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January 16, 2012 9:05 pm

With Responsibility to Its Core, Zionism Births A People

avatar by Maxine Dovere

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Dr. Daniel Gordis and Rabbi Neil Zuckerman, Director of Congregational Education, The Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, shared the stage during a discussion on 'the crisis in Zionism' Photo: Maxine Dovere.

Daniel Gordis spoke to a Manhattan audience at the Park Avenue Synagogue January 10. He challenged, raised concerns, frightened, opened eyes and brought a measure of hope about the continued importance of the Zionism and its actualization, the Jewish State of Israel.

His initial words were disconcerting.

“No one in this room will live long enough to see peace,” he announced. Quite a radical statement for a Masorti (Conservative), American born, Israeli rabbi to make when speaking to an upscale Manhattan – albeit largely Jewish – audience.  “Is Zionism in crisis?” he queried, immediately answering the question in the affirmative. Answering in the affirmative, Gordis said, “the crisis is largely because of the hopelessness of the peace process.” “No one in this room,” he reiterated, “will live to see the end of the conflict (which will) only be resolved when the two sides recognize the legitimacy of the other.”

Gordis believes the policies of the West encourage reticence on the part of the Palestinian Authority and are “a disincentive to the peace process.” He attributes the crisis in Zionism to the “hopelessness of the peace process” calling it “more process than peace.”

A staunch supporter of the Jewish State of Israel – not as a refuge for a nefarious “someday” or as some sort of “payback” for the tragedy of the Shoah, but as a place of rebirth and growth — Gordis declares “We have a State so there would be a homeland, so there will be no Jewish refugees.” He reminds that Israel quickly became “home” to 700,000 Jews from Arab Countries – never becoming refuges, rather full citizens of the Jewish State. “As Jews, we have to think seriously about the State of Israel, its basic outlines, general directions, and purpose.”

Dr. Daniel Gordis, President of the Shalem Foundation and Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center. Gordis and his family made aliyah in 1998. Both his son and daughter have served in the IDF. Gordis is a leader of the team developing the first liberal arts college in Israel. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

Statesmanship, he reminded, “requires work. “Why does birthright work?” he asks. Gordis says “There is a power to be able to connect to the land and the history. Israel has brought three-dimensionality to a people” and is “first a nation that allows determination for one’s own populations” a clear distinction from the “what will they do to me next” position of the Jews in Europe. Without Israel, there was “no self-determination. The State of Israel has put Jews “in charge of their inherent sovereignty” providing “an opportunity to re-imagine what a Jew should be.”

Gordis defended “Checkpoint” actions, saying they may not be pleasant but they stop terrorists form blowing up Jews. He characterized the Israeli attitude as one that dealt with “real life,” distinct from the Diaspora concern with the “ethereal and legalistic.” Jewish sovereignty “is a contribution to the world at large.” Jews have understood that “an undifferentiated humanity is not a world in which there is nothing to kill for, it is a world in which there is nothing to live for…to be human is to love the particular…life is made better by being distinct.”

Rabbi Gordis sees the State of Israel as having a specific mission, “in position to speak truth (which) may not be popular, but breathes new meaning into Jewish …as we embark on a new era for human kind.”

Regarding the one to one relationship between Israel and America, Gordis suggests that Israel will be able to attend to its internal issues more successfully when it knows it has the support of the American Jewish people and of the American government. He commends the work of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and its work “teaching” Congressmen and women about Israel.

“Now is the time to reinvent Zionism and ask what Jews are willing to do to preserve it.” Naming four concepts he lists first, influencing the United States to support Israel no matter what the government in Israel; second, understand the Israeli soul and the Israeli ‘angst,’ third, strategic dollar support of selected organizations; and finally, developing a “sense of context – remembering the unbelievable success of Israel.”

Daniel Gordis focus is on the core of Israel:  Judaism. The greatest “security risk to the Jewish state is not to understand the basis Judaism – if you are ignorant about Judaism – why should you care. Even secular Jews must know what Judaism means,” he admonishes. In a place where seventy years ago there were virtually no Jews, even traffic is a miracle. From having been at the “precipice of extinction,” the sovereignty of the Jewish State “has transformed the people.”

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  • albert rosenblatt

    Dr. Gordis seems to feel that Zionism is still a vital force among Israelis. The critic and translator, Hillel Halkin in an article in Commentary [1997] to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first Zionist congress — states the opposite: that zionism as an ideology has lived out its life–now replaced by simple Israeli patriotism in Israel [and for that matter in America].

    “After Zionism: Reflections on Israel and the Diaspora
    Hillel Halkin — June 1997 [Commentary Magazine]

    “Although Zionism lived to be 100, it will not have lived long enough. Given how pitifully little it started with, its successes have been spectacular. As at any funeral, they should be dwelled upon, and no words of praise for them can be too eloquent. But Zionism’s failures cry out, too.
    “Zionism failed, too, in creating a new worldwide Jewish identity. Its project of “normalizing” the Jewish people by redefining it in territorial and linguistic rather than religious terms stalled halfway, and in some respects has even lost ground.
    “Zionism no longer exists as an intellectual force to offer American Jews a clear understanding of their situation.
    “But more than anything, the passing of Zionism leaves behind the question: when nothing is left to sustain the Jews of Israel but simple Israeli patriotism—no sense of being the revolutionary bearers of Jewish history, no higher Jewish mission—will that be enough?

    [On the question of the ‘peace process’ vs. peace–the parameters have been there for the last 25 years [Bush I, Clinton etc.] We should not try to change the borders now –assuming this will not impede the process. Everyone knows what the peace treaty will look like.]

  • I join Daniel Gordis is urging pro-Israel activists to reinvent Zionism for a new era of Jewish sovereignty. One of the key elements of 21st Century Zionism must be to work with Israelis, through “strategic dollar support of selected organizations,” as well as through active face to face engagement with Israeli activists, to cultivate a widely-accepted Public Judaism that can both inform civil law and the norms of civil society in a way that is consistent with notions of democracy. It is this work that will strengthen both the Jewish soul of our Jewish State and the democratic nature of the State of Israel. It is this work that will give Voice to the no longer silent majority of Jewish Israelis whose faith is rooted in that place where the eternal and the moment intersect.

  • Lee Green

    Gordis is insightful and inspirational. Error alert: Gordis talked about the “precipice of extinction,” not “extension.” Please correct the error in your article.