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The Bourgeois Zionist Dilemma

July 21, 2009 – 10:46 pm26 Comments

aliyaBy Jewin’ the fat

As with many children of the Jewish day school system, my childhood was peppered with intriguing anecdotes and extraordinary stories of a far off Holy Land, where Jews are welcomed into their own nation, and the ground flows freely with milk and honey (I was soon to find out, to my bitter disappointment, that the allegory of flowing dairy foods was merely a metaphor for a land of abundance).

I was also reminded daily that in my Australian reality my parents were paying good money to send me to a top Jewish day school, and cursed be I should I not take full advantage of the plethora of Jewish and Hebrew based subjects and opportunities (which, to my bitter disappointment, were limited to one or two modern Hebrew classes a week and a little ethno-religious history), get a banging Tertiary entrance mark, become a lawyer-doctor, get married and produce offspring for my parents to dote over on the weekends. It’s the fifth commandment after all – Honour thy Mother and Father (And be damned if you don’t do as they say).

And so it was – for years I was ping-ponging back and forth between the Zionism dream, and the ersatz Diaspora Zionist reality. But like thousands of other young Jews, I broke the mould, defied my parents (by studying Journalism and spending my gap year in Israel. As well as the summer break in second year. And 10 months at the end of my degree) and became a product of my Jewish Zionist education.

But the success story that eventuated was the parental nightmare: highly politicized, staunchly Zionist, with a hopeful entrepreneurial spirit and chomping at the bit to move half way across the world and make their dreams come true. In short, when I called home one warm April day to inform my parents that Israel was my homeland, and Aliyah was the only way up, I was shocked to discover I was talking to a brick wall. And no sooner had I mentioned my intentions, my parents were demanding my return to Australia. Months later and quite begrudgingly, I did arrive back, and quickly understood the reason I had felt so trapped.

These days, Jewish parents in Australia invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in their children’s Jewish-Zionist education, which by definition encourages them to ensure their destiny is intertwined with Israel. For most people, that implies donating money to ambulance services and soup kitchens in Jerusalem, or continuing the tradition of providing their children with a Jewish education. For others, it might even include sending their children on a trip to see the country and its people for themselves.

But, for most of these pocket-book Zionists, it is easier to write a cheque. The possibility of actually moving to Israel… well, it’s too rash, too extreme, completely out of the question, what about my friends, but I have a job here, I will need to talk to my partner, what would my parents say…

Well, I know what my parents would say, because they said it. Loud and clear – never mind drug addiction, alcohol abuse, marrying the wrong person, pregnancy out of wedlock – the fulfillment of your Jewish-Zionist identity? Over my dead body. And the sick thing is that part of me understands the struggle – as a parent, you want to give your child every opportunity, every chance to excel, to realize their potential, to become a strong, independent character with a keen moral compass. You just don’t envision them actually taking on the challenge and achieving that.

So what would your parents say if you told them you wanted to honour their gift to you, and become the person they imagined you would?

Maybe the question to ask is not what your parents would say, but what they should say. And they should say yes. Because the hardest thing of all for a Jewish child would be to honour hypocrisy.

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  • frosh says:

    This is a very interesting article, although I’m not sure I exactly agree with your conclusions.

    Cultures that have had a successful longevity (The Chinese come to mind, as well as our tribe) seem to often have a pattern whereby parents (and grandparents) invest heavily in their offspring. The offspring then in turn look after their parents when the time comes. Thus there’s an argument that when young people permanently move away from their family to the far side of the world, without the presence of any existential threat (as has led to geographic moves in past generations), then this pattern is being unnecessarily broken.

    Anyway, I know there’s more to it than what I’ve written above, but I’m just putting this out there as more food for thought.

  • jewinthefat says:


    I agree with you – there is most definitely a proud heritage of reciprocity of care within the generations, and certainly a sense of betrayal, perhaps, on the part of those left behind should the younger generations migrate elsewhere.

    The issue at hand is more a ideological one – Can children respect their parents lack of ideology, when they have been raised by said parents to personally subscribe to it? If one’s parents don’t believe in the validity of that ideology – why bother introducing their children to it at all?

  • rachsd says:

    Hi Jewin the fat and others,

    The scenario that you have described is very familiar. It is also similar to another narrative of the parent who sends their child to a nominally Orthodox Jewish day school, encourages them to attend an Orthodox synagogue on the High Holy Days, but is nonetheless devastated when their child decides to keep kosher more strictly than them, or keep shabbat.

  • nadine says:

    The centiment remains parents want the touchy feely, sing song feel good bits and bobs of zionism and judaism and not the heavy tachlis stuff i guess.

