Why being pro-Israel must not replace Zionism

“If Jews having a right to self-determination is political, then it became so when the “land” was promised to them 3,000 years ago. But note, the claim was not man-made, but rather granted by Almighty God. Taking this promise and bringing it down from heaven to a simple political narrative undermines the Sovereign authority of God. Those that deny the Jewish people’s connection to the land of Israel therefore deny the authority and accuracy of the Bible. Those that refuse to accept God’s promise to Israel, effectively place themselves in opposition to God.” [1]

This is from an article in the Christian United For Israel website. For Christian supporters of Zionism, they believe Zionism is not a product of 19th century romanticism. Nor do they believe it is a reaction to antisemitism.

Christians subscribe to Zionism because of its central place in Hebrew and Christian scriptures. This makes their love for Zionism an eternal and unconditional one.

Now let’s look at how a mainstream Jewish body interacts with Zionism and Israel.

Take the Anti Defamation League, one of the largest Jewish organisations fighting antisemitism in the US. On its `Our Values` page on its website, it says:

“We stand up for the Jewish State of Israel—the only democratically-elected government in the Middle East.” (https://www.adl.org/who-we-are/our-values)

In other words, the only reason ADL stands up for Israel is because it is a democratic state. Even though prior to stating this, it says above, “Our Jewish values inform our work and the change we seek in the world.” Clearly, their support for Zionism is not rooted in Judaism, but because of Israel being democratic.

A frightening reality is that we Jews have become pro-Israel, and the Christian world has become Zionist.

The distinction in my view is clear:

The pro-Israel camp bases it support for a Jewish state on certain conditions, i.e. that state being democratic, inclusive, pluralistic etc. One can only therefore support the right of a Jewish state to exist if it is in line with their values. What if an Israeli annexation of Judea and Samaria happened, and Israel, for the sake of remaining a Jewish state, stripped voting rights away from a potential majority Arab population that threatened the existence of Israel; could the pro-Israel position maintain its support for the Jewish state?

Of course they wouldn’t! Such a state would be detestable to these Jews, who regard liberalism and democracy as sacrosanct.

This pro-Israel approach can be traced back to Louis Brandeis in the early 20th century. Brandeis, the first Jew to be appointed to the supreme court, was an anomaly in American Jewry.

The largest Jewish denomination in America at the time was Reform, which in 1885 at the Pittsburgh Platform passed the following:

“We recognize, in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching of the realization of Israel’s great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace among all men. 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.”

This had great influence not just amongst Reform Jews, but throughout American Jewry.

Indeed the Jewish owner of the New York Times, Adolph Ochs said, “I’m interested in the Jewish religion – I want to see that preserved – but that’s as far as I want it to go.”

Most American Jews at the time, in the spirit of the Berlin Haskalah, sought to denationalise Judaism and make it solely a religion, in order to demonstrate that Jews do not have dual loyalties.

Brandeis objected – he thought one could easily reconcile being a proud American with supporting the aims of Zionism. He said:

“Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with patriotism. Multiple loyalties are objectionable only if they are inconsistent. A man is a better citizen of the United States for being also a loyal citizen of his state, and of his city; or for being loyal to his college. … Every American Jew who aids in advancing the Jewish settlement in Palestine, though he feels that neither he nor his descendants will ever live there, will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so. There is no inconsistency between loyalty to America and loyalty to Jewry.”[2]

Brandeis also said in a speech to the American Jewish Committee, “The new nationalism adopted by America proclaims that each race or people, like each individual, has the right and duty to develop…” – And he believed Zionism was in line with this. [3]

I term this as `Brandeisian` Zionism. Where one supports the right of a Jewish state to exist because it shares the same values as America, the UK or any other westernised country.

And this Brandesian Zionism can now be named `pro-Israel`. I believe that the very notion of being `pro-Israel` does more harm than good, because why should someone not be pro-Israel? If Israel embodies western values, why is it held to a different standard? In an effort from pro-Israel activists to normalise Israel in the world of civilised nations, they have inadvertently denormalised Israel’s place – since no one would be `pro- Britain` or `pro-France`, and therefore why should anyone be `pro-Israel`?

However, beyond this argument there is something more profound – and this is a lesson from our Christian friends, whom we can learn a great deal from.

I would challenge anyone to find a mainstream Jewish organisation making such an unequivocal and unapologetic assertion as the introductory quotation.

And if my hypothetical example above were to become a reality, Israel ceasing to be a democracy, the only remaining Zionists would be our Christian friends. Are we, the Jewish people, prepared to allow for the dejudaification of Zionism and thus to pass our civil rights movement to be in the hands of non- Jews?  Zionism was about the Jewish people returning to their ancestral homeland, not any other land, but the land that we have held a continuous presence in for over 4,000 years.

Are we to be Zionists only because there is antisemitism?
Are we to be Zionists because there are nation states in the world?

We must learn from our Christian friends. Zionism is not a reaction. It is a part of Judaism.

And when Jewish societies at universities separate Judaism from Israel, by insisting Zionism is just a mere political entity, they are negating major precepts of Jewish faith. Zionism matters not because of Herzl, but because Zionism mattered before Herzl. Jews were breaking glass at weddings as a reminder of exile long before Herzl. Zionism simply cannot be reduced to changes in society – i.e. a reaction to antisemitism, rise of nationalisms etc. Zionism is not an independent idea in its own right. Zionism, although  we spoke of it in a different name before it was coined in the 19th century, must be based on its foundation: Jewish faith. And it is time we reclaim it as part of our Judaism.

Or else, Zionism is no longer a Jewish movement.

[1] https://www.cufi.org.uk/news/reclaiming-the-definition-of-zionism-and-why-it-should-matter-to-christians/

[2] Brandeis, Louis. “The Jewish Problem: How To Solve It”, Speech given at a Conference of Eastern Council of Reform Rabbis, April 25, 1915

[3] Levin, K., 2005. The Oslo Syndrome. Hanover, NH: Smith and Kraus. pg 87-88

About the Author
National Director of an educational Zionist movement, Herut UK. Writing a book on Jewish responses to antisemitism. Spoken at Limmud, overseas and regularly speaking at university Jewish Societies.
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