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Essentially American: Zionism through the lens of US Jews | Opinion by William Daroff (Israel HaYom)

Zionism constitutes a pillar of Jewish life in America: Jewish communal institutions started supporting Israel since before its re-establishment as a state.

The recent publication of America’s first national strategy to counter antisemitism is a welcome step in the right direction in the fight against Jew-hatred. The Biden-Harris Administration and Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt should be applauded for recognizing the need to mobilize federal resources to combat antisemitism. The Administration put the weight of the federal government behind the fight to combat antisemitism, demonstrating that this fight is not just a Jewish priority, but an American priority. From additional homeland security funding and streamlined hate crimes reporting to ensuring kosher food is included in food assistance programs and hospitals, to creating educational tools for labor unions and small businesses, and encouraging partnerships with communities of other faiths to combat antisemitism, the approach engages over two dozen federal agencies in this over-arching strategy.

The report also distinguishes an essential fact of contemporary Jewish life and identity: that there is an intrinsic link between the Jewish people and the State of Israel. By recognizing and celebrating “the deep historical, religious, cultural, and other ties many American Jews and other Americans have to Israel,” it acknowledges our community’s long-standing affirmation that Zionism is inherent to our identity as American Jews.

At its core, Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. It emphasizes that Jews, like any other people, have a right to self-determination in the land of our ancestors after facing 1900 years of oppression and violence in Europe and the Middle East. Since the days of US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in the early 20th century, this idea profoundly resonates with American Jews, who continue to enjoy historically unique prosperity and relative freedom in the United States. While the Jewish community is grateful for the opportunities and freedoms afforded by our country, we simultaneously maintain a steadfast connection to the land of Israel, our heritage, and our brethren abroad. We also see Israel’s existence as an essential contributor to our people’s safety and well-being in a modern world still plagued by antisemitism.

Judaism and the land of Israel are tightly intertwined. Israel is the birthplace of our Jewish identity, language, culture, and religion, and the modern Zionist movement is the actualization of the longstanding Jewish aspiration to return to and be free in the land of Israel. For millennia Jews pray in the direction of Jerusalem and for their people’s return to Zion. “Next year in Jerusalem” is a yearly refrain chanted at Passover Seders and on the day of atonement, Yom Kippur. Jews mourn the destruction of the first and second Temples on the holiday of Tisha B’Av – and customarily break a glass during weddings, a joyful occasion, to remember the devastation of Jerusalem. The religious longing for the land of Israel is present even in the Yemenite and Ethiopian Jewish communities, which were historically isolated from the rest of the Jewish world.

Zionism constitutes a pillar of Jewish life in America: Jewish communal institutions started supporting Israel since before its re-establishment as a state. Whether through collecting money in blue boxes for the Jewish National Fund, participating in Birthright trips, or protesting for the liberation of Soviet Jewry from “anti-Zionist” policies preventing their emigration, Jewish Americans have long held a strong bond with land and people of Israel.

The fight against antisemitism requires an understanding of the multifaceted nature of Jewish identity: American Jewish identity is not defined solely by notions of race, ethnicity, citizenship, or religious belief. American Jews feel deep connections to their heritage, a sense of peoplehood, and a relationship with their ancestral homeland. Zionism encompasses these elements, serving as an expression of deep seeded American and Jewish values. As Justice Brandeis reasoned over 100 years ago, “the highest Jewish ideals are essentially American,” and “to be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.” To a supermajority of American Jews, Zionism lies at the heart of what it means to be Jewish and American.

This reality makes the increasing prevalence of antisemitism under the guise of “anti-Zionism” in campus lecture halls and “polite” society all the more troubling. On campuses from San Francisco State to the City University of New York – and too many more in between – young Jews increasingly face an environment where antisemitism (and anti-Zionism) is normalized, both online and in their classrooms, to a greater degree than their millennial predecessors. When students are unable to express their whole Jewish identity openly and authentically, that constitutes deep antisemitism.

The Biden plan makes it clear that Jews are being targeted for “their real or perceived views about the State of Israel,” particularly on college campuses. They recognize the plight of Jewish students and provide statistics to back up the many anecdotes we have all heard over the years. Like us, the Biden Administration is deeply concerned that Jews are both unfairly judged and pay a high social price because of their connection with the Jewish state. The plan emphatically states, “When Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or their identity, when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism. And that is unacceptable.” The plan also embraces the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism, which clearly links forms of anti-Zionist rhetoric with antisemitism. These are powerful words that are backed up by the strength of the United States government, and we hope they have the impact necessary to make Jewish students feel secure in their complete identity in classrooms and on campuses.

In the end, the US National Strategy to Combat Antisemitism is just that: a strategy. Now comes the time for implementation. We already see elements of the plan actualized and made actionable. As initiatives take shape, we are grateful that the United States government clearly laid out the fact that our American Jewish identity is intrinsically linked to and inseparable from our Zionism. By recognizing this reality, the federal government sends a powerful message of solidarity to the Jewish community, both domestic and abroad, while demonstrating American leadership in the global fight against Jew hatred.

William Daroff is Chief Executive Officer of the Conference of Presidents.

This piece was published in Israel HaYom on July 25, 2023. To view the original, click here.

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