There are many ways to love Israel

Zionism is an open tent. Come on in.

Women carry an Israeli flag while participating in the International March of the Living in 2017.  Participants march between Auschwitz to Birkenau, the largest concentration camp complex built during World War II. Photo courtesy of Finn Partners

(RNS) — I first fell in love with Jewish books at Camp Eisner, the Reform Jewish camp in Great Barrington, Mass. Almost 50 summers ago, as a young teenager, I was assigned the duty of cleaning out the camp library. I did a terrible job. Cleaning has never been my strong suit.

Reading is.

On the dusty floor of that library, I discovered a book that would change my life — The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader — edited by the great American rabbi and Jewish historian, Arthur Hertzberg, who collated the great statements of Zionism into a thick volume. It became a collection of answers to a question that we did not even know existed: Why should there be an Israel?

Now, it is decades later, and my friend and teacher, Gil Troy, has re-written Hertzberg’s book. It is no longer The Zionist Idea. It is The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland — Then, Now, Tomorrow. Ideas, not idea. Gil Troy has embraced a “big tent” Zionism.

There is not one way of viewing Zionism, or the state of Israel, or the people of Israel. One size does not fit all. Rather, there are many such ideas. There are many such doorways into an encounter with what I believe to be the most remarkable Jewish achievement of the past five hundred years — the rebirth of the state.

The Zionist ideas fall into several families of ideas — with each one existing to answer the question: Why should there be an Israel?

  • Political Zionism. Primarily, to save the lives of Jews who are in danger of persecution.
  • Labor Zionism. To reclaim the land of Israel by working the land and soil of Israel.
  • Revisionist Judaism. To save as many Jews as is humanly possible, and to make sure that the Jews possess as much of the land of Israel as possible.
  • Religious Zionism. To enable Jews to fulfill the mitzvot (in Hebrew, “commandments.”)
  • Cultural Zionism. To be the cultural engine of the Jewish people — to create a national culture that will fill the Jewish heart and spirit with pride.

All of which merits the support of a final kind of Zionism – Diaspora Zionism. Why should there be an Israel? To help Jews, especially in the United States, to underscore the parallels and links between Israeli democracy and the democracy that they enjoy in their own lands of residence.

The Zionist Idea, Arthur Hertzberg’s earlier volume, had many great writers within its covers. But, it was published in 1959, and there could be no contributions written after that year. Troy has done an amazing job of searching out newer, and younger writers. And there is something else that is crucial in The Zionist Ideas.

When Arthur Hertzberg wrote The Zionist Idea, he failed to include any female Zionist voices — even when there could have been, and even when there should have been.

Gil Troy has redeemed the voices of women who write in the cause of Zion. Among them:

  • The poet Rachel Bluwstein
  • The founder of Hadassah, Henrietta Szold
  • The prime minister, Golda Meir
  • The left wing activist, Shulamit Aloni
  • The right wing activist, Geulah Cohen
  • The author of Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, Naomi Shemer
  • The young, firebrand social activist Knesset member, Stav Shaffir

And so, my own Zionist ideas. If you were to ask me: Why should there be an Israel? I would find the question outrageous.

Why? Israel is…

  • The only country whose very existence is under constant questioning.
  • The only country whose flaws have become the very pretext of its imagined dismantling.
  • The only country created by the U.N. and which is its most constant and unrelenting target.
  • The only country whose legitimate attempts to defend its borders are met with scorn and cynicism.

And yet, I believe in Israel. Because, Israel also is…

  • … at the heart of the original covenant that God made with Abraham — before Israel was a people, it was a destination.

In the words of the Canadian statesman Irwin Kotler: “Israel is the aboriginal homeland of the Jewish people across space and time. It is the homeland for the Jewish people, wherever and whenever it may be; and its birth certificate originates in its inception as a First Nation.”

  • …in the words of Abba Eban, “the only state which has the same territory, speaks the same language, and upholds the same faith as it did three thousand years ago.”
  • …the resurrection of the Jewish people out of the ashes of history.
  • …the stubborn refusal of the Jewish people to remain passive.
  • …the bulwark of the West.

In the words of Ruth Wisse:

For the first time, the ability of Jews to withstand their assailants affects the security of other nations as much as their own. Jews always believed that they were meant to help repair the world, but now that belief has turned into plain political fact, albeit in the form they least expected and least desired.

Israel represents…

  • …the revival of a language, the Hebrew language – the first and only time in history in which a people has brought its language back from the dead.
  • …the ability of the Jew to create a national culture of literature, art, music, theater, and dance.
  • …the vision of the ingathering of the exiles, with distinct cultures, foods, tastes and temperaments.
  • …the promise that no Jew will be homeless or irredeemably vulnerable.

In the words of the French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy: “If dark times, truly dark times, were to return, there would be, for imperiled and defenseless Jews, not a “solution,” but a way out, which they so tragically lacked before.”

  • …a laboratory of Jewish values. It is not always successful in promoting and living those values, but its failures do not depress me. They invigorate me. They are as noble to me as its successes.
  • …the reminder that we do not live for ourselves alone.

In the words of Gil Troy: “Pride in one’s heritage can provide essential, time-tested anchors in our me-me-me, my-my-my, more-more-more, now-now-now world.”

As Israel marks her 70th birthday this week, I rejoice with her, and with those who love her.

And, I rejoice that God is not done with her, or us, or the world — yet.


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