World Zionists and Israel must uphold their unique relationship - opinion

A Jew and a Zionist’s connection to the people, land and State of Israel doesn’t solely have to be as supporting cheerleaders. Disagreements are part of the relationship between the two.

 The Celebrate Israel Parade proceeds through Times Square in New York City, last year. When Israelis hear of Americans marching in the parade, they feel a sense of brotherhood, says the writer. (photo credit: CAITLIN OCHS/REUTERS)
The Celebrate Israel Parade proceeds through Times Square in New York City, last year. When Israelis hear of Americans marching in the parade, they feel a sense of brotherhood, says the writer.
(photo credit: CAITLIN OCHS/REUTERS)

Three days before Yom Kippur, 79 years ago, Rabbi Hillel Kook, the head of the “Bergson Group,” organized a 400-strong “Rabbi’s March” to Washington, DC. Although the rabbis met the Speaker of the House, the Senate majority and minority leaders, and vice president Henry Wallace, their goal was to meet with President Franklin Roosevelt and ask him to use American military force to stop the Holocaust that Germany was perpetrating against their fellow Jews in Europe. 

Rabbi Kook and his 400 colleagues never asked about the political views of their brethren in Europe; the rabbis implicitly understood the connection between American and worldwide Jewry. 

The Talmud quoted the teaching, “All Jews are responsible for each other” (“kol Yisrael areivim zeh b’zeh”). This teaching has taught the Jewish people many lessons, including the ability of one Jew to act as a representative of another in fulfilling God’s commands. It is quoted more frequently to teach that each Jew must ensure the security of their fellow Jews.

If one Jew is in trouble, all other Jews must come to their aid; after all, “All Jews are responsible for each other.” Our rabbis have gone so far as to maintain that a Jew must put their life at risk for another Jew. 

The Jewish people’s connection to the Land of Israel is undeniable – even though many continuously try to deny it. The Jewish people’s patriarch Abraham passed this land down to his children, and they took up the charge when Joshua led them through the land more than three thousand years ago.

American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative] (credit: REUTERS)American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative] (credit: REUTERS)

There has been a continuous Jewish presence in the land, including more than 1,500 years of autonomous rule. Even Jews who were exiled from the land continued to look at Eretz Yisrael as their homeland. There is no such thing as the Jewish people without a connection to the Land of Israel.

The connection between world Jewry and the State of Israel

The modern State of Israel is a combination of two integral aspects of Judaism, the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. Neither can be neglected in any form of authentic and traditional Judaism. This doesn’t mean that every Jew must live in Israel; Judaism has lived for 2,000 years outside of Israel and every Jew must make their own decisions when it comes to where they live.

The Land of Israel as an integral part of every Jew’s life was best expressed by Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, author of the Kuzari, “My heart is in the East (Israel) and I am in the end of the West.” While not every Jew is able to live in the Land of Israel, every Jew must maintain a connection to the Land of Israel, even if it’s only aspirational. 

I am a firm believer that a Jew and a Zionist’s connection to the people, land and State of Israel doesn’t solely have to be as supporting cheerleaders. Zionists engage with Israel just as much by thinking critically about Israel as they do by applauding it. Blindly accepting Zionist and Israeli policy isn’t a Zionist value.

Zionists around the world have every right to disagree with Israeli policy – that’s the Zionist way. There’s no litmus test of political positions one must maintain on current issues to qualify as a Zionist. There is room for a healthy discussion about when, how and where critical positions of Israel should be expressed. But that’s a topic for a different time.

Many Zionists struggle with supporting an Israeli government that violates their moral standards. They are challenged by the expectation to support a government whose positions and policies contradict their ethics. It is important for struggling Zionists to remember that there is a significant difference between supporting the policies of the Israeli government and feeling a connection and identifying with the State of Israel.

As in any democracy, the policies of the Israeli government and the personalities that make up its coalition aren’t connected integrally to the state; they are merely the current policies of its elected officials. The State of Israel is the institution that brings the Jewish people and the Land of Israel together. Jews looking for an authentic connection to their traditional past should be interested in strengthening their identification with the State of Israel. 

When an American Zionist learns of an Israeli policy, action, or elected leader they find disagreeable, instead of finding it harder to identify with Israel and experiencing an erosion of a larger sense of Jewish peoplehood, they should be inspired to reengage with Israel. Not that it’s essential to Zionism (in my opinion), but encountering challenging positions of the Israeli government could also be a time to revisit the question of making Israel their home and participating firsthand in the improvement of the State of Israel.

Addressing Israeli positions in a critical way should strengthen every Zionist’s identity with Israel. A Zionist’s connection to Israel should supersede the makeup of the Israeli governing coalition, objections to any particular Israeli politician, or Israeli policy. 

Israelis are bolstered by American Jewish and Zionist support of Israel. When Israelis hear of Americans lobbying their elected officials about a strong US-Israel relationship, celebrating Israel in schools and synagogues, and even marching in the Celebrate Israel Parade, they feel a sense of brotherhood with their fellow Zionists – no matter how far away they are from each other. This feeling of connection is even stronger when Israelis know American Jews are identifying with Israel in the face of policies and positions they oppose. 

I firmly believe Zionists’ identity and connection with the Jewish state should be unqualified. The Zionist community in America, both Jews and non-Jews, have consistently demonstrated to Israelis that their connection to Israel is rock solid and governments and policies can be points of critical discussions among friends, but they’ll never weaken the indestructible connection between them and Israel.

The Jewish state only grows stronger from discussions focused on improving the Jewish State. At first, Israelis might bristle at hearing constructive criticism from American Jewry, but when they recognize that American Jewry’s connection and identification with Israel will never weaken, they are open to listening to friendly advice. 

A well-known Israeli saying frequently heard this time of year is “After the festivals” (“acharey hachagim”). As Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot begin, all business in Israel winds down – and sometimes comes to a complete halt. This includes electioneering and campaigning. Immediately after Sukkot, Israel will enter into an intense two-week campaign season leading up to nationwide elections on November 1. With the myriad views that will be expressed, American Jews are bound to hear positions they find objectionable.

During these two intense weeks, Israelis will appreciate being given the space to think and make up their minds. I am confident American Jews will come through with statements supporting Israel’s democratic elections.

The writer is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. He is the author of three books and teaches Torah, Zionism and Israel studies around the world.