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The Big Tent: What Camping Can Teach Us About Israelis And American Jews

Every year for the past six, I’ve spent an early summer weekend camping with several dozen Jewish parents (mostly fathers) and their elementary-school-age kids. We all live in the New York area, but roughly one-quarter grew up in Israel. The other three-quarters hail from the United States or other parts of the Diaspora.

Over the years, I began to notice something about the way the Israeli and American Jews erected tents: The Israelis seemed more comfortable. When I asked the Americans to describe their experience of tent construction, many described it as an obligation, even a burden.

There were exceptions, of course, but the majority of Americans I asked said things like, “It’s a pain in the ass, but I do it because my kids like the camping trip.” One person explained: “I’m a city person. I work hard all day. I’m not supposed to be doing this kind of thing.” But he added that he found “satisfaction” in making his son happy. Another described the experience as “doing something for my son.”

That goes for me, too. I’m lousy at constructing a tent. Doing so makes me feel incompetent, inadequate and unmanly. I dislike the experience so much that a couple of years ago I bought a pop-up model that basically assembles itself. Yet I sometimes manage to screw up even that.

The response among Israelis was different. When asked how they felt while constructing a tent, they described a sensation that I found alien: pleasure. One said, “I enjoy making things. There’s a creativity to it.” Another said he liked “to create something out of nothing. From a box you can create something to live in.” A third talked about the enjoyment he took in building the tent so well that no one inside could possibly get wet.

A.D. Gordon would be proud. The Zionist thinker and early kibbutznik who made aliyah in 1904 wrote: “The Jewish people has been completely cut off from nature and imprisoned within city walls these two thousand years…. We lack the habit of labor – not labor performed out of external compulsion, but labor to which one is attached in a natural and organic way.” By practicing such labor, he argued, Jews could “mend the rent between ourselves and Nature.”

Perhaps that’s what the Israelis I talked to were doing. At a campground in New Jersey, they were embodying Zionism.

In America, we rarely think of Zionism that way anymore, as a perspective on life rather than as merely a perspective on politics. American Jews long ago insisted on our right to call ourselves Zionists even if we had no intention of making aliyah. Youth groups like Habonim Dror and Hashomer Hatzair, which aim to give young American Jews a taste of Zionist labor, have faded over the decades.

In American public discourse today, Zionism generally means supporting Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, or supporting the Israeli government’s right to set policy free of external pressure, depending on whom you ask. It’s a statement of political and tribal allegiance. But it’s not a lifestyle. In the United States in 2017, calling yourself an environmentalist or a feminist implies a set of private as well as public behaviors. Calling yourself a Zionist does not.

Maybe that’s inevitable. Had Gordon believed Jews could overcome their alienation from nature in the Diaspora, he would have stayed in Ukraine. Like other Zionist thinkers, he believed it was building a Jewish country that would transform the Jewish character. That country now has an army, in which most Israeli Jews serve. And it was in that army, several of the Israeli campers to whom I spoke noted, that they grew intimately familiar with tents.

American Jews can learn about tents in our own military, of course. Or in the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. But most don’t. Why not? It’s like asking why most American Jews don’t live on farms or own guns. It’s not part of our Diaspora DNA.

Most of the time, I’m fine with that. Gordon called Diaspora Jews “a parasitic people,” a people with “no roots in the soil” and “no ground beneath our feet.” In the United States today, that’s not true. Jews may mostly feel concrete, not soil, beneath our feet, but that doesn’t make us inauthentic Americans. You can experience the real America just as easily by subway as by pickup truck.

We are not interlopers here, because no matter what Stephen Bannon says, American nationalism need not be based on ancestry. It can be based on creed. As my old colleague Leon Wieseltier once wrote, “Barack Hussein Obama is as splendid a name for a patriotic American as, say, Abner Mikva.”

Only once a year, on the camping trip, do doubts creep in. Lying there at night, I sometimes think: If the wind gusts fiercely, and the rain comes down extra hard, the Israelis’ tents will stay rooted in the earth. Mine, on the other hand, may blow away.

Peter Beinart is a Forward senior columnist and contributing editor. Listen to “Fault Lines,” his podcast with Daniel Gordis, here or on iTunes.

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