For Our Creative Survival: Liberal Zionists Speak Out



The following column is part of a series. For more, go to Liberal Zionists Speak Out.

I am a Zionist.

Zionism is the belief that the establishment of a Jewish and democratic state in the Land of Israel is essential for the creative survival of the Jewish people.

Being a Zionist does not require that I live in the Jewish state, but it does require serious and thoughtful advocacy for the proposition noted above.

My definition is carefully phrased and is rooted in the values and ideals of historical Zionism.
Zionism calls for a state that is democratic, and that means democratic in the commonly accepted sense of that term; it must offer equal rights to all those who permanently reside within its borders. Those who oppose a two-state solution or who advocate never-ending Israeli control over the territories without granting full rights to their Arab inhabitants have abandoned democracy and cannot legitimately claim to be Zionists at all.

Spotlight on IsraelZionism calls for a state that is Jewish. While I have my own strong views on the subject, I know that the precise nature of Israel’s Jewish character has yet to be defined and will evolve over time. The task of Zionism now is to assure that the Jewish state has a secure Jewish majority so that her Jewish citizens can determine by democratic methods what it means for Israel to be Jewish. Still, it is important to emphasize that Zionism does not see the Jewish state as “a state of all its citizens,” except in the narrow sense that all Israeli citizens must be guaranteed full civil and human rights. Zionism calls upon Israel’s Jewish majority to embrace its majority status and give it public expression; Zionists do not apologize for the fact that the Jewish state was created to promote the religion, civilization and culture of the Jewish people and its dominant Jewish majority. The Jewish state is to be the one place in the world where the national anthem is Jewish, where Jewish holidays provide the rhythm of the calendar, and where Jews openly apply Jewish values and the Jewish spirit to every aspect of life; it is the one place where others must struggle with the problems of being a minority – even as they are assured democratic rights.

Zionism calls for the Jewish people, operating through the democratic institutions of their state, to master the gun and to exercise power, both against their enemies and – when required – against their own citizens who refuse to accept the verdict of democratic decision-making. By bestowing sovereignty on the Jewish people and returning them to history, Zionism gives the Jewish people control over their own destiny. Using power is complicated and often morally compromising. Zionists hope that, tempered by Jewish values, Israel’s rulers will exercise power responsibly and will be especially sensitive to issues such as religious freedom and minority rights. But Zionism is not ambivalent about power, because in the absence of power, all other values are turned to dust.

Zionism bestows upon Jews everywhere a role in determining the character of the Jewish state. Final authority rests with Israel’s citizens, whether Jewish or not. But Israel is not primarily the state of Israelis; it is the state of the Jewish people. (If it were only the state of the Israelis, Jews elsewhere would have no reason to connect with it in any way.) And as the state of the Jewish people, it invites Jews in every country of the Diaspora to visit frequently, engage in its affairs, participate in its debates, generate support for its policies, offer criticism of its actions, and to at least think about living there. Doing all of these things – including expressing criticism, even harsh criticism – requires no special permission from Israeli or Diaspora leaders; the right to do so is inherent in the Zionist mission.

Can the Jewish people survive without a Jewish and democratic state in the Land of Israel? For a while, perhaps. But as my definition suggests, creative Jewish survival needs such a state to strengthen Jewish identity, foster Jewish unity, boost Jewish morale, and offer a meaningful Jewish response to the boredom and emptiness of modern life. That is why I am a proud Zionist and why I urge others to be Zionists as well.

Originally posted on Huffington Post

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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

About Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism. He speaks and writes frequently about Israel, religious life, social justice, and other topics of interest to the Jewish community. Read his full bio and writings on the URJ website.

One Response to “For Our Creative Survival: Liberal Zionists Speak Out”

  1. avatar

    It is interesting to sift through the various definitions of Zionism that are circulating. If Zionism is simply the belief that the modern-day State of Israel has the right to exist and to defend itself from threats internal and external, then I am a Zionist, no question about it. I can even accept Rabbi Yoffie’s expanded claim that Zionism is “the belief that the establishment of a Jewish and democratic state in the Land of Israel is essential for the creative survival of the Jewish people”. But when it is claimed that a connection to or obsession with a vicarious nationalism is an essential component to worldwide Jewish identity, then I must part ideological company with the mainstream. I wish Israel all the best, and I hope and pray for an improved situation constantly. Nevertheless, I believe that American Progressive Judaism is poorer for its fixation with making Israel and Zionism a central dimension of its culture. If we are to preserve our integrity as religious Jews, we must concentrate far more on religion and spirituality than on ethnicity, culture, or nationalism.

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