Dan Ornstein

To A Young Jew: Why Israel Matters


Thank you for speaking with me concerning your personal struggles about Israel and Zionism. You could have dismissed me as a blind Jewish loyalist of an older generation who might try to shame you into silence about your very thoughtful criticisms. Instead, you took the chance to have a genuine conversation with me, with all of the risks that strong disagreement could entail. I hope that our initial discussion proved to you that I, one of the Jewish adults and leaders in your life, can be relied upon to listen to you and to your generation, and to respond to you with respect and substance. This letter to you is a continuation of my thoughts in the hope that we can continue to build dialogue about Israel as committed Jews.

I know that, like many young American Jews, you find reports about Israel’s difficult relationship with the Palestinians and at times with its Arab citizens, truly disturbing. How can our sovereign Jewish nation, founded upon timeless Jewish values and in part a proactive response to Jewish suffering and persecution, tolerate our often coercive control of a rootless, stateless population whose future freedom remains in limbo? How can Israel tolerate any form of discrimination? I too ask these questions all the time, precisely because I love Israel so much. We both understand, as do many Israelis, that Israel must do everything She can to remain a Jewish and democratic state, even as She vigilantly protects Her citizens from Her hateful enemies. I am therefore proud of you for asking the hard questions about Her survival and values.

You are blessed with a Jewish background that many of your contemporaries lack. Your parents raised you in a strong Jewish and Zionist environment, you graduated from a Jewish day school that emphasizes love for Israel, you’ve spent time in Israel, and you know so much that many of your generation do not know. When many of your fellow Jews voice their often strident criticisms of Israel or, worse, genuine apathy about Her, I find myself thinking with great sadness about their ignorance and emotional detachment; nonetheless, I understand where their limitations are coming from. Yet at one point in our conversation you asked me, “Why should we care about Israel at all?” When a young Jew like yourself asks such a question I become anxious because you are the future of Jewish commitment and leadership. Certainly, some of your misgivings about “Why Israel at all?” are the natural result of your being an inquiring young adult making your way in the world. Sadly, your concerns about Israel’s purpose for existing are also what Israel bashers, anti-Zionists, and naive ideologues want to foster in others, as they attempt to erode support for Her.

Thus, it’s doubly imperative for me answer your existential question, one that touches upon a deeper question about why we need national boundaries at all. John Lennon once famously asked us to imagine a world with no countries and religions, and everyone living life in peace. His dream is certainly appealing and it is motivated by a sincere desire for universal brotherhood. Yet besides being unrealistic, it can degenerate into a kind of totalitarianism that views differences -ethnic, cultural, and familial – as evil and deserving of extinction. Rather than celebrate the human spirit of diversity, this dictatorial approach tries to force fit everyone into one dumbed-down mold of uniformity. At their best, in a democratic context, nationalism and ethnic pride should allow me to celebrate who my neighbor is because I am secure about who I am. Jewish nationalism celebrates what our people the Jews were, are and can be. Zionism celebrates our right and capacity to do that in our own spiritual and political home, no less or more than any other nation in its own home.

What does this mean? Robert Frost once wrote a poem, The Death Of The Hired Man, about a farm hand who comes back to his former employers, a farmer and his wife, to spend his last days before death. At one point in the poem, the woman says that “Home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to let you in.” After millennia of exile, persecution and genocide, we Jews took our destiny into our hands and banged down the doors of our ancient, ancestral home, the land of Israel. We had to go there, not to die, but to live as a free, self-respecting nation. The State of Israel strengthens the life of the Jewish people and the world by being a thriving center for Jewish culture and religion, a touchstone for world-wide Jewish identity, a beacon of pride for all Jews, and the most powerful expression of our deepest values and moral struggles among the family of nations. Recognizing this does not excuse Israel’s imperfections and failures, realities that it shares with every democracy in the world. However, it does offer a more fair, balanced view of the real Israel that we love and criticize.

Allow me to offer one final thought. We human beings love less in the abstract, and more in the concrete particulars of our messy relationships. It is important to care generally for all of humanity, but at the end of the day, we go home to our specific family, friends, and lovers. They are also the people whom we sometimes cannot stand or with whom we fight bitterly. Hopefully, we never stop loving them. My hopeful assumption is that you will never stop loving our Jewish family, and that you will always feel that the State of Israel, our home, is your home as well.

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