Thursday, March 22, 2012


Ned Resnikoff has set out some WWPD bait. I'm reminded, of course, of how I, a genuine self-identified Zionist, managed to get on the only Birthright trip that wasn't Zionist indoctrination. Yep, still bitter.

But back to Ned's post. He recounts "an afternoon spent at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl, where our tour guide explained to us how Theodore Herzl become the first modern Zionist."

Herzl had originally been a journalist, and it was in that capacity that he covered the century-old French Jew-burning we know as the Dreyfus Affair. Watching Dreyfus be wrongfully convicted simply for being a Jew, our tour guide explained, was what taught Herzl that “the experiment in being both French and Jewish was over.”
That’s a pretty remarkable statement if taken to its logical conclusion. If the experiment of being French and Jewish is over, what does that say for the experiment of being American and Jewish? English and Jewish? Brazilian and Jewish? Are these all doomed to failure, or are they already pretty much over as well?

When Herzl was talking about the incompatibility of being Jewish and French, this was at a specific moment in history when what everyone had long taken for granted - that the best place to be Jewish was France - appeared to have fallen apart. It wasn't just poor Dreyfus, but a massive ideological split in France, with one half of the divide turning hatred of Jews into a political force. There were - a link, for those with JStor access - anti-Semitic riots. It was a pretty big deal.

It's of course legit to take issue with political interpretations of Herzl's observation - ones that conflated Dreyfus-era France with Holocaust-era France, present-day France, etc. But when Herzl was making these observations, it was at at the tail end of a time when virtually no one in Western Europe was thinking to question... not only that one could be French and Jewish, but that Paris was the new Jerusalem, the best possible place to be a Jew since antiquity of not ever. In my own research, I haven't found much of a rejection of that notion - much of a proto/quasi-Jewish nationalism - prior to the 1880s, which was also, coincidentally, when modern anti-Semitism emerged in France. That the Affair culminated in Dreyfus's exoneration, reinstatement, and ultimately serving in WWI (no dual loyalties there!) makes the Affair kind of (although I don't entirely agree with the current school on this) a warm-and-fuzzy moment in French-Jewish history. But Herzl, at the time, knew neither that the Affair would work out OK, nor that the anti-Dreyfusard contingent would morph into something called the Vichy regime.

So, Herzl's in the clear, on this at least. What about Ned's tour guide? And is there are pervasive sense in the American-Jewish community that you must see Israel as your "home"? Now that I think of it, there was "home" rhetoric on my Birthright trip as well, but I suppose it's a matter of interpretation. I saw it as how Ireland would be "home" on a trip there for Irish-American youth. Certainly not as a call to 'return.' If you're an Ashkenazi Jew, and your civilization was basically wiped out, or a Mizrachi Jew, and your civilization was relocated to Israel, it's not so outrageous for you to think that the land where your 'kind' has gathered is more your "home" than the geographical home of your ancestors.

And that's really the question - not whether my "home" or Ned's "home" is Israel or the U.S., but whether it's Israel or whichever Diaspora country/countries preceded the U.S. And what connection am I, for one, supposed to feel to present-day Russia or Poland? Do I have family there? If I were to visit there, would I be surrounded by people who look startlingly like me?

I know some who share my ancestry opt for that version of back-to-the-roots, as a way of distancing themselves from Zionism. But I'm talking culture, emotion, not politics. Even if you think plopping a Jewish state onto Palestine was a terrible idea, you're left with the fact that that's where Jews-as-such have gathered. Which I guess puts me - an anti-settlements, open-to-making-Jerusalem-an-international-city sort of Zionist - in the same category as the oh-so-chauvinist Israelis who told Ned that "Israel was my home, whether I knew it or not, and that I basically had no choice in the matter." OK, I'd say that Ned has choice in the matter, in that I wouldn't ask that we compel him to feel one way or another. But I'm also not sure that it's "right-wing Zionism" - let alone treason! - to view Israel as "home."


Anonymous said...

I'd add that popular Israeli opinion is that diaspora Jewry's downfall is not that Judaism is immutable and incompatible with a successful diaspora nationality, as in Herzl/Dreyfus, but rather that assimilation will render the Jewish aspect of our identities obsolete. (see

Phoebe said...

Yes, that fiasco. I think that's probably true of (some of) Israeli opinion, but it's rarely something American Jews get exposed to. That's why it's surprising to me that Ned's Birthright experience had that spin. As far as I can tell, if there's pressure on young American Jews from the right, it's to support Israel in a Republican-defined way, and to marry another Jew.

Anonymous said...

yes I agree that that is how right wing Zionism is framed in America. But I imagine the tour guide was Israeli? In my experience, Israeli tour guides tend to feel pretty comfortable expressing opinions that reflect their own beliefs more than the beliefs of the American organization that hired them. And as far as Israeli opinion goes, the Israeli government has been increasing funding for programs like garin tzabar asking diaspora Jews to choose whether they are Jews and therefore consider Israel to be their home, or not and not.