The Failure of Zionism

JAFI shlichim : Israel flagIsrael, it seems, isn’t so central even to Israelis, a matter we’d best digest before wagging our finger at our cousins across the Atlantic.

by David Breakstone

Caring about Israel isn’t essential to being Jewish today.

For many, it doesn’t even come close to being as fundamental an element of Jewish identity as is having a good sense of humor.

But I’m not laughing and unfortunately, this isn’t a joke.

The latest study of Jewish Americans, undertaken by the Pew Research Center and published this month, found that only 43 percent of the entire community believe that concern for the Jewish state is integral to defining who they are. Among the increasingly large percentage for whom religion does not enter into their definition of being Jewish, that number drops precipitously to 23%, compared to a full 40% who are convinced that being Jewish requires a well-honed wit.

Curious about other vital ingredients of the Jewish persona they consider more important than worrying about us? Remembering the Holocaust (73%), leading an ethical and moral life (69%), working for justice and equality (56%), and being intellectually curious (49%). Ritual, by the way, is nearly off the charts altogether, with only 19% of the Jews in America indicating that observing Jewish law is integral to their Jewishness.

As the Jerusalem Program, the official manifesto of the Zionist movement, maintains that a belief in the centrality of Israel in the life of the Jewish people is fundamental to Zionist ideology, the logical conclusion is that the Jewish community in the United States, as a whole, is not Zionist, even if many of its members and institutions are. But before we reproach our brethren overseas for forsaking us, let’s take a good look at what is happening at home.

At the same time as the findings of the Pew study were front-page news in the American Jewish press, our own was abuzz with reports of unprecedented numbers of Israelis moving abroad – particularly, of all places, to Berlin.

This phenomenon was made all the more painful by the contemporaneous revelation that two of this year’s Nobel laureates were Israelis who had chosen to live their lives and make their careers in America.

This disappointment highlighted the findings of another recently published study, conducted by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, which revealed that Israel suffers from a “brain drain” significantly more pronounced than that plaguing any other developed country. Israel, it seems, isn’t so central even to Israelis, a matter we’d best digest before wagging our finger at our cousins across the Atlantic.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid, speaking from Budapest, was among the first to comment on the situation, berating Israelis who abandon their homeland in search of economic prosperity. In doing so, he aroused the ire of those who applaud the global village we are in the midst of creating, who defend the pursuit of happiness as the individual’s inalienable right, and who hold our country responsible for not providing its citizens with the conditions allowing them to live comfortably, even when both spouses of an average family are gainfully employed. Barely had that bombardment of criticism subsided when, a week later, Lapid was being castigated by politicians from across the political spectrum for asserting in Manhattan that it was safer to live as a Jew in New York than in Israel. The angry response from back home: “How can we expect anyone to join their fate with ours when a government minister can make a statement like this?” Actually, the answer is rather simple: because today, the question of whether or not to live in Israel should essentially have nothing to do with matters of safety.

In fact, that such a question is being asked at all underscores the failure of Zionism – or, more accurately, the failure of even many of our own leaders to have internalized the full scope of the Zionist idea, a lacuna well illustrated by another episode involving Lapid in Budapest.

I happened to be in the city at the same time as the finance minister, and recounted the following harrowing tale to those whom I was guiding on a journey in Herzl’s footsteps.

The year is 1944. Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, the 13-year-old future MK, has been marched out of the ghetto together with his mother and hundreds of other Jews on the way to the banks of the Danube. He knew what was to happen next. The Nazi guards would line them up on the edge of the frozen river, tied to one another, and then shoot just enough of them to cause the rest to plunge through the holes that had been hacked in the ice below, to drown in the frigid water.

Suddenly, a Soviet plane flew overhead and in the ensuing havoc, Tommy’s mother managed to shove him into the public toilet that stood just a few feet from where they were. There they remained when the others resumed walking. “Half an hour later, not a single person from the march was left alive,” Lapid writes, and recalls his father telling him years later that “it was at this place that I became a Zionist. It is the whole Zionist idea, in fact,” he continued, explaining to his son that the reason Israel was created was “so that every Jewish child will always have a place to go.”

I don’t agree, and actually, I don’t believe the finance minister does either.

While the story is powerful and moving, if this were really the meaning of Zionism in its entirety, then indeed, if it is safer to live elsewhere than in Israel, there really would be no reason for Jews in the Diaspora to come here to live – or for those born here to stay.

But there is more to Zionism than that and there always has been, and Lapid knows it well: “I live in Israel,” he went on to say in New York, “because I want to live in a country that’s a place, but also an idea.”

The cultivation of that idea is what the Pew and Taub studies require of us. We need to be able to articulate the meaning of our existence here in terms that transcend mere survival, to convey first to ourselves and then to others that this country is more than simply a shelter for those who have nowhere else to go.

Until we are able to do that, we can no longer expect that Jews living abroad will care about us, nor that they will consider moving here. Nor would we have any reason to hope that we might be able to arrest the flow of those born here to what they perceive of as greener pastures elsewhere.

We need, in short, to reclaim and reframe the Zionist idea in a manner that is captivating and compelling. A vision of an Israel striving for a higher ideal is one that the Jews of the Diaspora will care about, and that Israelis will be prepared to engage in building – even if doing so might require a measure of self-sacrifice.

David Breakstone is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive; the opinions expressed are his own. Published courtesy of the author.

JAFI shlichim : Israel flag