Zionism 101: Far Better Than the Courses at Vassar or Stanford, and About $60,000 Cheaper
by Edward Alexander
To those of us old enough to remember the first Israel Independence Day, in 1948, it stands as one of the few redeeming events in a century of blood and shame, one of the greatest affirmations of the will to live that a martyred people has ever made. It has turned out to be much more than the thinly veiled form of assimilation that many of the orthodox at first mistook it for, or a solution to a personal identity crisis for people who felt no longer able to be “Jewish.” It has emerged, through much struggle, as integral to Judaism and not just to that melange of habits, tendences, and cultural styles called “Jewishness.” Cynthia Ozick has rightly described Zionism as the modern flowering of a great series of diverse intellectual and pietistic movements, all of them rooted in the yearning for human dignity symbolized by the Exodus from slavery that has characterized Jewish civilization for thousands of years. The creation of Israel just a few years after the Holocaust was, in the words of Ruth Wisse, the most hopeful sign for humanity since the dove returning to Noah from the primeval flood holding an olive branch.
Of course, you would never learn this from the typical college course on the subject of Zionism or Israel or the (misnamed) “Arab-Israeli Conflict.” At Vassar, for example, the chairman of Jewish Studies gives a course that openly boasts of its lack of objectivity and its full allegiance to the Arab “narrative”; at Indiana University a “chaired” professor in Jewish Studies offers a course on the subject in which the writings of Judith Butler and Jacqueline Rose are included among “Zionist” writings. (This is analogous to a school of medicine offering “Euthanasia 101” in its curriculum of “Life-preserving strategies.”) At Stanford you will be told by a political science professor (and former head of MESA–the Middle East Studies Association) that he makes no pretense at impartiality, and that “the state of Israel has already lost any moral justification for its existence.” For such instruction (frequently delivered by unkempt professors dressed in sweatshirts and blue jeans) about Israel and Zionism (to say nothing of what remains of world literature, history, and philosophy in the present curriculum of elite colleges and universities) you may well be paying up to $65,000 a year.
As an alternative I would like to recommend a new website offering elegant narration, scrupulous history, scholarly conscience, and an abundance of film material selected from archives around the world. It is entitled “Zionism 101” and is the work of two brothers, David and Raphael Isaac. The Isaacs have rich blood, being sons of Rael Jean Isaac, author of Israel Divided (Johns Hopkins University Press) and Party and Politics in Israel (Longman), and Erich Isaac, the eminent geographer, former member of the editorial board of Judaism and frequent contributor to Commentary Magazine. David Isaac writes, produces, and directs the site’s films, and Raphael Isaac is their diligent and shrewd editor. Their goal is to create a place where anyone can go to learn about Zionism. They refer, jocularly but accurately, to Zionism 101 as the “anti-propaganda site,” and strive for disinterestedness, not polemic. The site is organized chronologically, starting with material that pre-dates Herzl.
The Isaac brothers believe that the level of Zionist education is so low, even among those who support Israel, that it is pointless to argue the merits of one position versus another when most people are unfamiliar with the most elementary facts. Their hope is to provide a foundational knowledge of Zionist history, not to impose a political position.
The site currently offers thirty-nine original short films. The Isaacs estimate that this number will double before the site is completed–an ambitious goal, and a worthy one. The films, which are of a high technical as well as scholarly quality, are six to eight minutes long. The Isaac brothers have been very resourceful in obtaining footage. They’ve visited numerous archives around the globe, and have done an admirable job keeping the footage and photographs accurately fixed to time and place. (The films occasionally include re-creations as well.)
Films are subdivided into topics like “Founding Fathers,” “Early Zionist Settlement,” “The Revival of Hebrew” and “Christian Zionism.” (If Jews themselves know little about Zionism, they know even less about this important precursor of Herzlian Zionism). One can jump from topic to topic, even (should you prefer) watching films in no particular order because each film can stand alone. This should prove useful to educators who wish to mix and match films to suit a particular curriculum.
The films are well-researched. This writer picked a relatively obscure topic on the site under the subdivision “Christian Zionism,” about which he happens to know something. I was surprised, and impressed, to find there Michael Solomon Alexander, central figure in the Victorian dispute over the appointment in 1841 of a Bishop of Jerusalem to serve both British Anglicans and German Lutherans in the holy city. It is remarkably well done, scrupulous in its scholarship and profusely illustrated. How many histories of Zionism would tell us that this dispute became so intense, especially after the appointee (Alexander) turned out to be a Jewish convert (and former schochet in England), that it brought John Henry Newman to his “death-bed” with respect to membership in the Church of England?)
A nearly completed topic in Zionism 101 is a trilogy entitled “Military Stirrings.” This includes three films: 1) “Hashomer,” an early self-defense group in the Land of Israel; 2) “NILI,” the spy outfit that helped Field Marshal Allenby in his conquest of Palestine; 3) “The Jewish Legion,” which fought under the British in World War I. In connection with the Jewish Legion, the Brothers Isaac came up with a hidden gem: “The Marching Song of the Judeans.” This song was the Legion’s anthem, but, despite its historical significance, has been forgotten. The Isaac brothers, working from the words and melody they found in an archive, have brought the music back to life. Incorporated into the Jewish Legion unit, it appears to be the only existing rendering of the song.
Zionism 101 performs a valuable function. The Web has become a front in the never-ending battle over Israel’s legitimacy. Evidence of this battle is apparent with a simple Google search of “Zionism.” Anti-Zionist sites appear in abundance. Combined, they form a net to catch the unwary. Zionism 101, with its attractive graphics and excellent videos, offers a safe harbor, a coming into port after a very rough sea, for those seeking something better than noisy half-truths and anti-Israel cant.
Zionism 101 offers its films for free. All that’s required is a log-in. The site can be visited by going to www.zionism101.org.
Edward Alexander’s most recent book is The State of the Jews: A Critical Appraisal (Transaction Publishers).