Friday August 11, 2023 – כ״ד אָב תשפ”ג
Since before its founding in 1948, Israel has been a fundamental touchstone for American Jews. For some, it served a unifying purpose, and for others, it seemed more of a nuisance. As Professor Sivan Zakai explained, “The American Jewish community’s relationship to Israel has waxed and waned over time, at moments functioning as a major pre-occupation of American Jews, and at other times simmering in the background of attempts to cultivate Jewish life in the American context. At each juncture, American Jews have had to redefine how Israel should function in their own lives and communities.”
Widespread support for Israel among American Jews has eroded over the years in the foundering of the Oslo peace process, the decline of the Israeli left, and now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition’s attempt to undermine the country’s independent judiciary. These factors (and others) pushed the American Jewish-Israeli relationship to a nadir.
“The more that American Jews had access to Israel – through travel, media, Jewish education, and the rise of Israel studies programs on university campuses – the more they began to explicitly critique aspects of Israeli society and politics that conflicted with their own values and beliefs.” (Zakai, p.8)
Even before the current crisis in Israel – which is about the future of the Jewish state and its democratic character – American Jews have debated our Jewish connection to Israel.
This moment requires us to go beyond the current judicial debate over reasonableness and de facto annexation of the West Bank.
Why Does Diaspora Jewry Need Zionism?
The answer depends on what we mean by Zionism.
The Jewish world adheres to one of three understandings of this loaded term. The other day a 15-year-old student at one of our URJ Summer camps asked me point-blank, “Why are you a Zionist?” It came at the end of a program on a hot summer day. I escorted her to the adjacent outdoor bench for a chat that required more than an ‘on-one-foot’ response. The following is what I encouraged her to consider:
- For many, Zionism is a feeling of attachment or connection to Israel and a desire to support the Jewish State financially, politically, or both, that manifests in travel and immersing oneself in Israeli culture, language, and history.
- Zionism for others means a belief in a Jewish and democratic state with a commitment to the aspirational values found in paragraph 13 of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and a commitment to universal and liberal values.
- Zionism means the belief in privileging Jewish rights over non-Jewish rights in Israel. Sadly, this is the definition of Zionism assumed by many in the so-called Progressive Jewish and non-Jewish political world. Pointing to the continuing Occupation of Palestinians and a growing prominence and strength of those promoting a system of inequality, adherents of this definition claim that Zionism represents a system of inequality. There are those who come to this conclusion as a surface-level response to the existence of Jewish State, and unequally applied to other ethnic-nation states.
These overlapping and contradictory definitions can lead to confusion for many Diaspora Jews and often result in a disassociation of convenience from the “Z” word. Those of us who grew up any time after statehood through the 1990s were likely well-acquainted with images of Metzada, Jaffa oranges, archaeology, tanned kibbutznikim wearing mushroom hats and sandals, felafel, and camels. Few dealt with sticky issues like Palestinian refugees and Jewish ethnic disparities, as there was a deliberate attempt to present a clean and pure image of the fledgling Jewish State. Just like many of the early societal issues and challenges were swept under the rug, so too was the notion perpetuated that Israel could do no wrong.
For many Jewish visitors, traveling to Israel can be a lot like going back to visit one’s parent’s house after they no longer live there. It’s often great to visit for a weekend, a week, spring break, or a few weeks. We find comfort in eating the food, feeling Shabbat, hearing Hebrew (even if we don’t understand it), and reveling in the breathtaking biblical landscape. There is still a sense of exoticness in seeing young Israeli women wield M-16s and experiencing the gruffness of Israeli life.
But after a while, a few different things might happen. In the same way that you might see your parents as old school or ‘not with it’ anymore, you realize that Israel is not quite what you were taught in Hebrew school or by your parents and grandparents.
For some, this could lead to a rejection of Zionism and Israel altogether. Some younger American Jews have done precisely that. For their parents and grandparents, Zionism was a welcome rescue from the dilemma of American Jewish life. In the initial decades of the state, everything was clear: a great national movement had arisen that strove to “renew our days as of old” in the ancestral home, resuscitate our ancient tongue, glorify the “sanctities of the nation,” and assure adherents a full Jewish life. But difficult questions, particularly religious ones, began to appear as the national movement neared its goal: what would be the character of the new Jewish society? And if a state were created, what would it look like? The internal conflicts within Zionism held so far in abeyance, now became sharply clear.
