation of the Diaspora

To some degree, however, this Post-Zionist position emerged in consort with a classical Zionist ideology that devalues the Diaspora. Indeed, more than half a century after the founding of the State of Israel, the potential for a mature relationship between Israel and the Diaspora is still haunted by two components of traditional Zionist discourse: Shelilat HaGolah, the idea that the Diaspora should--and will be--negated; and Mamlakhtiyut, the idea that the state is the ultimate and exclusive expression of Jewish Peoplehood.

These ideological components have informed  an Israeli worldview that considers the future of the Jewish people to be limited to its expression through the State of Israel. According to this view, those in the Diaspora who choose not to live in Israel consign their future to a realm outside the Jewish People. In this formulation, the Diaspora is only meaningful as a source for immigration and support for the Jewish State. Remove any sense of Zionistic enterprise for the future, and any relationship at all to Jews outside of Israel completely drops out.

wooden star of davidThe idea of Shelilat HaGolah is alive and well and was controversially expressed by A.B. Yehoshua in the summer of 2006. Addressing American Jewry, Yehoshua declared: "You are not doing any Jewish decisions. All of the decisions that you are doing are done in the American framework...You are playing with Jewishness." For Yehoshua, Judaism in the Diaspora cannot be taken seriously.

As Professor Arnold Eisen has pointed out, in Israel, there was no great outcry criticizing Yehoshua's central assumptions, even if his tactics were deemed inappropriate. At least in print, so-called Post-Zionists were no more bothered by Yehoshua's condescension to the very fact of American Jewish life than was the Israeli establishment.

But Zionism need not be predicated on Shelilat HaGolah. 

Kaplan's Greater Zionism

In the mid-1950s, Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan warned that Zionism could not be limited to the apparatus of the State. "A greater Zionism" needed to be constructed that would help Israel impact the Diaspora, and most radically, allow the Diaspora to positively influence Israel. Indeed, Kaplan's New Zionism sees cultural and spiritual mutuality between Israeli and Diaspora Jews as adding value and Jewish depth to the experiences of both. Each has what to gain and give, from and to the other.

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Rabbi David Gedzelman

Rabbi David Gedzelman is the Executive Director of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and was the Founding Director of Makor in New York City.