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Which Zionism?

There are few terms more fraught–and less clear–than “Zionism.”

For some, it is the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise to Abraham to give the land of Canaan to his descendants. For some it is a movement of spiritual and cultural renewal, affirming the centrality of our historic homeland. For others it is a political movement of national self-determination. For still others it is a label for a land-grab that treats the area’s prior residents as second-class citizens. All of these descriptions contain an element of truth and yet none tells the complete story.

Zionism, I think, is the Rorschach test of modern Jewish political discourse. Those who see Israel as a necessary Jewish homeland, the historic and spiritual center of the Jewish people, and the sole democracy in the Middle East will see Zionism as good. Those who see Israel as an oppressor that appropriates land from the Palestinians and uses disproportionate force will see it as bad. And for the many people who are either conflicted or indifferent in their feelings toward Israel, Zionism remains simply a huge question mark.


So what does this mean? To a certain extent it means trying to figure out what Zionism is is a case of putting the cart before the horse. Our feelings about Israel tell us about Zionism, and not the other way around.

With that in mind, perhaps we can regard Zionism as an aspirational concept more than anything else: It represents what we hope Israel to be. For Theodor Herzl, father of political Zionism, and his followers, Zionism spoke of an autonomous and sovereign Jewish homeland; this was their goal and they made it their reality: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Contemporary American Jews should never underestimate the importance of this vision, never take for granted what it means for Jews all over the world to have a place that is their own. But perhaps we might hope for more than this as well. Perhaps our Zionism should aspire to an Israel that is not only viable and secure, but that also serves as a beacon of freedom, as a model of justice and ethics for the world.


Following the early Zionist visionary Ahad Ha’am, perhaps we should relate to Israel as a spiritual center as much as a political entity, see it as a source of spiritual renewal and cultural creativity both for Jews who live there and who live in the Diaspora. If so, this vision requires ongoing engagement with Israel–as a real live state and as an idea.

An aspirational Zionism doesn’t allow us to turn away in despair or indifference, but requires thoughtful and passionate debate and participation where the contributions of all who wish to see Israel strong, safe, and just are welcomed. Then we can rightly aspire to the vision of the prophet Isaiah: “[Jerusalem] shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city” (1:26) and then “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (56:7)

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posted July 5, 2006 at 8:35 pm

Thanks for this fine post. I’m intrigued by the idea that we should relate to Israel as a spiritual center. My perception is that many (most?) American Jews do precisely this; we learn from an early age that Jerusalem is the seat of holiness and that Israel is where the real spiritual action is. This is actually a source of some concern for me. I worry that in ceding “real holiness” to Israel, we Diaspora Jews relinquish the ability and the desire to make our own place holy. I believe it’s incumbent on us to find, or make, holiness throughout the world …not just on the site where the Temple once stood. If you have thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them; this is something I think about a lot and I haven’t found good answers. :-)

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posted July 6, 2006 at 1:17 am

Rachel, I think your post is very thoughtful. I think “real holiness” does reside in Israel for us. On the other hand, that does not in any way take away our ability to try to become holy in all our actions; that is our duty no matter where we are. Holiness is achieved through our actions and deeds and words. Our home here in the U.S. (or anywhere in the Diaspora) can indeed be holy, but perhaps just not on the same level as we romanticize in Israel. I’ve never heard one Jew come back from Israel, especially Jerusalem, who did not say they felt closer to G-d there. Maybe one day, I’ll be lucky enough to have that experience myself.

