“I truly believe that even after we possess our land, Zionism will not cease to be an ideal. For Zionism includes not only the yearning for a plot of promised land legally acquired for our weary people but also the yearning for ethical and spiritual fulfillment.”
~ Theodor Herzl
Thank you for taking the time each week to read these words and engage with the ideas presented. Your comments and feedback mean a great deal to me, and as we enter 5783, I welcome your thoughts and engagement. As we work to build a Zionist Movement in North America and expand our Reform Movement in Israel we need more people to join us as ARZA members and join our URJ Israel Leadership Network.
Thank you for your partnership and Shanah Tovah,
This is a big year. This year, 5783, Israel will turn 75. That is a big deal! This special anniversary provides us an opportunity to zoom out, reflect on all that has been created, and acknowledge the incredible story of the modern Jewish State. It is an opportunity to highlight the bonds that unite us as a Jewish people, retell the stories of our shared past, and imagine how we might create a meaningful joint future between Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities.
Let us begin by dispelling a common myth: that one can either offer praise or criticism of Israeli policies, but not both. Some acknowledge the successes, but only with a caveat, and some worry that if they celebrate the accolades of Israel that they will be identified in a particular political camp and lose credibility with others.
Let me suggest that this year, leading up to this meaningful milestone, we take the year to celebrate not only everything Israel is and has created but celebrate our commitment to our future as a people. That, of course, includes contending with difficult issues and wrestling with Israel’s demons. But it does not have to be one or the other. It does not have to be all bad or all good.
At this moment in time, strong voices are being heard attempting to bifurcate progressive politics and Israel, essentially saying that one can’t be both progressive and Zionist simultaneously.
That would be the equivalent of saying that one cannot be progressive and an American at the same time. Representative Rashida Tlaib has equated support for the State of Israel as antithetical to progressive politics.
“I want you all to know that among progressives, it’s become clear that you cannot claim to hold progressive values yet back Israel’s apartheid government, and we will continue to push back and not accept that you are progressive except for Palestine.” (Tlaib in an online forum, September 21).
Let us be clear.
- Zionism is a progressive value because Zionism is about creating equality and justice for Jews and Palestinians alike.
- Just like Rep. Tlaib would consider herself a patriotic American yet likely abhors many of the actions and policies of the U.S. government, being a Zionist DOES NOT mean that one supports every policy of a given Israeli government.
It is our job to make this clear and to support those who come under fire for identifying as Zionists or even just as Jews (as some did recently at the University of Vermont).
Let us take this opportunity to zoom out and explore the principles of progressive and liberal Zionism.
What is Zionism?
Zionism is a movement for the Jewish people to be a free people living in the Land of Israel and the State of Israel. The penultimate line of Israel’s national anthem Hatikva – L’hiyot Am chofshi b’Artzeinu – highlights four critically important concepts: “Being,” “Freedom,” “Peoplehood,” and “Our ancestral Homeland.” Each requires deep deliberation, understanding, and commentary to flesh out what it means for us. These Four Concepts are at the heart of Jewish deliberation, often arriving at a multiplicity of responses.
Some contend that Zionism should have ended with the establishment of the State in 1948. But I claim that 75 years later we are still deliberating about questions:
Does the Jewish State need to be the demographic or the spiritual center of the Jewish people (both or neither)?
In pre-Statehood days, the majority of the Zionist world agreed upon one goal: To establish a Jewish State. What we don’t agree on is what a Jewish State should look like.
To help respond to this challenge of self-definition we at the URJ and ARZA are offering a curriculum, created by Israeli artist and educator Robbie Gringras, that is available for all Reform Movement institutions.
The program – which is suitable for adults and youth alike – is based on asking the following 4 questions:
To be – להיות?
All of us inside the pro-Israel tent agree that Israel should exist. But how should we deal with and define existential threats? What else does it mean “to be?”
What did we come to Israel to do? Did we come to be a treasured nation ( עם סגולה ) or a “normal” nation, a nation like all other nations? Did we need to get approval, buy-in, and support from the community of nations or just build our own country?
Our responses to these questions are as relevant today as they were 75 years ago.
A People – עם?
What does it mean to be the Jewish People, and what does it mean to be Jewish in the Jewish State? What is often missed from the newspaper headlines and even on a tourist bus is that when the Zionist Movement began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Zionists came to establish a secular socialist state, intentionally sidelining Jewish ritual, law, and practice, essentially creating a secular and non-religious state. However, Israel is now much more than what it was then. We should celebrate the incredible creativity and vast contribution to Jewish religion, culture, and life that grew in Israel. The modern State has been the source of the revival of the Hebrew language and a tremendous outpouring of Hebrew culture in the fields of religion, literature, music, art, dance, Jewish philosophy, and commentary, to mention a few. Israel has become an incubator for high-tech startups and innovative production, Jewish ideas, learning, and conversations.
With that, it is fair to question the way in which Jewish tradition and religion play a role in modern Israel. Questions of social solidarity within Israel and between Jews throughout the world will always provoke and inspire ongoing policy discussion. The way the Jewish People ought to relate to non-Jews rightly resonates in our moral considerations as well. Though we might argue and disagree, vehemently so, in the wide pro-Israel tent, this position or that does not make us anti-Zionists.
Free – חופשי?
To imagine a State of Israel that is not democratic is anathema. I would go so far as to say that being democratic is inherent to what it means to be a Jewish State. However, essential to this question of freedom are questions of pluralism and religious diversity and freedom, electoral systems, and how ongoing Occupation affects our democracy, human rights policies, and the meaning of Israel as a powerful sovereign nation.
In Our Land – בארצנו?
There was really no serious option for where the Jewish State would be located (the days of considering the Uganda Plan are long gone). Israel must be located in Biblical Israel. But which part? How much of it? What about access to other parts that are not within Israel’s political borders? What makes a Homeland? What if someone else is living there? What makes a land ours? Can a land be “ours” if we do not live there?
The Zionist enterprise can be defined as the ongoing drive to implement ever-better answers to these four questions of Hope.
As Reform Jews, which is the largest Jewish and Zionist Movement in North America, let us use this 75th anniversary year to establish our Zionism and embark/continue on a quest to provide answers to these critical questions. It is no secret that in its inception the Reform Movement was not a Zionist Movement. It did not value the importance of our nationalist story and our connection to a central location in our historic Homeland.
Now it is.
And as we celebrate the 75th year of Israel’s independence, we also celebrate the 150th year of our Union for Reform Judaism (previously Union of American Hebrew Congregations). That means that we should equally apply our Reform movement activism, Jewish innovation, and prophetic voice to Israel and Zionism. That means that rather than ignoring Israel or tap-dancing around it, we should incorporate it into every walk of congregational life, turn it upside down and inside out, and engage it in a serious and comprehensive manner for all ages. As Reform Jews, Israel must be more than a “campaign,” or an issue among many upon which to work, or even a problem to be solved. Engaging with Israel and Zionism can be a “way in” for our members and can provide spiritual and intellectual nourishment. It is also a motivating factor for social justice advocacy and activism.
In short, it’s got it all.
Where to begin/continue?
- Try out our curriculum on the 4 Hatikva Questions
- Join our “Just Zionism” initiative by learning more about social justice causes in Israel through the Israel Religious Action Center
- Stay tuned for a year’s worth of major conversations and programs to celebrate and discuss Israel at 75.
In a few days when we stand together and before God to repent and look deeply into ourselves, let us use these 4 questions as a measuring stick as to how we are working towards the future of the Reform Movement, the Jewish people, and the State of Israel to be a “free People in Our Land” and to be proud of who we are and what we stand for.
Shanah Tovah U’metukah.