Johnny Green
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Reform Judaism and Zionism – Conflict or Connection?

 “We must learn to recognize that as long as we lack a home of our own, such as the other nations have, we must resign forever the noble hope of becoming the equals of our fellow-men… We must reconcile ourselves once and for all to the idea that the other nations, by reason of their inherent natural antagonism, will forever reject us… We must seek our honour and our salvation not in self-deceptions, but in the restoration of our national ties.”
Leo Pinsker, Auto-Emancipation (1882)

“We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”

The Reform “Pittsburgh Platform” (1885)

The relationship between US Jews and Israel has received plenty of scrutiny recently, and has long been the subject of periodic debate. In this last round, Mosaic dedicated their April Essay to the growing rift between American Jews and Israel, while Commentary reviewed a new book dissecting historical foreign policies of US Jews. Across the fence, Forward featured an opinion piece on whether liberal Jews were betraying Israel, and published another essay titled “Why I Love Israel But Am Not A Zionist”.

One key to understanding this complex relationship, not given adequate attention, is the underlying tension between Zionism and Reform Judaism. This article seeks to provide a brief overview of the relation between the two, so as to enable a clearer and more comprehensive discussion of it’s consequences.

Separate but Equal

Reform Judaism and Zionism aren’t often mentioned in the same context. It’s not so much that they’re unrelated or mutually exclusive – they rather seem to independently occupy separate, parallel spheres of the Jewish world, only occasionally overlapping, neither directly at odds nor necessarily complementing each other. The convergence of both movements is most likely to be discussed in instances of peripheral clashes between the two – disparaging remarks made by an Israeli politician or growing apathy towards Israel in Reform circles.

However, discussion of Israeli attitudes to Reform or of current Zionism among American Jews concerns the fringes of the problem and not it’s substance. Examining the foundational principles of each movement serves to gain meaningful insight into its core assumptions, and may shed light on its inherent present-day outlook. Such wider perspective ultimately reveals two surprising conclusions – first, that Zionism and Reform share a great deal in common and originated as an answer to a common question; and second, that the opposing solution offered by each is antithetical to the other, fundamentally influencing their subsequent relationship.

It’s worth recalling that Reform and Zionism are likely the two most important movements in modern Jewish history and possibly in the current Jewish world. Reform Judaism represents an estimated 2.2 million of the 5.7 million Jews in the US and is by far the largest distinctive group in America. In the 2013 Pew poll of US Jews, almost 70% (implying some 4 million Jews) said they felt attached to Israel (the report doesn’t employ the term “Zionism”); certainly the majority of Israel’s 6.3 million Jews would be considered Zionist by any conventional definition. While Orthodox Judaism is also a major part of the Jewish world (this writer is a Modern-Orthodox Israeli), recall that it is a minority in both major global Jewish population centers – some 10% in the US and some 30% in Israel. Thus, arguably aside traditional or “classical” conceptions of Judaism, Reform and Zionism commands an overall degree of affiliation and influence higher than any other single group in the Jewish landscape, by a wide margin. For this reason alone, the interaction between the two dominant groups in modern Judaism merits examination.

Coping With A New Era

The two movements resemble each other far more than most might assume. Both Zionism and Reform Judaism were born in essentially the same brief era, with initial manifestations in the early 19th century, and crystallizing in the mid-to-late 19th century: from early changes to liturgy in German synagogues to the 1873 founding of the “Union of American Hebrew Congregations” in the US; and from Zionist musings by whimsical Rabbis to the 1897 First Zionist Congress. Both movements constituted a radical shift from hitherto sacrosanct interpretations and practices, essentially discarding conventional ideas of Judaism that had been almost unchanged for over a thousand years. Reform did so by eliminating ritual and rejecting traditional teachings, Zionism by advocating an organized and proactive national movement. Both movements were largely founded and later led by enlightened and educated bourgeoisie Jews. Reform was following a universal Rationalist trend as part of the “Age of Reason”, while Zionism was following the global trend of national self-determination in the vein of the “Spring of Nations”. Each movement had matured from a collection of hopes and ideas to a formidable array of institutions and organizations.

From a historical perspective, one might have expected the two to greatly overlap and possibly even merge into each other, or at least to have been closely related and to have cooperated. Yet the fundamental basis of each movement placed it on a collision course with the other.

