Is Zionism distinct from Judaism?

To be a Jew is to be a Zionist – the two have always been inseparable, now more than ever.

 DAVID FRIEDMAN at the Kotel: ‘Israel is the only nation where Judaism can be fully actualized.’ (photo credit: Rob Ghost/Flash90)
DAVID FRIEDMAN at the Kotel: ‘Israel is the only nation where Judaism can be fully actualized.’
(photo credit: Rob Ghost/Flash90)

The latest fad in the seemingly never-ending reimagining of antisemitism is the assertion that one can safely contest the existence of the State of Israel while simultaneously admiring the religious precepts of Judaism, thereby avoiding the trip-wire that makes one an antisemite.

I don’t hate Jews, only Israel” has now become a mantra that provides a comfortable ideological home to many, even those professing adherence to the Jewish faith.

It’s a crock. This argument fails on theological, moral and even practical grounds.

Zionism is inherently part of Judaism

Theologically, there is no daylight between Zionism – the movement that has successfully brought the Jewish people back to its biblical homeland – and Judaism itself. Indeed, the covenantal relationship between God and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (as well as the vision of many prophets) – which is at the core of Judaism – is based almost entirely upon God’s promises to install and promote the Jewish nation inside the Land of Israel. 

There are many biblical commandments that can only be performed within the Land of Israel. The rewards promised to the Jews who keep God’s commandments all entail successful settlement of the land; in contrast, failure to observe God’s will is believed to cause expulsion and exile. 

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

Rashi, the greatest of many biblical commentators, even goes so far as to say that the story of creation in the Book of Genesis is presented primarily to establish a legal entitlement of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel – if God created the world, one cannot contest His decision to give a part of it to the Jews.

Being an anti-Zionist is also deeply offensive from a moral perspective. Israel is the only Jewish state. Opposing its right to exist is to oppose the right of the Jews, and only the Jews, to a state of their own. There are about 80 countries with an official religion, ranging from Hindu to Buddhist to Christian to Muslim. None is criticized for having a state-sponsored faith. Only the Jewish people, who regrettably has a past like no other people in terms of its trials and tribulations living under the rule of a foreign sovereign, is denied a homeland by anti-Zionists. Such denial is incompatible with Jewish survival and decidedly antisemitic.

Practically speaking, you also can’t have Judaism without Jews. And in the absence of Zionism, there might no longer exist the critical mass needed to sustain the Jewish faith. In 1948, there were about five million Jews in America, six million Jews elsewhere in the Diaspora, and 600,000 Jews in Israel. Today, the number of American Jews has remained constant, the rest of the Diaspora has dropped, and the number of Jews in Israel has increased about twelve-fold! And there is no basis to see these trends reversing. Accordingly, to deny the Zionist dream today is to deny the Jewish faith the wherewithal to carry on.

For much of our history, the return of the Jewish people to its biblical homeland must have seemed to our ancestors as a cruel and unattainable illusion. But even then, Jewish liturgical prayer was replete with verses beseeching the Almighty for a return to Zion and Jerusalem. Judaism and Zionism always have been inextricably intertwined throughout the ages.

The beginnings of the State of Israel presented a more nuanced, even confusing, interplay between Zionism and the Jewish faith. The challenges of building a Jewish nation were so daunting that complete subordination of the needs of the individual to those of the state was required. The outgrowth of that collective commitment led to a socialist enterprise that did little to prioritize religious observance. But even under those difficult circumstances, the Bible was studied. Even an atheist knew he was fighting for the “Promised Land.” Whether or not he observed the commandments, Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, never had a Bible far from reach. 

Today, much of the Zionist dream has been realized. Israel is a first-world nation, more than just surviving in a difficult neighborhood. The Jewish holy sites that it controls are accessible to all, Jewish or gentile, who come to worship in peace. Now more than ever, Zionism has merged into Judaism itself. If one is a Jew who believes in God’s biblical covenants to our forefathers and foremothers, Zionism is an integral part of the package of one’s faith. 

Israel is the only nation where Judaism can be fully actualized. It is the only place where Jews can pray using the same liturgy in the same location and in the same language that was used 2,000 years ago. While there may have been dark days in our past where Jews gave up on the Zionist dream, thankfully they are long gone. 

To be a Jew is to be a Zionist – the two have always been inseparable, now more than ever. ■

The writer served as the United States ambassador to Israel from 2017 to 2021. He is the author of a best-selling memoir, Sledgehammer: How Breaking with the Past brought Peace to the Middle East.