JWR Israel: Dreams, Realities
May 1, 1998 / 5 Iyar, 5758

Post-Zionist heartburn

By Jonathan S. Tobin

HOW DID YOU celebrate Israel's 50th birthday? The answers coming from most of the Jews I have spoken to about this subject seem evenly divided between complaints about the lack of celebration and moaning and groaning that any money spent on such events is largely wasted.

"It's just a show," an anguished local Jewish professional told me in an off-the-record discussion about Israel 50 events planned in Connecticut. "It won't build the community or do anything for the future." But speaking of the same subject, yet another local Jewish professional (also speaking off the record), complained, "No one really seems to care about this. Not much is happening and that's a shame."

In Israel, where you would imagine that preparations for this momentous occasion would have approached a fever pitch, it looks like the celebrations were even more of a lead balloon. The official jubilee planning committee was fraught with resignations and internal bickering.

What's going on here? No matter which way you look at it, few Jews in Israel or the United States were prepared to kick up their heels as we approached the 50th anniversary of the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. The answers for the blase attitude toward this 50th Yom Ha'atzmaut both in the diaspora and in Israel are complex. But they can be summed up in one phrase: "post-Zionist heartburn."

Post-Zionist heartburn is the term I use to describe the aftereffects of the last decade of Jewish introspection about the greatest achievement in our modern history. It results from ingesting too much cynicism about Zionism along with a heavy dose of traditional Jewish guilt.

The symptoms of this malady are a loss of long-term memory and a lack of enthusiasm for anything beyond the mundane in Jewish life.

Looking around the Jewish landscape, I'd say almost all of us have developed a case of this heartburn in one stage or another.

It started to spread not long after the high point of Zionist fever some 31 years ago, after Israel's triumph in the Six-Day War. Too much good fortune is hard for Jews to take. We also are so used to being the downtrodden underdog that many of us have had trouble adjusting to what Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, aspired to for the Jews: a normal country.

While it's doubtful that a people as fundamentally meshugah as the Jews could ever be normal, the idea of living as a free people in our own land gives many Jews the hives, whether they live there or not. They are the sort who actually think there were benefits to being dominated by other peoples and subjected to persecution.

Too many of our intellectuals have devoted themselves to the cause of deconstructing Israel, Zionism and modern Jewish history. While the cause of historical research has been served by some of our own "revisionists," a lot of the scholarship produced in the past three decades has led to an upside- down view of our history.

Having forgotten what it was to live as a Jew without a Jewish state, all too many of us don't merely take it for granted. We actually have come to question its paramount importance in Jewish life.

While all this deconstruction has gone on in the ivory towers of academia more than in the local Jewish community center, it has had a trickle-down effect on Jewish life, both here and in Israel.

In Israel itself, the day-to-day business of life in a modern country with a growing economy, chaotic politics and chronic security problems has long ago overtaken the Zionist fever that once seemed to color almost all sectors of Israeli life. If Zionism was the answer for the historical dilemma of modern Jewry, then post-Zionism (along with its "New Middle East" fantasy corollary) seems to posit the end of history itself.

In Israel itself, the day-to-day business of life in a modern country with a growing economy, chaotic politics and chronic security problems has long overtaken the Zionist fever that once seemed to color almost all sectors of Israeli life. If Zionism was the answer for the historical dilemma of modern Jewry, then post-Zionism (along with its "New Middle East" fantasy corollary courtesy of Shimon Peres and company) seems to posit the end of Jewish history itself.

Indeed, with an unpopular government (though this is not accompanied by any surge in popularity for the opposition) and a stalled peace process that now appears to have always been doomed to failure, it's no wonder the country doesn't feel like celebrating.

Here in the diaspora, much-needed introspection about the future of our communities has had the unintended consequence of less interest in Israel. Local Jewish education is gradually gaining the status of top Jewish priority over funding an increasingly prosperous Israel.

We should be spending a lot more on education, but instead of looking to Zionism for an ideology to inspire and educate Jewish youth, Israel has become a side issue for many Jewish communities.

Misunderstandings and insults exchanged during the various religious-pluralism controversies have also alienated many Reform and Conservative Jews from an Israel where American-style Judaism is practically nonexistent.

Fifty years after Israel was reborn, the Jewish state is no longer an exciting communal adventure, just ordinary life for the people who live there. For the diaspora, Israel is either a dream debunked or a disembodied Jewish theme park. Either way, too many of us seem to have lost our sense of wonder at the sight of the blue and white flag flying over Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, we need to embrace this jubilee because to ignore it is tantamount to stating that Jewish history is over. The truth is that, despite all of its problems and controversies, Israel is still the fulfillment of Jewish destiny. Israel is a country in transition.

In the span of Jewish history, its first half century was just a fleeting moment. This experiment in bringing together Jewish religious and political cultures from around the globe and mixing them up in one tiny country is bound to result in some explosive chemical reactions.

But in the long term, the results will bring something completely new and precious. We need to be part of that process. That's why I'm pessimistic about many of Israel's problems in the short term, but optimistic about its long-term future.

Maybe some of the Israel at 50 festivities were silly, while others were a diversion from problems that cannot be swept under the rug. But whatever we did, it's time to start shrugging off our post-Zionist heartburn and begin celebrating, whether we like it or not.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.


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©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin