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Published in the Forward on March 8, 2002

A Green Cure for Zionism's Blues

By Dr. Gil Troy

In 1897, Theodore Herzl convened the first World Zionist Congress to advance the idea of a Jewish state.

When the 34th quadrennial Congress convenes this June in Jerusalem — balloting began February 27 to choose delegates — the governing body of the world Zionist movement will be confronting an ideological crisis.

Sadly, the malaise in Zionism runs far deeper than the Palestinians' violent upending of the Oslo peace process or the Zionism-is-racism libel that the Durban orgy of anti-Semitism revived and tried to legitimize.

Rather, talk of Zionism today bores or alienates most American Jews.

Indeed, most American Jews see Zionism as an endless source of Jewish problems — and not a solution to our problems, as it should be. Rather than appreciating the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people and American Jewish life, most American Jews see Israel as the central headache of the Jewish people.

Judging by the last few rounds of the World Zionist Congress electioneering, much of the campaign and the Congress will ignore these challenges.

Zionist politics often appear to be as open, as thought-provoking, as creative, as Soviet Politburo politics once were. In fact, the vicious turf battles, inside politicking and the arcane debates about bureaucracies and budgets only intensify the malaise.

We cannot afford to proceed with business as usual. The challenges are too great and the crisis runs too deep.

Like the "Dead White Males" whom campus radicals decry as dominating the literary canon, Zionist thought remains dominated by "Dead Zionist Europeans." The classic Zionist thinkers — Theodore Herzl, Ahad Ha'am, A.D. Gordon — lived in Europe and died decades before the state was born. We need modern American Zionists. We need to start a broad and creative debate about what Zionism can mean to us, given the realities of Israel and the challenges of remaining Jewish in North America today.

We need bold new Zionist thinkers and visionary Zionist leaders. We need a new Zionist idiom that addresses 21st-century American problems, not 19th-century European anti-Semitism.

Fortunately, there are some rays of sunshine poking through the ideological fog. One of the least known, but most refreshing, new movements in Zionism is a small but potentially revolutionary organization, the Green Zionist Alliance, or GZA.

The GZA places environmentalism at the center of the Zionist agenda. "We care about humanity's responsibility to preserve creation," reads a statement on the GZA Web site, "and we accept the special responsibility of the Jewish people to preserve the many ecological treasures of Israel."

"The Land of Israel according to our tradition and text (Genesis 12:7) was assigned to us as a sacred trust," Rabbi Michael Cohen, GZA's executive director, said in an email. "That trust, if we are to take it seriously, includes the care of its holy soil, water, air and animal life. Zionism stands not just for returning the people to the land, but also the care of that very land so that the Jewish people may thrive on it."

It is easy to dismiss environmental concerns amid fear of terrorism and despair over the peace process. But focusing on this quality-of-life question, which itself is a life and death issue, is in fact an inspiring act of optimism. Moreover, in weaving together humanitarianism, traditional Judaism, environmentalism and Zionism, Rabbi Cohen and his allies are showing Zionists of all political stripes how to create a new Zionist language, how to synthesize old school Zionist ideas with modern challenges.

Candidates running on the World Zionist Congress' Green slate — "Your Environmental Voice," as they are billed on the Congress ballot — are not compartmentalized Jews who distinguish between their American and Jewish selves. Through their Zionism these expert activists — including Joseph Kruger and Barry Elman, two senior managers from the Environmental Protection Agency; James Schauer, an engineering professor, and Adam Werbach, a former Sierra Club national president — have been able to reinforce their different identities rather than fragment them. Such an approach seeks balance and integration rather than the neurotic schizophrenia typical of so many American Jews who build Chinese walls between the real world and their Jewish lives.

Love it or hate it, environmental Zionism has an important role to play in revitalizing Zionism. It can remind us that Zionism needs to be modernized and updated, relevant and diverse, electrifying and subversive. We need a Zionism that is Protestant not Catholic, a Zionism of many different churches singing various hymns within a broad Israel-oriented framework.

With creative initiatives like GZA, with new breezes emerging from older organizations like Hadassah, these upcoming elections may indeed be an important step forward in a long postponed journey toward Zionist renaissance, rather than one more lost opportunity, one more example of Zionist torpor.

Dr. Troy's latest book is "Why I am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today" (Bronfman Jewish Education Center, 2002).


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