I Don’t Understand Zionism; Musings from the GA

Guest Post by Shaun Bernstein, Do The Write Thing participant at 2010 New Orleans General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America

In April, I’ll be finishing up my journalism program in Toronto, Canada. In the past two years of J-School, I’ve learned how to at least try and see both sides of an issue by abandoning any opinion I ever had…on anything…ever. Suffice it to say, I still have a few of those left, and in an environment like Jewlicious I’m more than happy to share.

I’ve managed to leave the GA with less of an understanding of Zionism than I came with, and have misplaced any grasp I once had of the concept of aliyah. Why? I’m a journalist. That’s what brought me to the GA in the first place. This means I look at the world a little differently, and I ask the questions other people may not be asking. When I’m surrounded by answers, I start asking even more questions.

This is how I tend to feel when I’m surrounded by thousands of people proclaiming with fervent ovations that the answer is aliyah. It’s how I’ve felt when I’m in a room of 40 people who make the same claim, but at 4,000, you can pretty much do the math. In moments like these, I stop and do a quick mental head count. In an audience of thousands of people claiming that aliyah is at the pinnacle of Zionism, how many of these people are actually going to take the plunge, so to speak?

I imagine the Jewish Agency has the numbers, but I’d say under five per cent is being more than generous. So the real question then here is how is 95 per cent of an audience purporting that the answer to their troubles is a move they themselves will probably never make. How can so many people stand so passionately behind something that reality dictates just isn’t in the cards?

Now don’t get me wrong; Israel is a beautiful country, and if it’s where you feel you can live at 110 per cent then go for it. As for me, I’m staying put. There’s no question I’ll be back to Israel, and hope
to someday take my children and grandchildren. But I can assure you it’s for visits only. This isn’t about me though, it’s about the thousands of other Zionists who will always call ‘Columbus’ medineh’ as they say in Yiddish, home.

I don’t know the answer. The more that I think about it, I can’t really fathom how so many people can claim to stand behind something they know deep down is probably never going to happen. Wait a minute, this is starting to sound like a bit of a familiar theme here.

Anyone? Anyone? Beuller?

I don’t want to sound glib, but it’s hard to ignore that feeling that fighting for something that you know deep down isn’t going to work sounds like something we’ve seen before. Is there some sort of correlation here? Are the same people who are vowing to move to a land they won’t move to the ones championing a peace they might never see?

It’s a grim projection, but I worry it might not be that far fetched.

I don’t know the answer, I really don’t. I invite you to respond to this with your own thoughts, maybe even after you’ve had the 48 hours to ponder it that I had. Before when I’d hear people waxing poetic about aliyah, I’d shake my head and tune right out of the conversation. Now, after the GA, I’ve realized that my words aren’t of much use when they stay silent.

Shaun Bernstein is a 23 year old journalism student in Toronto. When he’s not asking questions online, he’s usually busy pestering people in person.

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12 Comments

  1. Eden

    11/15/2010 at 3:12 pm

    I was at the GA, and I guess I missed what you’re referring to – I felt a huge outpouring of support for Israel in general, but not aliyah specifically. Besides Netanyahu asking the astronaut to make aliyah I don’t recall aliyah specifically idealized or discussed. Am I missing something?

    Otherwise I completely agree with your premise – there’s a huge difference between support for aliyah and taking the plunge yourself, and this is coming from someone who’s admittedly in the talking without action category.

  2. drewlicious

    11/15/2010 at 11:43 pm

    Is it possible that Shaun is thinking of Zionism = [desire to make] aliyah versus Zionism = supporting a Jewish state?

  3. Cori

    11/16/2010 at 1:29 am

    I echo some of the above – plus, what really negates this feeling that you have is the fact that we’ve built a vibrant nation with……..immigrants. They don’t come in large numbers all at once, but they come – and they build a successful nation, little by little. The amount of progress that the State has made economically, socially, etc etc etc in the pas 60 years or so pretty much negates the idea that people don’t come. It doesn’t have to be the majority of American jewry that end up here for the notion of aliyah to have been successful/important. It’s happening, whether it speaks to you personally or not.

