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Day 3 (Shneer): Is Zionism Still Relevant to the American Jew?

From: David Shneer To: Stefan Kanfer Subject: Israel may be important; Zionism is not Stefan, I write you from Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, drinking coffee and watching the sunrise. There is little I disagree with in your most … Read More

By / December 1, 2006

From: David Shneer To: Stefan Kanfer Subject: Israel may be important; Zionism is not

Stefan,

I write you from Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, drinking coffee and watching the sunrise. There is little I disagree with in your most recent letter, except perhaps for the presumption that I deride the early Zionists. Not a very comradely thing to say not knowing what my syllabi look like. It’s in fact the precise opposite of the way I teach, which is about creating empathetic readers out of my students, who often have trouble resonating with the passionate ideological debates of the early Zionists. And having spent the last three weeks working at Yad Vashem, yes, I did know that millions of Jews died in the Holocaust, and that much of German Jewry and some of the rest of European Jewry might have been able to flee Europe had there been an Israel in the 1930s.

The question is not whether the establishment of Israel was good or bad for Jews. I think most Jews would agree that it was a good thing. Unless I’m mistaken, the question is whether Zionism is still relevant for American Jewry, not whether Israel is relevant for American Jewry. And note I said is and not should be. This distinction between description and prescription, which I mentioned in our first exchange, still shapes the way we are responding to each other. You try to “wake people up” to the reality you see. You’re frustrated because most people, Jews among them, don’t see things the way you do. Hence your need to tell people what they should think.

We have no idea what the map will look like 200 years from now. Anyone who presumes to know is a fool, as history would show us. I ask what people are thinking and doing now. And what I see now, like your French friends who choose the U.S. and Canada along with Israel, suggests that the Jewish world is more complicated than you think. A fact: more Russian Jews now leave Israel for Russia than come to Israel from Russia, at least according to the 2003 migration statistics. What does this tell us? (1) That Russians would say it was a good thing that Israel existed in 1989–1991, because the U.S. stopped letting all of them emigrate; (2) that most Russians migrated for socioeconomic reasons, not because of state persecution, and (3) that when socioeconomic realities looked different, they moved back.

Russian Jews’ life choices suggest that, yes, Israel is important for the Jewish world, but also that Zionism is not as relevant as it once was. To me, understanding how the relevance of ideas like Zionism changes over time is the way to be a good historian.

Your reiteration of the fear of Islamic antisemitism, Islam’s rise in Europe, and citation of Oriana Fallaci (whom the New Yorker tore apart) as your prooftext make me wonder why you haven’t moved to Israel. I’m guessing you have personal, familial, and other reasons for not living in Israel, to which everyone is entitled. The idea that every Jew not in Israel somehow lives in a lesser state of being and safety simply doesn’t resonate for most of American Jewry. I’d suggest that’s one of the reasons Fallaci’s book didn’t inspire as much heated debate as it did in Europe. Perhaps, as you suggest, this is foolish, but it’s the reality as I see it.

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