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OpinionJewish Diaspora

It must be restated: Israel is central to Judaism and Jewish identity

Exile aside, a community of Jews has always remained in the land, and Jewish liturgy has always emphasized a sense of yearning for Zion and Jerusalem.

Israeli flag. Credit: Maxim Studio/Shutterstock.
Israeli flag. Credit: Maxim Studio/Shutterstock.
Alexandra Herzog, Credit: Courtesy.
Alexandra Herzog
Alexandra Herzog is deputy director of contemporary Jewish life and Jewish peoplehood initiatives at the American Jewish Committee. She holds a doctorate in Jewish studies.

Given the prevalence of misinformation on social media and the one-sided reports in news outlets, it’s not unreasonable for some people to think that Zionism—the belief that Jews have a right to self-determination in our ancestral homeland—is controversial among Jews and that anti-Israel attitudes are mainstream in the American Jewish community. Yet these Jews do not represent the vast majority of the Jewish community and they reside in small but loud echo chambers.

American Jewish Committee (AJC)’s upcoming “State of Antisemitism in America 2023 Report” found that 80% of American Jews say caring about Israel is an important or essential part of what being Jewish means to them.

Yet disproportionate attention is being paid to a small minority of Jews who are arguing in favor of “diasporism”—the reimagining of one’s identity, away from an ancestral homeland.

The concept of “diasporism” is not new. It has been invoked repeatedly over the years in hopes of developing a different perspective on identity formation and Jewishness as a way for Jews to counter a largely accepted consensus among American Jews regarding Israel and Zionism. Some scholars argue that Jews ought to embrace marginality or exile and reject Zionism. But this ideology erases the full story of the Jewish people and instead pushes an anti-Zionist agenda at a time when Jews are faced with tremendous antisemitism because of their connection to Israel.

Some 7 million Jews live in Israel, representing the largest Jewish community in the world and almost half the Jewish population worldwide. Observant Jews pray towards Jerusalem three times a day, and synagogues are oriented to face the holy city. The Hebrew Bible, the Talmud and daily Jewish liturgy all emphasize the central importance of the Land of Israel.

Every Passover seder ends with the phrase, “Next year in Jerusalem.” In the daily morning prayer, observant Jews ask God to return “to Jerusalem Your city, and dwell therein as You promised. … Blessed are You, Lord, who rebuilds Jerusalem.”

All of this is to say that the Jewish connection and attachment to the Land of Israel is as old as the Jewish people, and our love for the land is expressed every day through our religious practices and prayers. This has been the case for millennia.

The interconnectedness of Jews and Israel is not confined to religion. Many Jews in the Diaspora have family in Israel, connect powerfully with Israeli culture and history, and, in a moment of rising antisemitism worldwide, feel a sense of comfort in the existence of Israel as a refuge for all Jews.

Jews have had a continuous presence in the Land of Israel for approximately 3,000 years. Even though exile was forced upon them by various kingdoms throughout history, a community of Jews has always remained in the land, and our liturgy has always emphasized a sense of yearning for Zion and Jerusalem.

Jews never chose to leave Israel. Instead, it was the result of military defeat, subjugation and forced exile. Exile is a sad feature of Jewish history but is hardly an ideal of Judaism. Jews have adapted to it out of necessity, but the eternal connection to the Land of Israel has always remained. Since its founding, the modern State of Israel has provided a homeland for persecuted Jews fleeing antisemitic violence. From Jews in Europe to Jews in the Soviet Union and Ethiopia, Israel has been a place of safety for Jews, regardless of where they have been coming from.

While Jews have had historically different and sometimes complex relationships with Zionism, whether in Israel or in the Diaspora, one cannot deny the deep connection Jews have with Israel. Indeed, the passion with which certain anti-Zionist Jews engage in discussions of Israel exemplifies this deep connection.

One doesn’t need to live in Israel to feel that profound connection. There has been a successful reciprocal relationship between diaspora communities and Israel for over 75 years. Diaspora communities feel deeply linked to one another and see Israel as central to Jewish peoplehood. Israel bridges distances and creates connections between tiny communities in Europe or Latin America to larger ones in the United States.

Since Oct. 7, Jews around the world have had to reconsider their relationship to their identity as well as to Israel. While some might embrace anti-Zionist perspectives, the overwhelming majority of Jews—even those who may be critical of the Israeli government at times—understand the importance of Israel and that the Diaspora countries we live in are perhaps less safe than many of us thought.

Instead of setting up a false binary in which Diaspora Judaism is simply a way to replace national self-determination, we ought to celebrate the major achievements Jewish communities have made to the societies in which they have lived and the importance of supporting a strong and democratic Israel.

After all, the Zionist project has been an extraordinary one and the events of Oct. 7 illustrate that we are still faced with an existential need for Zionism as a way to ensure the survival of the Jewish people.

Jewish communities both inside and outside of Israel are feeling vulnerable right now, and that allows for empathic and deep conversations between Israelis and Diaspora Jews. We are two sides of the same coin; the survival of one is very much incumbent on the survival of the other.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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