We are facing a crucial test when it comes to Israel vis-a-vis both current events and our wider framework. This test is a multifaceted one and success is crucial to preserve the future of Zionism and Israel. And, perhaps the most complicated thing about this test, is that there is more than one question.
Zionism, at least in its contemporary form, was a solution formulated by various Jewish leaders to a very pressing problem in the late 19th century. But the exact nature of this problem was the center of a contentious debate. A debate with massive repercussions for our Jewish community and Israel today.
The typical explanation of modern Zionism starts with Theodor Herzl and his deeply held, and time-proven, belief that Jews will never be safe until we reclaim political autonomy. The background and rationalization of this view are not hard to find. For most of diasporic Jewish history, Jews were persecuted for their religious status and beliefs, but in the wake of the enlightenment and subsequent Jewish emancipation in the 18th and 19th centuries, Jews finally believed they would be free. No longer were the Jews left to the whims of the hegemonic Church. This was an age of freedom, acceptance, and equality and Jews thought they would finally be safe and protected. It was when this utopian dream collapsed with the proliferation of new forms of antisemitism, ones based not on religion, but race, economics, and nationalism that Herzl knew we had to act. The only way to ensure the safety of the Jews, Herzl argued, is for us not to be subjected to outside political autonomy. We need our own state.
But there was an opposing view. Not a view that opposed the vision of Zionism but one that demanded a deeper analysis of the initial problem. This opinion suggested that Herzl’s view of Zionism was fine and well when it came to the Jews – but problematically left out of any talk about Judaism.
Thus, a new stream of Zionism arose. A stream that focused not just on the political needs of the Jewish people – but on the needs of Judaism. In this view, spear-headed by Ahad Ha’am, it was not just the physical Jewish people at risk but the entire fabric of Judaism itself. Judaism, Ahad Ha’am taught, cannot survive relegated to an ever diluted minority religion spread throughout the world. No, the only way to ensure the survival of Judaism is to cultivate a place where it can thrive in its full civilization form. The Jewish return to our ancestral homeland, according to this view, represented a way for Judaism and Jewish tradition to reach its full multi-faceted potential.
These two forms of Zionism, one focused on the physical safety of Jews and the other on Judaism, had their fair share of initial clashes. Does the Jewish state need to be in the historic land of Israel or can it be anywhere? Is it important that we revive and cultivate Hebrew as the national language or will any widespread language do? Do we want simply a state for the Jews or a Jewish state? Eventually, Israel became a synthesis of both these visions and we need to look no further than both Israeli civil society along with central Israeli documents, the Declaration of Independence, the IDF code of ethics, the National anthem, etc to see how so. Israel, along with the global Jewish community, came together to understand that it is crucial for Israel to preserve both the physical lives of Jews and the ethics and ethos of Judaism.
Today I fear we are at risk of losing this important dualism. Events of the past month, a series of riots, the legal battle of Sheikh Jarrah, thousands of rockets being shot into Israeli cities, retaliatory strikes, and angry mobs of Jews and Arabs running through the streets of Israel beating up people from the “other side” has brought about a dangerous singularity throughout different factions within the Jewish community and leadership. Make no mistake, for the sake of both the Jewish and Zionist future, we must do our utmost best to preserve both of these visions.
There are some that seem only focused on Herzl’s vision. In this view, Zionism starts and ends with security – with no room for introspection on how Israel is living up to or potentially failing certain Jewish ideas and ideals. We see this throughout some of the Israel advocacy landscape where any internal or external attempt to critique policy is derided as naiveté or worse. But we must continue to look inwards in our challenge and goal to foster a state truly on par with the best of Jewish values. Thousands of years of robust ethical discussion and legal systems – one that demands constant internal reflection – must be given a voice when it comes to the politics and policies of Israel. Without such a vision, we are lacking a major cornerstone of Zionism.
However, we cannot remain so ideal as to be divorced from reality. While Zionism doesn’t end with politics and security – any reasonable view of Israel must include these central concerns. We need to be clear that Israel is surrounded by enemies that want nothing more than the destruction of both the Jewish states and its citizenry. When Hamas indiscriminately fires thousands of rockets into civilian areas we must acknowledge the moral disparity of the two sides. We know that Hamas launches rockets from schools, hospitals, and civilian areas – because they know it will give Israel pause before retaliating. We must highlight the moral difference between one side that targets civilians and another side that is deterred by potential collateral damage of civilians.
Everything about Jewish tradition centers around complexity and Zionism is no different. The dualistic nature of Zionism – a physical place of safety for Jews and a civilizational center of Judaism – must be kept alive instead of bifurcation into two different sides within the Jewish community. Talk about Israel’s shortcomings – but also talk about Israel’s need to defend itself. It is when we let our enemies control the terms – both the terms of our physical safety or the terms, or lack thereof, of our moral discourse – then Zionism will truly have been defeated. Until then I will continue being a proud Zionist, standing up for Israel and Zionism each and every day.
RABBI DANIEL LEVINE is the Senior Jewish Educator at Hillel, the Rabbinic fellow at Temple Beth Tikvah and is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine. He can be reached