Updating Arthur Hertzberg’s classic was a monumental task. How did you approach this challenge?
Humbly and naively. I knew I had huge shoes to fill – Hertzberg’s book was the Zionist Bible for me and for generations of Israel-lovers before me and after me. Still, I thought many more texts would be easily available on line, already translated, and prime for the picking. The more I plunged into the Zionist conversation over the decades, the more compelling the texts I read, the harder it was to whittle it down – and boil each essay to the short, digestible texts I wanted.
One thing that did help was that from the start, the way to organize the material was clear. I divided Zionist history into three periods: the Pioneers, until 1948; the Builders from 1948 until 2000; and the Torch Bearers from 2000 until today. Within each period, I organized the material into six schools of Zionist thought: Political Zionism, Labor Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, Religious Zionism, Cultural Zionism, and Diaspora or Identity Zionism. Even if people disagree with my categorization, I say: “Let’s argue it out.”
By the way, it took an Irish Catholic friend from Boston to notice: “Hey, that makes 18 chapters – Chai – to life!”
What do you most hope readers will take away from the book about contemporary Zionism?
All too often, the media treats Zionism like a set of pom-poms waved around to support the latest Israeli policy or politician. But Zionism is more like a springboard, launching ideas about what Judaism means, how Jewish nationalism can inspire us, and what Israel can mean to each of us. I hope this book will help Jews take Zionism personally, meaning to see Zionism as a framework for learning more about our past, finding meaning in the present, and building a more inspiring future by working together as a people – and by seeing Israel as a living old-new laboratory for exciting new ideas and meaningful traditional values.
I hope this book will also help non-Jewish readers appreciate the miracle of Israel and, more broadly, remember the power of liberal nationalism. The backlash against Donald Trump has left many people, left and right, defining nationalism too narrowly. To me, liberal nationalism, the kind of nationalism that created liberal democracies like Israel, the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, is a tremendous force for good in the world, galvanizing people to work together through the magic of democratic patriotism. For the last two centuries, liberal nationalism has helped unite people to do amazing things, including propelling a beaten people, a humiliated people, a scattered people, to rebuild themselves and their homeland. David Ben-Gurion said that Zionism entailed two revolutions – not just ousting the British to create a Jewish state but building a ‘New Jew’, stronger, prouder, freer. Those two revolutions remind us how much more we can do to grow individually – and contribute collectively to the world.
How can we reignite the Zionist conversation?
I hope readers will see the shift in title from The Zionist Idea to The Zionist Ideas as an invitation to appreciate the breadth of the Zionist conversation, from right to left, from religious to secular, over the last two hundred and fifty years. I invite readers to read the book, left to right, English-style, from cover-to-cover. I also invite them to read it right to left, Hebrew style, picking and choosing compelling texts – or perhaps Talmud-style, left, right, up, down – with the added the “s” will inspiring people to move from exclamation points to question marks, reading, asking, debating engaging, commenting, and creating.
I also invite readers to make this a communal experience, hosting ‘Zionist Salons’ in their homes and their schools, in board rooms and synagogues, reading these texts, debating these texts and celebrating Israel’s 70thbirthday by asking: “What does Israel mean to me?” “What does Zionism mean to me?” and “What does liberal nationalism mean to me?” Feel free to sign up and download discussion guides at www.thezionistideas.com.