When Theodore Herzl called the first Zionist Congress to order in Basel, Switzerland, nearly 100 years ago, the main mission was the creation of a Jewish state. After the establishment of the State of Israel, Zionists in the Diaspora had to redefine their mission, working to help make Israel secure with monetary and political support.
Today, with Israel independent, strong and on the road to peace, delegates at the American Zionist Movement’s second annual convention, held here last week, found themselves redefining their role once again.
“Zionism needs to have more of an American sensibility. The need to establish a Zionist state and the political ideologies that fueled the early Zionist movement are not as relevant today,” said Karen Rubinstein, executive director of AZM.
Seymour Reich, president of AZM, pointed out that the promise of peace and prosperity has raised a question about the continuing relevance of Zionism.
“Some of our Friends,” he said, have even suggested that we, as a movement, simply go out of business.”
But Reich maintains that what is needed, instead, is a rethinking of American Zionism. He believes the new goal of American Zionism is to serve as the bridge between American Jews and Israeli Jews to ensure that the Jewish people remain one people.
Reich explained that AZM was founded to create a single, unified Zionist body in the United States that would be able to reach out more effectively to the vast numbers of American Jews who identify with Zionist values and goals.
The organization was formed two years ago by the merging of the American Zionist Federation and the American Section of the World Zionist Organization.
Speaker after speaker at the movement’s second American Zionist Congress, which took place Jan. 8-10, pointed out that many Israeli Jews do not think of themselves as Jews and identify more strongly with Israeli Druse than with American Jews.
Israelis as well as American Jews need a Zionist education, the speakers maintained.
Yitzhak Peretz, chair of the Zionist General Council of WZO, spoke in Hebrew of the need of the Jewish people to become “am echad im safa echad” — one people with one language.
The congress heeded that call, passing a resolution calling for increased Zionist education in day schools and supplementary schools, with a special emphasis on teaching Hebrew as a spoken language.
Gloria Dorfberger of Fort Lauderdale said, “My two sons have been through eight years of day school education, yet neither one of them can carry on a conversation with me in Hebrew. That is not a good situation.”
The role of aliyah in today’s Zionism was hotly debated during the conference.
Trilby Smith, secretary of Habonim Dror, said that Zionism’s traditional goal of immigration to Israel is obsolete.
“We need to either broaden our focus or become extinct ” she said, adding that Zionist organizations lose members over the issue.
Rabbi Joseph Sternstein of New York disagreed, however. He warned that there was a greater danger to the Zionist movement if it gave up aliyah as the highest Zionist achievement.
Karen Nisim, a Betar member from Chicago agreed with the rabbi “ln Betar, you cannot be a member after you’re 24 years old if you haven’t made aliyah. How can we call ourselves Zionists if we don’t aspire to go to Israel?” she asked.
Many discussions during the conference focused on the role of American Zionists.
Eli Eyal, head of the WZO’s Department of Organization and Community Relations, observed, “There are many interpretations of the Zionist dream. There has to be more than money in the unique connections that American Jews have with Jerusalem.”
Pat Brownstone, a Hadassah member from Huntsville, Ala., said it was becoming more difficult to convince people in her community about the need to be Zionists.
“We have to tie what we do in America to what we do in Israel. People need to feel the connection. In some ways we have a backlash of the peace process. People don’t feel the need to support Israel as strongly as they once did,” she said.
While no one at the three-day conference seemed able to come up with a concise definition of American Zionism, most delegates did feel that the centrality of Israel in Jewish life is primary to Jewish identity.
“Everyone is pushing trips to Israel as the cure to assimilation, but if these trips take place in a vacuum, with no preparation and no follow-up, they are useless,” said Charles Savenor from Mercaz the Conservative movement’s Zionist organization.
” You can’t define Zionism,” said Ami Yervel, a Ukrainian Jew who now lives in Cleveland. “Zionism is a feeling every Jew has in his heart, if he just looks for it.”