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Focus on Issues: Redefining Zionism in America; It’s Not About Aliyah Anymore

For Louis Kestenbaum and his wife, Trudy, it felt only natural to make plans to fly from their Los Angeles-area home to Basel, Switzerland, to celebrate modern Zionism’s 100th birthday.

Like most of the other members of the North American delegation attending the Swiss festivities this weekend, the Kestenbaums are Holocaust survivors.

And that makes their attachment to Zionism obvious.

To leave Europe “was difficult enough,” said Kestenbaum, who grew up in Czechoslovakia and was in a concentration camp in Austria.

But once able to leave, he said, “where do you go? Nobody wanted to accept us as immigrants.

“Zionism was responsible for creating a homeland” for the Jews so they would never again face that dilemma, said Kestenbaum, a regional chairman of the Jewish National Fund.

Indeed, the need to provide a haven for Jews persecuted in Europe between the wars and then during the Holocaust gave what had been a fledgling Zionist movement in America its biggest boost.

But now Israel is a secure and thriving nation, Holocaust witnesses — with their searing memory of an international community criminally callous to Jewish suffering — are dwindling in number and virtually all Jews in danger have been rescued and resettled.

So 100 years after Theodor Herzl led the first meeting of the World Zionist Organization in Basel, Zionism’s classical rallying cry is far fainter.

Elections now taking place in the United States for the 33rd World Zionist Congress, slated for December in Jerusalem, have captured the interest of many rank-and-file Jews.

The Reform and Conservative movements’ Zionist branches have managed to capitalize on the crisis over religious pluralism by casting the elections as a referendum on the status of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel.

But this passion is an anomaly.

Even its biggest champions concede that the American Zionist Movement, the U.S. sponsor of the elections, is moribund.

The majority of American Jews “recoil from the term Zionism,” said Seymour Reich, immediate past president of AZM.

This is a result “of the failure of the movement to make itself understood,” he said, adding that there is still the misguided notion that Zionism “requires a total commitment, and total commitment means aliyah.”

“Aliyah is a stumbling block,” said Reich, noting that from his first day as president of AZM, “I have urged a redefinition” of Zionism.

If the term is redefined to mean “more of an association with Israel,” including visits to Israel, “it makes it easier for people to identify,” he said.

Veteran Zionist activist Charlotte Jacobson, a longtime leader in Hadassah and JNF, also believes the “whole Zionist movement needs restructuring” because it is built on an “old model” and is not successfully transmitting its its message.

“I don’t think most Jews in America today understand Zionism as a philosophy,” she said.

For her, Zionism means “recognizing Israel as central.” It furnishes “a unity of purpose among all of us in a way no other world philosophy does.”

Classical Zionism held that Jews outside their own state would be doomed to assimilation — or anti-Semitism if they insisted on living Jewish lives.

The only solution was to create and move to their own state, where they could be a “normal” people while at the same time being a “light unto the nations,” a model of ethical and moral behavior.

Arthur Hertzberg, scholar and author of the recently republished classic, “The Zionist Idea,” points out that from the early days, U.S. Jews resisted some of Zionism’s core principles, particularly aliyah.

The “overwhelming majority of American Jews have always believed and continue to believe that America is their permanent home,” Hertzberg wrote in a recent article based on the book’s new preface. “Palestine was the place for Jews who were fleeing persecution.”

Some American Zionists repeated the phrase “the centrality of Israel” like a “mantra,” Hertzberg continued. But efforts on behalf of Israel aimed primarily at “increasing the morale and giving content to the American Jewish community.”

Few bothered to learn Hebrew, he said. And in the end, work in support of Israel became “a substitute religion” for many Jews.

But the debate over aliyah aside, there are many who argue that the Zionist movement has triumphed.

This school of thought says the Jewish mainstream has embraced Israel as a key component of its religious and cultural identity, amounting to what one person termed the “Zionization” of American Jewry.

