Toward a 21st Century Alternative Zionism

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

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"Zionism, as a movement to redeem the Jewish People and regenerate its spirit through the reconstitution of Jewish Peoplehood and the reclamation of Eretz Yisrael, has to meet the following requirements: (a) it has to foster among the Jews both of Israel and the Diaspora a sense of interdependence and process of interaction; and, (b) it has to give the individual Jew the feeling that participating in that interdependence and interaction makes him more of a person." [ A New Zionism, Mordecai Kaplan, 1955]

In A New Zionism, Kaplan warned that until a profound and deep cultural mutuality between Israelis and Diaspora Jews was established, Zionism had much to do.

Mordecai Kaplan's sense of a new or greater Zionism was influenced, in part, by the thought of A.D. Gordon, the charismatic teacher who arrived in the Land of Israel in 1904 at the age of 48. Gordon taught a generation of pioneers and builders a new vocabulary that viewed the soil of the Land of Israel as the natural environment that birthed the Jewish People, the Torah of Israel, and the Hebrew language.

The Jewish People, returning to its land, represented a return to a new rootedness in nature by which the true Torah of Israel would gain a new expression. Gordon talked about a revolution of the spirit by which Jews, creating an organic community together, would model a new creative human possibility for all the peoples of the earth.

Yet, despite Gordon's intense connection to the physical land of Israel, he never negated the possibility of organic Jewish life in the Diaspora. In 1921, Gordon wrote a stirring essay in the American Zionist weekly Ha-Ivri that mapped out an inspiring vision for Israel-Diaspora relations.

In "The Work of Revival in the Lands of the Diaspora," Gordon made it clear that it was neither realistic nor preferable to assume that all of the Jewish People would immigrate to the Land of Israel. Jews living outside of Israel, therefore, must go through a process of renaissance parallel to that of the Jewish People living in its land.

In this essay, Gordon likened the Jewish people to a global tree whose roots would be struck in the land of Israel but whose bough, whose leaves and limbs, would stand wherever Jews found themselves. Roots in Israel would bring badly needed water to replenish the Jewish communities of the world, but world Jewish communities, through their own unique experiences, would send to Israel the air by which Jewish life in the Land of Israel would not be suffocated by its insularity. Gordon made it clear that the realization of Zion must be "a mutual enterprise, a mutual revival."

For Gordon, the creation of a new Jewish reality need not be founded upon the negation of Jewish life outside Israel--as long as that Diaspora life is creative and organic. That is, for world Jewish communities to be in this kind of symbiotic relationship with the emerging Hebrew culture taking root in the Land, these communities would need to rebuild the structures of communal life around authentic, organic components such as the Hebrew language, the idea of the synthesis of the physical and the spiritual, and a profound appreciation for living in nature.

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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.