Yes, Still Zionist: Thoughts for Yom Ha’Atzmaut, 2024

I love visiting cemeteries. I know, it seems morbid. 

But I find it life-affirming to stand before matzevot – monuments inscribed with people’s names, when they lived, messages from loved ones. Monuments tell interlocking stories of lives and loves: she was named for her grandmother; he fought in World War II; that couple lost one young child but had two others. 

Among my favorite spots in Tel Aviv is the Old Cemetery on Trumpeldor Street. In fact, the cemetery is seven years older than Tel Aviv itself. When it opened, during a 1902 cholera epidemic, the point was to keep infected bodies far from Jaffa’s population. Now it sits in the center of a thriving city. 

At Trumpeldor I visit Zionist icons like Arlozoroff, Dizengoff and Ahad Ha’Am, (although not Trumpeldor himself, who is buried at Kfar Giladi); writers like Bialik, Tchernikovsky, and Brenner; and the voices of classic Hebrew song, Shoshana Damari and Arik Einstein. 

But even more gripping than the famous people are the relatively unknown, whose matzevot tell the most important story of the modern Jewish People. A common gravestone format inscribes a name, a birthdate and birthplace; a date of immigration to the Holy Land; a death date. He was born in Galicia in 1892; made aliyah in 1913; died in 1974, when a young Itzhak Rabin was the new prime minister of the country that had just survived the Yom Kippur War. 

At those graves, I feel awestruck. These people left a Jewish Eastern Europe that was just emerging from a very long Middle Ages. They came to a new Jewish settlement in a homeland with a legendary past and a promising future, but with almost no present to speak of.

They laid the groundwork for a society that would revive an ancient language that would incubate a modern culture. People who were helpless during pogroms in Kishinev and Warsaw, would now, with vision and resolve, build the capacity to gather their brothers and sisters from every corner of the world and defend them when they got there. 

Thanks to the national project advanced by these permanent residents of Trumpeldor Street, a new Jewish society existed that would welcome the she’erit hapleita, the refugee remnant who survived the Nazis, build them houses, feed them, and give them something to live for. 

This renewed society also gave a new home to millions fleeing Islamic countries. Was there bigotry and discrimination? Like every other human society, Israel has failures to match its successes. But how many Jews do you know who are sorry their ancestors ever left Sanaa, Fez or Baghdad? And how many celebrated the opportunity to build modern Israel?

Israel, and we who love her, are in crisis. You heard it here last. 

As I begin writing this message on Yom HaZikkaron/Memorial Day, we grieve for more than 1,000 civilians and more than 700 IDF soldiers. In this bloody year, our violent enemies proved more capable than we guessed. Our rhetorical enemies think our violent enemies are totally awesome. The current Israeli government, in my humble opinion, is not up to its task. But at least we can always rely on the IDF, right? 

These are all pressing worries. But I am equally concerned about the intellectual and spiritual infrastructure of our Zionism. What does Medinat Israel mean to us today? What is it likely to mean in the future? Why should it matter to us who don’t live there? What can we still believe in? 

The crisis of Zionism grows more urgent day by day. In this terrible year, Israelis and Jews have suffered so much pain and have caused so much misery. There is no easy way to say that, but it is true and cannot be ignored. The war against Hamas is, I believe, absolutely necessary. But let’s not pretend. Honest Zionism must admit that in recent months Israel has inflicted vast suffering on an already miserable people. It better be worth it.

Put those horrors together with the radicalism of “post-colonial” academia, and it has become hard to affirm Zionism proudly, especially for young people. In our own neighborhood we heard vile chants. The threat of physical attack against Jews in New York is surely exaggerated, but no one should be sanguine or naive when protesters on Broadway call for burning Tel Aviv, carry signs that say Jews at Columbia are “al-Qasm’s next targets,” or vow “there is only one solution/intifada revolution.” 

Still, I think the intellectual assault on Israel supporters is a greater threat than physical assault. In America today, Zionism often is considered dubious at best, straight-up racist and supremacist at worst. In the words of one of the student leaders at Columbia, it is “an ideology that necessitates the genocide of the Palestinian people.”

That’s wrong, but we need to know why. If American Jews are to remain part of the Jewish national project – and I know some in our community do not share that commitment – we need adequate responses to those challenges. We have to believe our own stories and look ourselves in the mirror when we do. I fear some of us may whisper nervously to ourselves: “I know that Israel is kind of indefensible, but these are my people, so I guess I can make my peace with Jewish supremacy.” Listen, a measure of tribalism – standing up for your people, no matter what – is also necessary. But it’s insufficient. You need something more reliable to believe in. 

