Judaism Unbound Episode 119: The Histories of Zionisms - Noam Pianko


To help us better understand and think about the role that Israel might play in the future of American Jews, Dan and Lex are joined by Professor Noam Pianko of the University of Washington, author of the books Zionism and the Roads Not Taken and Jewish Peoplehood: An American Innovation[1] The conversation explores the origins and evolution of Zionism,  its many early variations, the changing nature of American Zionism, and the ever-shifting place of Israel in the minds of American Jews.

 Image Credit: Stroum Center for Jewish Studies

Image Credit: Stroum Center for Jewish Studies

(0:01 - 17:30): To begin the episode, Noam Pianko looks back on Zionism's origins in the 19th century, exploring the relationship of early Zionism to broader questions of nationalism, emancipation, loyalty, and fear. He also provides an extensive look at how Zionism manifested in forms that did not focus on the creation of a political nation-state. [2] He examines the broader context of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, and how this context explained the forms of Zionism that emerged there. Pivoting to America, Pianko presents the contrasting figures of Israel Zangwill (leading proponent of the idea of an American melting pot) and Horace Kallen (a prominent theorist behind the idea of cultural pluralism) to demonstrate the very different context of Jewish life here. [3] 

(17:31 - 31:56): Continuing forward through history, Pianko describes how this context changes in the mid-20th century, as the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel drastically changed philosophies of Zionism, such that the idea of statehood became far more central to Zionism than it had been previously. Pianko elaborates on how, even after Israel was established as a Jewish state, American-Jewish institutional support for it was not unconditional. [4] He then considers 1967's Six Day War, arguing that its role in turning the tide of American-Jewish opinions about Zionism may have been over-emphasized by some scholars and Jewish institutional leaders. Pianko's claim is that radical activism and opposition to the Vietnam War may have had a bigger impact on the place of Israel in the hearts and minds of American Jews than is commonly understood. [5] 

Zionism and the Roads Not Taken.jpg

(31:57 - 43:58): Pianko looks at the 1970s, highlighting the beginnings of a split among Zionists between "progressive Zionism" and "Israelism." [6] Fast forwarding to our contemporary moment, he asks how and in what ways the Trump administration is contributing to further polarization around Israel and Palestine. To close the episode, Pianko looks at the word "Zionism" itself. He asks whether or not the term, which was initially quite expansive (including ideologies of Jewish nationalism independent from a political nation-state), can be rehabilitated, or if the conflation of Zionism and "Israelism" means that we now need new and more precise language.

 Arthur Waskow, presenting at Breira's only conference in 1977. Image Credit: Tablet Magazine

Arthur Waskow, presenting at Breira's only conference in 1977. Image Credit: Tablet Magazine

[1] Learn more about Noam Pianko by clicking hereZionism and the Roads Not Taken and Jewish Peoplehood: An American Innovation are both available on Amazon at this link.

[2] One of the leading Zionists who did not envision Jewish political sovereignty through a state was Ahad Ha'am (Asher Ginzberg). Learn more about him and his philosophy of Cultural Zionism by clicking here.

[3] We recommend reading Zangwill's 1908 play, entitled The Melting Pot, for a sense of Zangwill's understanding of how the phrase "melting pot" encapsulated American life. We recommend pairing it with an excerpt from Kallen's 1915 work "Democracy Versus the Melting Pot," accessible by clicking here.

[4] Pianko quotes a 1950 address by Jacob Blaustein to emphasize the point that support for Israel by American-Jewish institutions was conditional. For the full address given by Blaustein, entitled "The Voice of Reason," click here.

[5] For a look into the political schisms within Jewish life in the mid-late 20th century, including around Israel and the Vietnam War, see Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America, by Michael Staub.

[6] A key organization cited by Pianko is Breira, which arose in the 1970s, made up of Jews committed to a two-state solution. Learn more about its rise and fall by clicking here.