Ahad Ha’Am At Last

by Wayne Firestone

The new era of Israel-Diaspora relations isn’t a rejection of classical Zionism. Rather, it is the acceptance of a different model of classical Zionism, the one propounded by “cultural Zionist” Ahad Ha’Am. And it is uniquely suited for the today’s generation of college-age Jews, the so-called Millennials that are the focus of the work of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

Asher Ginsberg’s pen name, “Ahad Ha’Am,” proclaimed that the writer was, modestly, “one of the people.” A slight twist on his pseudonym, “Am Ahad,” or “one people,” may be more appropriate. Unlike his “political Zionist” contemporaries, he did not seek to create a bipolar world of Israel versus the Diaspora.  He understood that the Diaspora would continue to exist alongside a Jewish State. In his view, the Jewish State was to become the cultural center of the entire Jewish people: “[F]rom this center, the spirit of Judaism will radiate to the great circumference, to all the communities of the Diaspora, to inspire them with new life and to preserve the over-all unity of our people.” Hibbat Zion, his brand of Zionism, “stands for a Judaism which shall have as its focal point the ideal of our nation’s unity, its renascence, and its free development through the expression of universal human values in the terms of its own distinctive spirit.”

Theodor Herzl’s political Zionism was a response to Jewish political weakness: He saw the creation of the Jewish state as the answer to persistent anti-Semitism. Ahad Ha’Am’s Hibbat Zion was a response to Jewish spiritual weakness. This spiritual malaise “will remain unsolved and unaffected even if the troubled of the Jews all over the world attain comfortable economic positions, are on the best possible terms with their neighbors, and are admitted to the fullest social and political equality.”

Today Herzl’s worldview is alien to young Jews. His great success, the creation of a sovereign Jewish state, is simply a fact of life. His great motivator, anti-Semitism, is largely a thing of the past to Millennials. Most of the walls that separated Jews from each other and from the rest of the world have crumbled. Jews are no longer subject to special racial laws in their own countries. They can travel easily and inexpensively across borders. Ahad Ha’Am’s vision has come true.

As the Zionist prophet predicted, young people born into this global village are still seeking answers to their spiritual questions. Their Jewish heritage can and does provide them with answers, whether they live in Tel Aviv, or Rio, or Kiev or Los Angeles. Thus, a young woman who was born in Bosnia-Herzegovina and raised in Israel can serve effectively as a Hillel/Jewish Agency for Israel Fellow at Baruch College in New York City, helping young people understand Israel and their own Jewish identity. An Israeli soldier can learn the meaning of his “Jewish” identity – as opposed to his “Israeli” identity – from a college student he met on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. Educational techniques that work in Chicago are equally useful in Buenos Aires or Moscow.

As educators we can and must strengthen this sense of global Jewish peoplehood and the centrality of Israel.

1. Israel as a Jewish Identity Right of Passage

No surprise here, but perhaps some have taken for granted the success we have witnessed in watching the number of young people not merely visiting Israel but also generating Jewish identity memories and questions that can endure a lifetime. Over the past decade, we have seen the success of Taglit-Birthright Israel, MASA, and other immersive initiatives as a lens that focuses the modern identity kaleidoscope of young Jews on authentic, accessible experiences of Zion regardless of religious or ideological predisposition. When young Diaspora Jews experience Israel for the first time, they see a country in which the Jewish past fuses with the present to create a coherent community. They may arrive in Israel thinking that the country is their Jewish destination but they leave understanding that it’s an important milestone in their personal identity odyssey. Yet, unfortunately, we cannot provide Israel trips to all 350,000 young American Jews who are on American campuses, let alone the tens of thousands in Europe and Latin America – and for those we can, we cannot merely say lehitraot , when they depart Ben-Gurion Airport. Taking a cue from the corporate world, we can adapt a practice of the successful Southwest Airlines which has a director of first impressions to ensure that a customer or potential customer has a pleasant experience or interaction. Jewish organizations in the Diaspora should develop “Directors of Second Impressions” for those returning from these immersive journeys.

2. Israelis as modern Jewish role models/creative forces for the Diaspora

Although some people are surprised to learn that Hillel now operates eleven Hillels in Israel for a self-defined group of religious and secular tzabra students, no one should be surprised that their work is already generating new models of Jewish education and expression that are emerging from the public space and  not only traditional study academies and yeshivot. The “Yedidi Hashachta” initiative that started at Hebrew University brings together modern musicians and writers with traditional singers and cantors from Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions in order to explore and celebrate the creation of Jewish music based on modern and ancient texts, piyutimand niggunim.

Further, in partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and with the support of philanthropists and local Jewish Federations, Hillel brings Israel to the college campus itself, sending scores of “Israel Fellows” to serve on North American campuses each year. These recent college and Israel Defense Force graduates help students understand Israel and work with them to create their own unique expressions of Jewish identity on campus. These are not older adults foisting history and ideology upon students but peers who bring a young person’s perspective to the complexities of contemporary Jewish identity. These young people are an important example for Jewish and non-Jewish students alike: They are neither the monsters of anti-Israel propaganda nor the mythical figures of some modern American Jewish literature. They are young people from a variety of backgrounds and beliefs who represent the contemporary faces of Israel. More importantly they provide on the ground support to a generation that is still seeking to find a voice and in many respects, self confidence in expressing identity.

3. Jewish Values and Service Learning

While Jewish life, organizations and structure may be in a period of redefinition for a number of years, arguably the most enduring assets of the Jewish people continue to thrive in the form of our oldest texts, teachings and values. In this regard, Hillel in partnership with Jewish organizations like AJWS and JDC and secular organizations like City Year, has watched student-driven Jewish service learning rapidly emerge among Russian speaking communities, North and South American and Israeli alike. While some have questioned what is “Jewish” about service in New Orleans or Nicaragua, it is important to note that all of these activities provide daily Jewish study resources and materials in order to transmit values that were previously raised pedagogically only in cheder or shul.

Undoubtedly, in this current period of globalization and what Thomas Friedman describes as a “flat” world, it is timely to more fully acknowledge the  potential for these trends to inform our community-building and educational strategies. In short, we can no longer define our Jewish identities exclusively in terms of the physical centers where we live and work. Nor can we look to Israel or the Diaspora, as the sole source of “identity” content or experience. Instead, we must transform our thinking to distributed centers of meaning and learning which legitimize and value denizens from the Diaspora as well as Israel. Theodor Herzl and Asher Ginsberg would both be proud.

Wayne L. Firestone is the President and CEO of Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Life.

This article originally appeared in The Peoplehood Papers, vol.5, Jewish Peoplehood and Zionism. Reprinted with permission.