    I was recently at a shabbat dinner table whereby a new parent said i’d rather my child was gay than a fruma who moved to israel…

    …so what’s happening between the ages of enjoying the Jewish learning in high school, youth movements, stays in Israel, uni etc and then becoming a parent??

  • The Hasid says:

    Oh Lord. I just love (!) the caveat of “I’d rather my child was gay”. That, in itself, is bemusing enough. And not in a good way.

  • Well put, jewinthefat. The Zionism that is broadly preached and practiced here in Australia is the armchair version. Support Israel financially, advocate on its behalf, visit the place, but don’t actually move there. Those who teach it don’t actually articulate that. Rather, it’s implied. The real Zionists are in Israel, and kol hakavod to them for doing it.

    The fact is that as Jews, we have it really good here in Australia, and moving to Israel is very difficult. Also, because we are so far away, a move has a far greater impact on our relationship with those who haven’t moved. It’s not as if you can hop on a plane and visit the rest of the family in just a few hours, or even a single journey.

    So for Aussies, the perceived benefit of living in Israel isn’t sufficient to outweigh the downside.

  • frosh says:

    Hi David,

    I think you’ve made an excellent point in regard to the geographic factor. If one is making Aliyah England or France, the impact on the relationships with family and friends ‘left behind’ is completely different, than if one is making aliyah from Australia.

  • jewinthefat says:

    So should we still place such a high premium on Jewish-Zionist education – either in the classroom or informally?

    And as you say David Werdiger, can we fulfill our roles as Zionists from so far away?

    And perhaps Nadine has it right – what DOES happen to people in between youthful, optimistic ideology and parenthood?

  • frosh says:


    I guess it depends on how one defines Zionism. There are at least two broad definitions that seem commonly accepted among significant numbers within the community.

    1) Zionism as actively supporting the state of Israel, but with no moral imperative to make aliyah.

    2) Zionism is actively supporting the state of Israel, with a moral imperative to make aliyah.

    It isn’t that all people whose Zionism falls under (1) do not value aliyah, but rather, they view balance the positives of aliyah with the many possible negatives that it may involve (be it separation of the family, economic difficulties etc).

    I am too far removed from the education system/programs you refer to, so I am not sure which definition is emphasised more.

  • rachsd says:


    Aliya is certainly emphasised in the Zionist youth movements. Although it is well known that few graduates of these movements make aliya (except perhaps from Bnei Akiva), the idea that aliya is an ideal is central to the history and structure of the movements. The year away in Israel was originally a year of preparation for aliya and many of the institutions who host groups (for example, kibbutzim) do so partially in hope that some of the graduates will return to their kibbutz. The educators and madrichim on the year away are usually olim so that may explain part of the emphasis on aliya.

    Although this ideology is certainly outdated (Israel exists, there are plenty of people living there, olim who do not speak Hebrew fluently are not always well-placed to influence the character or security of the country), it persists as the spoken if not practiced of all of the Zionist youth movements in Australia.

    Probably through the youth movement madrichim it also enters the informal education component of the day schools.

    An easy way to circumvent the problem that Jewinthefat raises of hypocrisy would be to subscribe to ideals that are relevant and achievable in the current reality. But given that we live in a largely post-ideological society, this would probably mean large changes in both the Zionist youth movements and SKIF. (When I say post-ideological, I am taking ideology to refer to a totalising fix-all type ideology such as socialism, or Zionism, rather than say enviromentalism, which limits itself to a particular field of interest.)

  • I’m no expert in Zionism (my wife calls me a gastronomic Zionist – we go there to eat) – would be nice to get some feedback from people more knowlegeable in that area.

    The standard party line is that all Jews belong in, and can only live a complete Jewish life in Israel. Perhaps we should revert to a more pragmatic message for down under that allows for an active and supportive Diaspora? That could avoid the cognitive dissonance that can arise from the current mixed messages.

  • Ittay says:

    Jewinthefat, you ask some great questions. I’d love to have you at my place for a seder.
    In response to the idea raised by rachsd who writes, “An easy way to circumvent the problem that Jewinthefat raises of hypocrisy would be to subscribe to ideals that are relevant and achievable in the current reality.”
    I wondered what these ideals are and how they would sound in the mouths of Zionist educators.
    Be a committed Zionist (but only when Israel is at war), be a proud jew(but only on rosh hashana and yom kippur) always give charity (but give to your community first), etc..
    In the past, teachers have always taught the ideal, knowing that student will come halfway. Should that change?

  • rachsd says:

    Hi Ittay,

    Going to synagogue on RH and YK, and getting all het up when Israel in a war are not the kinds of ideals that I was referring to.

