This is the text of a column i wrote in the New Hampshire Jewish Reporter for December 2021. I am posting this today on Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day.
I have been a Zionist since I was a kid. I didn’t become an American Zionist, though, until I was 22. That was when I decided not to make aliyah and make my life in the State of Israel.
I was just back from a year in Israel as a college student. In Jerusalem, I was seeing myself a few years in the future as a Hebrew speaker, a soldier, a Masorti (Conservative) rabbi, a member of Oz V’shalom, the religious peace movement. I came home and couldn’t wait to go back.
Within a few weeks back on campus, immersed more than ever in my Hillel community, I realized how American I was feeling. I had the sudden realization that the only way I would fulfill my life was an American – an American Jew and probably an American rabbi. My great-grandparents came to America as a choice, and in flight from the czar’s tyranny. I was born American – but at the age of 22 I made my choice to be an American.
And my Zionism changed, from future Israeli to American Zionist.
I want to argue that an American Jewish Zionist is a Jew rooted in America. A first-class Zionist; not a consolation prize for not having the courage to make aliyah. A full partner in the project of Zionism. A partner with a specific and essential role that is obviously different from the role of Israelis.
My American Jewish Zionism is also a religious Jewish Zionism, and I realize that’s not the case for everyone reading. But I hope my concepts are useful regardless of whether that specific profile fits.
These are some of my fundamental tenets as an American Jewish Zionist. This thinking is hardly my own, and I owe more than anyone Rabbi Donniel Hartman, leader of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
Israel is the original and ongoing land of the Jewish people. The claim is religious and historical. It may be complicated in terms of Palestinians and their claim, but the claim still stands without compromise.
It’s a fascinating dimension of Jewish life for the past 2500 years that even during the times of a center in Eretz Yisrael, or a longing for it, there have been strong centers of Judaism outside the land. The fact that Jews like me affirmatively choose to live in America as members of Am Yisrael does not undermine Israel at all. One of our roles as American Zionists is to explain this to people around us – the uniqueness of Jewish peoplehood in Israel and America.
Zionism is a movement of moral and spiritual excellence. Rabbi Hartman put it this way in an address to the 2007 Reform movement biennial: “The birth of the State of Israel provided Judaism with an unprecedented opportunity of permeating and actively shaping all aspects of society. Whether in areas of political theory or economic policy, religious practice or ethical conduct, human rights or environmental care, hospitals or army bases, classrooms or courthouses - Israel is where Jewish values meet the road.”
American Jewish Zionists should see ourselves as partners in Zionist excellence. Rabbi Hartman made two points about this in his 2007 talk. First, American Jews have unique intellectual and cultural contributions to make to Israel. If Israel is a unique lab for Jewish values, the American Jewish experience has been a longer and better-established lab around issues of religious freedom, minority-majority relationships, and ideological pluralism.
It is because we are in America that Jewish thinkers and leaders have had to formulate a Torah of concern for human beings and not just for Jews. A Torah of responsibility for the whole earth and not just the Jewish community. It is because of America that totalitarianism and technology forced Jewish thinking to ask questions about the ethics of power and the limits on human innovation. In the past few decades, Israeli and American Jewish thinkers have indeed become thought partners and innovators around all of these issues.
Hence Rabbi Hartman’s second point about the role of American Jewish Zionists as partners. He charged each of us to find that aspect of Israel and the Israeli striving for moral excellence that inspires us. It could be climate, or bioethics, or human rights, or aging… chances are the answer is a moral passion you already have here. Learn about its unique Israeli shape. Connect to the people who drive it and work on it there. Join those projects and institutions in any way that’s available – by taking a role, by contributing or investing money, by advocacy.
It is as partners that we move from vicarious spectators, and from our own inferiority complex about not being Israeli, to an affirmative Jewish identity as American Zionists. Israel needs this kind of American Zionists. It’s a responsibility, and it’s work.
The responsibility and the work do not come without trouble. Indeed, Rabbi Hartman says what Israel and the Jewish people need from American Zionists often is for us to be “the troubled committed.” We need to feel issues that trouble Israelis as our own issues. Sometimes we need to be more troubled than many Israelis are, and bring that to them.
But commitment first, as American Zionists. The troubled-ness of the noncommitted, the non-Zionist, is not likely to make a difference on any contentious issue. Not in Israel and not here among the many people around us who purport to care about what happens in Israel but have no commitment to it.
Every year especially around Chanukkah and around the Fourth of July, I reflect on my decision to embrace America and American Zionism. And I resolve to do both of those better, with more follow-through and more clarity to myself and as a teacher. For those of us in New Hampshire who will always be American, consider becoming a truly American Zionist.