The American Jewish Historical Society began its three-day biennial conference today, and if the first salvo is any indication, the event will be a success. (Lectures are open to the public tomorrow night.) I got to cover the conference today, and one panel in particular warrants note. It was on American Zionism in the 20th Century, with three scholars presenting papers, and I was hoping that at least one would touch on Peter Beinart’s widely discussed essay from a few weeks ago. Beinart, you’ll recall, chastised American Jewish leaders for alienating younger Jews from Zionism by refusing to criticize Israel’s flaws.
Thankfully, Ofer Schiff, a soft-spoken professor from Ben-Gurion University, took Beinart to task and offered a stirring critique that, to my knowledge, has not been raised. If I get him correctly, Schiff basically argued that Zionism has been losing American Jewish support ever since the day Israel was established. Once Israel was a reality and Israelis themselves became the preeminent spokespeople for what Zionism meant, diaspora debates over Zionism became irrelevant. This was, in Schiff’s phrase, the "Israelization" of Zionism. Ever since, American Zionism has been losing ground.
Implicitly, this means that the today’s waning interest in Zionism (however much the statistics have been questioned) has little to do with the American Jewish establishment’s failure to criticize Israel. Instead, it has much to do with the fact that Americans simply don’t speak for Zionism anymore. Israelis do, and with all the cultural distancing that implies.
Moreover, Schiff argued, popular American support for Zionism before the country’s founding had the advantage of not being burdening with a state, politics, and all the contentiousness politics inevitably invites. Without those tangible, real world debates, Zionism could be discussed in more abstract ways, and for American Jews it became a proxy for a new and positive secular identity. To be a Jew–and a modern and secular one–was to be a Zionist. It was American figures like Louis Brandeis who really gave the movement its popular thrust, and remember that he assured Jews that supporting Zionism wasn’t being disloyal to America, either. Rather, to support Israel was to be a good American–or in Brandeis’ memorable phrase: "To be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists."
There was a cautionary note in Schiff’s paper too. Once American Jewish leaders lost Zionism to the new Israel heroes–Abba Eban, David Ben-Gurion and the like–they tried to reformulate its meaning for a post-establishment phase. Zionism, these American leaders tried to argue, would now be about "supporting the Jewish state" period. That failed, Schiff said, and it failed way before Israel’s image began getting uglier in the 1970s.
What Zionism needs now, Schiff said, is a total ideological reworking that captures the imagination of Jews in the diaspora. It can no longer be a mere political position. But Beinart, Schiff added, offered no alternative. Instead he just argued for a liberal political Zionism rather than the uncritical present one. It’s time we start from square one.