My Zionism began with Jewish pride and has been considerably deepened by exposure to intellectual unfairness. Growing up within a religious Zionist youth movement, I understood Israel as success narrative of modern Jewish history and as challenge to world Jewry to shape its own destiny. Most importantly, Israel represented an “Old-New-Land”—not only in Herzl’s sense of wedding modern technology with ancient homeland—but, more importantly, as a state in which Jews could demonstrate what they would do once returned to sovereignty and statehood. Zionism hardly resolved my problems of modern Jewish identity, but it did awaken my pride in peoplehood.
In recent years, my Zionist convictions have been fueled considerably by the perceived absence of fairness toward Israel expressed by many colleagues on the intellectual Left. Critics of Israel, both Jewish and non-Jewish, all too often focus almost exclusively on the Arab-Israeli conflict while citing Israel’s shortcomings as a democracy. Missing from their analyses, however, is the record of Israel’s achievements—absorbing new populations, preserving democratic freedoms, and harnessing technology and research to advance humanistic ends.
Most significantly, critics of Israel often unfairly castigate her as an obstacle preventing peace while ignoring continuing rejection of Israel’s right to exist. The more I engaged these intellectuals, the more persuaded I became that many who express love for a vulnerable Jewish people simultaneously abhor a Jewish state capable of defending itself.
Professor Tony Judt of New York University, for example, argued that the idea of a Jewish state in itself constituted an anachronism. Since Israel was born as a nation-state in an era of post-nationalism, its very creation was a mistake. To some extent this argument may be understood as a secular equivalent of the doctrine of supersessionism. Israel as a Jewish state once made sense, but, with the decline of empires and nation-states, Israel as a Jewish state had been superseded by postnationalism. Why, according to Judt, Israel constitutes the only anachronistic nation-state, remains a mystery.
Most importantly, Judt recommends redefining Israel as a bi-national state. He acknowledges that bi-nationalism will be difficult to implement. Left unstated is the real tragedy (and bloodshed) this would entail and the impact such a tragedy would have on the Jewish people worldwide.
Similarly, professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer argued that pro-Israel advocates had hijacked American foreign policy to serve Israel’s ends rather than America’s. Skirting well-worn conspiracy theories of modern Jewish history, the authors cast Israel as a colonial power whose U.S. backers pressured America into a second Iraq War.
In making these claims, the authors commit major blunders: First, they ignore the overwhelming popularity of the cause of Israel in American public opinion. 97% of pro-Israel support in the United States emanates from gentile rather than Jewish sources—hardly a case of a tiny minority hijacking America’s foreign policy. Second, the authors ignore the context of Arab rejectionism of Israel’s right to exist and the continuing project of her delegitimation.
More personally, in 2003 I was invited to debate a young Jewish intellectual with impressive academic credentials. By contrast, his Jewish knowledge base and understanding were poor, but he nonetheless lacked inhibitions in writing about Judaism. In the context of the debate, I asked why his recent book on Judaism expressed no sense of Jewish peoplehood. He responded, “Yes, I really believe that the creation of Israel in 1948 was a mistake.” Stunned by the comment, I replied the mistake was that Israel was created only in 1948 rather than 1938.
That is not to say that the Holocaust provides the raison d’être for a Jewish state. To the contrary, I objected to President Obama’s 2009 Cairo address because it implied that Holocaust memory validated the creation of Israel. No, Zionism represented the marriage of age-old Jewish aspirations for return to homeland with hopes for constructing society upon principles of Judaism and democracy. Rather, the exchange demonstrated to me the fragility of historical memory and the failure of Jewish education to communicate the Israeli narrative.
Israel, in her seventh decade has secured her place in history not only by being the latest and, in some measure, most exciting chapter in the annals of Jewish experience, but also by upholding a promise of fulfilling a vision of statehood that provides both for the rights of all citizens and for the renewal of Judaic civilization in the Jewish homeland—a daunting challenge, and one that we have only begun to address.