Confessions Of An Unapologetic Zionist

The first time I ever left the continental United States — also the first time I ever flew–was when I traveled to Israel for my junior year of college in 1971.

As I look back on that experience, I realize now what an audacious thing I did, planning to spend a year in a foreign country that I had no real experience with. But somehow, even though I had never been there, I felt so closely identified with Israel that it never seemed like a foreign country to me. I was primed to love it, and from the moment I got off the plane and throughout that extraordinary year, what I expected to happen was exactly what did. I fell in love with Israel. And forty-one years later, I still am.

In today’s Jewish world, that’s a pretty dramatic statement. Few and far between are people who are “primed to love Israel.” We all know that, outside the “protective walls” of the Jewish community, there are those who take Israel loudly and publicly to task for what they perceive (or choose to perceive) as its failures and shortcomings. Open any paper, listen to any news report, and you will hear loud and clear how Israel is the obstacle to peace in the Middle East, an oppressive, apartheid society that relentlessly humiliates and harasses Palestinians and discriminates against Christians, and, at its most extreme, the Iranian chant that Israel needs to cease to be. But also, within the Jewish community, there are voices that, in the most amazingly single-minded way, focus in like a laser beam on Israel’s problems, many of which are of its own making. Whether Jew or Gentile, it’s not hard to make Israel look bad when all you talk about are her problems.

So here’s the deal; I get it. Israel is not perfect– far from it, in fact. As a Conservative Rabbi whose sister movement in Israel struggles constantly for recognition and equality against powerful, entrenched opposition, I am keenly aware of how imperfect Israel is. And most of us, if we are truthful, are rarely in perfect accord with the policies of any given Israeli government, whether right or left wing in orientation.

But the bigger issue during this week when we celebrate Israel’s sixty-fourth birthday is, how many Jews- I think it’s a lot to ask of Gentiles, but how many Jews- approach the complicated and often messy reality of Israel “primed to love” her? How many start out with the a priori belief- on principle– that Israel, which represents the first sustained experiment in Jewish sovereignty in almost two thousand years, deserves our love and support, imperfections notwithstanding?

It is, for better or for worse, a lot more complicated to answer that question now than it was in 1971. Israel is older, larger and more powerful, and with all of those realities come shades of ambiguity that never existed before. What are the responsibilities of a Jewish State to be a “light among the nations?” Are there special responsibilities, and if there are, how does one superimpose those responsibilities onto the very difficult neighborhood in which Israel lives? How does one exercise power against an implacable enemy, significant sectors of which are still committed to Israel’s destruction? And, of course, how and with whom does one “make peace?” What is Israel to do on questions of proposed territorial compromise, with the memories of Gaza and Sinai withdrawals never far from the surface?

Each and every one of these questions can generate mountains of ink, and countless parlor discussions among Jews who ostensibly care about Israel and her survival. They are the issues that bubble to the surface whenever a serious discussion on Israel is engaged, and well they should be. They go to the core issues of Israel’s very existence, and they must be answered for Israel to move forward wisely and courageously.

But when all is said and done, though I recognize the ambiguities and am not without opinions myself on most of those issues, I still come down in the same place on what for me is the most important issue of all. I still love Israel, and remain as committed as I can be, given where I live, to what Israel represents. The fundamental rules apply. For the first time in two thousand years, Jews live free and sovereign in our historic homeland. Israel’s democracy is as rambunctious as a democracy can be, and sometimes it moves in directions that give me serious pause. Good people, both inside and outside of Israel, will differ on what is best in any given set of circumstances. But what is core is core. Lihiyot am chofshi b’artzeinu… Being a free people in our own land is a historical privilege that our generation is privileged to know. It is one that, had our parents and grandparents been privileged to know, would have changed the course of Jewish history.

What more is there to say? There are no apologies to be made, only pride to be expressed…

Chag Atzma’ut Sameach!

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.