What’s more, the demise of Israel’s socialist ethos exemplified by the kibbutz movement resulted in a vacuum of collective identity. This was replaced, in part, by the rise of right-wing religious nationalism which gave many Israelis a newfound sense of collective selfhood. This Zionist identity was not limited to religious Jews. It embraced secular Jews as well who lived in a capitalist society that did not contain the identity glue in which their socialist parents and grandparents lived. Ironically, Israel became more integrated into the world on the one hand, and on the other, more ideologically isolated.
For so many American Jews, Israel was the great savior nation, a bastion of inspiration we put on a pedestal. For a long time, many American Jews were not paying attention. They/We didn’t internalize that the downfall of the socialist-Zionist left in the ’90s was filled by a more traditional and religious-nationalist demographic, much of which was foreign to liberal American Jews. Many missed the subtle transition from an ultra-Orthodox camp who were ardently sectoral. They could rationalize joining the Rabin-Peres government in passing the Oslo Accords so long as their political pork was served with the fusion of the “ultras” – Orthodox and National.
Many American Jews are waking up to the disillusionment of the conventional camps and legacy institutions that supported the American-Israel relationship. Large institutions, however, are finding it harder to be politically neutral these days. Offering blanket support for the Jewish State is becoming increasingly difficult given the government’s right-wing tendencies. One legacy organization supports right-wing fundamentalists in the U.S. who deny the latest election results, and another is on the precipice of sliding over to the deep end, playing with fire by proposing to condition Foreign Aid to Israel and aligning itself with those who boycott President Herzog’s address to a joint session of Congress.
“It seems,” as one rabbi commented to me, “that another difference and challenge between our respective Israeli and Diaspora audiences – whether inside the synagogue or on the streets – is demography. The audience in most American Reform congregations is aging. The challenge and question for synagogue attendees under 55 is why Zionism matters at all, especially in light of the direction Israel is heading. If the younger generations among Diaspora non-Orthodox Jews have been ambivalent, it seems that we need to double down in getting younger American Jews to care.”
Why should American Jews care about Israel:
- My hope is that Diaspora Jews understand that Israel is part and parcel of contemporary Jewish identity and that our Judaism would be unrecognizable were not for Israel. You could say that our pride as Jews, security, and identity are baked deeply into the modern consciousness of the Jewish people worldwide because of Israel’s establishment, evolution, and success as a nation worldwide. Our liturgy, holidays, and spiritual life has been so impacted by the Jewish State that to imagine contemporary Judaism and Jewish identity today without Israel is inconceivable. We should care about fellow Jews, especially the largest Jewish community in the world based on the rabbinic adage Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh (“All of Israel is responsible for one another”) – Sanhedrin 27a.
- What happens in Israel will affect us in the Diaspora, whether we like it or not (based on item #1 above)
- We are asked to support and fund everything from the Israeli government (by way of political support for foreign aid through our elected officials), to every NGO that has an “American Friends of…” branch. We are best served as a Jewish community when we put our money where our values lie. If we care about liberal and progressive values in North America as Jews based upon prophetic principles of justice, compassion, and peace then we should care about religious freedom, equality, justice, and compassion in Israel for all the residents of the Land as well.
As liberal American Jews, it is important to us and the future of our American Jewish community to reclaim liberal Zionism by rejecting an ethnocentric extreme nationalistic system that promotes inequality and injustice and fight for the stream of Zionism to which we identify and Israel as a democratic and Jewish state in which we believe. And if we don’t, nothing will be a bigger victory for the extremists.
 Zakai, Sivan, My Second-Favorite Country: How American Jewish Children Think About Israel (New York, NY, 2022; NYU Press), p. 6
 THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
 Do American Jews Really Know What ‘Zionist’ Means? By Mira Sucharov, October 26, 2022
 Why are American Jews so shocked by Israel’s far-right turn? +972Magazine, Shaul Magid, April 25, 2023