A Dose of Nuance: Not being a Zionist is no heresy

What the pro- Israel community today needs is not mechanical statements of support, but lifelong passionate commitment born out of a deep commitment to the whole of the Jewish story.

June 16, 2016 12:17
4 minute read.
Jerusalem Day

Young people wave Israeli flags during the Jerusalem Day march on June 5. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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 What the pro- Israel community today needs is not mechanical statements of support, but lifelong passionate commitment born out of a deep knowledge of, commitment to and feeling for the whole of the Jewish story.

A few weeks ago, some friends sent me links to a column that had appeared in The Forward, “Why I Love Israel But I Am Not a Zionist,” by the well-known writer Shulem Deen.

Several accompanied the link with “oy,” or “what do you make of this?” Shulem Deen, of course, had garnered a great deal of attention (and the National Jewish Book Award) for All Who Go Do Not Return, his memoir of leaving the tightly knit, highly secretive clan of Skverer Hassidim, which he had joined as a young man. Deen’s memoir is a thoughtful book, though more self-reflective in some places than others. It is a fascinating insight into the otherworldliness of the Skverer – their utter intolerance of dissent, their occasional resorting to violence to ensure conformity among the ranks, and their aversion to technology.

Yet these characteristics were not the reason that Shulem chose to leave both the Skverer and his family (wife and children, among others). The core reason was a collapse of his faith – and life as Skverer Hassid (like in many other Jewish communities) sans a core of profound, unshakable faith is virtually impossible.

What had prompted the links I got sent and the “oys,” however, were not Deen’s musings on his spiritual life or lack thereof, but his column on why he is not a Zionist. Deen relates that after he said in a lecture in Cleveland, “I am not a Zionist and I don’t fetishize the idea of Jewish sovereignty, anywhere.”

One of those who attended the lecture wrote him and asked him to reconsider his views on Israel. The man, Deen notes, “was not bothered by my conventional heresies; he was not troubled by my faithlessness, my lack of religious observance, my belief in no religious deities, my scarcely finding value in Judaism at all... Only my non-Zionism turned him off.”

After reading Deen’s column a couple of times, I was frankly surprised not by what he wrote, but by my friends who were upset by the column. Why, I wondered, would we expect otherwise? When someone writes that he “scarcely find[s] value in Judaism at all,” which is entirely his right, why would we expect him to be a lover of the Jewish State? To understand Zionism, to feel the sentiments at the core of the Zionist enterprise, one needs to be able to feel the pulse, the soul, the history of the Jews. Any narrative of Zionism without heartbreak at its core, without a sense of the despair that had Jewish life in its grip (long before the Nazi rise to power) by definition misses much of what the story of Israel is about. Any recounting of Zionism and the state it produced without wonder at its center misses the drama of Jewish national rebirth at the core of Israel’s story. (A mere 22 years passed between the liberation of Auschwitz and the Israeli lightening victory in 1967 – can anything better reflect the dramatic transformation of the Jews’ existential condition as a result of Israel?) Those sentiments were core to the beliefs of Zionists of all stripes, from Bialik (whose “To the Bird,” written when he was 19, which launched his career as the voice of the Jewish people) to Herzl (for whom the “Jewish problem” literally consumed him until he was no longer).

Zionism has long been not an ideology, political or otherwise, but a robust conversation.

Mainstream Zionists versus Revisionists, socialists versus exponents of the free market, secularists and religious Zionists, and many more – what they all had in common was a deep devotion to the Jewish people. No matter how deep their divisions, every single one of them found power and meaning in the grandeur of Judaism, its intellectual legacy and its story. Had that not been true, they would not have been Zionists.

Let’s not worry about Shulem Deen.

He’s a talented writer, but what the pro-Israel community today needs is not mechanical statements of support, but lifelong passionate commitment born out of a deep knowledge of, commitment to and feeling for the whole of the Jewish story. Our challenge is in many ways less political than it is educational.

Instead of worrying about Deen, I’d have our kids read Bialik. If they shudder at the power of his angst, we’ll know we’re moving in the right direction.

And if they don’t, we’ll come to realize that challenges to Zionism today come just as much from within as from without – and from the love and passion for Judaism writ large that we’re all too often still failing to transmit.

The writer is Koret Distinguished Fellow and Chair of the Core Curriculum at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His new book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, is forthcoming in October from Ecco/ HarperCollins.

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