Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the Shabbat dinner of a prominent Montreal rabbi, whose middle child is one of my longtime best friends. Since I had just returned from Israel, naturally the conversation gravitated toward my trip.
I was positively glowing as I described how I fell in love with the beautiful country. I described the incredible kindness I experienced there, the beautiful beaches, the breathtaking desert sunsets. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that my friend’s youngest sister was giving me a bit of a side-eye while her parents and my friend stood rapt in attention.
Eventually I asked her about her own trip to Israel, which she had also just returned from. She shrugged and said it was good. I asked her if Israel made her more or less resolute in her Zionism. She said it did neither, but that she realized how her enthusiastic Zionist upbringing, where anything less than glowing praise of Israel was shunned as antisemitic, was “extremely problematic”. She said that those who love Israel unconditionally and dismiss all criticism as antisemitic are just as bad for the country as those who want to wipe Israel off the map.
After giving her a passionate lecture about the double standard of antizionism (“don’t you think it’s weird that Israel is so disproportionately criticized, and the only country in the world where a large portion of humanity is arguing shouldn’t exist?”) she finally admitted, “well, I wouldn’t be against Israel’s existence, that’s true, it wouldn’t make sense.”
But why does she, and so many other young people today, think they have to make a disclaimer, “I’m not a Zionist but…” before saying something Zionist? What is she trying to assert, and what is she trying to preserve?
I thought a lot about this and realized that in the intellectual, academic community, if you want to be taken seriously you have to be constantly questioning the establishment. If you accept the establishment, you are accused of being simple-minded and lacking critical thinking skills, which undermines your intellectual credibility. Since the Canadian and Israeli governments are clearly and unabashedly Zionist, enthusiastically accepting the Zionist viewpoint makes it appear as if you are accepting authority without question and lack nuance. To them, accepting authority wholeheartedly demonstrates a deliberate intellectual blindness.
Teens and young adults are all about questioning authority. They get an immense feeling of importance and self-righteousness when they feel that they know something their elders don’t, which is why they often go against them politically. Among young Canadians and Israelis who want to be seen as creative and pushing boundaries, they must be “nuanced” as nuance is equivalent to sophistication, and if you’re not sophisticated, you’re neither deemed smart nor cool by your peers.
Even my fellow taglit-birthright trip members rolled their eyes at my passionate Zionism, seeing me as naive and uneducated, clearly on purpose as I was undoubtedly smart. What they didn’t know is that I do see the shades of grey, I just don’t see the reason to point them out at every opportunity. I don’t see the reason to criticize Israel publicly because I feel that enough people do it for me, and don’t feel that everyone who reads my criticisms would use them in their correct context or with their correct intentions. Also, most of the time I criticize Israel, I find out the truth about what I’m criticizing and realize that as usual, the media is distorting Israel’s behaviour, misrepresenting their intentions and actions to their own ends. So I feel that it’s better to be safe than sorry – and keep my mouth shut.
Young Jews, especially those who are outside the Jewish bubble and have mostly non-Jewish friends, feel an even greater pressure to publicly renounce or downplay their Zionism. The last thing they want is to be called the “brainwashed Zionist Jew who believes everything their mom, dad, and rabbi told them without using their heads and looking at the media and asking questions.” That will make them look completely unsophisticated and pathetic, and further subject them to questions and guilt-trips about where their loyalty lies.
So they shove their Zionism so far under the rug that they can’t even find it when they go looking for it again. They internalize the so-called “nuance” and the Palestinian narrative so as to look sophisticated, critical, and empathetic, to the point where it becomes the dominant narrative they see and hear. The Zionist narrative gets so buried down that they start to lose touch with it. It becomes relegated to the world of the simple-minded, uneducated holy rollers of the American south, the corrupt government falling prey to Jewish money and AIPAC/CJPAC influence, and the corporate world that frequently chooses money over morality. Zionism becomes the antithesis of cool, like that kid in middle school whose mom clearly dressed him in the morning.
Meanwhile, antizionism becomes associated with the brave, eclectic, accepting people who strive to make a positive difference in the world and remove all oppression, inequality, and other evil things. They are the creative artsy people who push the boundaries of thought and intellect, who claim to venture into the land of taboo and make the entire world a safe space of love and hugs and acceptance… for those who agree with them and don’t, accidentally or otherwise, use inappropriate semantics like “prostitute” instead of “sex worker.”
Therefore, if you are a Zionist you are not only uncool, but also a bad person because you’re going against those angels who work so hard at the grassroots to make the world a better place. The people who want change and are willing to work for it. The people with a radical zeal, masquerading as intelligence, insight into the world, and wisdom that the mainstream doesn’t care enough to have. How could you be so cruel, callous, and heartless to go against social justice?!?
It’s no wonder that young people are so desperate to grasp onto any branch of the antizionist tree they could. Israel attacks Gaza? Why bother looking into the reasons why when you could safely demonize Israel and be hailed as a social justice hero? Not only a social justice hero, but a social justice hero who is not afraid to go against your own kind to fight for what’s right?
Hopefully now you understand how hard it is to be a Zionist in the modern day diaspora, especially in the artistic community, where sophistication is everything, and Zionism is considered the opposite of sophistication. Why young people are so averse to being called Zionists (might as well have a giant “L” on your forehead), and why my friend is the last unabashed Zionist of the 4 sisters in her family – all artists among whom the terms “post-zionist” and “azionist” have become more in-vogue, as a protection against the inevitable backlash being a proud Zionist would result in.
We artists and academics need to stand up. We need to use our art to make Zionism cool again for young people. We thinkers need to challenge the boundaries of conventional Zionism, point out the hypocrisy and package it in a cooler, more nuanced way that caters to the youths’ desire to identify with the counterculture. We need to raise the intellectual caliber of our arguments and delve deeper into the philosophy and morality behind Zionism in order for the young and the curious to see its worth. Otherwise, these bright, charismatic kids who are so excited about changing the world, these leaders of tomorrow, will make Herzl’s reality nothing more than a dream of the past.