As a Religious Zionist, I found it disquieting to listen to Carolyn Glick’s recent JNS talk show, where she and guest Avraham Bell discussed news stories about cases involving police or prosecutors in Israel were being suppressed or not prosecuted to avoid harmful publicity while they were trying to bring down Prime Minister Netanyahu. In other words, Israel is following in the footsteps of the United States by ceding control of its electoral process to unelected officials who seek veto power over who is allowed or not allowed to win high office. (The same process goes on in Iran, where the ayatollahs vet candidates for Parliament and decide which ones can appear on the ballot.) An additional complication arises because for the first time since Prime Minister David Ben Gurion made a strategic compromise in 1948 by granting the Orthodox authorities control over marriage, divorce, conversion, and the like, and inviting the religious parties to serve in his Cabinet, for the last year none of the religious parties has been in the governing coalition, mainly because the leader of a secular party of Russian immigrants refuses to sit in any government with the Orthodox.
What makes this situation so unsettling, besides the ethical issues, is that at the same time that Israel is facing an internal existential threat from disunity escalating into sinas chinam, which caused the destruction of the Second Temple and the second commonwealth, as Rabbi Uri Pilichowski reminded us in his Jewish Press column of July 16, it is faced with an existential nuclear threat from Iran and its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah. And to exacerbate matters further, there is the ongoing UN Human Rights Council investigation which has been prearranged to result in condemnation, sanctions, and referral to the International Court for Israel, leading to Israeli political figures risking arrest for “war crimes” if they set foot in Europe. Strike three is that the Left is succeeding in eroding support for Israel among younger Americans: a Pew survey of 3,581 American adults conducted in March shows that 56% of youth aged 18-29 and 47% of adults aged 30-49 have unfavorable views of Israel, compared to only 27% of seniors over age 65. Overall American support for Israel stands at 55%, but these figures show that in the near future we can expect it to go below 50%, leading to a more hostile US Congress and Administration. The defense of Israel in America is further hampered by a parallel decrease in support, albeit perhaps slower, among younger American Jews, whether from fear or from the relentless intimidation on college campuses by the Leftist-Islamist alliance.
Taken together, all these conditions raise a serious question with historical reverberations: given that the State of Israel was re-established not by Mashiach, but by secular socialists, can one really be religious and a Zionist at the same time? To explore this question, we can turn to a series of articles by Rabbi Gil Student that appeared on TorahMusings.com in 2005. I will take the liberty of bypassing some of the sixteen “episodes” of the debate that are of lesser relevance to our discussion.
Part 2 sets the stage by introducing the discussion of whether our return to Israel will be before or after the coming of Mashiach:
“The Rambam writes in Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Melakhim 12:2:
“…The plain meaning of the words of the prophets seems to indicate that the war of Gog and Magog will take place at the beginning of the Messianic Era. Before the war of Gog and Magog, a prophet will arise to set Israel right and prepare their hearts… There are Sages who believe that Eliyahu will appear before the coming of the messiah.
Nobody knows these things until they actually happen, because the prophets couched these matters in obscure phrases, and even the Sages have no set tradition about them, just their interpretation of the verses. That is why they have different opinions about these things.”
Thus two interpretations emerged, one from Ramban and Radak that there will be a small return of Jews to Israel before Mashiach (which actually happened once before with 42,000 Jews returning from Babylon), and a large return after Mashiach comes, when the gentile Kings will send us back. On the other hand, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rav, held that everything Rambam mentioned in the above paragraph will occur only after the coming of Mashiach.
Part 4 of the debate goes on to cite three oaths of Rabbi Yossi ben Rabbi Hanina quoted by the Gemara in Kesuvos (111a): (1) Israel should not rise like or with a wall; (2) G-d made Israel swear not to rebel against the nations; (3) G-d made the nations swear not to subjugate Israel excessively. The Satmar Rav interpreted them as absolute prohibitions against the Jewish people moving collectively to Israel, let alone establish a state; individuals may make Aliyah, however. On the other hand, the Maharal of Prague interpreted them not as immutable oaths, but as Divine decrees about the length of the exile. In his view, G-d alone will determine the length of the exile. The first two establish that we can’t shorten the exile; the third establishes that the gentiles can’t lengthen it. In that regard, Rabbi Shlomo ben Shimon (Rashbash) Duran held that a mass emigration to Israel wasn’t forbidden, but rather that it wouldn’t work (recall the Ephraimites miscalculated the end of the exile by thirty years and were slaughtered by Amalek when they tried to leave Egypt prematurely). Thus Rabbi Student holds that Religious Zionists believe “… the Divine decree has finally, and thankfully, ended (as everyone agrees it eventually would). The reality of the state of Israel is proof of it.”