The Reform Answer to Emancipation

Reform Judaism is understandably often viewed as a religious denomination, compared to Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, though its origins indicate otherwise. To be sure, early Reform advocated changes to the religious practice of Judaism, and especially to the interpretation of Jewish texts. The initial basis for such changes, however, was far more cultural and social than it was spiritual. Reform Judaism was essentially a reaction to the most pressing Jewish question of the modern age: that of the emancipated Jews’ place among the nations. Jews were suddenly allowed into society and were permitted to see themselves as ordinary members of the native community. Being a part of that community necessarily meant removing the most glaring distinctions between the Jews and their surroundings.

Thus, some of the earliest changes to Jewish practice in the infancy of Reform were aesthetic and stylistic rather than religiously substantive, with the stated object of being more similar to their newfound Gentile brethren. The first regular Reform service, in the Hamburg New Israelite Temple, was held in German, and sought to imitate a typical German Protestant service with a choir, robes and organ. The constitution of the Hamburg synagogue read: “… There shall be introduced at such services a German sermon and choral singing to the accompaniment of an organ… as shall apply to all those religious customs… which are sanctified by the Church.”

If Reform was initially about removing barriers between Jew and Gentile, one barrier rose above all others – nationality. Early Reform communities considered belonging to the native nation of the utmost importance, the fundamental principle of their emancipation. Adopting such nationality or becoming a “German of the Mosaic persuasion”, as had been quipped at the time, meant disavowing the competing and burdensome Jewish nationalism. The following two excerpts aptly reflect these sentiments:

“As men, we love all mankind, but as Germans, we love the Germans as the children of the fatherland.”

The Reform Rabbinic Conference in Brunswick, 1844

“The hope for national restoration contradicts our feelings for the fatherland… The wish to return to Palestine in order to create there a political empire is superfluous… [the fulfillment of Judaism’s mission is] by the merging of Jewry into the political constellation of the fatherland.”

The Reform Rabbinic Conference in Frankfurt, 1845

Synagogues became “Temples” to clarify that Reform Jews were no longer yearning for the Temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Samuel Holdheim, a Reform leader and head of the Berlin Reform congregation, argued for removing all references to Zion, Jerusalem and the Land of Israel from prayer. Long before legalistic or philosophical explanations were offered, these changes were adopted and recognized as adjustments, necessary for those embracing the “host” nation in lieu of the archaic tribal nation.

This boils down to a simple acknowledgment – that the Reform answer offered to the Emancipation was one of local national integration, which could not be fully accomplished as long as such integration was competing with Jewish nationalism. The nature of Reform Judaism was therefore national before it was religious – advocating total national integration.

[EDIT: My Reform grandma from San Francisco brought the following to my attention. The San Francisco Shearith Israel Reform Temple has stained glass windows showing Moses with the Ten Commandment, with Yosemite Valley in the background. The Temple site elaborates: “But instead of standing at Sinai, the Jewish people are gathered on granite rocks at the gateway to Yosemite, Half Dome and El Capitan in the distance. This is a modern Moses, and California is the Promised Land”.]

The Zionist Answer

Recognizing Zionism as a national movement is hardly novel and obviously no new revelation. The crucial element of Zionism though, in this context, is that it too was relatively divorced from its natural religious background. Early Zionist thinkers and texts easily reveal that neither their inspiration nor their motivation was the traditional notion of a “Return to Zion”. Zionism was rather a reaction to emancipation much in the same way as Reform Judaism – early Zionists sought to provide an answer to the same question concerning the place of emancipated Jews among the nations.

As evinced by the introductory quote from Leo Pinsker, the fundamental principle supporting Zionism was that the emancipation was limited so long as Jewish nationality – complete with a national home – was not achieved. Theodor Herzl saw in the Jewish national movement the solution to global Anti-Semitism and believed that Jews were fated to be persecuted and humiliated as long as they remained the guests of other nations.

“I think the Jewish question is no more a social than a religious one, notwithstanding that it sometimes takes these and other forms. It is a national question, which can only be solved by making it a political world-question…

We have honestly endeavored everywhere to merge ourselves in the social life of surrounding communities and to preserve the faith of our fathers. We are not permitted to do so. In vain are we loyal patriots… In countries where we have lived for centuries we are still cried down as strangers.

