Earlier this year I traveled to Washington D.C with a group of High School students to lobby about social justice issues facing our nation. They did an incredible job, speaking about the issues that kept them up at night, issues that are central to our lives and theirs. Together they implored their elective representatives to pursue policies that promoted justice and equality throughout the country. As our meeting wrapped up the hill staffer turned to the group and said, “I noticed you spoke passionately about gun control and civil rights, women’s health and global malaria. What is your view on Israel?”
Immediately a silence filled the room. These students didn’t want to talk about Israel. Eventually one student raised his hand and spoke, “Talking about Israel is hard,” he said, “Because I’m not a Zionist.” Eventually more spoke. Some spoke against things they were reading in the news. Others defended Israel’s actions. Most sat in an uncomfortable silence. But not one stood up to say proactively, “Yes! I am a Zionist.”
As their Rabbi, I’ve done a lot of thinking about this scene and why for so many today, young and old, we pause before affirming that we are Zionists. The more I have reflected, the more I have imagined how many of Israel’s great thinkers might have answered that question if they were sitting in the room. I begin envisioning the same staffer, with the same question, but this time the players are different. And like it was for my students, the agenda item is a century old, revisited by each generation in their quest for meaning and justice. The issue: Why does Israel matter? What role should this little plot of land and a 68-year-old State play in the unfolding story of the Jewish people?
Up first is Leo Pinsker, a towering figure in the history of Jewish thought and the great-grandfather of Zionism, though many have forgotten his name. Pinsker made it his life's mission to convince Jews living in Europe in the late 19th century that the only antidote to the anti-semitism that surrounded them was to embrace the notion of a Jewish state. Pinsker grew up in Odessa and came to his conclusion after living through a series of anti-Jewish riots in 1881. Through them, he realized that Russia would never be safe for him and his people.
Looking the hill staffer in the eyes, I imagine Pinsker repeating some of the most indelible words from his most renown 1882 essay, Auto-Emancipation:
“...to the living the Jew is a corpse, to the native a foreigner, to the homesteader a vagrant, to the proprietary a beggar, to the poor an exploiter and a millionaire, to the patriot a man without a country, for all a hated rival."
His speech is impassioned, appealing to the deepest fears and anxieties in the room. The world is an unsafe place for the Jews, he argues, and the only way we can find security, the only refuge from the unceasing hatred that surrounds us is for us to have a state of our own. Through Israel we might gain the respect and sure footing that would allow the world to respect us.
Soon, Pinsker finishes and Theodore Herzl takes his place. Herzl is a well-dressed intellectual with a long graying beard with an implacable passion that manifests in his unforgiving gaze. Herzl begins by acknowledging the truth to what Pinsker said. The world is unsafe for the Jews. Herzl was after all, the journalist sent to France to cover the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, the French artillery officer who was arrested on trumped up charges and condemned for treason precisely because he was Jewish. As a young journalist, Herzl observed the intense hatred toward the Jews that the trial exposed and he concluded that if civilized France could not be safe for his people, then nowhere would be. But, Herzl says, there is another reason beside anti-semitism why Israel should exists that is just as important.
Herzl continues with urgency. He describes growing up in Vienna and hearing the stories of Germany past. He loved those stories and worked during his early adulthood to bring about German nationalism. But, he explains, the world came crashing down when he realized that he could never be fully German. Jews were Jews. Germans had Germany, the French had France, Americans has America, but the Jews would always be other. The Jews needed an outlet for their national aspirations as well. Clasping his hands, he repeated a phrase, a century old, from his 1902 work Altneuland:
“Let sovereignty be granted us over a portion of the earth's surface large enough to satisfy our rightful requirements as a nation. The rest we shall manage for ourselves.”
Herzl explains that Jewish nationalism is foremost a tool to ensure self-determination and control over our destiny. And this cannot be done in Germany or France, Italy or Spain. Jewish nationalism requires a Jewish state!
Exhausted, Herzl takes his seat and Asher Ginsberg, known to most by his pen-name Ahad Ha’am stands up. Looking out at all those gathered, Ahad Ha’am scoffs at the visions of Herzl and Pinkser. You will never get the majority of Jews to move to Israel, he explained, and if Israel is going to remain important, it needs to serve the needs of those in Brooklyn and Beer Sheva alike. Judaism may be a people and a nation, he continues, by it’s also a culture and the main purpose of a Jewish state is to uphold and highlight that rich cultural heritage.
Slowly it becomes clear what Ahad Ha’am envisions. Israel will be a hub of the best Judaism has to offer, the best Jewish art and music, the deepest Jewish thought and the most deliberate engagement with the Hebrew language. Our creative spirit will radiate out into the rest of the world, enlivening and teaching them, and world Jewry will, in turn, influence Jewish culture in Israel.
Pausing, Ahad Ha’am quotes his famous 1897 essay, “The Jewish State and Jewish Problem”:
[We need] not an independent State, but only...a good-sized settlement of Jews working without hindrance in every branch of culture, from agriculture and handicrafts to science and literature.
Soon more speakers rise. Each has their own arguments for why Israel should exist.
Berl Katznelson, one of the fathers of Labor Zionism gets up. He explains that the old, pale, wizened, Jew of Eastern Europe, needs a makeover. Israel should exists, he says, because we need to rediscover the land, learn to farm again, and create a “new Jew” that privileges farming over study, labor over learning. Israel can be the place where Jews can rediscover our bodies and make the desert bloom.
Zeev Jabotinsky, the progenitor of Revisionist Zionsim hushes him. For centuries, Jews have been weak, he shouts. Why should the classic Jewish story be, “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” We need Israel so we can rediscover our strength. Israel will be the place where Jews finally have an army. Israel will empower the powerless people.
Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, the first chief Rabbi of Israel then stands up. Israel, he says, is the beginning of the flowering of our redemption. If we want the Messiah to come, we need a land that is infused with Judaism and Jews.
But he is quickly interrupted by David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, who in addition to echoing many of the previous sentiments holds up his copy of the Bible extolling the virtues of the land, how our ancestors walked on its sands, and how every inch of soil is saturated with history and meaning.
Soon the room is exhausted. Each speaker has given his full being to his argument. Each takes their seats. Hearing each of their messages, one truth remains in the room. Despite their differences, each speaker is a Zionist in their own way. Some of these Zionists emphasize the land of Israel, some privilege Jewish culture. Some highlight the Jewish religion while others rediscover Jewish agency and power - self-determination and a restoration of Jewish sovereignty. Though in their time, many of these thinkers vehemently disagreed with one another, history has vindicated each of their views.
Modern Israel is the amalgam of these thinker’s passions. Herzl spoke about nationalism and got Israel the nation and her government. Ahad HaAm loved Jewish culture and got Israel’s art and film scene. Jabotinsky was fed up with Jewish weakness and got a strong Israeli army. Rav Kook loved the Jewish religion, and Israel is home to some of the deepest Jewish thought and practice in the world.
Comparing my experience in that office in Washington with that of history’s conversation, one fundamental difference exists between the approaches of my students and that of the great thinkers of Israel’s history. Unlike their forebearers, my students believed that Zionism is binary. Like the first codes that governed computer programming, it a game of zeros and ones. They looked at Israel today, with all of the messiness that comes with being a nation in this world and asked themselves, do I fully accept everything I see? They assumed that to be a Zionist they had to answer yes. If they were upset with the actions of the army, if they were angry with settlers, if they were disturbed by images they saw on the news, if they sympathized with the plight of the Palestinian people, this would somehow preclude them from affirming their commitment to Zionism.
Today, we need to think about Zionism the way we have been taught to think about God. For generations, modern Rabbis have worked to uncouple the word God from the image of the Divine that is in the Bible. And we have, for the most part, been successful. Though some see the Torah’s depiction of God as cosmic truth, many are able to say, “While I don’t believe in a God like the one in the book of Exodus...I believe in a spirit...or God as goodness...or God as ultimate potential...or God as the substance of the universe.” We feel comfortable, as the post-modern meaning makers that we are, understanding that the word God can have multiple meanings provided it is used in a spirit of openness and spiritual yearning.
Yet, as good as we are at re-affirming the word God, we lack the ability all too often to do that with the word Zionism.
Just as it is true that if you believe in something greater than yourself, you can call that thing God, so too if you love a piece of Israel, if something in any of these speakers cases spoke to you, you can call yourself a Zionist.
Ahad HaAm loved Jewish culture and he was a proud Zionist and he still would have been disturbed by Israel’s military presence in the West Bank. Theodore Herzl was a proud Zionists and yearned for a Jewish nation, but still would have been angered by the Orthodox hegemony over religious practice. Berl Katznelson loved Israel and he, in his Zionist and Socialist fervor, would have also been crushed to see the great inequalities of wealth across Tel Aviv.
Why should Israel exist? Why is it important to you? What do you love about Israel? Each of these thinkers had an answer. What is yours?
It’s so easy today to answer the opposite questions. It’s so much simpler to critique, to scorn, and to despair but Israel is too central to Jewish identity to give up on her entirely. From the moment our prayer book was formed, we prayed daily for a land where Judaism is rich and alive.
To be a Jew is to struggle with that which is difficult. We push ourselves to find meaning in ancient texts that are often challenging. We reinterpret ritual that seem meaningless at first to work for today. Despite the hardships of life, we don’t give up on God. We face life’s struggles, our doubts, and our questions and we made God work for us. Why would we not do the same for Israel?
From the moment the movement was born there were multiple Zionisms. Why not today, re-embrace the messiness once again. If you love the idea of Israel as a safe haven, call yourself a Zionist. If you care about Israel as a Jewish cultural hub, call yourself a Zionist. If you feel pride when you see Israel’s prime minister speak before the United Nations, call yourself a Zionist. If you see Israel as a cauldron to forge a new Jewish people, call yourself a Zionist. We all need to find a Zionism that we can relate to and be proud of, even if that means being critical of parts of the movement while fully embracing others.
We are sitting in the same room as Pinsker, Herzl, Ahad Ha-Am, Kook, Jabotinsky, and Ben Gurian. But now it’s our turn to speak. Maybe something they said stirs our spirits, maybe we believe in Jewish nationalism, maybe we yearn for a cultural homeland, maybe we see Israel as the land of religious truth...or maybe we have our own reasons why Israel matters. Of paramount importance is not what we say, but that we speak, that we wrestle, that we make meaning. Judaism is a three-thousand year old conversation and Israel is one of its chief topics. We are the latest voice. How will we add to the discourse?
For 100 years our forebearers argued about the fundamental questions of Zionism. Chief among them were questions of Where? When? How? What? And Who?
Today, as we inherit this discourse, the chief question for us is Why?
Israel is not perfect. No country is. But as Nietzsche wrote, “He who has a Why to live can bear almost any How.” Take time to develop your “Why?” Whether it is something you have heard today or some other reason, each of us have our own answer to this question. And there are tools that can help you develop it. Read. Question. Discuss. Dialogue. Visit. Answering this question will help you navigate the complexities of Israel and help you decide if and when to disagree.
We sit together in a great room. The issue: Why does Israel matter? Someone hands you the microphone. What will you say?