As Ansche Chesed’s rabbi, I feel it is part of my job to help build something better. So on Yom HaAtzmaut 2024, I want to tell you a few things I believe in.

As befits a day of national celebration, I will accentuate the positive. I won’t polemicize against Israel’s opponents, at least not more than the bare minimum. And I won’t try to analyze the conduct of the war. I’m not qualified to assess Israel’s better and worse options. No one wants tens of thousands of civilian Palestinian deaths. But I also hope no one wants Israel to resign itself helplessly to Hamas’ tunnel network and its determination to attack again. What’s ethical about that?

So permit me to share why, despite many dark clouds, I believe in Israel and think Zionism remains vital to 21st century Judaism. 

I Believe in Peoplehood:

Since the destruction of the Temple, 2,000 years ago, the two most important events in the entire history of the Jewish people happened around the middle of the 20th Christian century: the destruction of European Jewry and the establishment of the Jewish state. 

Judaism’s rich web of ideas, stories, norms and rites is more than the Shoah and Zionism. But Judaism is not a subject for a laboratory or library. No matter how much Torah you know or how much tradition fills your life, you understand nothing about this faith and culture if you are disconnected from Am Israel. Jews should find the meaning of our individual lives in our people’s collective life, with all its joys and sorrows. 

This means that, although we sometimes obsess unhealthily over the Shoah, the greater danger would be to ignore its unspeakable awfulness. I don’t see how a modern Jew could just go one practicing or studying without confronting the challenges the Holocaust poses.

And on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, I celebrate that other epochal moment: the kibbutz galuyot, the in-gathering of the exiles to the ancient homeland and the creation of a modern Jewish society, including, for the first time in more than 2,000 years, political sovereignty and military might. I don’t see how a modern Jew could ignore the social, ethical, and religious possibilities – and challenges – Zionism poses. 

Let me be clear: I do not believe there is a single kosher approach to Israel and that everything else is treif or disloyal. I respect people whose principled universalism prompts them to believe that ethnic and religious nationalism is wrong in Ireland, wrong in India, wrong in Iraq, and wrong in Israel. That is a serious objection we Zionists must answer. 

Here is my reply: Am Israel Hai. The People of Israel lives. And Zionism is its national liberation. Often in our history, we Jews were second-class citizens. And that’s when we were lucky: often we were third- and fourth-class and rarely citizens. In modern Medinat Israel, Am Israel attained komemiyut [Lev. 26.13], literally “standing tall” or more figuratively, self-determining dignity.

Universalism is a necessary component of human ethics. All people are equal and all peoples are equal. But universalism is not the only good. Particularism and distinctiveness are also vital. It would be distorting – indeed, it would scrub away much that is precious in humanity – to conclude that all nations should imitate the United States and be completely neutral with respect to ethnicity and religion. America is not the only model. 

We social primates treasure our group identities, not only as a source of private meaning, but as the lifeblood of a whole society. To repeat: individual Jewish lives are inextricable from the collective of Am Israel. And since a significant plurality of Jews, probably soon to be a majority, live in Israel, even we who are not Israeli citizens are woven into that national Jewish project. 

I Believe in National Renewal:

In that self-determined, dignified Jewish society, our people has seen its finest hours. At the top of the list – which I consider the most religiously significant element in modern Jewish history – is the fact that Am Israel responded to its worst devastation with its most ennobling rebuilding. 

From the depths of the Shoah and its aftermath, Am Israel responded with tehiyat hametim, a real-life resurrection of the dead. With one of every three Jews on earth murdered – 90 percent of Polish Jews, 90 percent of the Jews of Salonika, the “queen city of Sefarad,” 70 percent of Hungarian Jews – the Jewish people could have said, in despair, like the dry bones of Ezekiel 37, “our hope is lost. We are cut off.” 

Instead, the people of infinite hope revived itself. Thanks to earlier Zionists, some escaped Europe before the war and were spared the worst fates, even as America and Canada shut their doors to desperate Jews. After the war, the surviving refugees had a place to go and – more importantly – something to live for. Literally, they crawled out of concentration camps and built a new world. Where did they find the strength and the hope? Their resilience is our people’s greatest life-affirming testament. “You are my witnesses, says Hashem, and I am God [Isaiah 43.12].” 

After them came the Jews of the Islamic world. Our people lived in Egypt, Syria and Iraq from biblical times. And within a few years those societies became Jew-free. Most weren’t subject to the Nazis – although some North Africans were – but often it was not pretty. Around one-third of Yemenite Jews moved to the Land of Israel already in the early 20th century, to escape forced conversion. And don’t forget the farhood, “mob violence,” in Baghdad on Shavuot, 1941, in which 100 Jews were killed, more than 1,000 injured and 900 homes destroyed. Their descendants are the majority of Israelis.