    Examples would vary depending on one’s orientation, but all forms of Jewish practice that are consistent with ones’ philosophy of life outside of Judaism and which can be practised in the diaspora (for example if one is a gender egalitarian in other spheres of life, then the form of Jewish practice would have to be somewhat egalitarian), environmentalism, Hebrew and Yiddish culture, interest in social issues, multiculturalism, challenging oneself intellectually, relationships with other Jewish communities in Israel and the diaspora etc etc could all be contemporary and relevant ideals.

    In fact I would say the prevalence of such beliefs as the ones that you mention “Be a committed Zionist (but only when Israel is at war), be a proud jew(but only on rosh hashana and yom kippur) always give charity (but give to your community first)” is just as much a product of the types of irrelevant ideals that are presented (be traditional Orthodox in the sense that excludes women from the main prayer rituals in a context where women are expected to achieve similarly to men in their careers, make aliya just for the sake of it, etc) as is it the product of pragmatism.

    Just my two cents.

  • jewinthefat says:

    I think the reality is that everyone has their own ideological standards, especially in the diaspora, where the connection to Israel is more mythical, historical or representative.

    An example:

    In a group of Australian and Israel students, the question was put to the mixed group – “what or who makes a zionist?”

    The answers from the australian include the issues discussed here. However, the response from the Israeli side was significantly indignant, and quite offended by the premise that a community with little or no connection (by their standards of citizenship) to the Land of Israel could presume to feel a part of the movement that inspired their country’s creation.

    In turn, the Australians were up in arms at the audicity of the Israelis to deny diaspora Jewry a right to their homeland.

    But perhaps if the shoe fits, we should wear it …

    – How can we comment on Israeli matters, either international or domestic (such as Agunot, riots over orthodoxy or the security fence), when we do not live in the country?
    – If we choose not to live in Israel, can our perspective or opinion (or those of our leaders in Australian media etc.) really matter?
    – If we do not send our loved ones, or indeed ourselves to the defence forces, how can we criticise or berate the decisions of the people who are prepared to take up arms?

    The reality is that a Zionist is someone who is prepared to stand by their ideology, in war or in peace, while under criticism or to the sound of applause. And after all, if its not really worth the effort, is it really worth it?

  • ittay says:

    what does this say about the perception of australian jews towards israel.

  • eli says:

    thanks for the link, but for those of us who don’t understand Hebrew except in a cursory way , slightly pointless!!

  • Because Israel is the Jewish homeland, most Jews feel a connection even though they do not live there. This is a fundamentally different relationship between expats of any other country and that country. Those who live in Israel feel offended that someone who has not walked a mile in their shoes (sent their kids to the army, risked their lives doing everyday things) has the audacity to tell them how things should be.

    The Arab world expect their countries to be Judenrein (free of Jews). Do Zionists expect all Jews to move to Israel? What is the role of the Diaspora?

  • TheSadducee says:


    I personally would prefer if you don’t use the word “Judenrein”.

    It does have a rather specific meaning and context derived from its use during the Nazi period and is not simply understood as “free of Jews” which is a misleading translation/understanding of the word.

    The reason I object is because of the meaning – Despite anti-Jewish prejudice/bigotry existing in parts of the Arab world, I don’t believe that an adequate case can be argued to suggest that “the Arab world” uses or understands the word in the sense that it was used in the Nazi period and hence the word used loosely is extremely offensive.

  • Sadducee,

    You are right. I meant the term in a totally different context with respect to what Zionism expects of Disapora Jews. Its use regarding the Arab world is quite appropriate in my opinion; although I don’t think here is the place for that debate.

  • ra says:

    David Werdiger,

    Initially, I thought your observation that by and large, Australian Jews practice ‘armchair Zionism’ was a good one.

    But then I thought about it again: what kind of Zionism is it that allows a Jew to be a Zionist, merely because she/he coins in the Blue Box? What happened to Aliyah as the yardstick of Zionist devotion?

    Perhaps a more accurate description of Australian Jews would be to call them Bundists who gave up on socialism. After all, Concert in the Park was a Skif event…


  • I’m no expert on Zionism. Is the only way to be a good Zionist to make Aliyah? If there is a yardstick, it makes sense that there be a continuum of activities which culminate in actually living in Israel as the best option.

    Agree that a few coins in the Blue Box is very armchair. How about a few thousand (although that really might just be blood money)? How about visiting and supporting the economy as a tourist? Or the modern equivalent of “oleh l’regel” (going for the major Jewish holidays)?

    When Bundists give up on socialism, what is left? Just Yiddish?

    I guess my point is that we are a little different because of the tyranny of distance.

