My grandmother used to sigh, “Shver tsu zayn a yid” — it’s tough to be a Jew. These days, though, it’s even tougher to be a Zionist. It is an act of triple-chutzpah.
Diaspora Zionists risk the opprobrium of anti-Zionists who libel Zionism as racism, of Israelis like writer A.B. Yehoshua who uses crude sexual terms to sneer that Diaspora Judaism is sterile, and of fellow Jews who because of rude Israelis like Yehoshua view Zionism as fanatic or passé. Even Birthright Israel, that extraordinary experiment in Jewish identity building, finds its central assumptions challenged by those who focus only on the political dimensions of the experience, who claim that American Jewish identity cannot be formed solely through solidarity with Israel.
It is true, as some critics have asserted, that American Jews need to befriend Israel, and not just defend Israel. But relegating Israel to the margins of the American Jewish experience is not the path to follow.
We need to build a mutually beneficial relationship, where we Diaspora Jews come to appreciate the manifold blessings of living in the era of the third Jewish commonwealth. My favorite model for Zionism these days is Tony Soprano, the lead character in the hit television series “The Sopranos.” For starters, his relationship with his homeland is neither neurotic nor defensive. It is straightforward, apolitical and a source of pride. Tony does not stay up at night worrying about accusations of dual loyalty.
Italy for Tony is an anchor, a touchstone for his identity amid the vast smorgasbord of modern American identities. Being Italian, eating Italian and speaking Italian roots him in a rich culture that resonates more deeply than the New Jersey of shopping malls and suburban palazzos. This culture shapes his values — for better and for worse. This culture gives him a sense of community which nurtures, challenges and sustains him. His allegiance to the culture and the community engages him with its history — and he sees his story as part of a broader Italian-American story.
True, Tony needs to work on making his Italian identity not just an anchor but a lodestar, a way of navigating for a better, more moral, more meaningful future. He has not figured out how to pass on his deep, multi-dimensional relationship with Italy, the Italian language and Italian culture to his children Anthony Junior and Meadow — but what kind of a name is Meadow for a nice Italian girl anyway? Tony has, however, rooted his kids in the Italian narrative, and given them the strong, enduring, affirming sense of family that is so often lacking in modernized, individuated, suburbanized America.
Zionism is both a political movement and an ideological orientation. Our challenge is to combine Solidarity Zionism with Soprano Zionism, to make our political defense of Israel and the Jewish people an outgrowth of our multi-dimensional engagement with Israel and the Jewish people, rather than the starting point — and too often the end point. To integrate or not integrate Israel into modern Jewish identity is not really the question — one cannot tell the story of the Jewish people without placing Israel, both as a reality and as an ideal, at the heart of the narrative. Our challenge is to become more aware and appreciative of the orienting, comforting and transformative power of Hebrew, Hebrew literature, Israeli culture and Israel’s story — all of which are interwoven with our American Jewish story.
This year, as we gather for Seder — one of the most popular North American Jewish rituals — let us advance this dual agenda. We need to carve out some time to mobilize and to mourn — by leaving an empty seat at the table for one, specific Israeli victim of terrorism or one of the Israeli hostages in Lebanon, acknowledging that our joy cannot be complete when so many families are incomplete. We need to use that time to commit to action, adopting a family of a victim, twinning with an Israeli school during this time of budgetary cutbacks, and mobilizing to defend Israel and befriend Israelis however we can.
But we also should contemplate how to broaden our engagement with the land, people and culture of Israel, not just with the State of Israel. We need to figure out how to learn more Hebrew, the secret decoder ring that can decipher the Haggada and so many traditional Jewish texts, while connecting us more deeply to our Israeli cousins and their culture. We need to read books by Israelis and about Israelis, drink Israeli wine, sing Israeli songs, celebrate the many sights, sounds, smells, achievements and ideas of Israel — which was, after all, the destination of our ancestors when they were liberated.
We need to think about how the Zionist idea, which builds on our ethnic feelings and connects us to the trinity of land, people and tradition, fits in with our religious beliefs, our American ideals, our humanistic aspirations. And, like Tony Soprano, we need to start planning our next (or first) visit “home,” understanding, as the Birthright Israel participants and so many others do, that visiting Israel, luxuriating in the rich, authentic flow of a people at one with their land, culture, language, religion, values and history, can help us integrate, reinforce and reenergize our Jewish identity, becoming better Jews and more fulfilled human beings in the process.
The second printing of Gil Troy’s latest book, “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today” (Bronfman Jewish Education Centre), was recently released.
Gil Troy is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy