Commenting on his own work, the acclaimed 19th-20th century French sculptor Auguste Rodin is reputed to have asserted, “I invent nothing. I rediscover.” Irrespective of the truth of his assertion, Rodin’s words point to the idea that there is value to be found in the annals of history — an idea given voice to in the Deuteronomic injunction to ‘Remember the days of old, [and] consider the years of many generations.’ I was reminded again of this idea over the past summer at the PresenTense Institute for Creative Zionism (PICZ).
Headquartered in the center of Jerusalem, PICZ hosted 18 young activists and innovators from Israel and the Diaspora working on a diverse range of projects. The projects reflected the diversity of their creators, ranging from the composition of a Bible rap album to be used as a platform for Jewish education to a website created to link Jewish communities around the world with experts they may be looking for. The Institute also provided a series of interesting lectures, from venture capitalist Jacob Ner-David’s analysis of the function of VC in the Israeli economy to activist Asaf’s Baner’s discussion of B'Maaglei Tzedek, an organization he directs which promotes a “social seal” kashrut certificate granted to restaurants that adhere to basic workplace ethics. These occasions provided those with other commitments, like myself, a valuable opportunity to participate in the Institute’s activities.
Underpinning the Institute is its philosophical vision of Israel as a laboratory for the renewal of the Jewish People. PICZ’s grassroots application of its ideology signifies a radical development in the Jewish world, rooted in a rediscovery of an often forgotten aspect of Zionist ideology.
Defining Zionism as a political movement that “aims to secure and support a legally recognized national home for the Jews in their historical homeland, and to initiate and stimulate a revival of Jewish national life, culture and language,” Zionist ideology typically focuses on two issues: the justification for the existence of a Jewish state in Israel, and visions of how that state will function. Pre-state Zionism was additionally troubled by how to bring such a state to fruition. To give a few examples, discussion of the first issue often centers on anti-Semitism, Jewish historical connections to the land of Israel, and the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 calling for the two-state partition of Palestine. The second issue provokes a wide array of visions for the Jewish state ranging from Socialist Zionism’s synthesis of Jewish national redemption with socialism to Ahad Ha'am’s calls for the establishment of a national spiritual center that would shape Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora or to Religious Zionism’s focus on establishing a state in the light of Jewish Law.
Many Jewish organizations focus principally on the former aspect of Zionist ideology. Some like the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, which aims to “assure a thriving future for the Jewish people and Judaism with Israel as their core state,” are concerned with the second aspect of Zionist ideology. Uniquely, PICZ concerns itself solely with its vision of the function of a Jewish state and works at the grassroots level to bring this idea to fruition. The initial projects developed by PICZ provide an encouraging sign that the Institute will achieve its aim of generating a creative Jewish community to explore contemporary ways of affiliation and Jewish citizenship with Israel at its center. Commenting on the working environment, Avi Bass, the director of an upcoming pilot trip to Israel for Boston students interested in Aliyah, explained that the Institute provided “a constant source of constructive criticism and encouragement for my project.” Similarly, Eli Winkelman, who directs the LA-based Challah for Hunger project commented that being there felt “like an integral part of something much, much bigger than you and your own project” which encouraged her to “trust a little more in the future.”
These points were lost on a representative of the Jewish Agency who spoke at the closing event hosted by the World Zionist Organization. The burden of his speech related to justifications for the existence of a Jewish state in Israel and was punctuated with references to Israel as a refuge from anti-Semitism. The speech was not without merit — indeed, in a world in which Israel’s enemies in the Middle East and its vicious detractors in the West often explicitly or implicitly deny its right to exist, it is essential to articulate such justifications. However, concern with those existential justifications should not be to the exclusion of consideration of visions of the functions of that State. The father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, motivated by anti-Semitism following the Dreyfus Affair, called for the creation of a Jewish state, but also described his utopian vision of such a State in his novel Altneuland (“Old-New Land”). Each aspect has its appropriate context.
For all those who, like me, have an “ayin l’tzion tzofiya” or one eye turned toward Zion, the recent birth of PICZ is a welcome addition to the Jewish world.