Tradition Today: Who is a Zionist?

Believing in establishing a Palestinian state doesn't necessarily make one a post-Zionist.

israeli flag 88 (photo credit: )
israeli flag 88
(photo credit: )
Who is a Zionist? That is a question that I thought about when I participated in the annual convention of the international Rabbinical Assembly in Jerusalem together with hundreds of my fellow rabbis from around the world. The organization itself, as well as the worldwide Conservative/Masorti Movement of which it is a part, certainly considers and always has considered itself Zionist, as do the overwhelming majority of its members even though they do not live in Israel. Of course the answer depends upon one's definition of Zionism. Those who subscribe to the classic political Zionist definition held by David Ben-Gurion among others, namely that a Zionist is one who lives in Israel or at least actively intends to do so, would say that they are not Zionists. It seems to me that that definition has long been abandoned by most Jews and that Zionism today means believing and actively supporting Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people no matter where individual Jews may live. It means asserting that Jews not only have a right to a state, but have the need of such a place in the Land of Israel where they can be the majority culture and determine their own destiny. Those who support and work toward that goal are Zionists. If this definition is correct, Conservative Judaism was Zionist before the modern Zionist movement even came into existence, since the intellectual founder of the movement, Zachariah Frankel, who lived in Breslau in the 19th century, wrote a book advocating a Jewish state in the Land of Israel long before Herzl's time. More importantly, in the early 20th century Solomon Schechter, the president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, was himself a delegate to early Zionist congresses and visited Palestine where his brother lived. Schechter's advocacy of Zionism was bold and courageous. At that time the majority of Orthodox authorities violently opposed it. Reform Judaism was also vehemently against it. Most of the members of the JTS board were prominent New York German Jews who, although they supported the seminary as a place that would train American rabbis who could help in the acculturation of the immigrants from Eastern Europe, were themselves Reform. That did not deter Schechter from active Zionism. He wrote: "The rebirth of Israel's national consciousness, and the revival of Israel's religion, or, to use a shorter term, the revival of Judaism are inseparable... The selection of Israel, the indestructibility of God's covenant with Israel, the immortality of Israel as a nation, and the final restoration of Israel to Palestine, where the nation will live a holy life on holy ground, with all the wide-reaching consequences of the conversion of humanity and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth - all these are the common ideals and common ideas that permeate the whole of Jewish literature... History may, and to my belief, will repeat itself, and Israel will be the chosen instrument of God for the new and final mission; but then Israel must first effect its own redemption and live again its own life, and be Israel again, to accomplish its universal mission.... Out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem." Obviously Schechter's Zionism was religious, connecting the return to Zion with the revival of religious Judaism. There are other versions of Zionism that are secular, but all of them have in common the concept that a Jewish commonwealth in the land of Israel is a vital part of the existence of the Jewish people, its history and culture. Anyone who believes that, supports it and works toward it is, in my mind, a Zionist, no matter where he or she may live. One who resides in Israel, but sees it merely as another place to live, is not part of the Zionist enterprise. We hear a great deal these days about post-Zionism. Believing in making peace with our neighbors, establishing a Palestinian state or making territorial compromises or even criticizing specific actions of Israel does not necessarily make one a post-Zionist. But denying the Jewish character of Israel does. That Zionism is under attack by anti-Semites throughout the world is so obvious as to need no documentation here. Unfortunately, some of those attacking Zionism are Jews. It is therefore all the more important that Zionism be strengthened within the Jewish community in the Diaspora and also within the Jewish community in Israel. To my mind the best way to do this is to see Zionism not as jingoistic nationalism, but as an integral part of Judaism as Schechter defined it - the attempt to realize the great truths and ideals of Judaism within the confines of the Jewish community in the only country where Jews are a majority and therefore in control of their own society and their own destiny. To put it simply, we deny that Zionism is racism. We affirm that Zionism is Judaism.