… We are one people–our enemies have made us one without our consent… Distress binds us together, and, thus united, we suddenly discover our strength. Yes, we are strong enough to form a State, and, indeed, a model State.”

Thedor Herzl, Der Judenstaat (1896)

Thus, Zionism constituted the pro-national answer to the Emancipation Question. The first Zionist leaders argued that the Jews’ freedom could only be achieved by their independence, and national independence bring the only kind that could achieve such freedom.

The Jewish Nation

It is at this intersection between Zionism and Reform Judaism that we see how radically different their agendas were, despite their initial similarity. The two movements sought to answer an identical question, and each reached the opposite conclusion. The significance of the resulting divergence cannot be exaggerated. Zionism, by definition, had to directly negate the Reform cause of assimilation; Reform had to reject the Zionist argument for Jewish nationalism. The two movements were fundamentally antithetical, a contradiction in terms.

This illuminates the explicit rejection of Zionism in the 1885 Reform “Pittsburgh Platform” quoted above. The 1845 Frankfort-on-the-Main Rabbinical Conference decided that “the prayers for the return to the land of our forefathers and for the restoration of the Jewish state be eliminated from the ritual.” The 1869 Philadelphia Conference adopted the principle: “The Messianic aim of Israel is not the restoration of the old Jewish state under a descendant of David, involving a second separation from the nations of the earth, but the union of all the children of God…”

The reverse rejection can be seen in the Zionist texts – thus Herzl writes (Der Judenstaat, 1896): “We might perhaps be able to merge ourselves entirely into surrounding races, if these were to leave us in peace for a period of two generations. But they will not leave us in peace. For a little period they manage to tolerate us, and then their hostility breaks out again and again.

Leo Pinsker is less subtle (Auto-Emancipation, 1882):

“For the sake of the comfortable position we are granted, for the flesh-pots which we may enjoy in peace, we persuade ourselves, and others, that we are no longer Jews, but full-blooded citizens. Idle delusion! Though you prove yourselves patriots a thousand times, you will still be reminded at every opportunity of your Semitic descent… until some fine morning you find yourself crossing the border and you are reminded by the mob that you are, after all, nothing but vagrants and parasites, without the protection of law.”

The most basic assumptions upon which Zionism and Reform Judaism were founded were in direct mutual contradiction.


This is perhaps the time to emphasize that both movements have evolved considerably over the years. It would be unfair to characterize Reform Judaism as merely an excuse for assimilation; it would be false to reduce Zionism to a lack of faith in emancipation. Zionism became more understating of Jews’ desire to retain their tradition while embracing another nation. Reform warmed to the notion of a Jewish national movement and eventually endorsed Zionism in subsequent conventions – such as the 1937 “Columbus Platform” and the 1997 “Miami Platform”. Tensions between the two movements can be attributed to numerous additional factors, like Ultra-Orthodox monopoly over Israeli religious institutions.

It is also worth noting that in a sense, both movements were partially vindicated. Reform Judaism found a home in the United States which had far less of the traditional anti-Semitism familiar to European Jews. American Jews flourished and many genuinely felt, for the first time in history, that they were no less American than their Gentile peers. Zionism saw the annihilation of European Jewry as final, horrific confirmation of the necessity of Jewish independence and autonomy, and that relying on the “hospitality” of another nation could never be truly safe. The precarious condition of European Jews today often serves to reinforce that conviction.

I’m not sure either movement had the right answer. One can argue about the success of Reform Judaism, or perhaps its over-success, and the bleak portrait of the future generation of Reform Jews in America; one can debate whether Israel has caused Jews to be truly safer or more respected as individuals and as a nation. This article does not presume to answer such questions.

But when considering the complex and often tense relationship between Zionism and Reform, these two columns of modern Judaism, recall the conflicting fundamental principles upon which they were founded, that undoubtedly still trickle down into the subconscious collective mind and continue to inform and affect the boundary between Israel and American Jewry. The core of Reform remains a belief in close Jewish integration and interaction with the Gentile world, while the heart of Zionism harbors the conviction that Jews are only truly free as a proud, independent nation – and the two don’t always align.

About the Author
Yonatan (Johnny) Green is the Executive Director of the Israel Law & Liberty Forum. He is a qualified attorney in both Israel and the State of New York. He was born and raised in Israel to parents from the US and the UK.
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