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For the Sake of Zion, vaddevah dat means

So my Perfect Non-Reader, now being a big third-grade kid, has progressed to the next level of Hebrew School. They are finally teaching her the aleph-bet with some seriousness, and they are teaching her the liturgical structure of the service, and they are brainwashing her with Zionism.

They gave her, in that first week of classes, a very odd thing: it’s a page out of For the Sake of Zion: Pride and Strength Through Knowledge, by Tuvia Book. This is a work specifically and explicitly devoted to indoctrinating passion for Zion. And it’s aimed at high-school students and college kids. From the press release:

Once Jewish students leave the protective bubble of school, home or intimate social group and enter the “real world” of a mixed college campus, sometimes hostile to Jews and Zionism, they often find themselves uncomfortable, on the defensive and unable to speak about Israel in partbecause they lack the passion for Zion.

In order to respond effectively with a sense of self-respect and to be proactive, students need a sense of commitment and pride, as well as knowledge and tools.

The sheet they gave the kids is a list of statements, and a space to respond whether the reader agrees or disagrees (on an A-E scale, oddly enough). I’m going to type in the whole thing, because—well, because I find it interesting and a trifle disturbing.

  • The Jews are a nation like the French or the Germans.
  • The Jews are a religious group like Muslims or Christians.
  • All Jews should live in Israel.
  • Jewish life in the Diaspora is vital to the continuation of the Jewish people.
  • Jewish life in the Diaspora can never be fully safe or satisfying.
  • Self-determination is the basic right of all peoples.
  • The Jewish claim for national independence is based on Divine promise as recorded in the Torah.
  • The Jewish people have an absolute and singular right to the Land of Israel as their national homeland.
  • The Land of Israel is the national homeland of both the Jewish and the Palestinian Arab people.
  • The State of Israel should be a model of Western liberal democracy.
  • The Torah is the national constitution of the Jewish people and should be the national constitution of the State of Israel.
  • The State of Israel belongs to the entire Jewish people.
  • The State of Israel belongs to the citizens of the State.
  • Israel is primarily a refuge for Jews fleeing oppression and a response to anti-Semitism.
  • Israel is primarily a creative expression of the Jewish people’s will to be an independent community.
  • All citizens of the State of Israel, regardless of religion or national-cultural identity, should share the same rights and privileges.
  • Zionism demands personal fulfillment through Aliyah.
  • Any support of Israel is Zionism.
  • Zionism does not end with Aliyah, but continues through personal work to create a better society in Israel.
  • A person living in Israel has to serve in the IDF to be considered a Zionist.

Well, now. As a conversation-kicker for grupps, or perhaps even more so for college kids, there’s a lot there. I could probably write a note about each of those twenty items (or more accurately, I could begin the project and then peter out after eight or so, despite having plenty to say about the rest). If we all (Gentle Readers and myself) just did the A-E response that the worksheet calls for would generate a wide range of responses. Giving it to a bunch of eight-year-old kids— My Perfect Non-Reader has an immense vocabulary, and I think is able to more or less understand the sentences and what they mean. Or, I should say, what they mean on the simplest level; I don’t claim to fully understand what Self-determination is the basic right of all peoples means, or what national independence means, or personal fulfillment or Western liberal democracy, for that matter. These are not well-defined terms. That doesn’t mean that they have no meaning, or that they can’t be used to communicate effectively, just that there is a limit to the extent that I am willing to say that I understand them. But that limit is very different from the limit experienced by an eight-year-old, who may or may not know what, for instance, the word refuge means. My Perfect Non-Reader does know that word, and its relation to refugee, because her parents are that way.

So I think her trouble is the greater one, close to the one that I have with the list. On the other hand, I have had lots of these conversations before. I have some experience with the tricky parts. It’s fairly easy for me to say it’s more complicated than that to pretty much anybody. I’m thinking not so much for an eight-year-old in class.

And then there’s this: I am an anti-Zionist myself, in the sense that I think Zionism was an error, although I have no solution to offer myself. Certainly I don’t think that immediate abolition of the State of Israel is a good solution, but given a range of solutions, I would rather work toward a future without a Jewish State, if that could be done without making things worse for lots of individual people. It’s hard to see how that would happen. So in terms of practical policy preferences, I am probably in line with, oh, J Street, despite their “support [for] Israel and its desire for security as the Jewish homeland”. I desire security for Jews, both in the Holy Land and elsewhere, but I do not in principle support the State’s desire for security as the Jewish homeland. But then here I’m reminded of the book-dialogue between Michael Lerner and Cornel West, when they are talking about Zionism, and it turns out that neither of them believe in the nation-state as such, so of course the whole concept of Zionism is suspect. I, too, have trouble with the idea of the nation-state, and that puts me in the corner with the guys with the funny haircuts who make trouble, but has almost nothing to do with anything practical.

