Zionism in the 21st Century

Following is a speech I gave to a national Hadassah leadership gathering on July 15, 2015 in Philadelphia on the topic of Zionism in the 21st Century:

Zionism is classically understood as the movement of the Jewish people to reconstitute its national sovereignty in our historic homeland after 2,000 years of Diaspora life. There were many expressions of Zionism, from a utopian Socialist version to cultural Zionism to religious Zionism — and many other flavors mixed in.

Today, the legitimacy of the Jewish people’s right of national self-determination in Israel — Zionism’s basic narrative — is under assault. By now, the letters BDS — which stand for boycott, divestment and sanctions — are well-known. What is BDS? They are simply the tactics being employed by a global movement of non-governmental organizations engaged in a concerted campaign to turn Israel into a pariah state. These same tactics were used against the apartheid South Africa regime in the 1970s and 80s— in that case, justifiably.

The Israeli government has defined this campaign of delegitimization as an existential threat, rivaled only by the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran. Our community has undertaken a massive mobilization to counter this threat, raising tens of millions of dollars and creating new organizations whose exclusive purpose is to work in this space. I personally am deeply involved here, having designed and continuing to work with an initiative sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and Jewish Council for Public Affairs. This initiative, the Israel Action Network, addresses BDS-related problems on the college campuses, in the mainline Protestant churches, in the labor movement and in other areas of civil society vulnerable to anti-Israel messages from the far left and radical Muslim organizations.

No doubt, one of the great challenges of our day — and I’m afraid one that will remain for years to come — is to repel those forces intent on bringing about an end to the Zionist project. However — and I say this as someone who has spent an entire professional career spanning almost four decades in the Israel advocacy arena — defending Israel’s legitimacy should not and cannot be our whole agenda. We are justifiably concerned about Iran getting a nuclear weapon, and are unsettled about the agreement reached less than 36 hours ago. But this too cannot be allowed to become our raison d’être.

To the contrary, surviving clearly is a necessity. Yet without substance, without direction and mission, it is a hollow exercise, devoid of values. We must not let ourselves be defined by our detractors and anti-Semites. That would be downright un-Jewish. What do I mean by un-Jewish?  Our covenant — our mission in the world — was, and remains, not merely to survive. We are commanded to be a righteous and just people, a light unto the nations. According to the Torah, Abraham and his descendents were consciously chosen by G-d. Not merely to exist, but to do Tsedek and Mishpat in the world. V’nivrachu Be’cha Kol Mishpachot Ha’adama. Through Abraham’s and Sarah’s descendents all of the families of the earth are to be blessed.

We are the inheritors and representatives of a set of values. To be sure, many of them are universal values. But we are called upon to apply them through the prism of our distinctive religious and cultural tradition, and our historical experience as a people.  For 2,000 years, we were limited to advancing these values as a minority group — most often in majority Christian or Muslim lands. We held little if any power, and, more often than not, were persecuted and oppressed.

But, today, since 1948, we are no longer passive players in world events. The Jewish people at long last have regained national sovereignty. Let me pause and stress this — it never ceases to have an impact on me. We, the Jewish people, possess national sovereignty. A government led by Jews — an army led by Jews — a judiciary led by Jews — a school system led by Jews.  I’m sorry. But after all these years — I went to Israel for the first time in 1968 — I still find all of these things to be amazing and wonderful!

With this sovereignty come power and responsibility and opportunity to positively affect the lives of Jewish and non-Jewish citizens living within its borders — and to bring more peace and less violence to the Middle East, and perhaps even beyond. As we think ahead about what Zionism ought to be in the 21st century, I suggest we look back 67 years to Israel’s Declaration of Independence.  For me, Zionism represents a partnership of the State of Israel, the citizens of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide — working hand in hand — to realize the vision of this magnificent document.

The declaration asserts that the State of Israel “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.” Further, it affirms that Israel extends its “hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness.” Peace. Shalom. Those of us who came of age in the era of the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars — or maybe earlier during the founding of the state — never once doubted Israel’s unequivocal commitment — its yearning — to achieve peace with its neighbors.

This is why I find a statistic from the 2013 Pew study on Jewish attitudes so alarming — and, frankly, disheartening.  It found that only 38% of the American Jewish community believes the Israeli government is seriously pursuing peace with the Palestinians; while 48% believe it has not been serious. By the way, it is worth recalling that there was a more politically balanced government in place at that time, compared to the current Israeli government.

Let me be clear about this. The democratically elected government of Israel must and will make all the decisions that directly affect their citizens’ lives. I’m reminded of this imperative whenever I hear about the sleepless nights my Israeli family and friends experience during their children’s’ army service. That said, we also should acknowledge that because of our integral relationship with Israel, Jews who live in the Diaspora are affected by those decisions as well.

So how do I come out in this equation? In my judgment, we ought to avoid offering detailed prescriptions for how to achieve peace with Israel’s neighbors.  But, in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, it is incumbent upon us to encourage Israel’s leaders to actively, courageously and visibly pursue peaceful relations with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world.  Once, a consensus existed in opposition to an independent Palestinian state. Now, most of us have come to realize that establishment of such a state is not merely an option. It is a core strategic necessity if Israel is to maintain its status as the democratic nation state of the Jewish people.  Should Israel move in this direction cautiously, taking into account all the security risks this would pose in a widely destabilized region? Absolutely!  But at the end of the day, political separation from millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza must be achieved.

