Rabbi’s Essays

Thinking About Reform Jewish Zionism
Part 2

Does Zionism Still Exist?

Abba Eban, one of the outstanding members of Israel’s leadership in its first twenty-five years, and certainly Israel’s finest epigramist, once claimed that the proof positive of the existence of life after death is the persistence of Zionist organizations.His point was well taken. Certainly one of the basic purposes of the Zionist Movement was to lay the groundwork for the creation of a Jewish State. That has been accomplished.What is left to do?

One might rightly object at this point, and note that Eban was not questioning the persistence of Zionism, but rather of the organizations. [Actually, there is one overall group, the World Zionist Organization, which organizes and runs a World Zionist Congress every few years. The WZO, however is a federation of institutions that are organized in all countries that have freely operating Zionists. In turn, each of these national organizations is a federation of Zionist associations and interest groups.]When the State came into being, traditional functions of the WZO in the areas of education, absorption and settlement, relief to distressed communities, etc. could and should have been transferred to the new government. The organizations are a mechanism whose time has very well come and gone. Zionism itself, on the other hand, is an idea and a spirit, whose existence does not necessarily disappear with the appearance of the State.

This objection is not quite correct.In a speech delivered in the mid-1980s, the prominent American Jewish historian, Howard M. Sachar said: “No people, no nation, no state, is endowed with a special mission. Its only legitimacy is the security it provides its people: the freedom to live within secure boundaries, the opportunity to express their collective identity. . . the passports that enable them to travel elsewhere in the world. All the rest is wind and bombast, and this applies no less to Israel.”Sachar’s point, I believe, is that a state is just a state, an apparatus for providing social and material security to its population.

Clearly, however, there have to be ideas and philosophies that inform and suggest to the state just how to go about doing what it is supposed to do. This is the function of political parties, and Israel hardly lacks for them!Should we then expect Labor, Likud, Meretz, and the rest to be the Zionist organizations? That does not feel quite right. Something is wrong here.Is it in the contention that Zionist organizations no longer need exist? Then, where does Zionism reside? Or, perhaps, it is Zionism itself that no longer needs to exist?

There is a concept of post-Zionism.It is position held among some Israelis, born out of ideas and circumstances that go beyond the founding of the State itself. Post-Zionists can argue that, not only has Zionism be eclipsed by the creation of the State, but that the very notion of nationalism has become a superfluous concept. We live in a global society of instant worldwide communication and commerce. Borders have become increasingly porous. The State is still necessary in order to provide certain amenities and security, but the state is just a state, and at this point in Israel’s history and development, nothing more is needed.

Is Zionism dead?Or, if not dead, dying? The crisis in the Middle East, variously referred to as the second intifada, or in Israel as the matzav [situation], has brought about a revival in Zionism. Perhaps—hopefully—themat zav is temporary. Unlike in the years of the first intifada, Israelis and Palestinians have been in official and public communication throughout .The negotiations in the context of a final accord will pick up again, and we will return to something like the mid-90s. Thus, reports of Zionism’s revival might appear premature.

Zionism is—or should be—alive and well.Let me provide two related reasons.First, the feelings that have welled up since the renewed outbreak of violence in September 2000, suggest precisely what is buried beneath the surface when times are good. I am not only talking about Jewish feeling, but also the outsized reaction expressed throughout the Western world.Sectarian violence erupts in Nigeria, the Philippines and Indonesia—in each case, as many people have been killed in a few days as has throughout the first two years of the matzav—and India and Pakistan face each other over Kashmir in a nuclear showdown. Yet, none of these capture the world’s attention as the conflict between Israel and Palestine.One can only conclude that the idea of a Jewish State, over one hundred years since the beginning of the Zionist project, over fifty years since the founding of the State, has not been fully accepted. Some might take this circumstance as indicative of Zionism’s failure; I prefer to see it as indicative that it has yet to be fulfilled. (Yes, it is a feeling rather than a justified argument, but it does have a basis that goes beyond personal predilections.That will come shortly.)

The heart of the problem is found in two unsettled questions: Who are the Jews? Who are the Palestinians? The founding concepts of the return to Zion were that the Jews were a nation deserving of their own land and language, and that they were “a people without a land for a land without a people.” While the Zionist enterprise successfully created a Jewish State, it has never convinced much of the world’s population, or even many Jews, that being Jewish means being part of a nation.

