Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Word? Reclaiming Zionism

I recently returned home from Israel, where I was traveling with Hadassah’s Milestone Mission celebrating 100 years of the Hadassah Hospital at Mt. Scopus, 100 years of the Hadassah School of Nursing, and 70 years of the State of Israel. I was privileged to visit both Hadassah hospitals, the Western Wall, Hadassah’s Meir Shfeya Youth Village, the Jewish detention camp at Atlit, the beaches of Tel Aviv, The Center for Israeli Innovation, the Old City of Jerusalem, and many other incredible sights and locations. I also had the immense pleasure of studying with our Mission’s scholar-in residence, Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University.

Professor Troy recently published an updated version of the 1959 anthology,The Zionist Idea, by Arthur Hertzberg. His modern volume is entitled The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland—Then, Now, Tomorrow. It includes period Zionist writings by female authors omitted from the original publication, including an essay by Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold, as well as writings from modern diaspora Zionists. Professor Troy has generously supplied Hadassah with a guide to his anthology for local chapters interested in exploring The Zionist Ideas in a book club setting. (Seattle Chapter members: stay tuned for an announcement on this front.)

Across our study sessions, Professor Troy spoke on a variety of perspectives with which I was previously familiar and wholeheartedly agree. Zionism is unfairly equated with toxic white nationalism; it is co-opted and abused by historical hijackers who dishonestly conflate the modern state of Israel with the oppressive South African apartheid regime of old; and it is singled out in a “delegitimization derby,” the result of which is that only the Jewish right to self determination is branded as racist, greedy, or creepy. Zionism, he rightly remarked, is a word that does not poll well in America – during an American era when a failure to poll well is all but fatal. But Professor Troy said something else as well, something that stopped me short:

We let it happen.

He’s right.

We have allowed Zionism to be diminished to a political concept when it is really an identity. We have permitted Labor Zionism, Religious Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, and Cultural Zionism to be omitted from the conversation. We have failed to prevent the discussion around Zionism from becoming yet another example of the black-or-white, no-nuance, all good or all bad, inherently lazy and intellectually bankrupt modern political discourse. We have not stood up for the fundamental and fundamentally beautiful proposition at Zionism’s core: that as Jews, we are a people, as a people like any other, we are entitled to self-determination — statehood.

Between Professor Troy’s lectures I crisscrossed the modern state, taking as much in as my eyes, ears, and heart would permit. Time and again I saw evidence of our peoplehood. The love at the Wall is palpable and tribal. It is apparent whether we arrive at this ancient holy place wearing shtreimels and shmatas or sandals and skinny jeans. We are bound to one another both by and regardless of ethnicity and across the spectrum of religiosity. We, the people who wrestle with G-d, argue with one another over everything from Mideast politics to the market price of pistachios. And we like our wine.

As I took it all in, I concluded once again that our capacity for the holy argument— the patience, willingness, and trust to engage and reengage and argue forever over the things that matter—is part of what has sustained our people across a history replete with expulsions, pogroms, and other attempted annihilations. I am not alone in this conclusion. During our second study session with Professor Troy, he insisted that the establishment of peer-to-peer relationships absent the need for agreement is part of the solution when it comes to reclaiming our Zionist identity and taking back the Z-word. Quoting former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, Troy drew a laugh from the crowd: “If you agree with me on nine out of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist.” His point was well made. Failure to remain in lock-step with our neighbors or our political parties has become evidence of pathology and disloyalty rather than evidence of the capacity for independent thought and the proposition that reasonable minds can disagree. We have allowed three points of disagreement to separate us rather than nine points of agreement to unite us.

Professor Gil Troy and Kindra Cooper

Reclaiming our Zionist identity and taking back the Z-word requires a willingness to argue; a willingness to speak our truth rather than whisper it; a willingness to say “I disagree” not once, but as many times as it takes. The truth is that Zionism—the right to a Jewish state in our Jewish ancestral homeland—does not preclude the right of the Palestinian people to achieve the same thing in the same general geographic area. We must disagree that it does. The truth is that Zionism does not dampen Jewish sympathy for the Palestinian desire for state of their own. As Professor Troy eloquently said, it is our Jewish nationalism that tunes our ears toward the nationalist longings of Israel’s Palestinian neighbors. We must disagree that our Zionism prevents us from caring or empathy. The truth is that neither Zionism nor the laws of the modern state prevent Arabs from attaining Israeli citizenship; more than 1.6 million Arabs are already citizens of Israel, nearly 21 percent of Israel’s national population. We must disagree with the statistical slights of hand employed by those who seek to silence us and undermine the Jewish state. Reclaiming our Zionist identity and taking back the Z-word requires that we explain that some things are complicated, and some things are really quite straightforward, and likely arguing over which things fall in each of these categories.

Reclaiming our Zionist identity and taking back the Z-word requires, in the professor’s words, a form of Jew-jitsu: taking a negative (the current conversation about Zionism) and turning it into a positive (an opportunity for civil discourse). It requires, also in his words, that we not let our bitterness over having been singled out for delegitimization outweigh our love for each other or for Israel. It requires that our conversations, as he suggests, become peppered “with question marks, not exclamation points.”

Most of all, Professor Troy insisted that reclaiming our Zionist identity and taking back the Z-word requires that we not compare ourselves to our Zionist heroes and sheroes—Herzl, Jabotinsky, Buber, and Szold—only to find ourselves wanting. He suggests that we embrace our position as the next wave of Zionist: the torchbearers and the heirs.

I suggest that rather than shying away from the magnitude of the Zionists who paved the way for the state of Israel, we channel them. Herzl and Jabotinsky, Buber and Szold, these were men and women who knew how to argue, who knew how to disagree and channel that disagreement toward productive ends, and who likely never whispered the Z word. We shouldn’t either.

Who’s afraid of the big, bad word? Not me. I am a Zionist.