Toward a 21st Century Alternative Zionism

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

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.

The 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.

“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.

Toward a Post-Post-Zionism

To consider Zionism a completed project, one must limit Zionism to a political ideology and see it as only relevant to Israelis in Israel.

In the spirit of Mordecai Kaplan and A.D. Gordon, there is good reason to reject this limitation. What good is political achievement if it doesn’t facilitate meaning and purpose? Additionally, American Jews have what to learn from Israelis, and though it is not usually discussed, Israeli Jews have much to learn from the Diaspora.

Although a majority of American Jews do not consider themselves to be religious, if asked what being Jewish is, the response of many would emphasize religious categories almost exclusively.

This was not always the case. The great numbers of Eastern European Jews who immigrated to America in the first two decades of the 20th century understood themselves to be part of a historic people with a shared religion, language, culture, and value system. But over the course of a century, Jewish Americans, anxious to demonstrate their willingness to be part of the “melting pot,” mostly abandoned the notion of Jewish Peoplehood. This contributes to a tremendous disconnect between American and Israeli notions of Jewish identity.

Alternatively, this disconnect represents a significant opportunity by which American Jews can learn from Israelis and vice-versa. American Jews who see Judaism as a religion stripped of Peoplehood, deny themselves the very medium through which Jewish wisdom is meant to be experienced and developed. Israelis, seeing Jewishness primarily as a nationality, deny themselves the wisdom, spirituality, and values that give Jewish survival a purpose beyond survival for survival’s sake.

If Jewish Peoplehood represents a dialectic of the spiritual and the national, of values and the familial, then American Jews and Israeli Jews need each other in order to understand the central wisdom of that dialectic. Let us call the enterprise by which American Jews and Israelis can learn from each other in order to arrive at a deeper sense of Jewish Peoplehood, the greater Zionism of the 21st Century.

A cornerstone of mainstream Zionism has been the imperative to encourage Aliya, immigration to Israel. All too often, Israeli Zionists promote Aliyah not only as a valid and meaningful option, but as the only option. One is told to make Aliyah because the alternative is untenable and immoral. In the context of a greater Zionism that does not negate Jewish life outside Israel, both American Jews and Israelis should be encouraged to live in each other’s communities.

In this global age, it is not difficult to imagine Americans and Israelis moving back and forth between Israel and America at different times of their lives. In fact, unless we live with each other and experience the real day-to-day of each other’s lives and cultures, mutuality and sharing is not feasible.  In the end, how could a true symbiotic relationship have any chance of being achieved without such a personal and human exchange? Pragmatically, if Aliyah is encouraged as one Jewish option among many, the possibility of living in Israel will likely be entertained more readily by American Jews than if it is moralistically touted as the only option.

Those of us who wish to bring the riches of Israeli culture, its language, its vibrancy, concretely to American Jews as well as those of us who want the creative innovations of American Jewish spirituality to influence the possibilities of Jewish celebration, meaning, and moral choice in Israel would do well to realize that working towards true mutuality and sharing between Americans and Israelis is the stuff of a greater and renewed Zionism.

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