Moreover, as mentioned already, the land did indeed have a people, but just what people?As a matter of historical record, the reigning definition of “Palestinian” well into the 1940s, was “a Jew who lived in Palestine.” Before becoming Israelis, therefore, Jews were Palestinians, and Palestinians were Jews. Then, who were the indigenous Arabs?They were Arabs!As such, they were identified with the larger Arabic-speaking world that extended from Morocco to Iraq. Even when the Palestine Liberation Organization came into existence under Ya’aser Arafat’s direction in the early 1960s, the principal thrust was the freeing of the Arab land of Palestine from Jewish control—Palestine liberation—rather than any assertion of a distinctive Arab people that might be called the Palestinians.

The Palestine National Covenant, created after the 6-Day War, does represent a shift. The document is an exact mirror image of political Zionism, right down to its studied denial of the existence of any other people who might have claim to the land. It is primarily, however, a recognition on the part of a Palestinian leadership that the Arab nations failed the Arabs of Palestine, and would probably have little success in any foreseeable future. State-building on the land would have to be accomplished mostly by the people of Palestine themselves. Thus, by the beginning of the 1980s, all Arab nations formally came to recognize the Palestinians as a distinct and separate national entity. Yet, just as many question the national character of the Jews, I suspect there are still plenty of Arabs in all strata of society who continue to resist the national character of Palestine.

I am reminded of the story of the scorpion and the frog meeting on the bank of the Jordan River. The scorpion asks the frog to ferry him across. The frog responds, “are you nuts! How do I know you will not sting and paralyze me as we cross?” The scorpion argues, “who is truly nuts? If I were to sting and paralyze you, I would drown as well!” The frog finds this argument logical, and begins carrying the scorpion across the river. All of a sudden, a few hundred yards from the banks, the scorpion stings the frog. As the poison begins to take its affect, and the frog struggles to remain above the waves, she cries out, “Why?” The scorpion’s reply: “Because this is the Middle East.”

The State has been founded, but the fundamental issues animating the region since the beginning of the twentieth century remain. Two nations claim a land, and not only are their claims to the land vociferously questioned, but their claims that they are actually nations, as well.

The second reason for the persistence of Zionism might best be introduced by a slogan known by many American officeholders: Politics is what commences after you have been elected.Contrary to the conventional wisdom in some quarters, I believe that Zionism is what commenced after the State came into being. Just as the “politics” of the campaign, needs to be transformed into the “politics” of getting things accomplished, the “Zionism” of nation-building has had to be transformed into a new sort of Zionism.

Just what this means is exemplified in the first reason given for the continuation of Zionism: the odd and unsettled notion of a “Jewish State. “In other words, is Israel no more or no less than the State of and for Jews, or must Israel also be a State that reflects and represents ‘Jewishness.’ Ahad Ha’am, one the foremost early Zionist thinkers, had argued that it was not enough for Zionism to solve the problem of the Jews, it must solve as well, the problem of Judaism, which he defined as the struggle to maintain Jewish distinctiveness.

Ahad Ha’am died fully a generation before the founding of Israel. His call and vision were overwhelmed by the sheer pragmatic logistics of creating the state, and then of its defense. The problem of Judaism was put on hold.Its absence, perhaps more deeply than the good feeling experience during the days of the Oslo peace process, promoted a feeling of post-Zionism. That which was never attained becomes forgotten as ever being a goal.Zionism and Judaism: we have come back to where we began, and can raise the question of a Reform Jewish Zionism.

The Problem of Judaism:A Reform Jewish Zionism

It is important to recognize that all the approaches to Zionism have been essentially secular. This claim even includes the project of Religious Zionism, whose supporters sought a theological rationale in order to participate in what they conceded was a secular movement. One had to make peace with Zionists, they argued, in order to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, which, of course, would also be the end of Zionism. For the past one hundred-fifty years, Zionism and Jewish religious thought have pursued paths of development, that while touching at many points, have never really interpenetrated each other.

Consider, however, that in the last two World Zionist Congresses (1997, 2002), the North American delegations of the U.S. and Canada, were overwhelmingly represented by religious organizations: ARZA (Reform), Mercaz (Conservative) and Mizrachi (Orthodox).Further, surveys of religious attitudes among Israeli Jews have consistently revealed that the overwhelming majority consider themselves religious: about 20-25% of the total, Orthodox, and about 60% non-Orthodox.Zionism and Judaism—not merely as an expression of Jewish distinctiveness, but more as the repository of Jewish spiritual values and aspirations—are now fully intertwined. The articulation of a Zionist vision must also be a Jewish religious vision.

