Friday July 7, 2023 – י״ח תַּמּוּז תשפ”ג
This was a tough week in Israel. A swift operation in Jenin; a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv; increased settler violence against Palestinians; continued murders in the Israeli-Arab community… and we (the Reform Movement) have more teens in Israel this week than at any time in the past two decades. They are having fabulous and meaningful experiences. I can’t say for certain if our teens will come back with a professed love for Israel (we’ll get to what that means) or if they will be called to activism and advocacy. But there is no doubt that firsthand experiences are essential to developing a connection to Jewish Peoplehood, Zionism, and a deep-rooted sense of Israel as part of one’s identity.
Many Diaspora Jews grew up in the post-WWII and post-Six-Day War era with the notion that all Jews should “love Israel.” For that generation, the romantic notion of Israel was part and parcel of how they grew up. It manifested through donations, trips, education, and often guilt. Many who grew up that way often lament the fact that the next generation doesn’t have those inherent feelings of love and attachment with the land, people, and the State of Israel. I can easily identify with the boomer generation, having grown up with a love of Israel and a strong connection – eventually leading to Aliyah. And still, I would like to be practical recognizing that for many that ship has sailed and a new generation has grown up without that sense of connection or love.
So, how do we instill a sense of love in a person who doesn’t feel it? And how do we instill in this next generation love for a place that appears to not reflect what they are taught to be Jewish values?
Earlier this week Rabbi Daniel Gordis published a piece in which he claimed:
“These are worrisome times in Israel. They are frightening times. They are also inspiring times. They are times in which we are asked to demonstrate our love; but they are not times that will generate that love. … People have turned out to the streets because they love their country, not in the hopes that protesting might get them to love the country.”
He wrote in reaction to Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s statement of last week expressing the notion that “We will reignite Zionism in America only by taking sides, by opposing this government.” It’s a bold statement to which Gordis plainly responds that such an endeavor “cannot possibly work.”
Gordis is right that Zionism was never simply about opposing something but it wasn’t just about love either. Zionism was about creating social and political change movements. The romantic notion of love is present in early Zionist writings, but neither Herzl nor Ben Gurion used “love” as an impetus to establish a State or as a motivating factor for other political changes.
Telling Diaspora Jews simply to love Israel and then be critical of Israel is no longer effective and rapidly becoming antiquated. Actions, like protesting, political advocacy, and civil society engagement, speak louder than words.
Love is important, and I would love it if all Diaspora Jews felt affinity, affection, warmth, and a close connection with the State of Israel. But many don’t, and telling them they should love it before critiquing it, or only critiquing out of love likely will end up among many walking away from engagement with the State of Israel and Jewish peoplehood.
I don’t think that Israelis are protesting the judicial reform legislation to get others to love their country. However, the protests have ignited a new wave of social and political activism. Having “a cause” has connected many Israelis more deeply with the State and Zionism. The protests against the proposed judicial reforms have caused many Israelis to stop and wrestle with the major questions at the foundation of this current crisis such as what it means to have a Jewish and democratic state. For many Israelis, these past 27 weeks spotlighted a national debate surrounding the lack of an Israeli constitution as a result of competing visions of what a Jewish State entails.
How should this wrestling over big questions play out in the Diaspora, where Jews are less affected by the political proposals?
Since we should always start with the familiar, let’s think about our own situation in North America.
Dr. Andrew Rehfeld, President of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, offered this reflection as a basis upon which we can relate to Israel and Zionism as well:
“My love of America is an expression of my feelings about the values upon which it stands, based on the principles and moral commitments upon which it was founded, and the ideals that made the nation what it is and what, I still believe, it is striving to be. In my understanding, this means a commitment to the ideals of individualism (Tocqueville’s self-interest properly understood) and freedom and a certain minimalist view of justice. It means supporting the rights articulated in the U.S. Constitution that protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority, especially when those are minorities of religion, and the majority is expressed through the power of the state.”
Loving one’s country does not necessarily entail supporting its policies or elected officials. It does not include supporting atrocities committed in generations past nor does it include an outdated sense of patriotism that does not provide for serious and genuine critique and debate.
