By Rabbi Daniel Zemel
I do not know how not to love Israel.
The very street names sing the song of the Jewish story: Hillel, Shammai, Bialik, Ben Yehuda. Louise and I once lived in an apartment on Ahad Ha’am and was thrilled to be living on the street named for the early twentieth-century founder of what is considered cultural and secular, yet spiritual, Zionism.
The street ran into Jabotinsky Street, forcing me to reconsider my attitudes towards the founder of the ideological right wing of political Zionism. The highway signs show me why the Bible remains the best guidebook to Israel. Are we merging onto the Ayalon Highway?
“O sun, stand still at Gibeon, And O moon in the valley of Ayalon.” (Joshua 10:12)
Because I do not know how to not love Israel and because I was raised as a Zionist, I find myself questioning whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the government he has assembled truly are Zionist.
What is Zionism?
It is the simple idea that the Jews are a people who have a homeland. Zionism is both Jewish peoplehood and Jewish home. This, after all, is how our mythic Jewish story begins. God calls to Abram to leave Mesopotamia and go to the land that God would show him. God’s promise to Abram is that he will be the “father of many nations” and create a home where he would be a pillar of “righteousness and justice.” The entire biblical saga unfolds from there, as does Jewish history. The Babylonians exile us from our home, but Ezra and Nehemiah lead a return. Our home is conquered by the Greeks and then the Romans, who destroy our Temple and ultimately drive us from our home with the final defeat of Bar Kochba in the early second century C.E.
The notion of home never left our people through centuries of exile. How else to explain our liturgy and its customs of facing Jerusalem, praying for rain or dew in the Land of Israel or ending the Passover Seder with the cry, “Next year in Jerusalem?”
We also never forgot that though we were scattered far across the Middle East, Northern Africa, Europe and beyond, we remained a people. How else to understand the rabbinic dictum, “Kol Yisraeil arevim zeh ba-zeh—All Israel is responsible for one another?” (B.Shavuot 39a)
By the late 19th century in Europe, unrelenting murderous antisemitism had some Jewish thinkers exploring an idea of rescuing our people from a 2,000- year exile. That idea came to be called Zionism, a solution to the “Jewish problem” of Europe.
Two of the most famous Zionist leaders were Theodor Herzl and Ahad Ha’am. Their ideas differed but they share the belief that the notion of peoplehood is critical to understanding what being Jewish is. Being Jewish is more than a religious identity. They understood that Jews are a people with a shared history, literature, and culture. Both understood that Jews would forever be outsiders to the European experience. Herzl’s concerns were political: how could Jews be part of governance? Ha’am’s concerns were spiritual: how could Jewish culture flourish when the dominant society imposed such a negative self-image? They shared a view that Zionism was about Jewish peoplehood and that returning to the people’s ancient homeland, Israel, was key to Jewish renewal.
The main takeaway here, though, is that Zionism is bigger than the State of Israel. It is a fundamental Jewish idea that predates the founding of the state. Zionism is that constellation of propositions and concepts that sees Jewish peoplehood as integral to the Jewish story, the land of Israel as our people’s ancient home and Jewish flourishing and survival is dependent on a return to that land. Israel’s Declaration of Independence (Megillat Atzmaut) captures it with these words: “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish People.”
Zionism as an idea is testimony to the notion that an idea can change history. Its success has been staggering. The Hebrew language was revived. Jewish culture has flourished in the land of Israel and, through archaeology, we have rediscovered long-buried secrets about our ancient past. The economy has soared and, most important, exiles have been reunited: there are no Jewish refugee camps in the world today. All this in a thriving democracy.
Even with this great success, a danger has lurked in the shadows, an internal danger that has been willfully ignored by the diaspora for too long. Now, new brands of Jewish extremism have surfaced and the vigorous debate that was long a hallmark of Zionism is threatened. Diverse voices are in danger of being silenced. For too many, there is no longer a commitment to Jewish peoplehood nor a deep understanding of our shared history and our shared destiny.
Officials with this narrow vision are now running the government of Israel. And it feels to many of us as if Israel as a Jewish democracy is hanging by a thread.
For the first time in Israel’s history, there is an anti-Zionist government led by Netanyahu and others who care nothing for Jews who are not like them. The Jews they like are Orthodox, straight, and illiberal. They despise the diversity represented by Jews like us, let alone the twenty-one percent of Israel’s population within the country’s original 1948 border who are Palestinian Arabs.
Netanyahu, the once and current prime minister, abandoned the great North American Diaspora years ago. He demonstrated this most emphatically when he reneged on the agreement he signed in 2016 to create a full and equal egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. Since then, he has engaged solely in self-serving, craven politics. He has made common cause with evangelical Christians while snubbing his nose at American Jews. He has cultivated friendships with such figures as Pastor John Hagee (“Hitler was sent by God”) and Pastor Robert Jeffress (“Jews are going to Hell.”) His inclusion in this government of the Itamar BenGvir, Bezalel Smotrich and Avi Maoz triumvirate personifies this government’s disdain for women, the LGBTQ community, non-Orthodox Jews, secularism, liberalism and minority rights— in sum, democracy.
Our question now is how to respond. There is, for me, but one critical response that we dare not overlook. Even as we speak out by supporting American Jewish organizations that we think best represent our Zionism, I believe that we must double down and do everything that we can to strengthen the institutions in Israel that represent our values and are under severe attack from this new government. These institutions include the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), Givat Haviva: The Center for a Shared Society, and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, among others. These are the institutions that our Temple Micah Israel Fund supports. If there was ever a time to contribute to that fund, it is now.
I grew up on stories of the early yishuv and the Zionist dreams of its founders. David Ben Gurion would not recognize the Israel of today. Nor would Menahem Begin or Yitzhak Rabin, whose assassination was a tragic foreboding of what was to come.
Those of us who do not know how not to love Israel must step forward like never before. This is the only choice for those of us who still wish to sing Hatikva’s inspiring words, “od lo avda tikvateinu—we have not yet lost our hope.”
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2023 issue of the Vine.