This past week, I celebrated 34 years of living in Israel. With all the challenges of living here all these years, I am still proud to say that this is my home. I remain deeply attached to the land and the state of Israel—its people and its problems– and I would still call myself a Zionist, although a Liberal Humanist Zionist, which I sometimes feel is a vanishing breed in our country today.
Let me begin with a few words about myself. I am a Reform rabbi who grew up in the U.S. and made aliyah (Hebrew for “went up”) in June, 1979 to Israel with my wife Amy and then 2 daughters (we now have 3 wonderful daughters, 3 terrific sons-in-law, 3 fantastic granddaughters and even one splendid grandson!), which means that I have spent more than half my life in Israel by now! I grew up in Miami Beach, Florida ( yes, people actually lived there, not just winter tourists) in a fervently Zionist Jewish home, so I imbibed Zionism from my youth, mostly from my father, Rabbi Leon Kronish, of blessed memory. He was a Reform rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom from 1944 until 1996, where he preached and taught by example the meaning and importance of the Jewish state to Jews in America for over 5 decades. He was also one of the leaders of the Reform Jewish movement in the United States from the 1960’s until 1984, when he retired due to illness.
In addition to my personal upbringing at home, I am also very much a product of the 1960s in the U.S.A. Not only did I live through the heyday of the civil rights period and the anti-Vietnam War period when I was a college student at Brandeis University (1964-68) and a rabbinic student, at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York (1968-73), but I was profoundly moved and inspired by the victory of Israel during the Six Day War of 1967 over those Arab countries who sought to annihilate the young Jewish state (only 19 years old!). Yes, only 22 years after World War II, there was a serious attempt to destroy the Jewish state of Israel in what would surely have been perceived as another Holocaust or a continuation of the one that began in Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It is often amazing to me how easily this is forgotten. Jews everywhere in the world live with this consciousness and visiting groups to Israel begin to understand this better after they pay a somber visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum and education center.
It was actually in 1970-71, after a spending a full year as students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem only three years after the Six Day War of 1967, did my wife, Amy, and I decide that Israel was the place where we would want to live our lives to the fullest extent as Jews in a society and culture committed to the creative survival of the Jewish People.
When we actually made the move and came to live in Israel in 1979, it was a time of relative peace for Israel, six years after “the earthquake” of the Yom Kippur War and seven years before the outbreak of the first “intifada”. We were deeply moved—as we still are—by the unique historic opportunity and obligation to live in the Jewish State of Israel, where we would be able to raise our children (and grandchildren!) as full-fledged and proud Jews in the language and culture of the people Israel.
For me, Zionism is essentially the concept that Jews are a nation or a people, who have a national homeland, in the land of Israel. In my briefings to interreligious groups who come to Israel over many years, it is surprising to me how this comes as a shock to them. Yes, the Zionist movement—in all of its streams from the beginning until today—understands the Jews as a national movement, as a people, which originated in Biblical days and somehow miraculously survived for all of its history. To be a Jew, according to all versions of Zionism is to be a member of the Jewish People. One can express one’s Jewishness nationalistically, culturally or religiously, but at the base of one’s Jewish identity is the notion of belonging to an ancient people which has always maintained a very strong attachment to its ancient homeland.
I believe that at the center of my Jewish Zionist identity is also the commandment to love the stranger since “we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We dare not allow ourselves to mistakenly think that we can have a moral and normal society here, if we ignore the needs of the minorities in our midst or the needs of the national collective group next door who seek to live in dignity in their land too.
In addition, it behooves us to treat the stranger with in our midst with more humanity, for each human being is created in the image of God. In the ongoing conflict with our Palestinian neighbors, we have all too often forgotten this, whether at checkpoints all over the West bank or at churches and mosques within Israel, which have been desecrated too often in the past year.
The main challenge facing the state of Israel now—which was largely ignored or not taken seriously in the past—is to make room for another people or nation—the Palestinian people—who seek to share this land with us. The essence of the current “Peace Process” is the idea of territorial compromise. Neither people can have the whole land. A liberal humanistic concept of Zionism understands this historical imperative today. Indeed, I would argue that only this kind of Zionism will preserve our future in this land in the long run.
On this anniversary of my aliyah to Israel, I am grateful for the opportunity to live here in this moment of Jewish History, at the same time that I am well aware of the daunting challenges that we still face as a society and a new country; and, I remain optimistic.