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More Zionism of the Heart

 

 

 

I present to you Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer and Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg.

Rabbi Kalischer (1795-1874) was an Orthodox German rabbi who expressed views, from a religious perspective, in favor of the Jewish re-settlement of the Land of Israel. His views were a forerunner for what developed into Religious Zionism which sees positive religious significance to the State of Israel. Ginsberg (1856-1927) is better known by his pen name Ahad Ha’am. A journalist and essayist, he was one of the foremost pre-state Zionist thinkers. He is known as the founder of Cultural or Spiritual Zionism which believed in the establishment of a national spiritual center that would radiate to all Diaspora communities. Ahad Ha’am described this as “a Jewish state and not merely a state of Jews.”

Zionism is complicated. There are so many figures and strains of Zionism to explore. What we have today is a pastiche of ideologies which can sometimes be inconsistent or even contradictory. Historian Gil Troy, in The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland — Then, Now, Tomorrow, presents six schools of Zionist thought: Political, Labor, Revisionist, Religious, Cultural and Diaspora Zionism.

I think it’s time to replace Zionism with “Loving Israel.”

Let me explain.

This week, I participated in a conference entitled “Zionism: A New Conversation.” It was a gathering of 110 rabbis from across the country convened by The Lisa and Michael Leffell Foundation, Maimonides Fund, and Paul E. Singer Foundation. The gathering had been in the works since January 2023. With proposed judicial reforms in Israel ripping apart the country, conversations in the US were growing more divisive as well. As Michael Lefell noted, “We heard about some rabbis who declined to say the prayer for the State of Israel or for the government of Israel…People were losing sight of the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people.”

It was a busy couple of days of lectures and conversations featuring presenters and guests from across the political, religious, and ideological spectrum. Topics included reengaging youth when discussing Israel, creating allies, understanding social media, answering the hard questions and reclaiming Zionism. The organizers deserve a lot of credit for creating a forum to educate and encourage leaders to restore Israel to the Jewish communal discussion.

In many ways, I feel blessed. My community – like most of the Orthodox community – does not have “an Israel problem.” As complicated as Israel is and as many views about Israel as there may be, love and support for Israel are strong. I do not feel that complexity endangers love for Israel as it does among many parts of the less affiliated Jewish world. At the same time, knowledge is power, and we all benefit from the efforts and insights of the “experts in the field” to best explain Zionism – especially to the younger generation.

As much as better understanding Zionism is critical today, I feel we need more Rabbi Kalischer and Ahad Ha’am. We need more Zionism of the Heart.

As powerful as words and theories are to the battle against Israel’s detractors, the greatest weapons we have as a community are the loyalty and love of those who support Israel regardless of the history or the ideology. I was sitting in a session with Ken Stein, a historian and founder of the Center for Israel Education, presenting amazing historical documents and arguments for how the Jews were able to establish a state while the Arabs refused. I thought to myself, “This is great! Young people need to learn this stuff.” At the same time, I was thinking that the facts aren’t enough. We need to engage hearts.

I had an epiphany during a session given by Dr. Rachel Fish, Co-Founder and President of Boundless Israel which works to revitalize Israel education. She explained that she prefers to use the term “Jew Hatred” rather than antisemitism. Antisemitism has a lot of “baggage;” Jew Hatred is more straightforward. It makes sense. I suggest we focus less on “Zionism” and more on “Loving Israel” or “Supporting Israel.” We can spend our whole lives studying Zionism and never finish. Loving Israel can be inculcated through visiting Israel and bringing Israel into our Judaism, through Zionism of the Heart.

Bret Stephens is a strong friend of Israel and some people’s only reason to still read the New York Times. Bret writes extensively on Zionism, and, at the conference, he made the case that Zionism is a key foundation of Judaism and one can’t be a serious Jew without understanding our relationship to the land of Israel. He noted that he’s pretty far from being religious, but he feels religion when visiting the Kotel. That’s Zionism of the Heart.

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) closed the conference. He is an amazing supporter of Israel while being a proud progressive. In fact, he says it’s his progressive values that inform his Zionism. He bemoans the zeitgeist on college campuses today which attacks Zionism and leads to antisemitism. He likes to joke that the reason he can progressive and pro-Israel is that he dropped out of college and wasn’t negatively influenced there. That’s Zionism of the Heart.

We need to better understand the complexities of Zionism. At the same time, we need more love, pride and passion when it comes to Israel and Judaism. Without a deeply felt emotional connection, Judaism can lose out to American, Western, or progressive values.

Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, a pioneer of Jewish outreach, once spoke about the need to be passionately Jewish.  He said: “If you want moderate children, be passionate.  If you take a moderate approach to Judaism, your kids will be causal.  If you are casual about Judaism, your grandchildren will be Episcopalian.”

Just like casual Jews are not living the kind of Jewish life that will likely inspire the next generation of passionate Jews, an intellectual Zionism, as important as it is, will not inspire the next generation of passionate Lovers of Israel. Let’s add more Rabbi Kalischer and Ahad Ha’am. Let’s have more Zionism of the Heart.

About the Author
Rabbi Elie Weinstock is Senior Rabbi of the Jewish Center of Atlantic Beach in Long Island and serves as President of the New York Board of Rabbis. A believer in a Judaism that is accessible to all, he prefers "Just Judaism" to any denominational label.
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