What does the Declaration of Independence say about Israel’s Arab citizens? The state, it asserts, “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all…; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.”

This is a huge test for us. How do we — who for 2000 years lived as a minority within majority Christian and Muslim nations — treat the minority that lives within the borders of our Jewish state? The record here is mixed.  It is true that Israeli Arab citizens participate without any constraints in the political process; in fact, a mostly Arab party emerged from the last election as the third largest faction in the Knesset.

At the same time, the gap between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis in terms of education, government services, economic empowerment, and other indicators is quite large. The gap is narrowing, but there is a long way to go.  We should also be willing to examine public spaces and symbols with a view toward helping Israel’s Arab citizens feel more at home in the Jewish state.  That’s also 21st Century Zionism.

The Reut Institute, a leading Israeli think tank led by Gidi Grinstein, which has done seminal work on the BDS challenge, recently published an action alert with the following sentence: “A consistent and credible commitment of the government of Israel to ending control over the Palestinian population and to the integration and equality for Israel’s Arab citizens is essential for keeping BDS at bay.”

The Declaration of Independence guarantees “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”  Zionism in the 21st Century should be dedicated to ensuring that all Jews feel accepted and respected by the State of Israel — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, or Jews without any religious affiliation.  I understand that Israel’s political system, with its reliance on government coalition building, makes this task complicated. But second class status for non-Orthodox Jews must come to an end. By the way, some Orthodox Jews also suffer from inferior status.

21st Century Zionism should call for the elimination of poverty in Israel — yes, unfortunately it exists — and reduction in the disparity between the “haves” and “have nots.”  When thinking of the “have-nots,” I especially reflect on the challenge of social and economic integration of Ethiopians into Israel society.  We took great pride in bringing black Jews out of Africa to freedom – yet the task of creating a successful life for them in Israel remains unfinished.

21st Century Zionism seeks to protect the environment from degradation and pollution. We haven’t been given stewardship in our beloved Land of Israel after 2,000 years of Diaspora life to act irresponsibly toward its nature, water, air and land.

21st Century Zionism responds humanely to those who reach Israel seeking asylum from oppression in their native lands. I recognize that Israel is not capable of absorbing every person who crosses the border from Africa. But we who know what it means to be refugees from tyranny, without options for safe haven, cannot be callous to their plight.  Frankly, I cringe every time I hear Israeli officials use the word “infiltrators.”

21st Century Zionism responds to disasters in other parts of the world with medical and other forms of aid — as Israel has been doing — and it stands up in support of human rights and social justice for all people.  All of these things Israel can and will accomplish…not alone, but in sacred partnership with world Jewry. Together, we can do more.

I said at the beginning that mere survival is not our mission in the world.  That is certainly true. But Israel must possess the right of self-defense, to be able to use military force when required to defeat its enemies in an incredibly violent and volatile part of the world.

In this age of asymmetric warfare, some of Israel’s enemies not only target Israeli population centers. They use their own civilians as human shields in violation of fundamental international norms.  Israel is not alone in dealing with the dilemmas inherent in asymmetric warfare. US forces faced similar situations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Israel is justified in using the amount of force necessary, not more — and also not less. Here too, Israel, as the embodiment of Jewish values, has a great opportunity to demonstrate to the world that basic humanity need not be forfeited in the face of inhumane violence.

Put aside the hypocritical United Nations Human Rights Commission reports.  We recognize the Israeli army is not perfect. But it has an exemplary Code of Ethics, and has done an outstanding job of balancing the right of self-defense and protection of non-combatants on the other side. It should continue to write the guide book on this for all liberal democracies. This, too, is what it means to be a just and righteous people. This too is Zionism at its best.

In conclusion, from the dawn of the Zionist movement to 2015, Israel has come a long way and has achieved so much. It’s still a work in progress. After all, the modern state of Israel is only 67 years old. America was 67 years old in 1843.

Let me stress again — Zionism is not just about Israel. It is very much about us too. If we are to be effective partners in advancing our values here at home, in Israel and throughout the world, we have to build a strong, vital and innovative American Jewish community.

Many daunting challenges lie ahead for us — and especially for the younger generation you will be hearing about from the other speaker today.  We should not shy away from those challenges. On the contrary, we should embrace them.

Let’s not forget that over one hundred years ago, there was a Jewish visionary by the name of Theodore Herzl who famously said, Eem Tirzu, ain zo agadah — if you will it, it is no dream.

About the Author
Martin J. Raffel, until his retirement in 2014, served for 27 years as senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), an umbrella body with 16 national member organizations and over 120 locally based organizations (JCRCs). He was JCPA’s lead professional on matters related to Israel, world Jewry and international human rights. In 2009, Raffel took the lead in organizing the Israel Action Network, a joint strategic initiative of The Jewish Federations of North America and JCPA that seeks to combat the assault on Israel’s legitimacy. He currently serves on the Board Of Democratic Jewish Outreach PA.
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