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'The Story of Zionism'

September 17, 2009 By:
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SPEAKING VOLUMES

"Can Israel survive? Does it deserve to?" Could any two questions be more important today to the Jewish community or more pertinent to the lives of committed Jews especially during this period of spiritual introspection? They are broached in the brief prelude to Daniel Gordis' new, compelling book, Saving Israel, whose title probably answers at least one of the queries he poses. The work, recently published by Wiley, is subtitled How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End.

Gordis is perhaps known to many close readers of the Jewish press as one of today's most cogent opinion writers, an essayist who, not surprisingly, asks all the right questions, and manages to answer them in the least conventional manner. He is currently senior vice president and a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the author of several other provocative titles, among them If a Place Can Make You Cry -- not surprisingly again -- about Israel and why Gordis and his family decided to make aliyah.

The author's two main questions in this new work lead him to others that he deems even more urgently in need of answering: What has Israel done for the Jewish people? How has Israel changed Jewish life not only inside the Jewish state, but around the world? Do the Jews really need a state? And if they do, what must they do to save it?

Writes Gordon: "Not everyone will be comfortable with what is discussed or suggested in these pages. But as is true with all of life's difficult questions, there is no avoiding them. With matters concerning Israel as with life in general, we can retreat, refusing to raise the painful issues. Or we can choose to think, to struggle, and to grow. This book opts for the latter choice, the pain that that choice sometimes entails notwithstanding. It does so not because there is joy in recognizing the depths of the challenges that Israel faces. Rather, we raise these issues in the hope that, convinced once again of Israel's necessity, Zionists will find the strength to stride forth with courage and vision, leading Israel to a future that is even more inspiring than its past has already been."

'Possibility and Meaning'

Like other Zionist thinkers, Gordis uses the first part of his book to discuss the centrality of the Jewish state, and its necessity in Jewish life everywhere and how the whole nature of sovereignty was -- and continues to be -- about a complete alteration of Jewish life from what it was in pre-state, exilic times.

From there, he looks at a number of factors that threaten the life of the state, many of which cannot be traced to Israel's enemies. Gordis' concluding chapters detail certain steps that Israelis must take in order to ensure the continuation of sovereignty.

Several of Gordis' chapter headings give you the nature of what he thinks is ailing Israel. One is called "The Withering of Zionist Passion," while the very next is titled "More Than Just a Hebrew-Speaking America."

In the first of these two cited chapters, the author writes: "One of the fundamental lessons of the history of Zionism is that of the power of ideas. What was once but an idea is now, despite all its travails, a thriving country. The story of Zionism, the story of the power of an idea to move a people, is one of the most dramatic narratives in the history of humanity. As the historian Barbara Tuchman has noted, of all the peoples of the Western world from 3,000 years ago, it is only the Jews who live in the same place, speak the same language, and practice the same religion. One hundred years ago that claim would not have been true. It is true today because of the revolution called Zionism, a revolution whose most important fuel was the power of an idea."

As Gordis notes at various points in the work, and once again at its conclusion, the true purpose of the Jewish state was a transformation of the Jews, not just as a people, but individually as well. In many ways this happened -- but not without a measure of sadness. The ingathering of the Jews, while creating a dynamic and heterogeneous society, has also caused many social problems that continue to go unaddressed, among them being poverty, discrimination, racism and crime of all sorts. Israeli schools no longer have their high ranking and have become increasingly segregated, adds the author; moreover, too many children in Israel live below the poverty line, while "yuppy" suburbs continue to spring up all around Tel Aviv.

As the writer makes clear, if Israel were merely a state, the high costs it has exacted among Israelis and the Jewish people as a whole would not be justifiable. But Gordis' main point is that Israel is not a nation like any other. "It breathed life into the Jewish people at precisely the moment when the Jews might have given up," he states. "It gives possibility and meaning to a Jewish future. It enables the Jews to reenter the stage of history."

And that's why the calls for its demise must be resisted.

"For what is at stake is not just the Jewish state but the Jewish people as well. Statehood has revitalized the Jewish people, but the Jews are very unlikely to get another state should this one fail. Whether the calls are for the outright destruction of Israel, or for the gradual erosion of Jewish sovereignty through ideas like a shared binational state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the result would be the same. Jewish life as we know it would be lost. The regained optimism, vitality, and confidence of the Jewish world would disappear, probably within a generation.

"Israel's enemies understand that. It is time that the Jews did, too."

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