Two flawed strategies are too frequently the response to campus anti-Semitism, reflecting what the philosopher Isaiah Berlin called Oyster and Ostrich Jews.
Oysters are doubling down on Israel advocacy, hoping that rubbing against the grit – the anti-Israel lies – will produce pearls of national pride.
While Zionism entails saving Israel and improving the world, both approaches will fail without a counter- cultural Zionism, rejecting the faux-universalism that is intoxicating young Jews. Let’s be wise Owls, celebrating Identity Zionism, emphasizing belonging to a particular people with a special heritage best expressed in our homeland.
Before defending Zionism politically, Jews must take Zionism personally, meaningfully. And before combating Palestinian lies against us on campus, let’s combat our own delusions about our place in the world. Many modern Jews epitomize the old joke about three strangers talking religion. The first says, “I’m Protestant.” The second says, “I’m Jewish.” When the third says, “I’m a citizen of the world,” the others scoff: “ah, another Jew.”
Bernie Sanders brings this Jewish joke to life. Calling himself a “son of Polish immigrants,” negating centuries of Polish Jew hatred, he nevertheless sounds like a Brooklyn butcher. Every Bernie Sanders-Larry David comparison is polite Americanese for “they both speak Jew” – mocking their universalist aspirations.
Since the Enlightenment started freeing Jews from the ghetto, many Jews have sought to free themselves from Judaism. Ironically, Israeli particularism facilitates Jews’ delusional universalism by normalizing all Jews.
Israel revived Jewish dignity and changed the Jewish image, adding farmer, soldier, mover, superwoman and politician to the once limited, pale palette of bookish Jews. Today’s Jewish pagans, cosmopolitans and assimilationists cannot appreciate how much Israel enables their amnesia and self-absorption.
Another irony: Israel’s toughest critics are highly particularistic.
The United Nations represents 193 nationalisms.
Campuses are balkanized by African-Americanism, feminism, LGBT-ism. Consider the fury when some university presidents suggested “all lives matter” not just “Black Lives Matter.” And Palestinians enlist universalist Jews to negate Jewish nationalism while affirming Palestinian nationalism. Why is only Jewish particularism, Zionism, politically incorrect? Troy’s rule of anti-Semitic inconsistency: when rules applied consistently to others are applied inconsistently to Jews, the inconsistency consistently reflects Jew hatred.
Today, Zionism is about Jewish identity. Surveys show that the more Jewishly engaged you are, the more Zionist you are. Zionism emphasizes that Judaism is not just a religion. Israel, the Jewish homeland and heartland, embodies this 3-D, 24-7 Judaism, integrating Judaism’s religious, national, cultural, ethnic and moral dimensions. That is why intermarried couples and their children, who often define Judaism as just a religion, are often more distant from Jewish peoplehood, Israel and Zionism.
Zionism’s boost to Jewish identity goes beyond creating Israel, history’s most effective Jewish self-defense organization. Zionism also saved our souls. Israeli Judaism’s defining characteristics reflect the “cosmic element in nationality” the Labor Zionist A. D. Gordon recognized that blends “the natural landscape of the Homeland with the spirit of the people inhabiting it.” Israelis’ all-Jewish-all-the-time Judaism is natural, authentic, not forced. Israelis speak Hebrew, follow the Jewish calendar, brush by Jewish history daily, live Jewish ideas, attitudes, rituals, even if they don’t try or don’t notice. Some expressions are private, but many are public.
Israeli Judaism’s public nature sets the cultural tone.
This comprehensive and communal Judaism fills every Israeli’s life with Jewish content easily. The Diaspora Jews’ schizophrenia alternating our “Jewish” and “normal” selves disappears in Israel. As Gordon anticipated, Jewish culture, confidence and cosmic power flourish.
There are, of course, problems. With Jewish content naturally integrated into the Israeli background, many Israelis neglect how Jewish their lives are. And the public- private lines trigger public spats and private alienation, especially with a rabbinate that tries compelling Jewish observance legally rather than cultivating Jewish living spiritually. Yet Israel’s Jewish community is growing, not shrinking, demographically and ideologically.
Jews worldwide sing songs, debate ideas, celebrate moments, feel feelings that have “made in Israel” stamped on them.
In introducing this Identity Zionism to thousands of students over the years, I have seen how this 3-D, natural, non-neurotic Judaism inspires. This, then, is the fight on campus – and beyond. The more Zionism remains strictly political, the more vulnerable Jews are to attacks on Israeli policies or politicians (see Netanyahu, Benjamin) and the more likely to become so critical as to disengage (see Sanders, Bernie). The more Zionism is ideological, existential, essential to one’s identity – like American Jews’ Americanism – the less politics can alienate.
Consider Ari Shavit’s three faces. His historically sloppy caricature of Israeli brutality in 1948 in My Promised Land earned him campus street cred – but apparently scared him by unleashing delegitimizing devils who used his book to trash his homeland. In response, Shavit recently advocated a Human Rights Zionism centered on a Jewish Peace Corps, to show we are not particularist brutes. This Ostrich approach advocating a Unitarian Zionism, a me-tooism, cannot counter irrational attacks. People who cannot distinguish between Israeli democracy and Palestinian autocracy will never link Zionism with universal justice – no matter how true.
I prefer the third Ari Shavit, the Identity Zionist who writes lyrically, lovingly, about Israel, appreciating the full, rich, dynamic Jewish identity he and his kids enjoy because his ancestors chose Israel over England. The existential comfort and pride he conveys is the secret to his campus success (leveraging his Israel bashing).
Successful Zionist identity building is the best Israel advocacy. So let’s stop being Ostrich Jews or Xerox Zionists, mimicking mainstream prejudices and validating politically correct hypocrisies. And let’s stop being Oyster Jews or Zealous Zionists, just defending Israel on Palestinians’ political terms. Instead let’s be Zesty, even Zany, Identity Zionists – Owl Jews, celebrating the cosmic potential of this once-scattered people now anchored in our old-new homeland.