Israel has become a taboo topic in some synagogues. Before Rosh Hashanah, Daniel Gordis wrote an article titled “If I Had a Sermon,” about rabbis who had struggles when it came to including Israel in their High Holiday sermons:
“If you were a rabbi of a congregation in the US, you’d be stressing now. Because there is a ton to do, and because if your sermons are not written, you know that you need to get cracking … To add to the complexity, you’d have, among other decisions to make, a difficult decision about Israel. Should I speak about Israel? Can it be done without creating divisiveness? Many rabbis think not. In fact, Israel’s a topic that many rabbis say they avoid speaking about from the pulpit.”
Rabbis are afraid to talk about Israel from the pulpit! While this is not true of Orthodox congregations like my own, it is a worrying trend for anyone who cares about the American Jewish community.
Gordis outlines a model sermon, one that he argues would allow a rabbi to talk about Israel without triggering an angry debate. Love is complicated, he explains, and loving a country no less so. One can love, and love passionately, something of which they are critical. Israel does not have to be perfect to be beloved; profound disagreements with her political leadership don’t have to occasion a total divorce. The Bible simultaneously honors and criticizes its own heroes. We should be willing to do the same with Israel.
This is an important lesson. It is impossible to see clearly if one paints reality in stark black and white polarities. If all of our Israel education is mythical, young Jews will be unprepared for the messy, complex reality that the modern State of Israel is; learning that Israel is flawed will provoke a crisis of faith. At the same time, detractors often mistake the forest for the trees, fixated on endless, bitter criticisms that lack objectivity. How is it that the same young American Jews who attend rallies against Israel have next to nothing to say about the conduct of the American military in Afghanistan? The self-righteous sloganeering surrounding Israel is often the product of oedipal obsessions.
An endemic lack of nuance certainly leads to angry debates, but that isn’t the primary reason why Israel is such a contentious issue for American Jews. Instead, we have missed a major change in our community.
Today’s arguments over Israel begin with commitments held and withheld. American Jews, specifically young Jews, are substantially less attached to Israel than their elders. The 2020 Pew Research Center survey of Jewish identity in the United States found that “among Jews ages 50 and older … just 10% say that caring about Israel is not important to them. By contrast, among Jewish adults under 30 … one-quarter (27%) say it’s not important to what being Jewish means to them.” This is where Jewish criticism of Israel begins; people who don’t care about Israel will be far more likely to criticize her.
This change in attitude is part of a larger apathy. For example, the survey found that “Three-in-ten Jewish adults under the age of 30 (31%) say it would be ‘not at all’ important for their future grandchildren to be Jewish, which is significantly higher than the share who say this in any other age group.” The drop in young Jews’ identification with Israel goes hand in hand with a decline in commitment to Judaism in general.
At the same time, there is another element involved in this loss of identification. A small group of younger, progressive Jews assert that although they are Jewish, they are no longer “Zionists,” or even are “anti-Zionists.” Some of these contemporary anti-Zionists take inspiration in anti-religious anti-Zionists of the past, such as Communists and Bundists. But others claim to make a religious case for anti-Zionism.
In the late nineteenth century, as Zionism was becoming a mass movement, two religious groups stood in opposition to it: Reform and Haredi Jews.
In actuality, Haredi Jews are not true anti-Zionists; they too desire a return to Zion, but want to wait for the arrival of the Messiah. They see Zionism as a lack of faith, a heretical desire to replace the Messianic redemption with a man-made enterprise. This concern was exacerbated by the fact many of the early Zionist leadership were secular, whose religious lifestyles the Haredim held in disdain.
Despite this, most Haredim today are not anti-Zionists. Representatives of Agudath Israel were signatories to Israel’s Declaration of Independence. And even Haredi anti-Zionists worry about the safety of the people of Israel; only a small fringe group, the Neturei Karta, march in pro-Palestinian rallies.
For nineteenth-century Reform Jews, Zionism was a painful challenge. Jews in Western countries were engaged in a struggle for equal rights, and had to battle against the anti-Semitic canard that Jews couldn’t be trusted to be loyal citizens because they longed for a state of their own. In the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, the Reform Movement declared: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine … nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”
Zionism was considered a betrayal of patriotism. Jews, petitioning for rights long denied to them, did not want to appear as anything but loyal citizens. (A few decades later the Reform movement did adopt Zionism, and some of the most influential Zionists, such Abba Hillel Silver, were Reform rabbis.)
Today’s anti-Zionists take inspiration from an ideology shaped by long-forgotten challenges, and offer an alternative Judaism devoid of national identity. But this is bound to fail; a Judaism without Zionism is impossible.
Abraham becomes a Jew and a Zionist at the same time. The first command he receives is “Go from your country [lech lecha], your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” Abraham’s religious journey begins with a pilgrimage to Israel. Israel is an ever-present theme in the text; when Abraham and Sarah abandon Israel in search of food, it is seen by some, such as the Ramban, as a “major sin.” Their entire lives focus on the dream of building a nation in the land. When Sarah dies, the Bible depicts the intense effort Abraham makes to bury her in Israel. As Ibn Ezra notes, the purchase of a burial plot for her marks the beginning of the future Jewish state.
Genesis makes it clear that Zionism is central to Abraham’s new religious mission.
Generations of Jews would follow in Abraham’s footsteps. Instead of offering hairsplitting arguments about “the spiritual essence of Judaism,” they turned their hearts toward Zion. Israel was a part of their prayers, part of their Tanakh, part of their studies and stories. At the Seder, they sang “l’shanah haba’ah b’yerushalayim,” “next year in Jerusalem,” with all of their hearts.
They simply couldn’t imagine a Judaism without Zionism.
Jews who knew little else still heard the call of “lech lecha,” and from the furthest reaches of exile would find their way home, just as Abraham and Sarah did so many generations before.
And they never let go of the dream of Israel, even in the worst of times.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, in his autobiography, tells the remarkable story of how he survived the Holocaust as small child. For much of the time, his older brother Naftali Lau Lavie heroically protected him. Rabbi Lau relates an episode that occurred at the end of the war, in Buchenwald. Naftali was being taken away from Buchenwald, and he didn’t expect to survive. He ran over to his younger brother Yisrael Meir, who was then just seven and had received virtually no Jewish education because of the war. Rabbi Lau describes their conversation:
“[My brother] came to me and said, ‘They’re taking me away. I see no way out of this Gehinnom [hell]. This is the end of the world … Maybe a miracle will happen and you’ll survive. I just wanted to tell you: There’s a place called Eretz Yisrael. Repeat after me: Eretz Yisrael.’ I repeated the words, which meant nothing to me. Naftali said: ‘Eretz Yisrael is the home of the Jews … You’re not going anyplace else. Only to Eretz Yisrael. We have an uncle there. Say that you’re Rabbi Lau’s son, and tell them to find your uncle. Goodbye (my brother). Remember: Eretz Yisrael.’”
Remember Eretz Yisrael. Remember Eretz Yisrael.
For two thousand years, that is exactly what Jews did. We were determined to get back home.
Just like Abraham the Zionist.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.
This article was originally published by The Jewish Journal.