Remarking on the attenuated connection of many American Jews to Judaism and the Jewish people, and the difficulties of maintaining a sense of Jewish vibrancy for any but the devout, Gil Troy argues that Zionism itself can be an invigorating and unifying force for American Jewry. Israel’s need for allies in the diaspora, Troy writes, “continues to offer nonreligious American Jews a passionate Jewish cause, a defining Jewish mission in their lives.” Indeed, Zionism can imbue them with feelings of nationalism of the beneficial kind:
In the 2016 [U.S. presidential] campaign, whenever the word “nationalism” appeared in the media, it often came poisoned by words like “white” or “extremist” or “xenophobic.” The reaction against Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Brexit, neo-Nazis, and other manifestations of populist nationalism has soured too many Americans on any form of nationalism.
At its best, what might be called liberal nationalism infuses democratic ideals into the natural tendency for people to clump together with those like them. In the 1950s, Isaiah Berlin described this constructive nationalism as “awareness of oneself as a [member of a] community possessing certain internal bonds which are neither superior nor inferior but simply different in some respects from similar bonds which unite other nations.” Many Enlightenment thinkers, following the 18th-century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, compared this communal impulse with other human “desires” for “food, shelter, procreation, and a minimum degree of liberty.”
Today, this nationalist vision goes against the prevailing cultural tide. Amid what the sociologist Robert Bellah calls “radical individualism,” young Americans experience a “negative” process of “giving birth to oneself” by “breaking free from family, community, and inherited ideas.” By contrast, commemoration of the bar and bat mitzvah defines maturation as accepting communal responsibilities rather than shirking them. The Zionist reality demanding that young Israelis enlist in the army also roots them in communal commitments. In this view, national service is the defining step toward adulthood.
A resurrected, refreshed, Zionist conversation, one that focuses on what Israel does for us, might help Jews see liberal nationalism as a neutral tool that can unite a divided community and make us more determined, more purposeful, and more fulfilled than we can be individually.