Up to now, our discussion has been centered on what is Zionism. Let us now turn to Reform Judaism. We have already explored the tension between the nineteenth century ideas of Jewish nationalism and Jewish religious reform. Their attitudes and approaches appeared at that time to be quite far apart from each other; so much so that Reformers adamantly denied the value of a Jewish national identity, and Zionists insisted that Jews could not continue to exist outside of their own national polity. Upon closer examination, however, we may see that Zionism and Reform did not stand at opposite poles, but rather back-to-back facing in opposite directions. Here are some principles of classic Reform Jewish thought that touch upon Zionism:

1. Jews, individually and collectively, have a role in determining the redemption of the world. The talmudic sages argued whether or not human agency had a role in bringing about the Messiah. The argument was dropped as inconclusive, but the general experience of the Jews, finding themselves mostly on the sidelines of history, tended to reinforce the notion that the coming of redemption was solely in the province of God. Imbued with the Enlightenment notions of unlimited human potential and perfectibility, Jews rearticulated the idea that they reinsert themselves into history, and take an active and determined role in bringing about redemption.

2. Jews have hope in the future. The past provides lessons, but not answers. Jewish destiny lies in the future. Thus, even at darkest moments, we are forbidden to despair.

3. Jews have a normal place in the world. Jews have a place in the world, not only in the sight of God, but also in the natural way of human communities. They can assert their identity confidently among Gentile neighbors, taking a role in tackling mutual challenges.

These principles have been modified somewhat over the last century, but their essence remains intact. I believe they should be a vital part of Reform Jewish Zionism as well. Thus, Reform Zionists should work for an Israel that is in accord with these ideas.

The age of self-isolation is over.Israel cannot be content with a policy that extends only as far as survival and self-defense in the midst of an admittedly hostile neighborhood. Even if such a strategy could be successful indefinitely, it violates a fundamental tenet of both Zionist and Reform Jewish vision: that the Jews can have a normal place in the world.

Of course, Jewish willingness to be normal does not assure that the non-Jewish world is prepared to treat us as normal. Neither classic Reform nor classic Zionism truly came to grips with the depth, virulence and persistence of anti-Jewish animus that exists in the world. The age of nave idealism is over as well.In spite of it all, we must not despair. Anti-Semitism is not a congenital condition, and while its control is hardly fully in Jewish hands, Jews are not helpless either.Israel must continue to explore avenues of accommodation and mutual interest with its neighbors, even as it refuses to put its guard down in the face of violence.[i]

As Judaism exists in accord with God’s will, so does Israel exist for a purpose that must transcend itself.Simply achieving a level of peace and stability in the Middle East is not enough.Israel has a responsibility to strive to establish the values of justice and compassion, embodied in Torah. This effort is the responsibility of all states: to provide for the health and welfare of its citizens. In the case of Israel, it is critical, particularly from the Jewish point of view as understood by the Reform Movement, that it extends to its treatment of its non-Jewish population.Reform Zionism, I believe, must be dedicated to promoting a Jewish State that is affirmative in assuring no discrimination toward its Arab, Bedouin and Druze populations, as well as ever vigilant in promoting both social and economic justice for all Israeli Jews.

At the heart of Reform Judaism is the idea of Israel as “a light of nations.”Israel itself therefore cannot plunge into darkness, either one of its own making in terms of an unjust policies regarding its citizens-Jew and non-Jew-or those who sojourn within its borders; or one created by the dark enmity of neighbors. Both Reform Judaism and Zionism were founded on a fundamental belief in the redemptive possibilities of the future, and thus neither can ever permit themselves to become inured by the apparent desperate conditions of the present.

Religion and the Land

When Reform Jewish principles and Zionism are brought together, they create, I believe, a particular attitude and vision regarding the Jewish State. It is admittedly a liberal vision, emphasizing negotiation, territorial compromise and social justice for Israel’s non-Jewish population.In this fashion, it bespeaks the attitude of a liberal religion. There is one more element that must be added.

From the outset, I have described the historic general tension between Judaism, as the religious expression of the people Israel, and Zionism, and the specific one involving Reform Judaism. That tension is inherent in a near two thousand year history in which the people were removed from their land as a national entity, and therefore developed a concept of that land as a theological abstract, a component in the divine plan for the Jews, no longer a real and concrete location of everyday Jewish life. The success of Zionism in creating a reconstituted State on the historic Land of Israel has served to modify the long-standing outlook of Jewish religion, but it has hardly removed the tension.

Even those Reform Jews who are most active in their support of Israel are aware of the tension, both around them and within them.I have sought in this paper to reconcile the principles of Reform Judaism within the context of a renewed and ongoing Zionism, but I have not discussed what Zionism might mean in the hearts and minds of Reform Jews.Quite a bit of very fine and thought work has already been written and discussed on just this matter, and I do not wish to repeat or summarize it, except to propose this critical lesson: Reform Jews must not despair of Israel.

The natural and persistent tension between the historic religion and the historic nation leads to a natural and persistent distancing force between Reform Jews and the Jewish State. When times are good-in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, when Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem, or during the years of the Oslo peace process-our attitude toward Israel is warm and benign. Good times have not lasted. The euphoria of the stunning victory in 1967, led to occupation of over three million unwilling inhabitants, and increasing isolation in the international community.The peace treaty with Egypt has remained a “cold peace.” Now the Oslo process is shattered. The confident expectation that in due time, Israel would have a stable and cooperative relationship with an independent Palestinian State, has deteriorated into terror attacks and severe retaliation, with little or almost no assurance that the two-State solution can be put back on track.

More often than not, we tend to view Israel with exasperation and frustration. We wonder whether there will ever be a day when the Jewish State will enjoy the classic Zionist dream of being a nation at peace with its neighbors. Moreover, many of us are given to question whether Israel’s government has given up as well, preferring the iron fist of security to the outstretched hand of accommodation and reconciliation. I know I have had such dark thoughts. And, when they are thought, the natural reaction is to withdraw: steadfast support of the Jewish State is not worth the anxiety and anger it engenders.

Thus, I propose that Reform Jews must not despair of Israel, and do so in consideration of two principal factors. First, because Reform Judaism and Zionism have faith in democracy. I remarked earlier upon the pragmatic need of the Zionist movement to be democratic.No authority was strong enough, either in power or popularity, in order to eliminate alternative ideas and programs. Reform Judaism, in its dedication to moral autonomy, has also resisted the idea that any individual or group could claim ultimate decisive authority over God’s will.

Faith in democracy is itself predicated upon faith in communal human will and activity.”Reform is a verb.” This expression not only reflects the dynamic nature of Reform Jewish practice and thought, but also the recognition that the attitude you and I firmly adhere to right now might very well be wrong. Of course, you and I might be right, but religious faith—the unfolding revelation of the divine will-may make that evident over time.Certainly, mistakes will be made, and some governmental actions will be predicated primarily on cynicism, demagoguery, or blind angry reaction. The people Israel have survived exile, oppression, persecution and the furnaces of Auschwitz; the State of Israel will survive the drawbacks of bad government policy as well.

The second reason is that we need Israel.I do not mean this in the normal Zionist way that suggests that living in Israel is the only real way in which one can be a complete Jew. The case for Jews and Judaism is far more complex than that.Jews do not need to be in Israel. Moreover, one can make the argument (as I have elsewhere) that if Judaism is to fulfill its role as a world historical religion, it must be able to be lived anywhere in the world.

Yet, although Jews do not need to be in Israel, they nonetheless need Israel. To put it in more general terms, Jews need a community in which being Jewish is a natural part of everyday life.Judaism is not simply an expression of faith; this is not even its primary feature.Judaism is the faith, vision and ideals that draw from a people in relation to its history and to its interaction with each other. The faith, vision and ideals definitely transcend the people themselves, but first they are rooted in the people. This is why Judaism—particularly in contradistinction to Christianity and Islam——is the ‘ism’ of the Jews, the community of the people Israel.

In every age, Jews have existed either as part of, or in relation to an organic community. Undeniably, the Jewish religious reformers of the nineteenth century felt that, in the face of emancipation from their civil and national isolation, Judaism could survive—even flourish——with an inevitable demise of that community. They expressed this confidence, I believe, because they were also confident that humankind was fast approaching its Messianic Age, when societal distinctions would be effaced from the earth.When, “on that day, God would be One, and God’s Name One!”

Their optimism was not warranted.Reform was saved and prospered as the Reform and Conservative Movements precisely because it aligned itself with the continuing organic Jewish community of Europe.Jewish religion in the first part of the twentieth century was buoyed by the culture and ethos of Yiddishkeit.

