How to stay Jewish thanks to Zionism

Growing up in the Soviet Union, I knew I was Jewish because my parents’ ID said so. But there was nothing positive about that word – no tradition, no religion, no language, no history. The only thing Jewish in my youth was anti-Semitism – both on the street and in official restrictive politics. Only after the Six Day War in 1967 did I become a proud Zionist. And through Zionism I discovered the power of Jewish history, culture and tradition and later in prison religion.

People come to their Jewish identity from different directions. Some through religion, some through tradition, some through national pride, and some through various strands of Zionism. Worker Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, Religious Zionism, etc. All of these aspects of Judaism become part of one’s Jewish identity.

There is no doubt that today Israel is increasingly becoming the center of this confluence of Jewish identities. This corresponds to Theodor Herzl’s vision. He was able to see the future, predict the future, and create the future. He believed that the Jewish state would be established within 50 years, and in fact the exact time has passed from the First Zionist Congress in 1897 to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.

But at the same time he was wrong in his prediction that after the establishment of the Jewish state there would be no more Jews in the Diaspora; they would either make aliyah or assimilate voluntarily. That didn’t happen. Today, almost 75 years after the founding of the State of Israel, half of the Jews still live in the diaspora. But in an indirect way, his prediction is still true. Zionism, the connection to Israel, has become a central part of Jewish identity for Jews from different diasporas. And those who don’t have it are more prone to assimilation.

NATAN SHARANSKY speaks at the 2018 Jewish Agency Board of Governors Conference in Jerusalem. (Credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

As a Jewish activist, member of the Israeli government and later head of the Jewish Agency, I have visited almost every Jewish community in the world. They all face the threat of assimilation in one way or another. And I discovered that there are only two factors that can slow down assimilation: tradition and Zionism. If you have one, you can work on connecting to the second. However, your Judaism is not in immediate jeopardy.

But if you have no connection, either to tradition or to Israel, your grandchildren are unlikely to be Jews. This experimental rule applies to North America, South America, France, Russia, Australia or any other place in the world.

Transformation of the Jewish Agency

Against this background, I was part of a transformation of the Jewish Agency. Up to this point, many viewed the Jewish Agency as merely a tool for aliyah. And so the Jewish Agency representative had to knock on every Jew’s door and ask him or her, “Why are you here? How dare you not make aliyah?” I didn’t want to be such a commissar of Zionism.

Of course, when it comes to rescuing Jews from Ethiopia, Russia or today from Ukraine, the Jewish Agency must and is always ready for such operations. But most Jews today live in the free world. And their aliyah is not aliyah of flight, it is aliyah of free choice. And in order to make that choice, they must feel strongly connected to their identity and to the State of Israel. And if you want to mobilize Jews to fight anti-Semitism or strengthen their communities or slow down assimilation, we need the same thing – to strengthen their Jewish identity.

I place this principle at the center of everything we do. Our way of doing this is by organizing various encounters between Jews and Israel. Our programs have been combined into a spiral of Israel experiences, from meeting Jewish Agency emissaries at summer camps, schools, universities and communities to trips to Israel for short programs such as Birthright; longer programs like Onward; and numerous Masa projects up to a year. As a result, you increase the number of people who choose aliyah, as well as those who become more involved in communities, get involved in the fight against anti-Semitism, defend Israel, and so on.

Some have accused me of changing the character of the Jewish Agency, turning it from a sole purpose of making aliyah into a sort of ministry of tourism. But it soon became clear to everyone that strengthening the Zionist component of our identity is the most effective way to encourage aliyah choice.

Judaism without Zionism – not sustainable

There is a movement of some liberal Jews today who are trying to build a Jewish identity completely detached from Israel.

Embarrassed by the constant criticism of Israel as the “colonialist”, “white supremacy project”, they prefer to distance themselves from it. We’ve reached the American Jewish tradition, they would say, we don’t need a nationalist Israel to define our identity. After all, they say, for most of thousands of years of Jewish history, Israel as a state was not part of Jewish identity. Of course, trying to ignore the differences in Jewish identity before and after the founding of the State of Israel is ridiculous.

Their efforts remind me of the activities of the so-called Yevsektsiya – the Jewish branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. They wanted Jews to join the “progressive” cause of Communism and remain Jewish. Therefore they were against religion and led the process of closing synagogues.

They opposed Hebrew and banned Zionist literature. At the same time, they encouraged Yiddish and were responsible for establishing chairs for the study of Yiddish in universities and creating various cultural institutions in Yiddish. But soon it became clear that assimilation was accelerating and there were fewer and fewer people interested in these institutions.

When the core components of Jewish identity were stripped away, few were genuinely interested in remaining Jewish. ■

The author is a human rights activist and author who spent nine years in Soviet prisons as a conscientious objector in the 1970s and 1980s. He has served in various cabinet positions in the Israeli government, including Deputy Prime Minister (between 2001 and 2003), and served as Chairman of the Jewish Agency from June 2009 to August 2018.

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