Keeping American Zionism a Relevant and Robust Part of the Vision

Remarks by William D. Hess, President of AZM

Keeping American Zionism a Relevant and Robust Part of the Vision

Chicago, 3-25-08 / 18 Adar II 5768

    There are three points I hope to make tonight demonstrating Zionism’s relevance in the 21st Century and beyond:

  • Still, 60 years after its founding, Israel really is a good place for the Jews, as though there is another. We may have to fight to maintain her existence; but that always was part of the bargain. Israel is a job for world Jewry not just resident Israelis. It is a Zionist undertaking.
  • Our generation has a unique responsibility: ours is the first in over 2,000 years to be able to demonstrate Jewish competence in statecraft on our own behalf. We owe it to 6 million and many more Jews who went before us to be competent state builders and visionaries. Young Jews today need to find in themselves the rationale underpinning the concept of Jewish self-determination, to recall a phrase from the 1950’s and 60’s. Zionism provides that rationale.
  • The American Jewish Community has some work to do on its own behalf in order to best serve itself and the state of Israel. The Zionist Movement has a central role to play in the “re-Jew-venation” of the American Jewish Community. That role is to be the ideological gadfly that Zionism has always been: giving shape to the body of the people Israel, and providing vision from world Jewry for its prosperous future.

    60 years later

    Several things strike me simultaneously as consideration is made of the Jewish State at 60, my own age and no doubt that of more than a few here this evening. The first striking fact is that we have a state at all! When was the last time you recall unanimity or even a strong majority view on an important question among the Jews? Not recently? Of course not, we are a contentious not consensus loving people. Still there is little disagreement among the Jews about the inherent need for the State of Israel and its importance in our lives. At the same time we tie ourselves into knots about how to run the state: economic policy, foreign policy, religion and state, constitution and borders. Yet we unite in defense of the country against the horrific and cynical enemies confronting her. On top of that, there are those who remind us that we Jews have not been able to maintain control of our own state and thus our destiny, for more than 70 years at one time. Does that mean we only have a decade left? I don’t think so, in any case, don’t tell Hamas or Hezbollah.

    No, we have a state and we are bound and determined to keep it a Jewish and democratic state. That is the Zionist answer. There can be no post-Zionism. Not as long as there is housing to be improved, desert to be brought to bloom and Jews who need the refuge of a homeland for whatever reason. That is the Zionist answer and it resonates as strongly today as ever in Jewish history. Our state is not perfect despite the optimism and naiveté of its founders. Nonetheless our state remains a miracle. It is a declaration to the world of the ability of the Jews to withstand the most brutal attacks humanity can throw at us and overcome them with ingenuity, imagination, tenacity, skill and humor.How we and our children work and help to develop that state and utilize its benefits in high tech and in Talmud exegesis as much as possible for the betterment of the Jewish people and the world at large is the opportunity, the challenge, the open question for the future. If it is at is at all realistic or possible to see Israel as the cultural and intellectual center for the Jewish world in centuries 21 and beyond, I do not know; but one must have dreams for oneself and for the world beyond oneself. What Israel can be remains truly in our dreams.Second only to the foremost Zionist imperative, Aliyah, is the up building and betterment of the land. If you have any doubts about what that means contact the JNF and check out Project Negev, or AMIT to find out how schools manage to stay open in Sderot under fire. As an aside, AZM’s Purim Connection 2008 raised enough money to send mishloach manot to over 1,000 members of the IDF and school children in Sderot. AZM Chicago undertook that project some 20 years ago and you should shep much nachat at its success. Kol ha kavod.

    The basic tenets of Zionism: Zionism is the value add to Jewish life in that it gives every Jew the opportunity to participate in an endeavor far bigger than her or him self or one’s kehilla, local community, town or city, state and country. The four tenets of classical Zionism ring as true today as they have for more than 110 years:

  • The creation, maintenance and up building of the Jewish state in the land of Israel
  • The in gathering of Jews in the form of Aliyah whether, G-d forbid in distress or under the new rubrics of Aliyah of choice and flex Aliyah
  • The expansion of Hebrew fluency literacy throughout the Jewish world, and
  • The continuous training of activists and advocates in communities around the world to stand unconditionally and vigilantly on behalf of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
  • At AZM we recognize the validity of these principles and encourage their development in our member organizations and parties.
    Zionism is about involvement. One way to show involvement, a step beyond engagement in this voluntary society, is by taking out a membership in the Zionist movement. Be it taking a general membership, or, better yet, becoming involved with a Zionist party or group, signing up and demonstrating leadership will change one’s life, we in the Zionist movement believe, for the better. One person will strengthen the group and thus the movement. I know it sounds hokey; but it is true and needs to be said. The oldest of our traditions is in reality but one generation old.

    If the mandate just enunciated is not sufficiently broad, please come into the Zionist tent and broaden it.

    So that brings me to point number 2: the responsibility we bear to our forebears, to our own generation and to our progeny and the Zionist imperatives inherent in that responsibility.

    I have no doubt that as we sing them we believe the words of the Hatikva about the fulfillment of a 2,000-year dream and of being “a free people in our own land.” We have to find the way to translate that yearning into language our children find acceptable for transmission to their children rather than dismissing our love for Zion and Jerusalem as sloganeering, propaganda or programming. Birthright is the first step in the beginning of an answer, MASA is the next. There is a great deal of effort and money going into Zionist Jewish Education. The results of all that time and money won’t be seen for another 5 – 10 years. We need leadership now. It remains important to give our children and grandchildren a sense of the important and essential role of the Jew throughout history and show them their place in the driver’s seat, more appropriately, a seat at the loom where the tapestry of Jewish history is woven generation after generation.

    Fundamentally, I am very hopeful. There are increasingly hip ways to interact with Israel. For one quick example, how about sending your child there this summer for Internet camp? e-Camp exists and is accepting applications over the internet now. What country boasts more high tech than Israel? What country is more polyglot and homogenous at the same time? Is there a better way for young Jews from Israel and around the world to meet in a Summer SIG, special interest group, for 6 weeks or so?

    What motivates the homogeneity that helps make Israel’s society? I say it is the Zionist movement, yesterday, today and tomorrow, to borrow from a slogan used at the centenary World Zionist Congress in 1997. It was also at that Congress that the movement undertook to rejuvenate and renew itself by mandating that 25% of the seats go to youth, under 30. Name me another organization in modern Jewish life anywhere in the world that has a similar vision. The delegate allotment has taken place. The renewal part is going ahead, for those who are knowledgeable and follow these matters, at a snail’s pace like a bull in a china shop. I am not mixing metaphors, believe me, and enough about that.

    My last point:

    There are forces in the American Jewish community that are operating in a way that can prove destructively disastrous to the community by changing the dynamic that has held Jewish communities together for centuries. There is an effort to apply the adage of what I shall call the Twisted Golden Rule: the person with the money makes the rules rather than the more familiar one about doing unto others or loving one’s neighbor. This does not and cannot work in the framework of a Jewish community that is sincerely interested in its future and the future of the Jewish people. As Zionists it is our responsibility to keep open that low threshold access to Jewish leadership and to keep open the intellectual ferment that gave way to fervor that built a state that saved a people. It is almost Pesach as you can see. We have to resist allowing only rich people to drive the car. We need to help bring back an era of collective giving and allocations so that all of Israeli society benefits and any Jew who wants to can have access to the “system” and still feel valued and important be it with the gift of a dollar or a million dollars. Zionists don’t suffer donor fatigue.

    The leadership of the federations and communities need to look at what they created in UJC and start planning for its successor. Without serious input from the Zionist parties and organizations and their umbrella, AZM, the American community is short changing itself and retarding its ability to assist the Jewish state at a critical time in its development. Without including Zionists from our parties and organizations the federations are short changing themselves of leadership talent and Israel of badly needed funds. We have invested in education to plan for the future. Now we need to plan for the present. We need to have looked ahead enough to get us a bit more down the road. Soon enough we will relinquish the wheel to an exquisitely trained generation of leaders.

    It is almost Pesach, that most revered of rites, the holiday most continuously celebrated by Jews throughout the ages. What is the concluding statement, the promise of Passover? Next Year in Jerusalem, l’shanah ha ba’a birushalayim. Let us resolve this year, and next year and every year after that to close our sederim with the resolve, THIS YEAR IN JERUSALEM!!! B’shana HA ZO birushalyim. It is good for you, it is good for We, it is good for Israel, which, as I said at the outset, is a good place for the Jews.

    Toda raba, thank you.