The question of the Jewish people’s love for the People and the State of Israel isn’t new. For many North American Jews, there is a disturbing disconnect when it comes to their attitudes towards and relationship with the State of Israel. The phrase “I love Israel” sadly now implies an endorsement of a particular politician and policy. That is a big loss, a huge loss, that may explain why younger generations of Jews find themselves alienated from and not “in love with” the Jewish state.
Let’s stop probing for love and let’s get down to business. In this week’s Torah portion, the daughters of Zelophechad, who were left without men in their family, appealed to Moses to change the rules of inheritance. They challenged the existing leadership and patriarchal structure and changed the status quo, with women now being allowed to inherit land for themselves. Had they acquiesced to the tradition of that time and accepted their inferior status to sons they would have remained assetless and without power or agency. No one questioned their love or their affection, they saw a problem and sought to change it to their benefit.
Yet a few verses later we are reminded that Moses, because of past rebellious behavior of violence towards the Israelites and disobedience against God lost the chance to lead B’nai Yisrael into the Promised Land. There’s no question about Moses’ love and commitment to his people. We might argue that he acted the way he did out of ahavat Yisrael (love for the Jewish people). But some actions were inexcusable, such as those Moses committed during the period of wandering, and came with irreversible consequences.
According to the Torah, the future belongs to the five daughters of Zelophechad, and Moses becomes the mighty and larger-than-life leader of the past.
Let me offer a different way of thinking about love – the concept of Hibbat Tzion. The Early Zionist leader Nachum Sokolow was a Hebraic Positivist, as he explains in an article he published in the Zionist Organization’s newspaper, Die Welt, in 1912, in which he penned an extraordinary piece about love:
“One must love Palestine. One has a special responsibility towards one’s beloveds. With loved ones, it is to be expected that you will suffer some blows because of them. There emerge all sorts of little thorns that one did not foresee. One may not say: That does not suit me; I didn’t mean that. Rather, one says at that moment: Only forwards – you’ve placed yourself in the yoke, now pull . . . If one were to constantly strip away a growing plant, it would come to nothing. Whoever demands great sacrifice from the people, before great love is at hand, ruins his harvest. The courage for sacrifice comes only when love has been awakened. For that, however, we must work so that love [will] be awakened; for this reason, we must create in Palestine that which is beautiful, inspiring, [and] liberating.”
The insistence that Zionism should reject militant nationalism and immerse itself in love was central to Sokolow’s final book, Hibbath Tzion, (completed in 1934). In the book, Sokolow drew a distinction between three oft-conflated concepts:
1) Hibbat tzion – a form of “cherishing Zion” with deep roots in Christian and Jewish civilization (late 19th century;
2) Hovevei tzion, those who realized the hibbat tzion ideal as foundational in Zionism’s organizational future; and
3) Zionism itself, a political movement with the potential to follow either the path of hibbat tzion or embrace a “base, vulgar and megalomaniac version” of nationalism (such as that which motivates the contemporary violent and extremist Jewish settler movement in the West Bank). Hibbat tzion, according to Sokolow, “represents the national idea in the purest sense of the word” in which “the natural sentiment of love, righeousness, and devotion to one’s own nation must be subordinated to the ideal of humanity.” Associating both tribalism and chauvinism with Gentile forms of nationalism, Sokolow asserts that by its nature, hibbat tzion rejects the aping of Gentile ways – though he adds that “when Jews assimilate, they acquire the worst features of secular culture.”
Can Sokolow’s version of hibbah / love work for today’s young generation?
Could they be attracted to a vision of “the national idea in the purest sense of the word” in which “the natural sentiment of love, righteousness, and devotion to one’s own nation must be subordinated to the ideal of universal humanitarianism?” This, along with a commanding rejection of the base, vulgar and megalomaniac versions of nationalism that are the driving force of Israel’s ruling coalition. We ought to be more like the ‘daughters of Zelophechad’ and less like Moses.
What we need today is for our people to be engaged, to raise serious money to support Israeli civil society, to speak out against anti-democratic policies, and, yes, to take sides, because the more we engage to seek change, the more we might fall in love all over again.
 Derek Jonathan Penslar (2020) What’s love got to do with it? The emotional language of early Zionism, Journal of Israeli History, 38:1, 25-52,