But practically speaking, I am a Diaspora Jew. I identify myself as a Diaspora Jew, and I practice Diaspora Judaism. When we discuss Jewish matters (which happens fairly often around the house, as you can guess), I respond as a Diaspora Jew. And as an American. And that rubs off. My Perfect Non-Reader filled out this page as a Diaspora Jew, and as an anti-Zionist, to boot. I suspect that she was one of the few people to strongly disagree with the absolute and singular right stuff and give a shrug of a C to The State of Israel belongs to the entire Jewish people. Not that I would fill the paper out exactly the way she did, but on the whole, she wrote a paper as YHB’s daughter.

And that worries me. Not, in this instance, because I am worried about my own indoctrination, pace Akabya b. Mahaleel. But because I think it will be difficult and unpleasant for her to hold such unpopular views. Because she will be torn between loyalty to her Old Dad, who she loves (thank the Divine, although I embarrass her so) and respect for her teacher and the respect of her classmates. This is not like growing up a Yankee fan’s son in Boston. This is like that kid whose dad sued to have the Pledge of Allegiance returned to its original secular text.

I grew up in a New York Liberal Jewish household in a Southwestern town. My dad remains an old Trotskyite, at heart. When the Soviet Union fell apart, I was in college, and at that point I heard echoed in my community his response that this was the best possible news for advancing socialism. But when I was in high school and we read Animal Farm, I caused a major ruckus by making a similar point about Marx and Stalin. And that was high school. When I was Brynnen’s age, more or less, Jimmy Carter was running for President, and I was aware that our household was an Democratic island in a sea of Republicans. I heard dozens of Jimmy Carter jokes from my classmates. Not that I cared, particularly, about politics at the time. And I associated the political thing with the religious thing; we were supposed to be outsiders, after all.

Now I live in a town with seven synagogues. The local A&P put out a huge display of round challah right by the entrance last week, together with raisins, apricots, figs and those sticky nut-honey things that the Sephardim eat. And on the right day, too. The schools are closed on Monday for the Yom, not particularly out of sensitivity but out of logistical necessity, with so many students and teachers out. Being a Jew is not being an outsider in this town, and I am reminded almost every week of how different that is from my own childhood.

And yet, it seems, I am bringing my daughter into an outsider status of her own. I am, how do you say, conflicted about this. I am proud of her and worried about her. I feel guilty for having put her in this position, and I feel good about having protected her against the indoctrination I disagree with. I am frustrated by the whole weight of history that has made it seem almost reasonable for my shul to indoctrinate the kids in their school in Zionism, even while I think it’s a wrong-headed idea. And I want, in the words of the press release for that book, for my Perfect Non-Reader to respond effectively with a sense of self-respect and to be proactive, drawing on a sense of commitment and pride, as well as knowledge and tools. Only, I think I want her to do it in 5777, not this year.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I am sorry that you are in this position, but I am impressed by your steadiness in handling it. It does seem a lot to put on eight-year-olds, even without the whole indoctrination aspect. On the bright side, at 8 years old peer pressure is probably a lot less noticeable than it will be in a few years, so if you work through these concepts now, it might provide an insulating effect against peer pressure when your Perfect Non-Reader is older.

It's hard to live well in this world without accepting outsider status, at some point and in some measure.

I would be interested in hearing more about how you think/thought/talked through these statements.

I can only imagine what it will be like growing up the son of a Buddho-Discordian and an atheist in southwestern Virginia.

Yeah, I'm uncomfortable with giving an 8 yr old this questionnaire. But on the larger scale, you miss the point of the questionnaire. It isn't a "right-answer/wrong-answer" sheet, it's meant to provoke discussion because there IS NO RIGHT ANSWER. And that is all to the credit of those who came up with the questionnaire. It would be completely appropriate to give this to high school kids. Giving it to 8 yr olds is just a reflection of a young and inexperienced teacher who is enthralled with this sophisticated teaching tool and forgot who he/she is teaching. Still, you can stop hurting your elbow by patting yourself on the back for your 'sophisticated' anti-Zionist stance. Zionism is a perfectly legitimate position and your prejudice against it is less reasonable than those who advocate it, given the history of the Jews.

Is that how I hurt my elbow? Damn. Because it hurts a lot. I blame Cornell West.

Welcome to this Tohu Bohu, by the way, and thank you for your comment. I will, defensively, claim that I have not so much pre-judged Zionism as post-judged it, well after the fact. And that the history of the Jews, well, a few years ago I wrote that

Zionism was not the correct response to the massacre in 1096. Zionism was not the correct response to the Spanish Inquisition and the Alhambra Decree. Zionism was not the correct response to Philip the Fair and the expulsion from France in 1306. It was not the correct response to the expulsion from Arabia under Caliph 'Umar in 641 or the expulsion from the Babylonian Empire by Heraclius I in 629. It was not the correct response to Hadrian’s depredation in 135. It was not even the correct response to the destruction of the Second Temple.

And I think that Zionism was not the correct response to the Shoah. A legitimate position? Certainly, yes. Most of my Gentle Readers are Zionists, I think. But Diaspora Judaism and full participation in liberal democracy seems to me like a legitimate position as well, and that the history of partition of any kind is so terrible that its proponents bear the burden of argument, at least as far as convincing me.


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