After Virtue

Reviewed by Gil Troy

The Emergence of American Zionism
by Mark A. Raider
New York University Press, 296 pages.

The state, of course, was built, and as Israel blossomed, the ideal of the Jewish pioneer-farmer slowly evaporated. American Zionism in the decades that followed gradually lost its ability to inspire, and all the more so once Israel ceased to be the poor cousin of American Jewry and grew into a regional economic and military power. The Emergence of American Zionism suggests that it could hardly have been otherwise: The movement’s fundamental ideas—the reclaiming of the land, the establishment of a safe haven for oppressed Jewry, the socialist dream, the pioneering spirit—destined Zionism to lose its urgency once the land was reclaimed, the haven established, socialism discredited and pioneering rendered anachronistic in a technologically obsessed world.
Raider’s story, then, sets the stage for the dilemma of American Zionism today. Israel is no longer an insecure foundling. Its economy is ranked among the world’s top twenty-five (in terms of per capita GDP), its technological and human resources are rich, its strategic and diplomatic position stronger than at any point in its history, and it is now home to a majority of the world’s Jewish children. At the same time, it is American Jewry that has become insecure. Assimilation and intermarriage have pulled the rug out from under the community, sowing uncertainty and even panic about its future.
Given these circumstances, it is natural that a redirection of American Zionism has quietly begun in recent years. And again, it is a uniquely American undertaking, embodying yet another paradox: Whereas Jews once used Zionism as a means of escaping from Jewish traditionalism, American Jews today are beginning to see Israel—a young, predominantly secular state—as a road back to their ancient traditions. Among Orthodox Jews, a year of study after high school in an Israeli yeshiva has become de rigueur as a way to deepen one’s attachment to Judaism. Among Conservative Jews, too, a recent study by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research has shown a growing connection between attachment to Israel and religious involvement. Initiatives such as Birthright Israel, which seeks to bolster Jewish identity by subsidizing a trip to Israel for every Jewish youth in the world, have underscored a conclusion that some diaspora leaders have, apparently, reached: That just when the Jewish state has learned to become more self-sufficient, American Jews have themselves become needy. And what they need is Israel.
It is far too early to speak of a Zionist “renaissance,” as some have prematurely begun to do. The movement depicted in The Emergence of American Zionism was fueled by intellectuals who struggled to craft a Zionism that could jibe with the unique predicament of American Jewry. A similar effort, no doubt, will be needed if American Zionism is to find new life. An effort of the mind is required—a reassessment of American Jewry’s deepest communal, religious and spiritual needs, and of the role a vibrant Jewish state can play in meeting them. Such an effort would reveal to many what a few have already surmised: That Israel can again become the center of affection for American Jews, not as an object for their charitable impulses, but as an anchor for their own identity—as the very “spiritual center” which Ahad Ha’am predicted it would become a century ago, a wellspring of meaning for a spiritually thirsty diaspora.

Gil Troy is a Professor of History at McGill University. His most recent book is Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons (University Press of Kansas, 2000).

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