Then, the European Jewish community disappeared in the face of the Nazi onslaught. Yiddishkeit did not die as well, preserved as it was in the immigrant generation and in the direct connection that the next two generations have had with it. For fifty years, the community that disappeared continued as a living memory. Now, the memory is fading as well.It is true that Hasidic communities cling fast to the lifestyle of the vanished society, but in order to do so, they must erect powerful procedural and emotional barriers to the present-day world.The overwhelming majority of the world’s Jews live in a post-Yiddishkeit era.

For over one hundred years, there has been an organic Jewish community on the soil of Israel. Since the Holocaust, it has also been the only such community.In subtle ways, the change from Europe to Israel has been taking place. Two generations ago, virtually all Jews in North America learned to pronounce Hebrew in an Eastern European (Ashkenazi) fashion. Today, the Israeli (Sephardi) pronunciation is the norm in synagogues and Hebrew schools.A generation ago, religious school children might have gone to the nearby old-time Jewish community.In New York, it was the Lower East Side, in Chicago, Maxwell Street, in Toronto, Kensington; you name the street or neighborhood for your city. There, one could virtually see, hear, smell and taste the Old World. Today, most of these places can only be visited in film and books. Synagogue youth movements now organize trips to Israel. For the most part, all Jews, including those who barely give thought to Zionism, utilize the Jewish community of Israel as a touchstone for their own Jewish identity.

Could Jews and Judaism survive the disappearance of the Jewish State? As a person of faith, I tend to believe that Judaism would indeed find a way. I would not, on the other hand, wish to confront such a circumstance. From our origins, we have been dependent on the organic Jewish community. At this time, and for an indefinite future, our fate is therefore intrinsically tied to the fate of Israel.

Reform Zionism: Our Hope and Prayer

As a response to the Jewish condition in modern times, both religious reform and Zionism have been extraordinarily successful. They have captured the hearts and imagination of the great majority of the Jewish community. I believe a core factor in their successes is the common element of optimism.Born out of the nineteenth century’s progressive idealist spirit, Reform and Zionism both envisioned a future filled with possibility and opportunity. The suffering, exile and oppression of the past would be put behind, and both Jewish and human potential would be fulfilled.

The first half of the twentieth century suggested that such optimistic faith was not warranted, but Jews have nonetheless refused to sink into cynicism. The fundamental confidence in the future remains, and thus both Jewish Reform and Zionist spirit remain alive and strong.

Reform and Zionism once competed in their separate visions. Then they came to an accommodation.I have tried to describe here how their visions might intertwine. At its root, the Zionist dream was for a people to end its eighteen hundred years of wandering, return home, and simply be a nation among nations. Over fifty years ago, a major portion of the dream was fulfilled with the founding of the Jewish State. No Zionist can observe the ongoing crises of the State in its struggle find security on its land, and honestly aver that the dream has been completely fulfilled.

Perhaps with persistence and patience, the dream will be realized in due time.Perhaps, this is as good as it gets; Zionism was excessively optimistic, and we must abandon its original principles and be satisfied with what we have. Or perhaps, we must come to understand that the Jews cannot be viewed as merely a people with a history, a language and a land. They are rather a covenanted people, and thus must reach outside the borders of their own community, their own nationhood, and act on behalf of the redemption of the world as well. Combined with the innate optimism of Reform Judaism, of the Jewish people who are a ‘light to the nations,’ then it is my hope and prayer that Zionism will also achieve its dream, “to be a free people in Zion and Jerusalem.”

One might question whether such an assertion is a realistic principle or a pollyannish pipedream. I am without a doubt being optimistic, but I do not think excessively so. Just as the Jews have had to convince both themselves and the world that they are legitimately a national entity, so have the Palestinians had to convince themselves and the world that they are not merely Arabs. P alestinians have therefore prided themselves on pointing out the distinctions between themselves and the rest of the Arab world; that they are better educated, more professional, and, above all, more prepared to establish an egalitarian and democratic society.

The evidence of the ‘Oslo’ years (1993-2000) has been that Palestinians are not so different. Their society has tended to be as autocratic and corrupt as most of their neighbors. We should not underestimate how galling and embarrassing this turn of events have been for a certain thoughtful and influential component of that society. The wherewithal on the part of the Palestinians to reach out in sincerity to Israel, I believe has not been fully buried.

An invaluable resource in this area are the two volumes of The Journal of Reform Zionism, published by ARZA in 1993 and 1995. Also valuable is the unpublished reports of the ARZA Canada Think Tank (1996-2000) that can be acquired from both the ARZA Canada and ARZA-World Union.