When I entered the Abraham Joshua Heschel Jewish day School in the 9th grade, transitioning from the public school system that I had always been a part of, I was taken aback by the stark differences between the two communities. What surprised me most was the absence of the American national anthem in our mornings. Instead, our days began with tefillah, during which we proudly and wholeheartedly recited a prayer for the State of Israel. We frequently ended school-wide meetings by singing Hatikvah, the national anthem of Israel (I do not believe that I ever once heard the American national anthem sung while at Heschel). When Va’adat Hesed, the charity branch of student government, raised funds, it devoted an entire semester to gathering money for an Israel-related cause (it also spent a semester raising money for a cause in America, but at most schools, such would be the case for the entire year).
The commitment, both on the part of the school’s administration and on the part of the student body, to the State of Israel over the United States was distinctly clear.
On my last day of 9th grade (and every year to follow), the entire school community, students and faculty members alike, gathered together for a final breakfast. Much of it was devoted to sending off the seniors, some of whom were going straight to college, many of whom were taking gap years. I was first astounded by the number of students pursuing a gap year in Israel, uncommon among public school students. My surprise only grew when the students enrolling in the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, were called to the front of the auditorium for a special blessing.
Of a class that consisted of just under 70 students, over a tenth of them stood under the tallis, a fringed garment traditionally worn by Jewish males during prayer, but which now served to cover the students as they were blessed. As I glanced around, several teachers sat beaming of pride, and almost immediate applause and cheering erupted from the student body. There was no mention of a student enrolling in the American military. At Heschel, there has very rarely been.
The Heschel School’s commitment to the State of Israel is highly representative of the attitudes of most Jewish day schools in the United States. As they attract families with a greater awareness of, regard for, and connection to Judaism, whether in cultural or religious regards, it is commonplace for the institutions to be more focused on support for Israel and for the international Jewish community than on patriotism for the United States.
Whether this is “right” or “wrong” is highly controversial. At the core, arguments usually come down to whether American Jews (or, for some, “Jewish Americans” – a topic for another article) should possess a loyalty for their home country, the country that has provided them with security, freedom, and prosperity, the country of which they are citizens and where they reside, over Israel.
Proponents maintain that American citizens are indebted to their country for all that it has provided them with; they have received support, financial and otherwise, from America, not from Israel. Their own support should be distributed in the same fashion.
On the other hand, opponents hold that the State of Israel is the fundamental home of the Jewish people, regardless of where they reside. As such, the core loyalty of American Jews should be clear as day – Israel.
But perhaps the issue is not as black and white as it seems, perhaps it cannot simply be boiled down to what is “right” and what is “wrong.” Perhaps there is much more to it than simply which country we are more patriotic for. Indeed, what both parties in such heated and emotional debates often overlook is that American Jews’ support for Israel is vital to and necessary for the continued survival of the Jewish State.
This point can best be seen through an evaluation of the early types of Zionism, dating back to before the creation of the State.
Early Zionism manifested itself in a number of different ways. It was divided into three fundamental groups: religious Zionism, messianic Zionism, and secular Zionism.
Religious Zionism was (and is), as its name implies, centered around religion. Spearheaded by a number of leading modern Orthodox rabbis, including Rabbi Zvi Hersch Kalischer z”l, Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner z”l, and especially Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook z”l, it revolves around the idea that God historically promised Eretz Yisrael to the Israelites and therefore the Jews hold an inviolable right to the land. But beyond our simple right to the land, religious Zionism sees settling the State of Israel as a chiyuv – an obligation – inherent in our observance of all of God’s mitzvot (commandments). This is the belief that most religious Jews hold to today, the primary reason why Zionism is widely supported and acknowledged by the modern Orthodox sect of Judaism.
Messianic Zionism, a type not as prevalent today, was based upon the idea that the fulfillment of the Messianic vision and the coming of the Messiah was contingent upon the Jews’ inhabitation of Eretz Yisrael. In many ways, it has morphed into modern-day Religious Zionism.
And finally we come to the third form of Zionism. Secular Zionism, largely spearheaded by Moses Hess and Theodor Herzl, was founded upon the premise that a Jewish state was needed in order to provide a safe haven for anti-Semitism. Unlike Religious or Messianic Zionism, Secular Zionism was contingent upon necessity: a necessity to escape persecution and a necessity to unite the Jewish people by creating a common and central Jewish land.
Because it was (and is) based entirely upon necessity, Secular Zionism required universal Jewish support in order to succeed. Unlike the other forms of Zionism, it was not founded upon any deeper premise other than that of the need for unification and protection.
Therefore, unity was necessary in order for it to actually hold weight. Religious beliefs were uncalled for and unimportant; regardless of one’s belief in the religiosity of the State, all that one needed to agree upon was that it was a necessary piece in the Jewish people’s continued survival.
In his widely regarded publication “Der Judenstaat,” translated to “The Jewish State,” Herzl writes, “The world needs the Jewish state; therefore it will arise. The plan would seem mad enough if a single individual were to undertake it; but if many Jews simultaneously agree on it, it is entirely reasonable, and its achievement presents no difficulties worth mentioning. The idea depends only on the number of its adherents.”
