Progressive Zionist Engagement with Israel

Categories: Letters From Leadership
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This article originally appeared in Contact: The Journal of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, Autumn, 2011.

David Ben Gurion, who later became the founding Prime Minister of Israel, was the leader of the Labor Zionist movement that led the pre-state Jewish Palestine community and provided the core values to the emerging state. It was not a coincidence that when it was necessary to establish communities to define and protect the future borders of Israel, the socialist kibbutz and its cooperative cousin, the Moshav, were the chosen formats. In short, at the time of the establishment of the state and for years to come, progressive Zionism was synonymous with Israel. These progressive Zionists fully supported the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine that recommended the division of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab.

These founding pioneers would find it inconceivable that today many in and out of the Jewish community identify Zionism exclusively with right-wing political views that oppose a two state solution and view ideological settlers living in far flung West Bank settlements as the true Zionist pioneers of today. This perception is propagated by the right both in Israel and the Diaspora. In the United States, some American Jewish organizations and leaders actively promote the delegitimization of progressive Jewish and Zionist organizations, suggesting that expressing views in opposition to Israeli government positions is equivalent to being anti-Israel and disloyal to the Jewish people. Synagogues have been threatened with withdrawal of financial support for holding events that promote views critical of official Israeli government policy. Jewish Community Centers have drawn criticism for screening films about the challenges faced by Israeli Arab citizens.

The left, however, is not blameless in this situation. There has been a tendency to cede the field to the right and opt out of the Zionist debate. Young Jews, turned off by the image of a theocratic, recalcitrant Israel, are developing new forms of a communal Jewish identity that avoid the “Z word” and relegate Israel to a minor role in their lives. The recent Repair the World study on young Jewish adults showed that while a large majority of respondents engage in some sort of volunteer activity, only 1% of respondents cited Israel or Middle East peace as the primary focus of their volunteer work.

This trend, if not addressed, could have far reaching impact on future of Israel-Diaspora relations and American Jewish support for Israel.

The American Jewish community has to acknowledge and embrace the fact that the Middle East conflict is complicated and affirm that you can be a Zionist and disagree with government policies. The same is true about the concerns for the strength of Israel’s democracy and the discouraging state of religious affairs in the country. To be a Zionist means to celebrate the successes of Israel and to try and help fix that which needs repair in Israel. Instead of ignoring these differences of opinion within the community, financial and logistical communal support should be provided to initiatives that address this question.

This is important not only to ensure long term, ongoing Diaspora engagement with Israel, but also because the very people who are disengaging from Israel are critical to a central communal initiative currently underway. There is a consensus in the organized American Jewish community regarding the need to combat the campaign that questions the legitimacy of Israel. These attacks, by and large, emanate from the left and include no small number of Jews.

Who better to fight this battle then progressive Zionists who speak the language of the left? To enlist their active involvement, those leading the charge both on a national level and in local communities must be willing to support those who employ effective language and tactics, even if it creates discomfort or conflict with more right wing members of the communal coalition.

The question remains: How do we create a personal connection for liberal American Jews with Israel today?

One approach is to develop opportunities for Diaspora Jews to engage with the progressive activists of Israel. The good news is that there are a large number of Israeli grassroot activists who share liberal values with their Western counterparts and are engaged in a wide range of areas that can capture the imagination of young adults….and older ones as well. These include groups:

  • addressing the social and economic rights of Arabs in Israeli society
  • working towards government recognition of the Jewish liberal religious streams
  • meeting the needs of the LGBT community in Israel
  • dealing with the social gap and growing economic insecurity
  • continuing the co-existence work between Palestinians and Israelis
  • defending the human rights of all Israeli citizens and residents
  • from Israeli and Diaspora Zionist youth movements establishing urban kibbutzim and working in the field of education as the new pioneers of Israeli society

There are a variety of structures that can be utilized to enable engagement between these Israeli and Diaspora cohorts. They can include service learning programs of Diaspora groups to Israel as well as scholars-in-residences from Israel coming to the Diaspora. Bi-directional internship placements can be facilitated between groups so that each can learn about the mission and organizational culture of their counterparts. The Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization could recruit shlichim (emissaries) and teachers from among the ranks of these Israeli social activists. Their interaction with the local Jewish community where they work could serve to expand the picture Diaspora Jews receive of the reality in today’s Israel.

Progressive Zionism, a world view of how the Jews can realize their national aspirations in a socially just manner, is as relevant today as when Ahad Ha’am, Berl Katznelson, Ben Gurion and others brought these ideas from Russia to then Palestine. The 21st century version of this ideology, linking Tikun Olam, Jewish values and Zionism with reaching a secure and just peace with Israel’s neighbors, should and can be an important part of the Diaspora Jewish community’s connection with Israel.

About Kenneth Bob, National President

Kenneth Bob is the National President of Ameinu. He is a member of the Jewish Agency for Israel Board of Governors,  the treasurer of Board of Directors of J Street and a board member of the Forward Association. Ken is a past chair of the Habonim Dror Foundation, the national alumni association of the Labor Zionist youth movement, providing financial support for their educational programming throughout North America. In his professional life, Ken is an experienced entrepreneur and currently provides management consulting for small and merging companies.
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