We need to get Zionism right.
As I sat with my family and friends at our Passover sedarim this year, doing what Jews have been doing for more than 3000 years, it occurred to me that the Jewish world continues to get Zionism mostly wrong.
Zionism was created in order to throw off the yoke of subjugation to which we Jews have been subjected for two millenia, but also—and equally important—to provide a venue in which the Jewish people recreates itself.
Zionism is the most powerful instrument that exists to strengthen and revive the Jewish people.
But Zionism, of course, has no existence apart from the Jewish people. Zionism exists to serve and strengthen the Jewish people, and not the other way around.
And what unites the Jewish people is Judaism, which is the foundation of Jewish existence.
Only the teachings of Judaism and Jewish loyalty to those teachings—which inevitably will be expressed in diverse ways—make us one people and hold out the possibility that we will continue to feel and act as one.
Therefore, the message of Zionism needs to be simple and clear: Jews must recover their belief in Judaism and the Torah, because the Torah is the constitution of the Jewish people and the starting point for building a new Jewish future.
There are two major obstacles to reaching this goal.
The first is religious zealotry. There exists in Jewish ranks today those who advocate a radical piety that knows no discipline or boundaries and that accepts no law as binding—not the law of Torah and not the law of the Jewish state. Convinced of the holiness of their own path, they are prepared to endanger the well-being of the Jewish people and the Zionist enterprise in order to fulfill a self-serving religious vision that is related remotely, if at all, to the teachings of Jewish tradition.
The second is utter indifference to Judaism. There also exists in Jewish ranks today “normalizers” and assimilationists. And they are to be found both in Israel and the Diaspora.
In America, this latter group is made up of those who distance themselves from Judaism, Israel, and the Jewish people, and who have moved to the outer fringes of Jewish life.
In Israel, this group is made up of those who know little about Judaism and still less about Diaspora Jewish life. They are those who, when they visit the United States, do not visit synagogues or other institutions; who know virtually nothing about the American Jewish community; and who can rarely bring themselves to care about or grant any legitimacy to the forms of Judaism—from liberal to traditional—that have evolved in America.
To speak out for Zionism means speaking out against the forces of assimilation and religious extremism that have decimated our will and polarized our people.
And while there is much for Jewish Israelis to do, I of course am particularly concerned about American Jews. For too many of them, Zionism is already mostly a matter of kinship and emotion, more vague with every year that passes. It is a sobering fact that the number of Israeli Arabs who speak Hebrew is far, far larger than the number of American Jews who speak our people’s ancient tongue.
We spend endless hours debating why our kids are not more tied to Israel, but it has very little to do with hasbara, or with positions of the Israeli right or the Israeli left. The most important fact is simply whether or not these kids have roots in Judaism.
Therefore, the task of Zionism is the same as the task of every Jewish organization in America: To help the Jewish people become Jewish and understand their Jewish mission.
As Rabbi David Hartman z”l used to remind us, brilliantly and ferociously, the task of the Zionist world and the Jewish world—and they are one and the same—is to declare war on Jews who want to disappear; it is to keep the argument of Torah alive; it is to continually ask: What kind of Torah lives in the Jewish soul? And it is to remember that there is nothing wrong with arguing about how to do this; arguing creates a healthy people.
So what does it mean to get Zionism right? It means for the Jewish world to set aside the language of survival and philanthropy and speak instead the language of Torah and Sinai. It means that Zionist education and Jewish education are inextricably related. It means that the State of Israel and Diaspora Jews must join together in taking responsibility for the moral and spiritual renaissance of the Jewish people. It means that Zionism, whatever else it may be, is a matter of covenant, mutual commitment, and faith.