Discover more from New Zionist Journal
Zionism in America is in Need of a Revamp
By Justin S. Saltiel
In the late 1800s and 1900s as Zionism was taking shape, Europe thrived as the center of world Jewry.Many of Zionism’s most prominent writers and thinkers were living in Europe and thus Zionist ideology developed in this community. At the same time, there were sizable Jewish communities in the Arab world as well as about 400,000 Jews in America. Yet by 1948, most Jews from Europe and the Middle East had fled. Zionism was trying its best to attract these Jews to settle in Israel and for the most part it succeeded, absorbing swarms of refugees from countless world crises and building a thriving Jewish nation.
Though Israel hoped to be a nation for all of the world’s Jews, many Jews slipped through the cracks and built their futures outside of the budding state. From the time that Theodor Herzl kickstarted the modern Zionist movement by publishing Der Judenstaat until David Ben Gurion founded Israel in 1948, America managed to multiply it’s Jewish population more than tenfold, totalling 5 million Jews.
This brings us to the modern day with two major hubs of Jewish life; Israel and America. In Russia, Europe, and the Middle East, the formerly thriving Jewish communities are almost entirely gone.
How this shift happened is often distorted in order to paint a certain picture. The Russian Refusenik movement, for example, is often glorified as one of Zionism’s greatest triumphs. Swarms of Jews were denied their right to return to their ancient homeland but thanks to the support of international Jewry, the Refuseniks managed to escape from under the thumb of the treacherous Soviet government. Unfortunately the reality is much less rosey. Many of those Jews in the Soviet Union didn’t envision living on kibbutzim working the land of their ancestors and reuniting the Jewish people. They just wanted to get out of Eastern Europe. If this meant they needed to be Zionists, so be it. If they had to flee to America, they would do it. In America, they believed the streets would be paved with gold. For many of the Jewish refugees of the mid 20th century, America was just as tempting as Israel, if not more so.
Since then, American Jews have turned themselves into one of the country's most successful minority groups and, at least in their minds, they have not forgotten Zionism. They visit Israel every few years, send their hard earned dollars to pro-Israel non-profits, and share their thoughts and prayers whenever there is a terrorist attack or military operation. They see Israel as a safe haven for Jews if it is ever needed. Thankfully, they live in America where they are safe and the government loves Jews and, more precisely, Israel.
Israel and America are best friends. America provides aid and defends Israel at the UN and Israel defends America’s interests in the Middle East and promotes democracy. Despite a few dissenting opinions from certain members of the government, America is a fan of Israel. So, by extension it is a fan of the Jews. If it turned its back on the Jews it would be turning its back on Israel.
Through this view, American Jews are able to “other” themselves from the rest of world Jewry. To them the Jews of France have it worse because the French government is hostile towards Jews. The Jews of Egypt had it worse because their government was hostile towards Israel. But the Jews of America have nothing to fear because their government is the first in world history to accept the Jew as an equal. So, American Jews use their success and affluence to support Israel from afar and allow it to serve the Jews who aren’t as well off.
In 2021, over 27,000 Jews made Aliyah. Of those Olim, only 4,000 were from America, despite having the largest Jewish population in the diaspora. That’s about one twentieth of a percent of the total American Jewish population.
American Jews simply aren’t making Aliyah in comparable numbers to other countries. Their Zionism is taking other shapes, like Bar Mitzvahs at the Kotel, planting trees with JNF, and having Knesset members come to speak at their local synagogues. A 2019 Gallup poll revealed that 95% of self described Jews would also identify themselves as Zionists. So where is the disconnect? How is there such a large community of American Zionists but yet only a small trickle of them choose to make Aliyah.
David Ben Gurion saw this trend starting during his lifetime. His childhood friend, Shmuel Fuchs, would read Poland’s Hebrew language Zionist newspaper with the young Ben Gurion and they would talk about their plans to move to Israel together and build up the state. They promised each other this. But Fuchs left Poland for New York and became a successful Dentist. He also cut himself off from the Zionist movement.
To Ben Gurion this made no sense so he asked the question “what is the difference . . . between Zionism without the duty to immigrate and between a love for the State of Israel which is common to almost every Jew wherever he be?” To him, Zionism was only of value if it was real and concrete. One had to move to Israel in order to be a Zionist.
“Zionism without the duty to immigrate” is all talk. It does not actively benefit the people on the ground and the Jewish community. Instead it is a self aggrandizing activity which misses a major point of Zionism.
So, if Israel was designed as a safe haven for Jews then American Jews have nothing to worry about. After all, why would America ever endanger its Jewish population when it is best friends with the Jewish state? Therefore, the American Jews stand by Israel as a safe haven because they don’t need it to survive. In their mind, it’s only the other Jews in worse off countries that need help. Mighty America has their back.
But Zionism does not solely call for Israel to be a safe haven. Herzl’s main concern wasn’t physical safety but assimilation. That was the enemy that had been beating him for most of his life. This half of Zionism is what American Jewry overlooks.
Of course, Zionism calls for a safe haven for Jews in Israel. But Herzl wasn’t actively fearing a Holocaust in his lifetime. Instead, he saw Israel as a home for Jews to flourish in ways that would be unfathomable without a Jewish society. Herzl spoke a lot about a “constant pressure” felt by Jews in the diaspora. As he put it, “You have outbreaks and persecution which come rarely and then you have this long pressure every day. A man who does not know what it is to be a free man says ‘no, I am not persecuted’ because he has not got his head wounded.”
Zionism is liberation, not just a savior complex. It is for all Jews. It is for all the Jews that get a giddy feeling in their stomach when they see the Tel Aviv shore line out of the window of their plane about to land in Ben Gurion, or for all the jews that have tucked their Magen David necklace into their shirt for any reason, or for any Jew that forgets all their problems during Kabbalat Shabbat.
American Jews don’t see themselves as the wandering Jew who doesn’t belong anywhere for whom Zionism is a savior (because they’re not). Instead they see themselves as a saved Jew living in America, who stands with Israel and therefore with its mission to save the Jews of the world.
However Zionism is not just for those living in danger. The Jewish society will not just benefit Jews because it is free of persecution. It will benefit them because it is filled with unity and love.
If American Jews are to take an active roll in Zionist activity, we must stress this aspect of Zionism more than ever. Relying solely on the narrative of Israel being a home for downtrodden refugees allows American Jews to disconnect themselves from the story and see themselves as more well off. If Zionism is to succeed in bringing together all of the world's Jews, then we can not allow half of Jews to disconnect themselves from the rest. We must all see each other as one in order to relieve that “constant pressure” and find ourselves living in ways we never thought imaginable beforehand.
We are the New Zionist Journal by the New Zionist Congress. We believe that Zionism is a constantly morphing ideology and as an organization we are working to come alongside young Zionists to help them develop New Zionist rhetoric for a more mature Israel. The New Zionist Journal is a place for New Zionist theory to be shaped by our community.
To submit any piece on Israel, Zionism, Judaism, Antisemitism, or other related topics, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “<First Name Last Name> Journal Submission”.
Welcome to the New Zionist Congress.