We Can Reignite Zionism in America Right Now—By Opposing Israel’s Government
Netanyahu is acting dishonorably, installing a menagerie of fringe-dwelling fanatics in his government, and he is pushing Israel’s political culture to the edge of collapse. A lot of Reform Jews are wondering both how ultra-rightist and ultra-Orthodox parties spewing racism and spurning democracy even qualify as Zionists, and also what they should do in this moment.
Reform Judaism in America is engaged in an intense and serious debate about the nature of its commitment to Zionism and the State of Israel. Given that more than 2 million American Jews identify as Reform, making the Reform movement the largest American Jewish denomination, the debate is vital and welcome. If young Reform Jews are drifting away from Israel, as many claim, then the implications for the Jewish state are troubling and profound.
The questions of whether this is indeed occurring, and what Reform leaders can do to halt this phenomenon, were raised at a conference held at the beginning of the month at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a large Reform congregation in Manhattan. Its senior rabbi, Ammiel Hirsch, was the primary convener of the gathering, and more than 300 Reform rabbis, cantors and lay leaders attended.
Rabbi Hirsch’s core assertion, which he delivered in his keynote address, is that a commitment to Israel, Zionism and Jewish peoplehood is indispensable to Reform Judaism. That position—and it is one that I also embrace—is hardly a surprise. He has long been one of North American Jewry’s most respected and articulate supporters of Israel and Zionism. For many years, he served as director of ARZA, the Reform movement’s Zionist arm (full disclosure: I preceded him in that position), and for decades, he and I have been friends and partners in Zionist work.
But he also claimed that the commitment of Reform Jews to Israel is unraveling, and those who are committed to the Jewish state have been far too ineffective or indifferent in their response. The result, he says, is that “we are losing the soul of the Reform movement.”
And while he condemns the extremists in Israel’s current government, his position is that the process of distancing from Israel was gathering strength long before this government came into existence. In fact, he asserts that the anti-peoplehood stance of late-19th-to-mid-20th-century Reform Judaism was not an historical aberration that ultimately gave way to Zionism but, rather, was the historical norm.
The aberration, he argues, was the events of the 20th century—the Holocaust, Israel’s War of Independence, the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War—which jolted Reform Judaism into a pro-Israel direction. But those events are now fading from consciousness, and Reform Judaism is drifting back to the anti-peoplehood patterns more characteristic of early Reform belief.
Although Rabbi Hirsch and I share a great deal, this is where our takes on the state of the Reform movement’s Zionism and the challenges that Israel now faces diverge. In the first place, there is no evidence that anti-peoplehood and anti-Israel positions are again becoming the norm. In fact, there is much evidence that the exact opposite is true.
The leadership of all the major Reform institutions has been staunchly Zionist, educational programs focusing on Israel have multiplied, extremely close ties to Israeli Reform Judaism have flourished and the North American Reform movement has affiliated with the World Zionist Organization. To be sure, some strident, anti-Israel voices can be heard from time to time, and they must be confronted whenever they appear. But in a large and diverse movement, these voices are generally confined to the outer fringes.
At the moment, the bigger problem is committed Reform Jews who care very much about Israel but are confused and appalled by what is happening there. These Jews know in their gut that there must be an Israel, and they are fully aware that Israel faces profound dangers. And they do not expect perfection. They understand that politics is a dirty business, and that Israel has had good governments and bad.
Nonetheless, they are shocked and sickened by the spectacle of the Jewish supremacist Bezalel Smotrich and the Jewish racist Itamar Ben-Gvir occupying senior positions in the cabinet. Poor political choices happen, of course, in Israel and everywhere. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done far more than make a poor political choice. He has acted hypocritically and dishonorably, installed a menagerie of fringe-dwelling fanatics in his government and pushed Israel’s political culture to the edge of political collapse.
In fact, a lot of Reform Jews are wondering whether Israel’s government can be seen as Zionist at all. Zionism, to them, means a commitment to a Jewish and democratic state in the Land of Israel. And if that is so, how exactly do the ultra-rightist and ultra-Orthodox parties spewing racism and spurning democracy qualify as Zionists?
But while some worry that these Reform Jews, witnessing the catastrophe that Netanyahu has wrought, will turn against Israel, I do not. In my travels to Reform congregations, I find anger and even disgust about Israel’s government, but not despair. The reality is that committed Jews, Reform and otherwise, virtually never abandon the Jewish state, knowing as they do that Israel is an absolutely essential dimension of their Jewish life.
But their anti-Bibi-ism does mean that they are looking for help on how to cast aside the pseudo-Zionism that Israel’s government is pedaling and to reconnect with the values-based Zionism that they have long embraced. The job of leaders of Reform Judaism is to help them do so, and that job is not as difficult as some might think.
True, the smirking fanatics, extremist settlers and out-of-control fundamentalists are setting the tone of the Netanyahu coalition. But it is also true that more than half of Israel’s population has taken to the streets in an extraordinary, weekly display of both Zionist idealism and Israeli civil engagement. Zionism is alive and well in the streets of Israel!
And while I have been a proud Zionist my entire life, never have I been prouder than now, as Israelis flock to the public squares of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Beersheva and Haifa and towns and junctions across the country, intent on defying the racists and would-be authoritarians in their midst.
In these demonstrations one can see not only a political protest but also the sparks of a national, Zionist and Jewish awakening. The divisions that are rippling through Israel society have caused much distress, but also a kind of Jewish revival, a lifting of spirits and an almost mystical solidarity among the protestors.
Will American Reform Jews respond to this awakening and this outpouring of true Zionist sentiment? They will, if they are guided in that direction. But if we wish to reignite Zionism in America—among Reform Jews and others—it will not be done in the usual way, with the usual slogans and the usual programs. We will reignite Zionism in America only by taking sides, by opposing this government, and by applauding and supporting in every way possible the protestors in the streets.
This “partisanship” is certainly a departure from the usual way of doing business in the always-play-it-safe American Jewish community. But this is a moment of truth for American Jews and their leaders.
If we want to strengthen Israel, restore Zionism’s good name and get the masses of American Reform Jews, and Jewish Americans of every type, to rally to our side, we need to take on and defeat the Smotriches and Ben-Gvirs who profess to represent Zionism, but are an affront to everything that the Zionist founders believed.