I was a naive teenager and like most teenagers, I thought I was wiser and more knowledgeable than my parents. My father had just been named president of the local branch of an American Zionist organization and was excited to begin his new role. Always the smart aleck, I joked that in just a week or two, he should expect to be promoted to the national president of the organization.
After all, I reasoned, the national president of the American Zionist organization is the top Zionist in America and should make Aliyah immediately. The person who filled their position would also need to move to Israel almost immediately and so on until my father would shortly become the national president of this Zionist organization. My father didn’t find my joke as humorous as I did.
Behind my wise guy joke was the idea that you have to live in Israel to be a Zionist. This idea that Zionists must live in Israel isn’t without merit. Zionism was a modern political movement that started in the late 1800s and among the movement’s many facets was encouraging the Jewish people to move to Israel.
Theodor Herzl traveled Europe trying to inspire Jews from London to Russia to leave their homes and move to their homeland. Jews who ignored Herzl’s message did so for various reasons but there’s no question they didn’t fully buy into the Zionist movement of the time. There’s an argument to say that the full buy-in to Zionism is still lacking today for those who don’t move to Israel.
The 12th-century scholar Nachmanides wrote that one of the Torah commandments God charged the Jewish people to fulfill is to live in and settle the land of Israel. He wrote that “Jews cannot reject (me’us) the portion of God (nachalat Hashem). If it would ever occur to capture the land of Shinar or the land of Ashur, or anything like it, and to settle there, one would be violating this positive command.”
Some Zionists make the argument that by choosing to live outside of the land of Israel, either by moving from Israel to a different land or by neglecting to move to Israel from one’s birthplace, they are violating the Ramban’s dictum and rejecting the portion of God. There are even some religious Zionists who maintain that the Messiah will not arrive until all the Jews live in Israel.
A Jew who chooses to live outside of Israel not only denies themselves the benefits of living in Israel but denies the Jewish people the messianic era. A Zionist, the argument flows, would never consider such anti-Zionist actions.
EARLY ZIONISTS debated whether there was an ongoing need for the Diaspora after the Zionist movement had gotten started. Their debate kicked into high gear when Israel was founded in 1948. Now is the time for all Jews to move to Israel, one side of the debate argued. They negated any need for the Diaspora and saw the mindset of the Diaspora Jew as harmful to the spirit of the new Jew being molded by Zionism.
Other Zionists countered these arguments by looking at the rich history of the Diaspora and the dedicated Jews who still lived in the Diaspora today. These Jews had a great deal to contribute to Zionism, the Jewish people and Israel. It would be foolish to nullify their existence or put them down as lesser Zionists. The debate is still going on today between Zionists.
Zionists don't have to move to Israel
As much merit as there is in the argument that Zionists must live in Israel, it isn’t necessarily correct. There are strong counter-arguments to make, that while Herzl tried to inspire all Jews to move to the land of Israel to create a Jewish state, the Zionist movement didn’t aim to move all of the Jewish people to Israel.
The idea of 15 million Jews moving within the space of a few decades to a barren land without the infrastructure to support a million people let alone 15 million is absurd. Zionism aimed to create a Jewish state in the land of Israel where all Jews would have the right to live in if they chose. Zionism succeeded in meeting that challenge by creating Israel with a law of return that has acted as a shelter for Jews who made Aliyah out of choice and due to persecution.
Scholars who have studied Nachmanides’s writings understand his warning not to reject the portion of God by settling in an area outside the land of Israel as a warning to the nation, not to the individual Jew. The Jewish people would be rejecting the portion of God if they would move to Uganda and establish a Jewish state within its borders.
An individual Jew who moves out of Israel or decides not to move to Israel isn’t rejecting the portion of God. That same Jew is making a choice for themselves that doesn’t affect the nation as a whole. There is no tradition among our Talmudic or early scholars’ writings that says the Messiah will only come once all the Jewish people move to Israel, rather it is the Messiah that will inspire the Jewish people to gather back themselves back to Israel.
A Zionist is someone, Jew or Gentile, who is dedicated to the right of the Jewish people to determine their own future in their historic homeland, the land of Israel. A Zionist isn’t required to take any action to be a Zionist. The belief that there are litmus tests to qualify as a Zionist is foreign to early Zionist writings and positions.
From Moses to Herzl, the Zionist movement is full of great people dedicated to the Jews living in their homeland who never lived in Israel themselves. To call their commitment to Zionism and its principles into question is baseless. Israel and its people are open for all Jews to return to its borders and they look forward to the day when all Jews live in the land of Israel. Until that day, Zionists will live in and outside of the land of Israel.
The writer is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. He is the author of three books and teaches Torah, Zionism and Israeli studies around the world.