Judaism and Zionism

An article in the New York Review of Books by Peter Beinart entitled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” makes a strong case that American Jews are abandoning Zionism in favor of liberal values.

The article alludes to, but doesn’t directly deal with what may be the primary reason for the disconnect between American Jews and Israel.  We are spending far too many resources building Holocaust museums (which are an entirely negative reason to remain Jewish, as in Emil Fackinheim’s 614th mitzvah, “Don’t give Hitler a posthumous victory.”) and birthright trips to Israel.  Birthright has been a wonderful program, but the fact is that you cannot create a bond to Israel in 10 days unless there was something there before the trip.

We have failed to give our young generation a Judaism that is sophisticated and modern, but also maintains a connection to traditional Torah principles.  Reform has embraced liberalism as a religious principle, ignoring the centrality of the practices of Torah as the glue that hold together Jewish community; Orthodoxy ignores modern political realities in favor of a messianic approach nibbling the edges of racism, that if we only hold on long enough God will reward us richly.  I think the Conservative Jewish approach is perfect for finding the middle ground, although I see far too many of my colleagues falling into the sensationalist rhetoric of comparing Obama to Chamberlin, and the Middle East to 1939 Nazi Germany.

Don’t get me wrong — I am not a left wing peacenik.  The security concerns are real – Israel is fighting for its life, and Iran is a dangerous enemy.  The United States is pushing for a peace agreement as if both sides (Israel and Fatah/Hamas) were equally at fault and equally trustworthy.  Israel without Judaism is a state without a moral center.  However, the Judaism that is increasingly found in Israel lacks morality.

I want to see a Judaism deal honestly and openly with the texts of our tradition that disdain the “other,” while at the same time relying up them to do the work of maintaining our State on Shabbat, providing us with organs when we need transplants, and employing them as our menial laborers.  I want to see a Judaism that believes that belief and practice are more central to our identity than genetics; a Judaism that is open to strangers; a Judaism that actively encourages seekers.  This kind of Judaism will be able to speak compassionately to Palestinians while still building a security fence.  This kind of Judaism will be able to treat the Moslem and Christian Arab citizens of Israel with dignity and equality.  This kind of Judaism can teach young people how to be both passionate Jews and passionate Zionists.

I am open to comments, disagreement, questions.  I realize that in a relatively brief essay, I have challenged Reform Jews, Orthodox Jews, Federation Jews, and Jews whose lives are defined by the Shoah to address the hard question of how they would respond to Beinart’s article.  I am not arrogant enough to think that I personally have all or even most of the answers – but I passionately believe that without a compassionate Torah center, the answers are not to be found.

4 thoughts on “Judaism and Zionism

  1. David – Good observations. However, notice in the first paragraph that the students didn’t mention a connection between Israel and their Jewishness until prompted. When pressed, their desire for an open and frank conversation about Israel and its flaws might be, as you say, a sign of an encouraging connection. Nonetheless, I find it troubling that the study found a virtual absence of connection and positive feelings towards Israel. Such students are unlikely to seek out a forum to have any sort of positive or constructive conversations about Israel.

    Diane – You are confusing Zionism as an ideology of support for a Jewish state in the land of Israel, with support for the particular government of the State of Israel. Zionism has not abandoned anything. Zionism believes simply that there is need for and a place in the world for a Jewish State. The State of Israel has a right of center government. I don’t think it has abandoned democratic values, but I do agree that there are elements of the government that are odious and embarrassing.


  2. I read the article in the NY Review of Books the other day; I find it a very hopeful sign that such a truthful article exists without censorship in a prestigious and widely-read magazine. I like the article and see much truth in it. It is not that young Jews and other secular Jews choose liberal democratic values instead of Zionism but that Zionism has abandoned us and our liberal democratic values, making itself odious, hypocritical and embarrassing. But then, I am a left-wing peacenik.


  3. After reading the article, I have to say that the “disconnect” noted between Jews in Israel is really a positive outright denial of the “Israel can do no harm” brand of Zionism:

    ‘When he probed the students’ views of Israel, he hit up against some firm beliefs. First, “they reserve the right to question the Israeli position.” These young Jews, Luntz explained, “resist anything they see as ‘group think.’” They want an “open and frank” discussion of Israel and its flaws. Second, “young Jews desperately want peace.” Third, “some empathize with the plight of the Palestinians.” When Luntz displayed ads depicting Palestinians as violent and hateful, several focus group participants criticized them as stereotypical and unfair, citing their own Muslim friends.’

    All of these responses are very encouraging to me, and actually a sign that the kind of connection you would like to see between Jews and Israel is very likely. Furthermore, it’s a hopeful sign that the next generation of American Jews will actually be invested in the democracy and political state of Israeli affairs, rather than being invested in Israel’s infallibility (e.g. AIPAC).

    But I do agree that there is still some strong connection missing that will keep these American Jews invested in Israeli society, and not just left with a generalized understanding of the societal situation. Birthright is certainly not enough– it provides some connection to the State, but, in my experience, leaves those without that connection previously only with the understanding that Israel is “really great and fun”. Certainly, the real connection is to be found in the Jewish tradition and Jewish education, giving young Jews a long-term view of the nation and the land, yet at the same time telling the complete story of the state which includes its flaws, its mistakes, and its controversies. Conservative Judaism does reflect this balance in a strong way and can give young Jews that connection, but there is also room for their thoughtful, politically-minded, and balanced voices in our discourse on Israel and its future.


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