And this identity transcends the deep divisions spurred by Israeli realpolitik – whether it be the peace process or religious pluralism.

It is impossible to ignore the increasingly heated debates in local communities across the nation over how much priority should be attached to Israel.

The relatively small numbers of American Jews who have visited Israel — fewer than 25 percent — is well-known. Aliyah, never impressive in numbers, remains a trickle, roughly 3,000 a year from North America.

And the Zionist youth organizations, so vibrant decades ago, have been supplanted in large measure by synagogue-based youth groups.

Nonetheless, Israel’s hold on the communal imagination is indisputable.

Unprecedented resources and rhetoric are being poured into “Israel Experience” programs for youth as a recipe for Jewish continuity, for instance.

Estimates of philanthropy flowing to Israeli entities run as high as $1 billion a year.

In a recent survey, even Jewish baby-boomers, known for their alienation from the Jewish establishment, overwhelmingly registered some attachment to Israel.

For some, it is the very achievement of nearly universal identification with the Jewish state that makes the Zionist movement irrelevant.

It also renders anachronistic the old distinctions between Zionists, pro-Israel activists and “friends of Israel.”

“We speak today only about degrees of intensity” in involvement and identification with Israel, said Gad Ben-Ari, chairman of the North American delegation of the World Zionist Organization.

“The question should not be, `What is Zionism today?'” he said. Rather it should be what is the relationship between Jews outside of Israel and Jews in Israel. “Zionism has always been about that relationship.”

The exception to the paltry flow of olim, or immigrants, from North America has been among modern Orthodox Jews.

For them, “the concept of Zionism and of the settlement of Israel is central,” said Jonathan Halpert, an Orthodox psychologist.

“The ideal goal of Zionism is physical return to Israel,” Halpert said, “and if you’re intellectually honest, you live with the conflict all the time.”

“In my age group,” added the 53-year-old New Yorker, “everyone of us has at least one child who made aliyah.”

Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War “had a profound impact” on the lives of the Orthodox in America, recalled Halpert, a varsity basketball coach at Yeshiva University for 26 years.

Before that, he said, “Orthodox kids did not walk in the streets in yarmulkes. We wore baseball hats.”

After the war, he said, “there was tremendous pride in the fact that we were Jews. We felt much greater security because Israel had demonstrated itself as a powerful nation.”

Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of how Zionism in America has won hearts and minds are the latest proclamations from a much different place on the religious spectrum.

The Pittsburgh Platform adopted in 1885 by the Reform movement was infamous for its rejection of Zionism. Jews were co-religionists, it declared, not a people or a nation.

To mark Zionism’s centennial this year, the Central Conference of American Rabbis issued a platform at its recent Miami convention that was dedicated solely to the link between Reform Judaism and Israel. It not only encouraged aliyah, but also stressed the importance of Hebrew in school curricula.

Atlanta-based Rabbi Stanley Davids, who is active with the Association of Reform Zionists of America, spearheaded the initiative to draft the CCAR platform.

Davids said he was driven by the feeling that “we were doing a superb job of caring for the needs of the state,” but had failed to work through “how we are bound through mitzvah, faith, and religious identity to what is happening in Israel.”

He said he wants the CCAR document to be used to prompt youth in particular to explore how their Jewish identity can be enriched by a connection to Israel.

“The fullest possible Jewish life is life lived where the setting as well as the calendar are reflective of Jewish values and concerns,” Davids said.

Israel is a “living laboratory” that provides an opportunity to “test out our faith in the real world” by applying Jewish paradigms to social problems.

Jessi Baden agrees.

A recent graduate of McGill University in Canada, she is now the treasurer of Habonim-Dror North America, a Zionist youth movement affiliated with Israel’s Labor Party.

While encouraging aliyah remains important in Habonim’s value scheme, she said, there has been a shift over the decades that recognizes “there are other ways to do good for Israel” and for Jews.

She said the movement teaches a “positive Judaism” that can be experienced in a unique way through various programs in Israel and can lead to “building community back home.”

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