Why Zionism hasn’t failed and what that means for the Diaspora Jewish relationship to Israel
As the news around the world doubles-down on the war Israel is fighting against Hamas, a friend wrote to me about his crisis of faith. He gave me permission to share his note, and my response, and I hope they will be helpful as you contend with the questions that arise from this current conflict. His note:
I have been a Zionist for a long time, however I am having a crisis of conscience over Israel today. Some of this has to do with the current conflict with the Palestinians, but maybe more has to do with when Netanyahu was trying to implement heavily contested reforms, and ultra religious vs. more secular. On the latter, I remember reading an article where they quoted an Israeli saying that the dream of Israel as the home of all Jews was already dead.
Has the Zionist mission failed? Is there too much in fighting? Too much killing? Too much trauma? This isn’t about the war or the number of dead and injured Gazans (though the numbers are horrific) The question is: Is Israel now a land of constant conflict, internal and external? Or is Israel now a land where might makes right (which honestly, given the horrendous things Hamas did in October, I can understand but I can’t endorse; I don’t know how this ever resolves without a 2 state solution and better lives for the Gazans)
Help me regain my faith in Israel?
Dear friend – I really appreciate that you thought of me when wrestling with such monumental and legitimate concerns. There is nothing more Zionist than to contend with how the actions of Israel reflect on the soul of Israel and to explore the Jewish questions of our time through political, collective action.
I believe that your very asking of these questions shows that the Zionist mission has succeeded. For thousands of years, Jews could not ask themselves questions concerning how we should use our power. As communities, or individuals, we had to be primarily concerned with what others would do to us, not what we are doing to others. For many, that age-old powerlessness is the definition of being a Jew. Yet every Jewish golden age has ended with either expulsion or annihilation. Powerlessness, as Einat Wilf reminds us, has not served us well as a strategy.
One of the reasons so many people around the world – Jews and non-Jews alike – take issue with Israel defending itself and, yes, making mistakes while doing so, is because it seems so very un-Jewish to seize the upper hand. To force our interests to the fore. As Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in one of the best books I’ve ever read on Zionism’s transformation of the Jew, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden, “Zionism’s hard gift to the Jews was to force us to assume our place among the morally ambiguous nations, pry us from the comfortable self-image of a helpless people to accept responsibility for our fate.”
Today, as people responsible for our fate, we wage war. A nation’s fundamental responsibility is to protect its citizens. When a group stating it intends to murder, rape, and burn every last member of your nation turns statements into actions, a nation must respond in force. This is a just war, even if we make mistakes along the way. Even if innocents are mistakenly killed as they’re used as human shields by a group that builds its defensive and offensive infrastructure under and around them. Because the alternative would be to put our fate in the hands of those who would kill us.
Gaza is not Afghanistan, thousands of miles from the American coastline leaving American civilians safe from rocket fire and murderous ground assaults. It is not ISIS’s Islamic State where crimes against humanity were committed at a distance. Gaza is right across the fence, and the violence and murder it exports touches every single Israeli in their home, every child in their bed. Those who would kill us must be stopped. Given their stated intentions and unwillingness to surrender to justice, organized violence is the way.
None of this, however, is to say that there isn’t too much fighting, too much killing, too much of a reliance on the tools of imposition of power and will as opposed to the tools of compromise and consensus building. Because there is. The thread connecting Benjamin Netanyahu’s willingness to spark a near civil war in Israel by imposing changes to the judicial system to capture unprecedented power extends through the campaign in Gaza. The willingness to burn the house down to save his skin is what Israelis are increasingly protesting on the streets, despite our cousins and brothers and sisters and husbands and wives serving to end the threat from Hamas.
Engaging with the problem, as opposed to decrying it, is the Zionist thing to do. It is the loving thing to do. It is the right thing to do. Being a people active in history means having to make these tough choices: how to fight a war while not harming innocents unnecessarily; how to fight for political representation while remaining loyal to the dream of collective existence; how to remain supportive of the collective while its leadership errs in its ways; and how to band together with others to work towards changing that leadership to reflect the will of the people.
Were the Zionist mission to fail you would hear silence here and silence there and only the sound of the cannons firing. Instead voices are raised in the streets. Those devoted Jews in America criticizing Israel in hushed tones or avoiding the topic altogether are doing Israel a disservice by not joining Israelis in this act of commitment to our future. We must never again be victims, never again stand by as history acts its course on us, even at the price of overreach and overreaction.
The hard gift to the Jews in 2023 was an understanding that we are all in this together, all responsible for our collective decisions. The democracy movement fighting Netanyahu’s attempt at regime change made this case in the first half of 2023 to diaspora Jews, calling them to join us in the struggle for Israel’s soul. The war in the second half of 2023 proved the depth of our connection when even Jews far from the killing fields felt attacked in their homes and rushed supplies to the front. Had we not returned to Israel and history as a people – was there no Zionist movement – we would have no collective recourse to respond to events echoing our past experience across the many lands in which we lived. Now, as an embodied people, every one of us has a role to play to respond, to defend, and to shape the reality in the day after.
All of this is to say that even though you live afar, your caring about what happens in Israel as a Jew living in the Diaspora is both a gift and a burden. The gift: you are not alone. You can do more than sit on the floor and weep about the murder of Jews. The burden: you cannot only root for Jewish Power. You are responsible for its proper use and are called to use the political tools at your disposal to influence how our power should be applied.
Israel is no more a land in constant conflict, internal and external, than America or China or England. It differs because if the global nature of conversation shaping the peace we build among ourselves and between us and our neighbors. If you, like, me, believe Hamas can be defeated only if we do more than apply brute force; if you, like me, believe that Israel must remain a vibrant democracy where minority rights are protected from the tyranny of the majority; if you, like me, believe that Israel will never be free until it has borders defending its citizens, outside of which the Palestinian people can govern themselves under their laws and customs; if you, like me, believe that Jews have a right and responsibility to make decisions about our lives and defend our homes like any other people, then I hope you will join me and others in the collective work of politics by supporting causes in deed and dollars that advance the peace we all seek. So that we may, to paraphrase the words of Michah, sit in our ancient land under our vines, under our fig trees, and we will not be afraid.