Fair warning: My first example won’t be good.

Sometimes teaching is hard, because some types of learning are hard. There are deep foundational ideas that can be heard, and even understood, but not integrated well into a person’s identity. Some bigger ideas need to be digested over time and experience. Teachers who want their students to achieve a deeper functional understanding of certain ideas may seek shortcuts. But they will probably not find them. Understanding an idea does not quickly create the full paradigm shift in thinking, no matter how deeply desired that outcome.

That brings me to a pretty bad example.

Well, it’s a good example of my point, but you’ll soon see why it’s bad anyway.

The book of Exodus tells that months after the ten plagues and forty days after the Revelation at Sinai, the Israelites create and sacrifice to the Golden Calf. I have yet to meet someone who is not gobsmacked by this behavior. How could people who experienced such revelation, and had been warned against graven images by God, openly defy His wishes within such a short time? They experienced monotheism, and presumably understood the simple rule about idols. But they went directly back to old behaviors very quickly.

But is this really so hard to understand? A bit like the atheist in a foxhole, they had an intellectual awareness of an idea, but functioned based on a different cultural norm that contradicted that idea. They understood the second commandment, but had not integrated the paradigm shift throughout their thinking enough to change their behavior. I imagine them thinking something like, “sure we aren’t supposed to do idolatry anymore, but this is different. This is just normal!”

Now dig: A big part of my job is explaining Zionism to people. If you don’t understand the basic ideas of Zionism, then you can’t understand the State that it created. The good news is, I can explain the central concepts pretty easily:

  1. The Jews are a nation (that doesn’t assimilate in exile)
  2. Nations have a right to self determination
  3. A Nation without a homeland is an unwelcome stranger (hence anti-semitism)

Therefore – The Jews need their own state

See, pretty simple. The State of Israel was not built to serve religious people, or a religious community. It is designed as the instrument to secure a nation’s return home. It is the structure that allows an indigenous people to auto-emancipate and rule themselves. Herzl, Ben-Gurion and company weren’t religious people. They were secular nationalists.

True, the Jewish people have a culture that usually manifests as religion. All nations have shared cultures, land and language. But the Jews began as a nation, and became the first one to ever survive exile. David was king of a nation, not rabbi of a community. The current state, is the third independent political manifestation of the Jewish people’s nationhood. It is our renaissance.

So Jews are a nation. Judaism is a religion. You can agree or disagree with those definitions. But they explain the core of Zionism, and represent pretty old Jewish truisms.

But try this experiment. Ask a fellow Jew to explain:

1) why Israel exists, and has the right to exist, BUT, they may not resort to God, religion or the Holocaust in their answer.

2) why the Europeans coming to the Americas is extremely different from Jews coming to Israel.

Most have a difficult time summoning the answers. Strikingly, you can explain that:

  1. The Jews are a nation returning from exile to reclaim their homeland and
  2. 2) The Europeans were coming to what was, for them, a “new world”. But the Jews are returning to their homeland.

They will acknowledge that they knew those ideas. And they even pretty much agree with them abstractly. But when asked to apply them to modern Israel, they stumble and reach for religion and refugees. This is a real problem in a world where Israel is compared to colonialism, apartheid and totally de-legitimized as a criminal endeavour.

Nations get states. Religions don’t. And if Jews can’t make the Zionist paradigm shift, how can we explain Israel to the world.

That’s why I’m not happy with the Golden Calf example. A reader can assume that I’m giving a dvar Torah. I’m not. I’m using an analogy to point out that while Jews talk about Jewish peoplehood and nationhood, they still think of us as a religious community. They still compare us to Christians and Muslims, when Zionism compares us to Italians and Indians.

The stakes are high. The only valid response to BDS and their ilk is the true story of an indigenous nation returning home. And Jews are having trouble summoning that story.

How do we fix this?