A Reckoning for Liberal Zionism

מַה־נּוֹרָא הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם־בֵּית אֱלֹהִים וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם׃ (בראשית כח:יז)

“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.” (Genesis 28:17)

The Hebrew word נורא (nora) can be interpreted in multiple ways. Literally, it means awe-inspiring or trembling. But in modern Hebrew it means terrible or awful. Most Israelis hear the word and instinctively associate it with the latter. So, to an untrained ear, the Yamim HaNoraim are “the terrible days” instead of the “Days of Awe.” When Yaakov arises from sleep after his famous dream of seeing angels ascend and descend a ladder to and from the heavens, one could read his exclamation above (Gen. 28:17) as “how terrible is this place.”

At this moment in time, as we look at the political changes sweeping Israel, both meanings can be true.  מַה־נּוֹרָא הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה –  It continues to be awe-inspiring and also it has taken a terrible turn.

The newly elected ruling government coalition, which includes various incendiary characters, is sending two clear messages:

  1. The Jewishness of the State is more important than democracy;
  2. We don’t care about Diaspora and liberal Jews.

Our response: 

  1. The State of Israel cannot be a Jewish and democratic State according to both traditional Judaism and Israel’s Declaration of Independence if it forsakes the democratic to favor exclusively the Jewish. A measure of any democracy is how it protects minorities and cares about the Other.
  2. We Diaspora Jews will not give you (the newly elected government) the pleasure of winning by turning our backs on the most important project in Jewish history. We will double down in support, by showing up, raising our voices, and by challenging those who compromise Israel’s democratic values.

In Israel, just as in the US or Canadian contexts, no individual, party, or viewpoint holds a monopoly on political discourse. We must also be vigilant about Israel’s security and internalize the clear message that many Israelis, concerned about a steady rise in Palestinian terror attacks over the past days, weeks, and months, sent through their votes. For liberal Zionists outside of Israel, this is a moment of reckoning. There have been moments like this in the past, but this moment calls for something different.

After his dream, Yaakov made a vow, saying: “If God remains with me, protecting me on this journey that I am making, and giving me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return safe to my father’s house— יהוה shall be my God.” The simple reading of the verse might lead one to deduce that Jacob’s adherence to God’s rule was conditional on his demands being met.

We can be as progressive and liberal as we want, amplify every universalist humanitarian message there is, but it is also upon us proudly to tie our fate with the Jewish people, and not be fair-weather friends. We cannot afford to echo the refrain heard widely in North American progressive circles: “I’ll only support/love/be in relationship with Israel if Israel reflects my values.”

In Israel, just as in the US or Canadian contexts, no individual, party, or viewpoint holds a monopoly on political discourse. We must also be vigilant about Israel’s security and internalize the clear message that many Israelis, concerned about a steady rise in Palestinian terror attacks over the past days, weeks, and months, sent through their votes.

The path ahead will be challenging. One tough blow came earlier this week as like new Prime Minister Netanyahu negotiated to establish an authority for “Jewish identity.” Based in the Prime Minister’s Office, this authority is to be headed by Avi Maoz, the sole Knesset member from the tiny Noam party. Maoz has the support of just a few tens of thousands of Israelis and only squeezed into parliament thanks to the Netanyahu-brokered alliance on the far-right.

This deal between Likud and the Noam Party is odious and what it says about Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s willingness to compromise Israel’s vibrant, open society is even more concerning.

Addressing Netanyahu supporters directly, outgoing PM Yair Lapid asked:

“Is this what you wanted? For this backward nationalist to make decisions over your life? Over your daughters? Over your gay nephew? Is this how you want the State of Israel to look?”

Here’s what makes matters even worse.

Netanyahu has the comfortable support of 64 Knesset members, which by the standards of the past few years is considerable padding given that he only needs a simple majority of 61 mandates to govern. That means that he is not beholden to Maoz and Noam and could easily have formed a (relatively) stable coalition without him and without compromising the integrity of his country and its international standing and goodwill. Rather than relegating him to a minor position in the government, Netanyahu chose to confer upon him the “Jewish identity” role — granting an oversight role to this marginal figure whose views are anathema to the overwhelming majority of our nation everywhere for all Jews in Israel, with serious implications for all Jews everywhere. Entitling Maoz as the deputy minister in charge of Jewish identity for the government of Israel particularly alienates millions of non-Orthodox Jews around the world, many of whom feel deeply connected to Israel.

This sends a clear message to Reform and LGBTQ+ Jews: You are not wanted here. What should we Reform and progressive Diaspora Zionists do about this? Here are a number of suggestions:

  1. Be Jewish.

Times of Israel editor David Horovitz captured the essence of what it means to be Jewish in an open letter this week:

“Common to all three of these ’religious Zionists’ [Smotrich, Ben Gvir, and Maoz] is the malignant, un-Jewish misconception that being the ‘chosen people’ indicates that we are somehow better than and entitled to oppress inferiors — Judaism as supremacism. But Judaism is not a supremacist religion. Our tradition, rather, is that we have been entrusted with a code of moral behavior that we are obligated to live by and disseminate, at the heart of which, to quote Hillel, is the imperative: ‘That which is hateful unto you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah; the rest is commentary.’ To quote Netanyahu himself, asked by Bari Weiss in an interview on Wednesday whether he believes the Jewish people are chosen: ‘Yes. In the sense that we have brought to the world the idea of morality.’”

To be Jewish is to be a part of the People of Israel and to behave according to our tradition of morality, humility, and love of our neighbors – both Jewish and non-Jewish.

  1. Go to Israel.

I have said this before, and I will say it again: The more Reform Jews who show up in Israel – whether on a short visit or to come on Aliyah – the more Israelis will see us, and we will discover that we have many partners who are also deeply concerned and care about the future of the Jewish State. To quote the old Zionist adage, “to build and to be built.” Send your students on our Reform Movement trips for a summer, or even better for a semester or gap-year program.

  1. Study and Talk about Israel.

Just like when problematic figures arise in the United States, we don’t shy away from talking about the founding values of America, study Israel’s Declaration of Independence leading up to Israel’s 75th anniversary. Use our curriculum based on the “4 Hatikvah Questions” and bring it front and center for your students from early childhood to adult education.

  1. Support Our Efforts!

As Rabbi Michael Marmur wrote in these pages this week:

“Choose a cause that reflects an Israel you care about and do whatever you can to support it. Senior ministers in Israel’s new government will try to intimidate you — while others tell you that you are overreacting, and everything is fine. But don’t stop leaning in and hunkering down.”

We, in the URJ, need more Israel engagement here in North America, in our congregations, youth movement, and camps. And we need to exert our influence in Israel’s National Institutions (World Zionist Organization, Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael-Jewish National Fund, Jewish Agency for Israel), and we need your help to do that.

Support our Movement in Israel as they continue to build more congregations fight battles in the courts and in the Knesset. The Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) and the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) are our partners and change agents on the ground, doing the work daily to stand up for our Reform Jewish values and defend democracy in Israel. They need our support.

This is a time for action and for belief that the future can be different. This week marked the 75th anniversary since the fateful U.N. vote for Resolution 181, better known as the “Partition Plan” on November 29, 1947, when the world recognized the need for a Jewish State. One year earlier that would have been unimaginable. 75 years later, we believe that the future can be different. Just as Jacob awoke from his dream to a new reality, so can we come together, work hard, and create a new reality for the future.

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the Vice President for Israel and Reform Zionism for the URJ, and President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He was ordained from the HUC-JIR Israeli Rabbinic Program in Jerusalem, and is currently living in New York.
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