When they say they are anti-Zionist

Which Zionism are you anti? Which Zionism might you support?

Jerusalem Old City skyline at night. (Photo by Sander Crombach/Unsplash/Creative Commons)

(RNS) — Over a rabbinical career spanning 40-plus years, I have encountered this moment, repeatedly.

Sometimes, the questioner would be sitting in my office. Sometimes, it would happen at a social event. Sometimes, it would even come from a family member or a friend. 

This is what the person will say: “I don’t believe in God.”

I have never believed my job description included an obligation to persuade people to believe in God.

It’s like learning to play a musical instrument or to play golf. If you want to learn how to do that, there are people who can teach you.

Similarly, if you want to believe in God, I can teach you how that might look and feel.

In general, though, I do not proselytize. 

But, in my mischievous mode, I would sometimes parry back: “Tell me which God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that God, either.”

Then, I would hear it. The old man in the beard who sits on a throne in the sky, judging people — a kind of cosmic Santa Claus who’s “making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.” A cosmic Santa Claus, who is capable of granting wishes — which, when they don’t materialize, only persuades you he(!) isn’t real. The king who rewards loyalty, and punishes those who disappoint.

That is the God of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and even that is a gross simplification of a very complex liturgical drama.

But, if you only show up two days a year, that’s likely to be your version of God. There is a much richer Jewish sense of God, but you would miss that.

I would then expose my questioner to other God ideas in Judaism. I would start with all the various names and terms for God in Jewish liturgy — the Mighty One; the Compassionate One; the Life of all Worlds; the Source of all Being; the Holy One of Blessing; the Shekhinah; the Nameless One; I Will Be, etc., etc., etc. 

I would then suggest: “Maybe it’s not that you don’t believe in God. Maybe you just haven’t found the name of God you love?”

We might then explore other theological options, taking a journey through biblical ideas, into rabbinic ideas, into mystical ideas (these alone would require days to unpack) to medieval philosophical ideas, to modern theological options. 

I know them all, because I’ve believed in them all — at one time or another, and even simultaneously. 

That’s the point. Jewish theology is a messy endeavor. I would not have it any other way. 

Which brings me to the other thing I hear frequently from Jews — especially during these troubled times. 

“I am an anti-Zionist.”

Sidebar, for a moment.

Anti-Zionism was once alive and well in Reform Judaism. Consider the American Council for Judaism, the history of which is chronicled in this book. In the 1940s, The American Council for Judaism actively lobbied against the creation of a Jewish state. It took the fight way beyond the internecine battles of Jewish organizations and right into the State Department. For many of its members, the declaration of the State of Israel in May, 1948, made the American Council irrelevant, and they resigned.

Let us also bracket that anti-Zionism is alive and well in certain corners of Haredi Judaism. For them, any establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel is theologically heretical, because the Messiah has not yet come. A secular state is anathema to them.

Let us also bracket the controversy over whether rabbinical seminaries should accept candidates for ordination who are avowedly anti-Zionist.

Whatever else it might mean, anti-Zionism is not just a philosophical conversation. It has real-life consequences for millions of very real living people, who just happen to be my brothers and sisters. 

But, for now, let us choose to deal with that statement in the same way as we might deal with “I don’t believe in God.”

“OK, tell me which Zionism you don’t believe in.”

The questioner is likely to go to Zionist Def Con 3: the right-wing Zionism of Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir or Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. This is a xenophobic, violent form of Zionism. I have already called it Bizarro Zionism, a distortion of the meaning of Jewish nationalism. 

Some believe this is the dominant form of Zionism in Israel right now. Those are the optics, but they are only one part of the optics. It is not the Zionism of the streets — certainly not the Zionism I saw last summer at the anti-government demonstrations that screamed for “demokratiya.”

But the citation of that ugly, narrow version of Zionism is a cop-out. It is like saying: “I hate MAGA, and therefore, I am done with America.” If you say MAGA is the inevitable result of American patriotism, I will introduce you to millions of Americans whose lives and actions would prove they vociferously disagree. Why not look at the best of an ideology, rather than at its worst?

So, too, with Zionism. 

If the “I am an anti-Zionist” friend is genuinely open to learning, there are numerous resources and pathways for that potential intellectual and spiritual journey. 

As Gil Troy has written in “The Zionist Ideas,” the best resource on Zionism in print, there are numerous versions of Zionism.

Political Zionism: The Jews are a people, and a people deserves a state. Moreover, Jews in danger deserve a safe refuge. This was the Zionism of Theodor Herzl, and it is alive and well for endangered Jews all over the world.

Labor Zionism: Jewish workers would construct a progressive Jewish society with humanistic ideals. That was the dominant Zionism of Israel’s political class, from its founding until the election of Menachem Begin in 1977.

Revisionist Zionism: This is the Zionism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and his Likud heirs, including Menachem Begin and Benjamin Netanyahu. This is a maximalist position that sometimes favors aggressive tactics, but can also be pragmatic.

Religious Zionism: Abraham Isaac Kook, the chief rabbi before 1948, saw the Return to the Land in religious terms, as “the beginning of the sprouting of our redemption,” to quote the prayer book. This would include, on the right, such figures as Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, and it would include non-Orthodox Judaisms that are Zionist movements, i.e., Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism, and which see religious and spiritual value in the state.

Cultural Zionism: Ahad Ha’am and his heirs saw the land as the place for the cultural renewal of the Jewish people, which would include literature and language. 

That is just a short, and very simplified list. 

I believe that Jews should treat the anti-Zionists in their midst — not as those who merit contempt, but who merit conversation.

I know which God ideas I have rejected, long ago and always. I also know which Zionism ideas I have rejected, long ago and always. 

Similarly, I know the Zionist ideas I have embraced.

Therefore, something like my Zionist credo. A short version:

I believe in the restoration of the Jewish people to sovereignty in the land of Israel. I believe in the ongoing creation and nurturing of a society that strives to live up to the highest Jewish, humanistic and democratic ideals.

I believe in the nurturing of a Jewish state that might be the laboratory for the creation of new Jewish ideas, new Jewish texts and new Jewish cultural expressions. I believe God is present in all this.

That is what draws me, again — for the more than fiftieth time — to visit Israel. I will be going this weekend to encounter Israel in all its pain and promise.

And to embrace the Zionism that I believe in.

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