Before Shabbat, a new friend of mine asked me to better explain “my deep connection to Israel if not for spiritual reasons.” Renee – please find my answer below 🙂
Based on our conversation, I can take for granted that by ‘spiritual’ you meant ‘religious’ in a traditional theistic sense. Of course, religious forces influence us so much that I cannot confidently call most things or perhaps anything ‘areligious,’ but for the sake of self-expression I will comfortably use this label to describe the cognizant portion of my deep connection to Israel. I hope that by discussing the pragmatic reasons for my commitment to Israel, not only may a different (albeit certainly metaphorical) meaning of ‘spiritual’ be attributed to my connection, but also that the cognizant portion may be considered the overwhelming and most foundational portion.
My practical connection to Israel revolves around my community’s recent yet contingent ability to overcome challenges, create opportunities and actively bend the arc of history towards restorative justice. We have done so through Zionism. As Yossi Klein Halevi recently wrote in Letters To My Palestinian Neighbor, “Need gave Zionism its urgency, but longing gave Zionism its spiritual substance.” To discuss the practicality I see in Zionism, I will briefly explain, as many others have before, longing and need.
The longing of the Jewish community for its homeland is ancient and longstanding, and has persisted in the face of subjugations and persecutions of nightmarish intensity. As Max Nordau wrote in his “Survey of Zionism,” since ancient times the Jewish community “has not ceased to long fervently for a return to the lost land of [our ancestors] nor to entertain for it a determined hope.” It is the land where core aspects of our civilization were shaped, the land around which core aspects of our identity still revolve, the land to which we have turned daily for thousands of years, and the land with which our connection is confirmed by archaeology, genealogy, and history. The Jewish connection to the Land of Israel is figuratively and literally set in stone, and has survived efforts at erasure by imperialists and supremacists the world over.
As Moshe Hess wrote in Rome and Jerusalem, since antiquity our community “has defied the storms of time, and in spite of having been tossed by the currents of history to every part of the globe, has always cast yearning glances toward Jerusalem…” Jews “have overcome the innumerable obstacles which the hatred, contempt, fanaticism and barbarism of the centuries have placed in [their] way.”
These obstacles demonstrate the need that triggered Zionism. There is a long tradition of Jews being denied, often and easily, those things that are sought by individuals and groups everywhere: empowerment, dignity, equality before the law, self-reliance, and truly sustainable peace based on all of these things. As Max Nordau expressed in his address to the First Zionist Congress in 1897: “Everywhere, where the Jews have settled in comparatively large numbers among the nations, Jewish misery prevails. It is not the ordinary misery… It is a peculiar misery, which the Jews do not suffer as human beings, but as Jews, and from which they would be free, were they not Jews… In Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia – those regions which shelter the vast majority… the misery of the Jews is understood literally. It is the daily distress of the body, anxiety for every following day, the painful fight for the maintenance of a bare existence.”
Well into the 20th century, Jews across the world had hoped and continued to hope that contributing equally, indeed overwhelmingly, to their respective greater societies would mean acceptance, or at least tolerance. In too many instances, this hope failed miserably.
The Jewish experience throughout time and space fluctuated between calm and catastrophic, characterized by a reality of submission and sense of fragility. Even in locations including and immediately neighboring our homeland, where Jews were not and indeed could not have been persecuted for being ‘too foreign’ or ‘too dark’ (as much of European society designated Jews for centuries), the Jewish experience never broke this fluctuation. Even these Jews were transformed into their societies’ perceived enemies and scapegoats over and over again.
And so together, passionate longing and practical necessity birthed Zionism, a movement through which one of history’s most vulnerable communities has achieved freedom, dignity, and the means to defend its members. Through Zionism, Jews rebelled against inaction, reclaimed their voices, and took hold of their livelihoods.
The story of Israel exemplifies the human struggle to discard despair and embrace self-empowerment. Zionism is the very tool through which many Jews achieved and continue to achieve self-empowerment. If she who hopes to break her own chains needs a story to sustain her hope for freedom, Israel is the story. If she needs a tool to inspire, Zionism is that tool.
Zionism can and must be measured as a means towards an end, and indeed it has been a means to several ends, among them empowerment, dignity, self-reliance – words that are just words unless one lacks them, in which case they are everything. Jewish self-empowerment is a victory for the dignity of difference, for the shining of the spark that is intrinsic human value, and above all, for the very simple principle of self-respect, of not being pushed around. It is in this capacity that Zionism establishes itself, to quote Hess once more, as “a wholesome reaction, not against humanism, but against the things that would encroach upon it and cause its degeneration.” In short, I see Zionism as a natural and fortunate extension of my humanism.
This brief answer to your question may stimulate several follow-up questions, including the following:
What is community, and under what circumstances and to what extent should the individual risk herself for it?
What about other strategies for ending Jews’ misery?
What about the effects Zionism has had on people who don’t want any part of it – are these effects justified?
If my personal connection is a humanist one, can one really call it areligious? That is, is humanism areligious / can it be areligious?
I regard all of these questions as worth asking for many reasons, the most minor of which is that their answers may clarify points in my original answer. I struggle with these questions constantly, and have my own answers to them. But as to your original question, I think the above sums it up.