Having introduced two views of Zionism, Rabbi Student goes on in part 5 to add two more formulations, the result being four varieties:
“1. Messianic Zionism — The belief that the resettling of the land of Israel and the establishment of the state of Israel are the beginning of the Redemption. According to proponents of this view, we are already experiencing the beginning of the Redemption, as the Gemara in Megillah (17b) states: “The beginning of Redemption is war.” The wars Israel is currently fighting are the wars during the Redemption….
“2. Anti-Zionism — The conviction that the state of Israel is a satanic creation that is based on evil and brings destruction to this world. Proponents of this view would like to see the state of Israel dismantled, but only the (crazy) ultra-extremists want the Palestinians to have control of the land. Those who share this belief refuse to recognize the state of Israel and do not use its currency. They certainly do not serve in the government, and generally do not vote in Israel’s elections….
“There is a spectrum of religious approaches to the state of Israel between these two extremes, and the following two are only two general categories that are not meant to be exhaustive (based on R. Yehuda Henkin’s Bnei Banim, vol. 2 ma’amar 2)….
“3. Non-Zionism — The belief that a secular state of Israel has no religious significance. It has political significance, in that Jews are generally treated well by this government and many lives have been saved by it. However, it is not a “Jewish” state in the sense that being “Jewish” requires subjugation to the laws of the Torah, which the state of Israel does not have. However, culturally and religiously, Jews have fared well under this government, even though at times the state of Israel has been antagonistic, to say the least, towards religion and religious Jews…
“4. Hopeful Zionism — The view that the current return to the land of Israel might be the ingathering of exiles and the state of Israel might lead to the Messianic Era. We don’t know. It might and it might not. We’ll just wait and see. In the worst case, the state of Israel is simply a temporary respite from our long exile that we should enjoy and treasure while it exists. In the best case, it is the forerunner of the Messianic kingship that will usher in the Redemption.”
Rabbi Student then discusses his own views. Based on history, he finds both the anti-Zionist view, which overlooks Israel’s support for a multitude of Torah scholars and yeshivas, and the Messianic view, because of the anti-religious biases in the government of the State of Israel, and because the majority of the population is nonobservant, to be untenable.
The rest of this series primarily catalogues the views of many gedolim [great Torah scholars}, which fall all across the above spectrum. While Rav Kook as a Messianic Zionist and the Satmar Rav as an anti-Zionist represent the extremes, most Gedolei Torah tended toward the center, including such luminaries as R’ Moshe Feinstein, R’ Joseph Soloveichik, R’ Eliyahu Dessler, R’ Ovadiah Yosef, R’ Ya’akov Kamenetsky, and R. Avraham Yishayahu Karelitz, the Hazon Ish. Moreover, R’ Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, as quoted by Rabbi Student, observed that the rabbis who opposed Zionism generally dropped their objections once the State of Israel was founded.
After examining the evidence, I still feel comfortable adopting the Hopeful Zionist position, if for no other reason than the global attack on Hashem and His Torah, for which we as His messengers are taking a beating, cannot succeed. Nevertheless, I contend that the extent of the suffering will depend upon our doing teshuvah and conducting ourselves to comport with being “a holy nation.” [Deuteronomy/ Devarim 14:2]. At the beginning of Parshas Re’eh, Moshe says to the Jewish People, “… I set before you today a blessing and a curse.” [Deuteronomy/ Devarim 11:27] (The blessing comes if we observe the Commandments, the curse if we don’t.) As Rabbi A. L. Scheinbaum writes in Peninim on the Torah (Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum, “Parshas Re’eh,” Peninim on the Torah (Peninim Publications in conjunction with The Living Memorial, a project of the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland, 22nd Series, 2019, p.300), “When we stood at the foot of Har Sinai and accepted the Torah, we entered a new league of humanity, a new epoch in our existence. We were elevated above the rest of humanity. Consequently, we are unable to live on the same plane.” Therefore, we need to overcome sinas chinam [unwarranted hostility], rise above squabbling over political office, and give survival top priority. One need only look to the outcome of the Roman siege of Yerushalayim, when a group of hotheads, the Zealots, burned down the city’s storehouses to force people to fight, against the advice of the Sages to make peace.
For present-day Israel, may I suggest that we emulate the Olympic judges, who set aside the highest and lowest score they assign, by excluding the anti-Zionists of the Left and the Messianic Zionists of the Right, and getting together the rest of the political spectrum to reach agreement at least on basic principles. If that seems impossible, recall that the American Constitutional Convention of 1787 endured four months of wrangling in the sweltering heat of Philadelphia to produce the greatest written Constitution in world history. For me, the Law of Return is essential to maintaining the Jewish character of the State; others may oppose it because they want Israel to be the state of all its citizens. Where that belief falls short is that Israel must be a refuge for Jews being persecuted in any other part of the world.
Would that we could achieve the unity of purpose that we had once in our history at Mount Sinai, where the people spoke with one voice, “….All the words that Hashem has spoken, we will do.” [Exodus/Shmos 24:3]