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Ian Silver

posted July 7, 2006 at 2:08 pm

I think we confuse Zionism with wholesale support for the political actions of Israel as a country. Since Israel is a democracy, and Israelis (who presumably are mostly Zionists) are nothing if not critical of their government, it is incumbent upon us to view our support of Israel in the light of our own political perspectives. All too often, the viewpoint of the American and Canadian Jewsh polities has been, “Whoever is not for us (100%), is against us (100%).” If I disagree with the current sabre-rattling of the Israeli government, does that make me per se anti-Zionist or anti-Israel, or a self-hating Jew? Far from it. If I feel the Hamas government in the PA is horrible, does that make me willing to demolish the borders and create a ‘Greater Israel”, like the Liebermanites wish? I think we have to accept that Zionism, like all movements, is pluralistic. Judaism is not a monolith; let’s make sure we don’t demonize Jews who differ in perspective from AIPAC or the CJC. Regards, Ian

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Steven Alan Kirschner

posted July 7, 2006 at 5:16 pm

I believe Judaism is Judaism, and Zionism is Zionism. It is my opinion that anyone that presents the 2 as one may have an other agenda, as far as I can see in keeping it very simple, to create the idea that Judaism & Zionism together ia not a correct or valid position in any way shape or form.

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S. Minanel

posted July 7, 2006 at 8:13 pm

Why not have banners strung along all main avenues in Jerusalem and everywhere in Israel, proclaiming ‘LOVE THY NEIGHBOR AS THYSELF” on the various languages needed, therefore showing the true raison d’etre of Israel for and to all the world.

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valerio pettenuzzo

posted July 8, 2006 at 10:30 pm


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posted July 9, 2006 at 1:16 am

You do not need to be a Jew to be a Zionist. Many fundamental Christians and others believe in the right of Israel to exist and claim to be a Zionist. Many people believe in the right of Israel to exist for various reasons but would never consider themselves a Zionist in any way, no matter how much they do to support Israel. Supposedly we Jews in the Dispora think of Israel as insurance that we all have a place to go. Where on earth would Israel put us all?! It is a nice idea but not a practical one.

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Yael Pedhatzur

posted July 9, 2006 at 3:33 am

Israel is NOT a concept. Israel is a living & breathing place which every Jew should call home. It is the lack of mainly Jewish practical support that weakens Israel conceptually as well as practically. Judaism has always been a religion of deeds, not of concepts. “Maaseh”. I personally believe that Isaiah’s prophecy means that when Israel once again becomes the spiritual and physical home of the majority of Jews, living, debating, arguing, but never losing their core; only then will it become a symbol unto the nations and a guiding beacon. Zionism is the heart of Judaism – Judaism is the heart of Zionism. They cannot be separated.

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posted July 12, 2006 at 2:42 pm

For some reason i have in mind that Jesus said i will prepare a place for you. To me,that did not necessarily mean Israel. Everyone already believes that there is already a heaven. At least they want to think so. So that would leave some place none of us will know about. Could even be on another planet somewheres in space. Has it been said it would be on earth? I admit that i am not that up on the bible. Maybe someone could tell me as to what part i can read it again. I don’t think there would be two heavens.

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TDW Segall

posted July 12, 2006 at 4:50 pm

Life in Israel is not easy. Those who think being in Israel is sl bloody spiritual perhaps should go there and live someplace within range of the qassam rockets that the Arab mamzerim fire from Gaza. Many Israelis feel that they live there becasue of “ayn brera”, no alternative.

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posted July 12, 2006 at 10:53 pm

I think people confuse the love for the Land of Israel with Zionism. If someone truly loves the Land of Israel, truly loves the Jewish people, truly loves the Torah, and truly loves G-d, he MUST be anti-zionist. Zionism has brought war, destruction, and heresy to the Holy Land and the Holy Jewish people. G-d told us to wait for HIM to redeem us, and not to take things into our own hands. Moshiach would have been here already if not for the evil Zionist state. It has instigated the hatred of our enemies. Before the zionist movement began in the 1890s, the Jews got along pretty well with the Arabs in Eretz Yisrael. Now they hate us. So much blood has been spilt under the blue and white flag. More than that, they are the biggest enemies of Judaism. They persecute the religious Jews in Israel. In the past fifty years, the only place where the government made a pogrom against Jews is in Israel. Look at the pogroms in the Satmar synagoge last year and in Toldos Aaron synagogue in 1981! All religious Jews pray every day that the Zionist State should be abolished – as we say “And to Jerusalem Thy City return in mercy, and dwell within it AS YOU SAID” the way G-d promised to dwell within Jerusalem is in holiness, not in the filth of the wicked zionist regime.

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