The New Zionist

ESSAY COMPETITION

Preface

BY EINAT WILF

One of the most encouraging developments of recent years has been the rise of a few distinct and courageous voices of Jews on American campuses openly reclaiming Zionism as their own personal identity. They proudly speak of themselves as Zionists and they use Zion in the names of their organizations. In doing so, they are resisting the pressures placed on many young Jews to make rejection of Zionism a key part of their Jewish identity. In reclaiming Zionism, these young Jews are doing so not as a political movement for the establishment of a state for the Jews – happily that is already taken care of - and not even as a label indicating support for Israel and for the idea of Zionism, even though they do. Their manner of reclaiming Zionism serves to project a confident and full Jewish identity within the US itself.

This form of Zionism as confident Judaism reflects a growing understanding among these young Jews that the demand made of so many Jews to prove their bona fides as “good Jews” by demanding that they openly reject Zionism has not been earnest and has not been accompanied by any goodwill. What these young Jews have witnessed is that even when fellow Jews engaged in what are essentially public exorcism ceremonies to discard Zionism - proclaiming their hatred of Israel in anything from op-eds to speeches to ongoing activism – they remained essentially suspect. Something more was always demanded.

Moreover, as new peace agreements between Israel and Arab countries were not celebrated by those claiming to speak in the name of advancing peace in the Middle East, it has also become increasingly evident that the demand to reject Zionism was divorced from any real concern for forging a path to peace between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East, Palestinians and Israelis, if it ever was. This demand was exposed as but a new manifestation of the old demand, made perennially of Jews, to prove themselves to the outside world by engaging in some form of mutilation of their full Jewish identity.

Observing this, a few young Jews realized that true courage lay in resisting this demand for endless self-denial, rather than succumbing to it. Realizing that no amount of ingratiation would ever suffice to the outside world, these young Jews have realized that the most powerful path to saying no is by openly declaring themselves as Zionists. They stand proudly as every possible contemporary synonym for evil is lobbed at them, mostly on social media, but also in person, and they know it for what it is – an ancient pathology incarnated into modern form.

The Jewish people have survived and thrived through individual Jews who knew that the future lay in standing up for their people, rather than selling them out. The new Zionists are the confident Jews we need right now.

In Pursuit of Conversation

BY MAX KRUPNICK

The content of my Zionism stems from my kitchen table, where I developed a desire for Jewish security and longevity after hearing about my family’s traumatic escape from Europe. But the practice of my Zionism has been defined by anti-Zionism, specifically a combative debate that lacks genuine dialogue. And I don’t love that.

While young adults in Israel and Palestine suited up for war in May 2021, their peers on American college campuses opened their laptops to engage in their own battle. Around the nation, student activists penned petitions and created infographics denouncing Israel’s actions in Gaza and Sheikh Jarrah. Heightened social awareness and the growth of social media set the stage for the greatest domestic reckoning with Israel and Zionism since 2014, if not ever.

On a Sunday evening in June 2021, 100 Yale students slipped away from their family dinners to tune into a special session of the Yale College Council. The student group Yalies4Palestine quickly mobilized after this spring’s conflict began. The petition they wrote shared incidences of Israeli violence and condemned the “the injustice, genocide, and ethnic cleansing occurring in Palestine.” But it did not mention the harm suffered by Israelis or Palestinians at the hands of Hamas, an omission that frustrated many students. The YCC had one hour to decide whether or not to adopt this statement. 

Flipping through pages of attendees on Zoom, I imagined the tension that would have filled a physical meeting space. Would people have divided themselves according to their loyalties? Online, the speakers sat in front of their most presentable bedroom wall. Some came in t-shirts. Others were dressed to impress. Instead of whispering to each other in a lecture hall, students furiously texted their friends. Blocked by the all-powerful mute button, disenchanted attendees who would have shouted at the senators filled the chat with their frustrations. 

In my eyes, Zionists start the campus Israel-Palestine debate at a disadvantage. Activists on the Palestinian side frame the Israel-Palestine conflict in familiar domestic terms. The Yalies4Palestine statement sought to “create a collective liberation movement that stands against racial injustice and policing worldwide, from Minneapolis to Palestine.” During the YCC meeting, petition supporters said that a vote for a signing onto the statement was a vote against anti-black and anti-Asian racism, white supremacy, and European colonialism. You can get someone to hate Israel and Zionism in thirty seconds using a pastel infographic and buzzwords.

The rise of anti-Israel speech drove supporters of Israel to defend our beliefs. Some people adopted the tactics of pro-Palestine activists – posting Instagram stories and fighting with people in online comment sections. I opted for individual conversation – speaking with and listening to friends and acquaintances who posted about the conflict or had questions. 

But when the debate was brought into the public forum, supporters of Israel and Zionism found that people tripped over the nuances of their argument. “If it’s not inherently antisemitic to criticize Israel,” one YCC representative asked, “then how can you accuse this criticism of antisemitism?” It takes time to explain how the double-standard applied to the world’s only Jewish nation can be antisemitic.

