The liberal Zionist tent

In less than 100 years Zionism succeeded in creating a new Jew, a new ethos, and a new nation state all while reviving a dead language and healing the deathblow that struck our people.

Tent (illustrative). (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Tent (illustrative).
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
The December 21 issue of The New York Times Magazine carried an article, “In Exile,” dealing with, among other things, the difficulties some American Jews confront in reconciling their “liberalism” with their belief in Zionism and support of Israel. Based on various responses to that article, including an essay by Ashley Rindsberg in this paper (December 28), it is apparent that the Times article created doubt and misunderstanding about what a liberal American Jewish Zionist might believe.
Having been featured in the Times article and criticized by Rindsberg, I am grateful for this opportunity to clarify my position and share some thoughts about how liberalism and Zionism are fundamentally compatible. Interested readers may wish to read my 2014 Rosh Hashanah sermon, which elaborates on these ideas.
Rindsberg’s attempt to articulate the failure of what he termed the “institution of American Jewish liberal Zionism” has two basic flaws: his definition of Zionism and his definition of liberalism. He claims that Zionism “holds separateness as a defining principle” and he defines American liberalism as a “doctrine of universal integration.” I disagree with both assertions.
Confusion in understanding Zionism is understandable.
I learned from my grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Goldman, who was president of the Zionist Organization of America from 1938-1940, that Zionism is Jewish peoplehood and home and that the core concept was present from the dawn of the Jewish saga. The “return to Zion” begins with God’s command to Abraham to leave his birthplace in southern Mesopotamia and go to live in the land that comes to be known as Israel. Abraham’s journey intertwines people and land from the start and thus launches the master Jewish narrative.
Abraham is also depicted in the Bible as one who welcomes visitors into his tent.
The ancient rabbis taught that Abraham’s tent was open on four sides so that he could see and greet visitors from every direction.
An open tent is a metaphor for an open mind. Abraham’s tent was a meeting place for people from all corners, all beliefs, all backgrounds.
Abraham listened to all their stories. It is this open tent/open mind metaphor that leads Abraham to the realization that after the conflict between his shepherds and the shepherds of his nephew Lot, the only way to live peacefully in the land is to share it.
Was Abraham the first liberal Zionist? From its earliest roots, Zionism shared basic values with liberalism, a philosophy that has also evolved considerably since its beginnings in the 14th century. It is a set of principles based on a dual commitment to liberty and equality, invites openness to new ideas and encourages a freewheeling and disciplined conversation.
I am not certain what Rindsberg means by “universal integration,” but if the implication is that universalism means “we are all the same,” he has both liberalism and universalism wrong.
Is Zionism separateness? Hardly! In a recent article Daniel Gordis correctly termed Zionism “more a conversation than an ideology.”
From the beginning the modern Zionist tent was big and noisy and crowded: it included and embraced the religious and the secular, Marxists and Revisionists, Theodor Herzl and Ahad Ha’am, Abraham Isaac Kook and Ber Borochov, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin.
The shared dream in this cacophony was national Jewish liberation. Zionism consciously and aggressively sought to escape the ghettoization of Jewish life in Europe and was the latest great, audacious idea of Jewish history, whose very purpose is to create a new understanding of what it means to be human. Zionism at its core seeks to unlock human potential. Herzl sought a safe haven from all flavors of anti-Semitism. Ahad Ha’am sought liberation for the Jewish soul – and spirit.
Zionism was about freeing the Jewish people as individuals and as a collective. The Zionist Project sought physical and spiritual freedom for Jews everywhere.
PSALM 126, sung weekly around the Shabbat table, tells us that “When God returns us to Zion, we will be as dreamers.” Classical Zionism sought to unlock the dreams and passions of the Jewish spirit that had given the world the Bible. This is the key to understanding what is arguably the greatest Zionist document, Israel’s Declaration of Independence, whose opening words remind us that, “In the Land of Israel the Jewish people was born... Here... they created values of national and universal significance.” This is the universality of Zionism that Rindsberg misses.
Zionism intends to enable Jews to once again create gifts that speak to the world.
In this light, all true Zionism is liberal Zionism, from Herzl to Ha’am, from Ben-Gurion to Begin. The State of Israel was envisioned from its beginning to be a way for the Jewish people to gather, restore its soul, and contribute to the human project, otherwise known as civilization – an idea that is itself a Jewish one.
As the distinguished essayist Paul Berman noted recently, “[A] malign obsession with the Jews is antithetical to the liberal principle.”
Liberal Zionists, who may be dreamers but are not starry-eyed, have learned hard lessons from history and Jewish tradition. Let there be no doubt: we know that a mandate of Judaism is to oppose evil in any form and are not seduced into the trap of thinking that evil is a figment of the human imagination.
In the Bible Pharaoh must drown, Amalek must be annihilated and Haman must be executed. In today’s Middle East Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic State must all be fought. Wars of self defense are not an option but a mandate, “milchemet mitzvah.”
But liberal Zionists also remember Abraham’s plea with God to not destroy the innocent with the sinner.
Wars are fought according to standards of conduct. The values of “tohar ha-neshek,” awkwardly translated as “purity of arms,” are a bedrock of Jewish self defense.
This liberal Zionist knows that the IDF strives to adhere to the highest of ethical standards and agrees with the suggestion of Ari Shavit that the engineers who created Iron Dome are worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize for the lives they saved, Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish and Muslim.
Rindsberg suggests that liberal American Jews do not legitimately get a seat at the Zionist table, referring to us as the “rich, nebbish cousins from America.” The Zionism that encompassed Herzl, Ha’am, Ben-Gurion and Begin should now become exclusionary? No, there is room in the tent for the perspective of caring Jews – even those who are still living outside the borders of the state.
In less than 100 years Zionism succeeded in creating a new Jew, a new ethos, and a new nation state all while reviving a dead language and healing the deathblow that struck our people. Part of that ethos was the negation of the Diaspora. The early Zionists may not have anticipated American pluralism and the opportunities that would be created for America’s Jews. But today’s Zionists, “liberal” or not, need to remember Abraham and remain eager for a boisterous and continuing conversation.
This last thought represents a new chapter in the Zionist conversation: to learn a healthy regard for the committed Zionist voices from afar and the multiplicity of perspectives that we bring into our old/new tent.
The author is the senior rabbi of Temple Micah, Washington, DC, a position he has held since 1983.