Growing the Zionist Romance

How we relate to IsraeI and how we relate to each other about Israel and other vital Jewish matters can be compared to a romance which struggles to blossom into mature love.  I remember well my first serious summertime Zionist romance. I was fed a steady diet of puppy love for Israel from the time that I was very young. Growing up in a religious and politically progressive home, and regularly attending synagogue, Jewish day school and Hebrew high school, I was taught to love Israel, but I didn’t know intimately or critically the Israel that I loved. This was much the same way that a child loves his family fiercely prior to coming to terms with its imperfections. I had no mature sense of Israel’s complicated political baggage, save for the urgency of protecting Her from Her enemies and the firm conviction that she was Super Woman, physically and morally; in the early years of the euphoric afterglow of the Six Day War, that urgency and that conviction were really the only narratives about Israel that I learned.

My love was shoved in a more complicated direction when, at seventeen, I spent my first summer in Israel volunteering on Hatzor-Ashdod, a kibbutz of Ha-Shomer Hatzair, the movement of Socialist Zionism. This was a most unlikely place for a religious boy from Queens, NY to be in, but it fit my family’s somewhat off -kilter style. At seventeen, my father was already serving as a combat medic behind the 38th parallel during the Korean War. Knowing how much Israel meant to us and recognizing the critical importance of young men cutting their umbilical cords, he prevailed upon my mother to let me go that summer to volunteer with a friend who had family on the kibbutz. I spent that summer long ago exploring and developing a more grown up Zionist love to replace my childlike adoration. Here is how that began.

One night, I had an argument with a young American oleh (immigrant) who was a member of the kibbutz, where discussions about Israel and the Palestinians were common. “Let the Palestinians have their state!” he yelled at me. “If they start a war with us, we’re strong enough to bomb the hell out of them.” No one I knew in 1979 was talking with such political candor, especially in the early years of the settler movement and following the UN’s repugnant 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism. No one I knew in 1979 was really talking about Palestinians. My friend’s coarseness notwithstanding, he showed me a way of thinking and holding dialogue about Israel which I had never before considered. I began to comprehend that if Israel is strong enough to fight wars in self defense, then She is strong enough to make peace; further, love for Israel and the Jews and passion for civil rights and peace are not contradictory but two sides of the same coin.

I spent the rest of that glorious, shaky summer working, hitch hiking, making friends, failing disastrously at actual teen romance then falling head over heels into more of it. Meanwhile my Zionist romance blossomed from puppy love into an adult relationship, thoughtfully, if at times tensely, balanced between love and criticism.

For years since that summer of my first adult Zionist romance, I have found myself repeatedly hovering in a kind of stasis — some would argue paralysis — over the center, when it comes to Israel conversations.  My love for Israel is defensive and fierce, fueled by pride, history, security concerns and the echo of Auschwitz. It pushes against and is pushed back by hopefully constructive criticism of Israel’s behavior, which is fueled by Jewish and democratic values. This hovering can be exhausting, because remaining in the middle in a polarized community abounding in doctrinaire certainties demands tremendous energy. I worry at times that my centrist decision to not decide by not taking “either-or” stands is a cover for laziness or cowardice. Neutrality is a fine option until it neuters one’s ability to speak out against evil and stand up for what is right.

However, far from being an intellectual or moral vacuum, the center that continues to hold (to paraphrase W.B. Yeats) is what could force people at the extremes to move into that discomfort zone of honest dialogue. No romance successfully evolves from infatuation into a real relationship without love being constantly in tension with self reflective criticism. In the case of Israel, without criticism, love for Her degenerates from loyalty into blind, sycophantic loyalism. Without love, criticism becomes window dressing for blind, vitriolic hatred against Her. This insight applies as well to how we speak to each other about Israel, or any topic which is potentially uncomfortable. In practical terms, love and loyalty demand that you take your lover’s or loved one’s side. Yet respectfully, but honestly, naming the unpleasant facts about your lover or loved one should be its own act of loyalty and love as well.