Activists for Israel and Palestine both generally agree that antisemitism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Israel sentiments are three separate ideas. Although that concept adds up in theory, the lines blur in practice. The ADL counted twice as many antisemitic incidents in May 2021 than May 2020. Hillel Centers at Berkeley, Harvard, and Virginia Tech were vandalized. I get concerned when there’s widespread mobilization against Israel and Zionism because I see that it has often led to antisemitism, even if the speech itself is not definitively antisemitic.

These petitions are infinitely less consequential than what is happening on the ground in Israel and Palestine. But to students on campus, it feels very real. The number of student organizations that sign on to the Yalies4Palestine won’t affect US policy in Israel or impact Israeli treatment of Palestinians. The environment is what concerns me. I’m worried the next generation of American leaders will believe that Israel is a genocidal state. That they’ll think Zionism is a colonial project. That they’ll form their opinion about the conflict through social media instead of at the library.

In response to the Yale student government’s adoption of the Yalies4Palestine petition, Jewish chaplain Rabbi Jason Rubenstein wrote that Yale Hillel seeks to cultivate “an expansive vision and practice of Judaism, one that defies antisemitism but is not defined by that defiance.” After a month where I explained my Zionism in the light of an anti-Israel campus movement, I found myself wondering how I could adopt a Zionism that defies anti-Zionism, and by extension antisemitism, but is not defined by that defiance.

Most of my conversations about Israel happen during turbulent times. In May, I was talking with a friend and the topic of Israel-Palestine came up unprompted, a common occurrence that month. Our viewpoints were very different, but we were not interested in debating– we each wanted to know how the other had arrived at his viewpoint. We did not rebut each other’s perspectives or shape our narrative in opposition to the other. Though the discussion was born in an anti-Zionist environment, it did not determine the content.

I want my Zionism to be the antithesis of that Yale student government meeting. I want to have empathetic conversations about Israel-Palestine face-to-face, outside the pressure of the public arena. I want to learn from articles, people, and books – not from Instagram stories. I want my Zionism to be proactive, based on the hope that a sovereign Jewish state will deliver our people a level of stability we’ve never been able to achieve. 

I have carved out small collaborative spaces free from the isolationism of social media and the combativeness of group meetings. But I’d like to bring that to the whole student population. It’s a lofty goal, especially in the reality of the present-day campus discourse. But if nobody tries, it’ll never happen.

What Does Zionism Mean to Me? 

BY MAYA GEDDES- TEMPLAR

A land responds to the people who live there. We know this is true.  Untilled soil, full of potential, means nothing if the people do not  understand the life-giving means to actualise this potential. Crops can feed and nurture, but they can overtake, or wither away and die if the people do not understand the mechanics of the land, and what it needs to  flourish. Conversely, people also respond to land. When vital land is taken  away from a people, they become like the untilled soil the confused  invader fails to work; alive, but brimming with unactualised potential.

The Jews of exile were like untilled soil. When Israel was taken in chains,  she left behind traditions and vows that could only be fulfilled in the Land.  She left behind Jerusalem, and Tzfat, and Tiberias, and Yafo. Her holy  books, her regalia, trampled upon. This was the birth of spiritual Zionism.  A yearning, a sense of being torn apart from something you were once bound with. Rabbi Judah Halevi wrote ‘My heart is in the east, and I am in  the uttermost west...how can I find savour in food? How shall it be sweet  to me?’ Like many great Hebrews of exile, Halevi lived in Muslim ruled Spain. A more tolerant Spain, that wouldn’t last long. Exile wasn’t easy, and even if Israel literally lost her chains, she never did allegorically. So to many suffering diaspora Jews, Zion stirred their hearts, and provided a sense of hope, even in the face of egregious, catastrophic tragedy. The eye has always gazed towards Zion.  

 

If the hearts of the Jews were stirred by Zion, Herzl understood that their  minds to must be stirred. What Herzl did was harness 2,000 years of  prayers into an organized, modern, political movement. Naturally, the  movement became fractured with time, but always retained its core idea of returning to the Land of Israel. This provided a path for every Jew, whether secular, or Orthodox, to have a part in tilling the soil. Political Zionism managed to unite all types of Jew, even in a time with a sense of religious schism. This Zionism is a call to action.

It’s a funny thing, trying to find a word which you can use to describe the  return of the Jews to Israel. Miracle seems overused and cliche. Supernatural may offend the secular, and superhuman may offend the  religious. But I think this parable encapsulates everything. When Mark Twain visited what was territory of the Ottoman Empire, he wrote of how desolate and barren the land was. It is true, that the conquering emperors, kings and sultans of the past had struggled to till Israel, and often frustrated themselves by trying. Today, Israel is home to  more than 20,000 farms, gardens, and vineyards. As it goes, the desert bloomed.

Zionism is a gift to the Jews, but the story of Zionism is a gift to Indigenous people everywhere. Zionism is hope. For the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, for the Kurds of West Asia and the Inuit of Alaska. To return, to live and stay, to have all potential- potential of the land, potential  of the people- actualised. To live with hospitality towards neighbours and guests, is also part of this actualisation. Culture and tradition damaged, languages left unspoken, can repair themselves. For me, Zionism is when the desert blooms.