  4. Pingback: The Reading List: The GA made me understand Zionism less « New Voices

  5. Caroline Kessler

    11/16/2010 at 10:35 am

    Shaun, I was in DTWT as well…and had similar feelings you did. I’m wondering what you thought of Hagshama’s iZionist campaign? It really pushed this Zionist/aliyah message you are talking about.

    Caroline

  6. Florence Broder

    11/17/2010 at 4:21 am

    Shaun,

    I was at the GA & presented about social media for DTWT. I don’t think anyone is saying that aliyah is the only answer. It is an answer for some people, which is why most Jewish institutions are emphasizing Jewish identity and peoplehood. Both identity and peoplehood transcend issues of movements. From a Jewish Agency stand point, we use Israel as the hook to help strengthen Jewish identity and peoplehood. For some that does lead to aliyah, but not for all. Most young Jews today feel a connection to a people and have a stronger Jewish identity because of their experience on Birthright or Masa Israel. Prof Steven M Cohen has done the research to prove that. I hope this clarifies some of the issues for you.

    Florence

  7. LB

    11/17/2010 at 7:36 am

    I don’t think anyone is saying that aliyah is the only answer.

    And that is a serious problem with the Jewish “leadership” in America. They should be saying that.

    When a Jewish Agency representative says that – it’s a far more serious problem. This is what Israel is paying people salaries for? To advocate “us[ing] Israel as the hook to help strengthen Jewish identity and peoplehood…[which does not necessarily] lead to aliyah”…? Considering that the American Jewish community has never experienced (significant?) positive natural growth (the only reason there was a somewhat constant population-size during the latter half of the 20th century is immigration) – maybe someone is doing something wrong…? (Then again, the Jewish Agency was started as a Mapa”i party tool, and it never strayed far from that position – it never truly represented Israel).

  8. Taly

    11/29/2010 at 5:35 pm

    As an Israeli let me butt in – can you really be Zionist ‘at heart’? Can you really be Jewish only ‘at heart’? Both Zionism and Judaism (that are quite the two sides of the same coin) require making.

    Aliya IS the answer, the only one possible to American Jewry – assimilation, identity, truth-wise.

    Come back home! It’s the time and the hour – don’t hesitate for a second – come!!!

  9. matthew

    11/30/2010 at 4:22 pm

    As an American oleh to Israel (7 years!) who was also at the GA, I have to say– hmmmmm. First, there was indeed a lot of odd not-quite-full-throated ‘Zionism’ (whatever that means) in NOLA, tho I echo Eden, I didn’t hear much about making Aliyah.

    Second, I agree that American Judaism is unsustainable. Assimilate or Aliyah are the only viable longer-term paths.

    Last, yes, the ‘peace process’ and the two-state solution are long past dead. Much as many would wish it otherwise. Time for new creative thinking and new directions.

    I have some choice words for those – JStreet or otherwise– who would dictate different paths for Israel without putting their own asses on the line. Make Aliyah and vote if you care so much.

    And I do respect (the longer I’m here in Jeru) that it’s haaard to make it here. But at least come try! It’s the reservation, but it’s the only one we’ve got. And if enough Americans would come here and demand constitutional rights and customer service, they just might happen. Might even bring Moshiach. 😉

    • themiddle

      12/1/2010 at 2:28 am

      I think it’s harder to “make it” in Israel if you’re based in Jerusalem. Get out to Herzliya, Haifa, Yokneam, Tel Aviv, Kfar Saba and other areas with high tech centers. It’s hard there as well, but it’s a lot easier than a city like Jerusalem with far less opportunities.

  10. Tom Morrissey

    12/1/2010 at 9:15 am

    If American Jewry is unsustainable, why is the domestic ultra-Orthodox community seemingly thriving? Or will it, too, eventually give way to the pressures of assimilation?

  11. LB

    12/2/2010 at 9:06 am

    @Taly, matthew – thank you. Far too few people are willing to say/admit that American Judaism is quickly dying.

    If American Jewry is unsustainable, why is the domestic ultra-Orthodox community seemingly thriving? Or will it, too, eventually give way to the pressures of assimilation?

    That’s the exception that proves the rule – I don’t see many people at the GA, or the writer of this post, for that matter, saying that it’s either becoming ultra-Orthodox or aliyah, they’re advocating a third, non-sustainable way.

    Apart from the ultra-Orthodox, the US has never had positive natural growth. Doesn’t that send a pretty strong message?

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