Liberalism and Zionism, a difficult package in the world today - opinion

Liberalism and Zionism have become a more difficult package to promote today, in a world where social media sound-bites leave little room for nuance.

 FIRST PRIME MINISTER David Ben-Gurion reads Israel’s Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv, on May 14, 1948 (photo credit: GPO)
FIRST PRIME MINISTER David Ben-Gurion reads Israel’s Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv, on May 14, 1948
(photo credit: GPO)

As a rabbi, I am a committed Zionist – not in a religious sense that views the land as a divine inheritance, or a nativist one that would exclude other peoples from sharing it.

Rather, I recognize the Jewish people’s undeniable presence in the land for at least three thousand years, Israel as the cradle of the Jewish faith where Judaism’s sacred narratives took shape, the necessity of a safe refuge for the Jewish people given the history of Jewish persecution around the globe and increasing antisemitism today, and the simple fact that today Israel is the home of more Jews than any other nation in the world.

I do not believe one can be a responsible Jew without acknowledging these facts or a responsible rabbi without teaching them and Israel’s centrality to Jewish identity.

As a rabbi, I am also a committed liberal – not in the political sense, but intellectually and socially. Rabbinic tradition, grounded in the Talmud, was one of vigorous debate of competing points of view where minority opinions were diligently recorded and respected. Therefore, I endeavor to approach matters with a depth of thought and openness of mind, prioritizing human freedom and dignity above all else.

I do not believe one can be a responsible Jew without acknowledging human rights or a responsible rabbi without teaching them and their centrality to Jewish identity. And I have a duty to criticize any government, including Israel’s, that I believe violates these core tenets of my faith.

‘WHAT SEPARATES American Jews and Israel is, well, everything... [yet] we ought to celebrate those differences, not bemoan them.’ (credit: Wikimedia Commons)‘WHAT SEPARATES American Jews and Israel is, well, everything... [yet] we ought to celebrate those differences, not bemoan them.’ (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

If the foundation of liberalism is the rejection of narrow world views and the platform of Zionism is the necessity of a harbor and home for all Jews in Judaism’s birthplace, then the cornerstone of liberal Zionism is the support of a nation built on the principles of democracy, equality and religious freedom, and one where Jews will always be protected and Jewish identity celebrated – precisely the aspirations enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence almost 75 years ago.

Liberalism and Zionism, a difficult package to promote today

But liberalism and Zionism have become a more difficult package to promote today, in a world where social media sound-bites leave little room for nuance. The liberal Zionist’s challenge is to acknowledge competing rights and claims while fending off vicious rhetorical attacks on Israel’s security as a Jewish state.

What I say, whether I emphasize my liberalism or my Zionism, often depends on who is listening and what they believe. To a community, including many younger Jews, that questions the legitimacy of Israel’s claim to the land or the reality of the security threats under which Israel exists, I have one set of talking points; to a community that fails to recognize the dangers of Israel’s turn toward religious nationalism, I have another.

Last spring, an American Jewish Committee survey revealed that barely half of the American Jewish millennials consider Israel important to their Jewish identity, with more than a quarter acknowledging reevaluating their commitment to Israel in response to the anti-Israel climate on college campuses and in other settings.

If present trends persist, as memories of the rebirth of Israel and its early struggles for survival recede with the passing years, and as the last witnesses to the desperate plight of European Jewry prior to Israel’s founding pass from our midst, the particular, tragic, heroic experience of the Jewish people will become less and less significant to future generations of Americans. This is despite the fact that antisemitism is rampant – in 2020 six out of ten American Jews experienced it – and Israel is under constant attack, if not from Gazan rockets, then from Congressional Representatives, United Nations investigators, campus progressives and even some mainstream Protestant denominations.

We must never forget or let Israel’s critics sidestep the broader political, military and diplomatic context of the Middle East, including the expressed desires of Israel’s enemies to destroy it from the very first, when the UN unveiled its Partition Plan 75 years ago – a proposal the Jews of Palestine accepted and the Arabs of Palestine occasioned as a pretext for war.

In its nearly 75 years, Israel has never known a day of true security on its borders. First with Egypt and then with Jordan, Israel assumed dangerous risks for peace. If Hamas laid down its weapons tomorrow, there would be peace in Gaza tomorrow.

Nor should we confuse or let others conflate the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict with other liberation struggles in America and around the globe. Though each is unique, there exists a tendency among some of Israel’s detractors to implicate supporters of Israel in every racial, ethnic and societal injustice, and many Jews have questioned Israel’s legitimacy and their own relationship with Israel as a result. There is no heroism in such self-abnegation.

Why then is supporting Israel, arguably the greatest project of restorative justice for a persecuted people the world has ever known, perceived by so many as an illiberal cause? The answer is as plain to see as it is painful to state: Israel’s coalition system has for more than a decade empowered increasingly illiberal figures whose ambitions for Israel’s future diverge radically from its Declaration of Independence. And if the ideologies of Benjamin Netanyahu’s most extreme partners shape the direction of the next government, past affronts may be mild compared with what lies ahead.

Israel’s Declaration proclaims that the State “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” So how then can Avi Maoz who has denigrated women, LGBTQ+ Israelis and non-Orthodox Jews be appointed head of the nation’s new Jewish identity agency, or Bezalel Smotrich who has called for a ban of Israel’s Arab political parties be handed the nation’s purse strings?

THE DECLARATION assures that Israel “will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.” How then can Itamar Ben-Gvir, who idolized the murderer of worshipers in Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque and who would rattle the delicate balance atop the Temple Mount by opening it to Jewish prayer be handed the reins of the very police force that arrested him for incitement?

The Declaration invites Arab Israelis to “participate in the up-building of the State.” But this proposed government leaves no room for such participation.

And there are other significant concerns this governing coalition would pose. It's expressed intentions to seize leverage over the judiciary, to increase ultra-Orthodox sway in the nation’s immigration and education systems, and to empower religious nationalists to administer policy and settlement in the West Bank all threaten Israel’s standing as a liberal democracy and jeopardize Western diplomatic and American financial support.

It is not easy for a rabbi to say these things. But this has become a dangerous business. Liberals, even liberal Jews, will not check their values at the door, abandoning their commitment to civil rights and religious liberties to support Israeli policies that violate them any more than they would abandon their commitment to justice in America.

If Israel fails to live up to the values articulated in its Declaration, Israel risks forfeiting its dwindling support among the American Left, and its rightful place in the identity of many Jews. The process has already begun.

While I, an American rabbi, cannot presume Netanyahu will forsake the proposed government simply because I wish it, I can implore him to seek new alliances releasing Israel from the grip of ultra-Orthodoxy and ultra-nationalism and refrain from further steps imperiling a two-state solution, even if that solution remains years away.

I have a word for Americans, too, who may be reevaluating their commitment to Israel. If Israel today is not the romantic ideal its founders envisioned, neither is America. And in America, we regard our failings as challenges to overcome not as excuses to walk away.

The strength of our ties with Israel must transcend the politics of the moment, no matter how fraught they may be. Israel’s well-being depends on it, America’s well-being depends on it and Judaism’s well-being depends on it.

The writer is the senior rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El in New York City.