  • rachsd says:

    Hi David,

    Kibutz HaGluyot (ingathering of the exiles) was a major tenet of modern political Zionism and there were certainly a lot of Zionists pre-state who envisioned all Jews moving to Israel.

    However, pre-state there were a range of Zionist ideologies, and some thinkers believed that the Land of Israel should become a cultural centre of the Jewish world but did not support the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel. Now that a Jewish state exists, it would be perfectly consistent with this pre-state ideology to support the existence of Israel without aiming to make aliyah and engage in cultural exchange with Israel.

    The dictionary definition of Zionism is supporting the existence of the Jewish state in Israel.

    Basically, there are multiple (conflicting) definitions of Zionism, so someone can say they are not a Zionist but mean that they are not a classical political Zionist, or accuse others of armchair Zionism for the same reason.

  • jewinthefat says:

    Zionism has become such a dirty word, but in its purest form, 1800s style, Zionism was the manifestation of the desire to see remade a Jewish land for a Jewish people.
    Some call it nationalism, others call it colonialism, but whatever it is, the desire for self determination drives Zionism and Zionists.
    What do we say to those who say the ‘ism’ is redundant, now that there is a Jewish homeland …

  • ra says:

    David & Rachsd,

    David – Bundism without socialism seemingly leaves only Yiddish. Except that Bundist ideology had a second important branch too, namely ‘Doikeit’ (badly translated as ‘here-ness’). Essentially it argued that Jewish life should be cultivated wherever Jews live, rather than creating a centre-periphery dynamic (Israel-Diaspora). Another way of putting is to say that Jews should invest in Jewish culture where they find it.

    To me, this aspect of Bundist thought reflects the way most Jews in Australia actually live (forget for a moment what they say).

    Rachsd – I agree that there are multiple definitions of Zionism, that are indeed often conflicting. However I think it’s perhaps more important to look at the synthesis of what Jews do as well as what they say. Take the Zionist youth groups for example – although their activities necessarily require much discussion of Israel & Zionism, very few members make Aliyah. Rather, they are actively involved in Jewish life right here in Melbourne/Sydney/Brisbane/etc and are really investing in Jewish culture in Melbourne.

    My point about Concert in the Park being a Skif event is that the whole event was staged to celebrate & encourage Jewish life in Melbourne; a necessary part of that includes the Zionist youth movements, even though at the rhetorical level it may appear their interests are mutually exclusive.

    I don’t really think it’s enough to base our identity merely on what we say – what we do is just as, if not more important.

  • rachsd says:


    Not sure that fostering Jewish community life here in Melbourne is mutually exclusive with calling oneself a Zionist, at least using the dictionary definition of the term.

    Certainly the latter definition is the one used by the vast majority (if not all) non-Jewish Australians, so if one were committed to cultivating life here, perhaps it would be the most appropriate definition to accept.

    I’m not really interested in advocating a position either way, but I have noticed a phenomemon whereby Jews who grew up in the Aust. Zionist youth movements say that they are not Zionists. They mean that they don’t believe in universal aliyah of the centrality of the State of Israel in the Jewish world, but at the same time some seem to try to align themselves on some level with anti-Zionists who are using a completely different definition of Zionism (i.e. the belief that Israel should continue to exist as a Jewish state).

    The question of whether Israel is central to the Jewish world, or simply another Jewish community is a different one again. I’d certainly agree that taking on a philosophy that is somewhat similar to the Bundist idea of ‘Doikeit’ is important for living a full Jewish life in the diaspora. On the other hand, with a community of the size that we have in Australia, we will probably never be completely independent. I certainly like to read/listen to the products of Jewish creativity and intellectual life in America and Israel, and I don’t think that the relationship between Australian Jewry and either of these larger Jewish centres is egalitarian.

    My feeling is that none of the nineteenth / early twentieth century Jewish political ideologies fit neatly into contemporary Jewish life.

  • ra says:


    By and large the people I know who went through the movements are just as committed to Israel now as they were when going through the movements. Of course some have become hypercritics – but as far as I can tell their numbers approximate the numbers of those who make Aliyah.

    However that discussion seems beside the point and I worry it will inevitably descend into categorising people into the simplistic “Pro” v “Anti” Israel dichotomy. What is more important (to my mind) is the tension between making Jewish life in Melbourne strong, rich and vibrant yet doing so by using tools that divert our attention to a place far far away.

    To me, the role that Israel plays for the majority of Australian Jews is a functional one: Israel is used as a means to conduct local culture, politics and society. Whether this is a good thing or not is up for debate. What is important though is to recognise that purposes for which Israel-related rhetoric & events are invoked are invariably domestic.

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