This look at early Zionism can tell us a lot about the necessity of support for the Jewish state. In fact, early Secular Zionism is the antithesis of the form that support for the State of Israel takes on today. Indeed, support for Israel today is, for the large majority of American Jews, contingent upon one of two factors: a) one’s alignment with the policies, politics, and behaviors of the Israeli government, or b) one’s religious observance and therefore belief in Eretz Yisrael as the holy and promised land of the Jewish people. The latter encompasses the attitude of much of the modern Orthodox (the ultra-Orthodox do not apply, as their relationship with a Israel is by and large very different for religious reasons) population, whereas the former applies to the ever-growing Jewish liberal who becomes increasingly more passionate about liberal ideals and therefore increasingly more aware of ways in which Israeli political behavior may violate (in their eyes) said ideals.
If, then, current Zionism is growing increasingly more concentrated on these two factors, the concept of Secular Zionism, which has for years been the backbone of support for the State of Israel, is at risk of falling away. There is no doubt that, with a Zionism growing increasingly more conditional and value-oriented, a Zionism that is founded upon an inherent belief in the necessity of a Jewish state will slowly cease to exist.
Peter Beinart, an American journalist and political commentator, expounds upon this idea in his article “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” published in the New York Review of Books in June 2010.
In regard to the increasingly more liberal form of Zionism, which he believes is a product of the newer generations, Beinart writes, “… they are more conscious than their parents of the degree to which Israeli behavior violates liberal ideals, and less willing to grant Israel an exemption because its survival seems in peril. Because they have inherited their parents’ liberalism, they cannot embrace their uncritical Zionism. Because their liberalism is real, they can see that the liberalism of the American Jewish establishment is fake.”
Beinart then continues on to make the argument that the only way to sustain an uncritical brand of Zionism is to extrapolate zionists from the modern Orthodox world; as Beinart puts it, a “disproportionate” amount. “As secular Jews drift away from America’s Zionist institutions, their Orthodox counterparts will likely step into the breach.”
Indeed, the support of modern Orthodox-identifying individuals for Israel is staggeringly higher than that of individuals that identify with traditionally “less religious” sects of Judaism. According to a Pew Research Center study of American Jews from 2013, 61% of Orthodox Jews say they are “very attached to Israel,” while this number shrinks to 47% for Conservative – often more politically liberal – Jews, and a measly 24% for Reform – even more politically liberal – Jews.
Beinart’s article is honest in the most troubling of ways. He introduces the idea of uncritical Zionism, a concept fundamental to our understanding of what it means to support the existence of the Jewish State – even if we don’t always support the policies of the Jewish State. He offers a candid analysis on the ever-deteriorating state of Zionism today. And this state is dangerous for a number of reasons.
The State of Israel was founded upon the concept of Zionism. If the Zionist movement had not been created, Israel would not in existence. It is as pashut – simple – as that. It was the whole-hearted support, advocacy, and passion for a Jewish homeland that spurred the movement and allowed us to overcome a number of obstacles – many in which the odds were not in our favor – in order to eventually allow for the creation of the State. And ever since, this same support, advocacy, and passion is what has held the State together and allowed us to continue to fend off attacks – physical, but more so ideological, when the international community continues to come down on Israel to a disproportionate degree.
What American Jews today fail to understand is that their support for the State of Israel is critical for its survival. This support should not need to be dependent upon any factors other than the sole recognition that a Jewish state is necessary for the preservation and survival of the Jewish people. As Beinart writes, “Since Jews are history’s permanent victims, always on the knife-edge of extinction, moral responsibility is a luxury that Israel does not have. Its only responsibility is to survive.” This survival is contingent upon our support.
The disproportionately large number of Jewish students enrolling in the IDF instead of the American military no longer surprises me. It is simply a physical manifestation of the considerably greater support that Israel needs, one that America simply does not require in order to continue to exist. As Edward Getz of Houston, an American-born citizen who joined the IDF in 2011, put it, “Israel… actually needs protection from the countries around it. It’s actually fighting for my existence. America is going to be fine without my help.”
Israel is a tenuous and fragile nation, one that requires a greater amount of support, physical but also verbal and political, than the United States does. This is not to say that our patriotism for America but cease; no, there is certainly a way to remain a patriotic American citizen while recognizing that patriotism for America simply cannot compare to our need to sustain Israel. There should be no question about which military an American Jewish student should join. For that matter, there should be no question about which country an American Jewish student, or any American Jew, should prioritize.
Of course, I am not making the argument that an American Jew’s loyalty should lie solely and entirely in the State of Israel. He is indebted, to a certain degree, to the country that he lives in and the country that has provided him with a multitude of freedoms and opportunities. But as I mentioned before, and will continue to argue, America does not require our support to survive. Israel does. This concept in and of itself should determine where our fundamental loyalty should lie.
This is not to say that Israel, like any other country, should not critiqued. But it is important to be careful about the settings and manners in which we voice these criticisms. At the end of the day, it is we – the American Jews – who must defend our nation when most others do not. We must adopt this idea of uncritical Zionism. We must separate our views on Israel’s policies from our commitment to Israel’s existence. We must continue to support, advocate for, and defend our nation, for no one else will.
As the wise and honorable Yoni Netanyahu, blessed be his memory, once said, מפני שאם אנחנו לא נעשה את זה, אף אחד לא יעשה את זה בשבילינו – “Because if we do not do it, no one will do it for us.”