Right now, the center is barely holding around dialogue about Israel and other concerns in the Jewish world.  Even the pretenses of nuanced, informed debate have rapidly been abandoned in favor of self righteousness, name calling, and poorly informed polemic. The current grotesque mud-wrestling side show over our nuclear accord with Iran is a troubling echo and a presentiment for Jews about how — or even if — we will ever be able to talk to each other respectfully again.

Certainly, utter neutrality in this controversy is ill-advised. Though I remain very confused by the morass of conflicting information about the treaty’s effectiveness in defanging Iran, I recognize the critical importance of having a voice in how our political leaders think about this deal.

Yet with all of the passion and legitimate fear that engendered this discussion, what good can come from anyone adding to it their cheap shots and innuendo about each others’ Zionist creds, Jewish and American loyalties? In like fashion, what good can come from leading American Jewish leaders and philanthropists shutting down dialogue with young American liberal Zionists, for example those in JStreet, by threatening to cut off funding to anyone who engages them? Conversely, what good can possibly come from BDS activists saying they care about justice in Israel and Palestine, then bullying and shouting down Israel activists for the crime of supporting the legitimate national rights of the Jewish people?

I am an “old married man”, blessed and honored to be with my wife for thirty one years, this summer. We “old-marrieds” know that maintaining the balance between romantic love and critical honesty is what continues to strengthen relationships by keeping us stable and happy in the face of life’s threats and randomness. Even more important, the ability to listen respectfully to one’s partner is the foundation of long term, balanced relationships.

We Jews are entering sixty-eight years of our romance with Israel, yet our marriage with the State and with each other seems more tormented than ever. Jewish extremism against Palestinians and other Jews is on the rise, while Jew-on-Jew verbal (and physical) violence in Israel and abroad shows no signs of abating. We are all rightly fearful about the safety of Israel, world-wide Jewry and the West. Yet that fear has engendered an emotion laden, doctrinaire rigidity that Jews are using as clubs to wield against each other with devastating results. Our enemies, like always, must be laughing hard as we do at least part of their destructive work for them by treating those with whom we disagree as the enemy.

Yet I will not leave you with my despair. Any good relationship counselor or therapist will tell you that the way to healing is always through dialogue. Not the one-sided pseudo-dialogue of polemics and name calling, but genuine dialogue. I am encouraged by dialogue endeavors such as the Jewish Council on Public Affairs’ Resetting the Table program which brings communities in North America together to engage in uncomfortable Israel conversations through civility and deep listening. The foundations of this JCPA dialogue endeavor are consistent with the organization’s mission to protect the safety of Israel, Jews, and humanity the world over, as well as to promote dialogue, pluralism and democracy in America. Resetting the Table is grounded in the best Jewish values of love for one’s fellow Jews and human beings. The JCPA states that:

Civility is neither the lack of difference nor the squelching of debate. It is the application of care for the dignity of every human being, even those with whom we may sharply disagree. It is listening carefully when others speak, not just to understand what they are saying and thinking, but to open ourselves to the possibility that they may have something to teach.

The healing of our damaged intra-communal relationships, especially around Israel, cannot begin without the civility described above. This case for civility is nothing more than an echo of the ancient Jewish imperatives of Ahavat Yisrael and Ahavat Ha-Briot, love and respect for one’s fellow Jews and fellow human beings: in other words, the command to love, which balances out the impulse to criticize. As an American Jewish Zionist, let me for now limit my plea to the diverse and energetic leadership and laity of the American Jewish community. The morning after the Iran deal passes or fails in Congress we will be left holding a tattered bag of communal ill will and bitterness, something we and the State of Israel cannot afford in the long run.

Bring the JCPA to your communities, or create your own dialogue program to re-teach all of us how to balance our love and criticism for each other, Israel, and the world community. Redirect our Zionist and Jewish communal romances on healthier, more grown up terms before they consume us all with blind passion. Now — this holy time of forgiveness in the Hebrew month of Elul — is the right time to begin.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Check out his website at