Has Zionism Lost the Argument?

Upward of 40 years ago, I was a chanich, a camper, at Moshava, a sleepaway camp. Mosh was the mid-Atlantic outpost of Habonim (now Habonim Dror), a progressive Jewish youth movement devoted to creating, as its website states, “a personal bond and commitment” to Israel. If my own biggest takeaway from the experience was a fondness for cigarettes that bedevils me to this day, that’s hardly the organization’s fault. The older kids who turned me on to “smoking cloves” were probably no more aware than I was that their colorful packets of Indonesian imports, sweet-tasting and filterless, were mostly tobacco.

Habonim, which means “the builders,” was established in the United Kingdom in 1929 in an effort to spread the doctrine of Labor Zionism, an uneasy synthesis of two strains of nineteenth-century European Jewish thought: socialism and Jewish nationalism. The former, although rarely referred to directly, was central to the camp’s design. Campers gardened and took care of chickens; they mopped the mess hall, served the meals, washed the dishes, and scrubbed the toilets. I signed on for garbage duty, a taste of collective labor that soon, however perversely, became a favorite activity.

Meanwhile, camp sought to inculcate the spirit of Zionism. Mornings began with the singing of “Hatikva,” the Israeli national anthem; hours of Israeli dancing followed Shabbat dinners. And then there was Aliyah Bet. A long-standing camp tradition, it took place late one night a few weeks into the session. I remember being wakened by instructions shouted in Hebrew, flopping groggily from my sleeping bag, and being hustled out into the humid night. “Sheket,” we were told. “Be quiet.” The woods were dark. Only the counselors, gruffly playacting as Jewish paramilitaries, had flashlights. At some point, I was hoisted into a tree fork and instructed to jump down to the grass. I doubt it was more than three or four feet, but in the dark, exhausted, I hesitated. “Go, go, go!” someone whispered, and I complied, rising unharmed and giddy. Eventually we made our way to the dock, climbed into canoes, and were piloted around the silent lake before arriving back at shore. After cups of hot chocolate, we slipped into bed, hearts racing.