The dangers of encyclopaedic Zionism

The notion of having one day dedicated to particular cause, or a certain ideology, or even a specific person has always been somewhat foreign to me. Even as a child, I recall wondering why we needed to set aside specific days to love our parents. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day just didn’t make sense to me.

Which is why today – Yom Yisrael at camp – continues to puzzle me.

Why do we need a specific day to learn about Israel, to express our love for our home, and to give our Israeli shlichim a chance to shine? Certainly, Israel education is an important part of the pedagogy at camp… but so is God. Do we have Yom God? Do we have Yom gay rights? Do we have Yom Egalitarianism? What is it about Israel that requires a separate day? To be sure, we also offer Israel programming on other days throughout the summer. Why the need for a day?

When NFTY chose its study theme for 2006, I was similarly confounded. The theme was P’Kichut Eineinu L’Tziyonut: Opening our Eyes to Zionism. “Great!” I thought at first. “I like Zionism. I like opening people’s eyes. This should be good.” But then the wheels started turning in my head, and I thought, “But shouldn’t we always be opening eyes? Shouldn’t that be a part of what we do always, not just for one year’s study theme?” Let me be clear, excellent programming has come out of this study theme, as it has from the many Yamim Yisrael that have been held. But what does it mean when we put something up on the pedestal of a study theme, or a dedicated day at camp?

It means that it’s not down amongst the people where it belongs. It means that it is elevated to such a level that some people are intimidated by it. It means that it is seen as a singular issue that can be looked at, dealt with, and then tucked away as a completed task.

Israel is not completed. The Zionist project has not been finished. Far from it. There is much to do. With Yom Yisrael, no matter how dynamic and fantastic our programming is, we run the danger of creating the impression that Israel and Zionism are encyclopedia entries that can be pulled of the self when needed, looked at, and then re-shelved.

So what do we do on Yom Yisrael? We highlight facts about Israel. We eat Israeli food. We play Israeli games. We listen to Israel music. We look at maps and pictures of Israel. And we talk to Israelis. [See above comment on encyclopedias]

Encyclopedias have their uses; they’re great for one-shot info sessions. But that’s not how I want to interact with Israel, and it’s not how I want others to, either. This is not the kind of Zionism I’m interested in. I’m not even sure if it can be called Zionism. I’m more interested in developing a bookshelf of Israeli and Zionist education. Of creating an entire library of experiences that will truly shed light on this country that is clearly so central to our people (Hey, it gets its own day at camp!). The encyclopedia might be fine for some, but it reminds me too much of a travel brochure. I’m more interested in the magazines, op-eds, novels, biographies, and the essays of Israel.

So what is the purpose of Yom Yisrael… Is it get people more interested in Israel? To get them to travel to Israel? If this is the case, aren’t we woefully nothing more than a tool of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism? We’d like to think that we give Israel its own day in an attempt to foster a love of and greated connection to her, but can one day really do justice? Israel education – if it really is as important as we say it is – needs to become as natural to us as tikkun olam is. It needs to become a part of our zeitgeist and ethos.

Perhaps next year in its place, we should hold a Yom Fair Trade Coffee instead.


  1. David A.M. Wilensky says:

    Of course it’s on a pedestal. Of course people are intimidated. If one has not yet been to Israel, the entire thing is confounding. We live in a good place. We can be Jews as we wish to, here in America. Because of that, we are not motivated to move to a better place. And because of that, we have to go there to get it.

    And if one has not yet been, the way that you and I and those like us go rabidly on about Israel, we turn people off.

  2. elyse says:

    interesting thoughts, jesse. I have always wondered the same thing – shouldn’t Israel and Zionism be part of our programming all the time. Why do we need to dedicate days and years to programming on it. Why can’t every day be Yom Yisrael (day 😉 After all, you could view our movement (especially the younger generation) as moving closer to being more of a zionist organization
    hope all is well up at the 46. I am certainly missing it…

  3. David says:

    Jesse, I have three words for you:

    Amen, selah, b’emet.

  4. Karen P says:

    I certainly agree that “Days” (note the capital D) are a poor substitute for feelings/actions/ways of life that should be with us every day. However, Days can serve a purpose — if I might be so bold to suggest — as useful/meaningful as Shabbat. These Days force us to focus on something that we might otherwise neglect (for a variety of legitimate and not-so-legitimate reasons — we’re too busy, too lazy, too distracted, etc.) Shabbat also makes us stop and focus.

    If we stop and focus in a meaningful way on Israel or Mothers or Fathers or Fair Trade Coffee, we might, just might, make a change in our attitudes or behaviour that stays with us past the Day. The key here is that the focus has to be meaningful and the change has to happen — the Day is just a catalyst.

    On a tangent, I’d like to rant about Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and birthday and anniversary cards that say something like “I know I never say it, but I love you, blah blah blah.” So, the Day has provided the reminder/impetus to express our feelings to someone who is supposed to be important to us. How sad if people only express their love when reminded to do so by a Day (and Hallmark). On the other hand, is it better to get that card & its sentiment once a day than never at all? I guess where I’m going with this is back to my original idea that a Day is only meaningful if its impact lasts beyond the 24 hours. How to achieve that kind of impact? That’s a huge challenge.

  5. David says:

    I hate Valentine’s Day.
    And Earth Day.
    Damn Earth.

  6. BZ says:

    One year one of the campers asked one of the Israeli staff “What do they do on Yom Yisrael in Israel?”

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s