Within philosophical discourse, one can speak of the ‘stability’ of an idea…which for our purposes might refer to an idea’s ‘permanent sameness.’ A mundane example of the concept might be the notion of the square: for thousands of years, the term ‘square’ has meant a shape with four sides of equal length.
But not all terms enjoy that same kind of semantic stability. To be a ‘Reform Jew’ means different things to different people (and has varied in different historical periods as well as in different locations). To be a Dodgers fan can mean radically different things depending on whether one is referring to the Brooklyn or Los Angeles incarnations. And now, in our day, even the term Zionism is experiencing its own turn on the ‘instability merry-go-round.’
There was a time, I think, when Zionism simply meant a passionate belief in/love of the Jewish people and our right to a state of our own in the historic Land of Israel. There was no need to worry about questions of borders, the occupation of settlements, or the right of return. To be a Zionist was to believe that Israel should do whatever it took to survive. That definition made sense in the decades after the Holocaust, during a period in which Israel was genuinely vulnerable to obliteration by the anti-Semitic Arab states that surrounded her.
But as times have changed, there is an inverse relationship at play: the more stable Israel’s security and sense of permanence as a state becomes, the more instable our definition of Zionism.
With each passing year (Israel has been a state for more than 65 now!), Israel’s existence becomes less debateable. But paradoxically, the opposite is true when it comes to defining the term Zionist.
The semantic field of the term has changed, and will continue to change. For some: to be a Zionist today means to lovingly critique Israel, to challenge the status quo, to take the needs of the Palestinian people into account, etc. The playing field has dramatically shifted and the old definitions have changed. (As just one example, consider the ongoing debate within the Hillel world about what kinds of Israel discourse are appropriate for Jewish campus groups and which aren’t.)
No one better exemplified this ‘instability’ (or evolution) than Prime Minister Sharon. In a relatively brief period of time, Sharon made the leap from battle-hardened Old School Zionist to founder of a new school (he established Kadima, a party to the left of Likkud, which pursued the Gaza withdrawal). For those of us who resonated with his more recent iteration, he was a visionary prophet who understood that we are living in an era where the term Zionist is changing. He changed with it.
What about us? How are we handling all of this instability in our Jewish worlds? That’s a question I gently tried to raise over the High Holy Days, when we had ample opportunity to study pluralism. We are considering the question in my yearlong seminar on Jonathan Sacks’ The Dignity of Difference. And it was hidden in plain sight the night of our Israel Shabbaton back in November, when we brought together a diverse array of teachers to speak with us about Israel today.
The one thing that has not shifted in the midst of all of this is our community’s unchanged position on the value of discussion and debate. I welcome your comments on this, and all, of my writing. Please consider calling or emailing to share your thoughts, or post them online on my blog by clicking on "Comments" above.