After them came Jews from the Soviet bloc, who endured severe state persecution that bleached their Hebrew, their faith, their culture out of them, all while stamping their passports as members of our despised people.

After them came Ethiopian Jews – whose culture and traditions were separated from most of their fellow Jews for centuries. They trekked on foot through deserts to escape famine and war, where they were rescued in daring airlifts by the IDF. Who else would have lifted a finger for vulnerable Africans? Ask the Rwandans.

On Yom Ha’Atzmaut, ask yourself: what would Am Israel be today if not for Israel? Where would we have lived? Would we have endured amid such hostile and inhospitable conditions? Who but us cared about us. 

I know admirable, ethical people who oppose Zionism. Yes, it is possible to be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic. But it’s a little hard. Because opposing the Jewish national collective in its ancient homeland comes close to implying that the Ethopians should have stayed put. The Soviets should have bucked up and endured the gulag. Yemenites should have converted. Those escaping the Nazis in 1937 should have just tried a little harder to reach Canada. And after the war, Shoah survivors should have built new homes in graveyards. 

That kind of anti-Zionism comes awfully close to saying – as was heard at Columbia – “Jews back to Poland.” Well, they don’t want us there. They certainly don’t want us back in Iraq. So it ends up coming awfully close to saying: Don’t be here. Don’t be there. Don’t be at all.  

Our long history, and especially what befell us under fascists and communists in the last 100 years, warrants that Am Israel has its own national home in which to thrive.

I Believe in Hebrew:

The Zionist writer Ahad Ha’am (whom I visit on Trumpeldor Street) was no fan of Herzl. He claimed ungenerously that the assimilated Viennese Herzl, who knew almost no Hebrew, cared only about the “problem of the Jews,” meaning their political safety, ignoring the “problem of Judaism.” How could modern Jews renew culture? In Ahad Ha’am’s cultural Zionism, he (in)famously declared that one university mattered more than 100 farms. 

In my humble opinion, he was at least half right. And if it were not for two world wars and persecution, he might have been 75 percent right. Sadly, you can’t re-run history. Those terrible things happened, and in fact Israel needed an army and the capacity to absorb mass immigration. 

Still, I do not think of Israel primarily as a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution. I consider it a cultural power plant, unleashing energy lying in potential in our language and our sources. 

Thank God for the renewal of Hebrew. For the first time since the 8th century BCE, children grow up with Hebrew as their mother tongue. Knowing Hebrew facilitates deep Jewish learning for everyone. Hebrew brings history to the present. Hebrew permitted Gershom Scholem’s scholarship and Rachel the Poet’s sublime lyrics and Amichai’s secular liturgy, and the novels of Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua  and let’s not forget our friend Ruby Namdar. 

Thanks to Hebrew, every Israeli can engage the sacred and secular volumes on the Jewish bookshelf, which in turn enables them to draw on deep Jewish well-springs throughout their lives. Americans may not understand how this enriches Israeli Judaism, both observant and secular, such as the pop musicians [Meir Banai, Berry Sakharov] who make hits out of medieval poetry. Another illustrative example: the TV program She’elah u’Teshuvah/”Question & Answer,” or more idiomatically “Heterodoxy & Repentance,” in which one newly religious and one formerly religious person discuss Bible texts and their own Jewish commitments. In these conversations modern Jewish meaning unfolds.

Earlier this year, a popular American left-wing Substacker, Freddie deBoer, posted an unbelievably superficial anti-Zionist argument. Israel is not just an ethnic supremacy, he claimed, but he also thinks Israelis should jump ship. “America is Zion,” he wrote. “The United States is a place of prosperity and safety for Jews” who should move here because – in addition to easing the national conflict – they would have greater economic and educational attainment and less violent conflict. What could possibly be better than affluence and fancy degrees?

Yeah, well. There are some unique cultural riches accessible only in Israel.

I’ve made my life in American Judaism. There is plenty we should be proud of. We contribute to world Jewish culture and even to Israeli Jewish culture. But most of us read the Torah in translation, which Bialik described as kissing your beloved through a veil. How can we participate in it most fully?

Judaism’s natural habitat is Hebrew.  We may justly argue about the problems of political Zionism and nationalism. But where would modern Judaism be without a Hebrew-speaking society? Cultural Zionism is the only game in town.

I Believe in Sharing:

Even in this small land there is enough space for Israeli Jews and Palestinians. We must share. A Jewish state will be fully legitimate when it makes room for Palestinian national aspirations. Partition was the correct path in 1947. I am glad Zionists accepted it then. It remained correct in 1967. It remained correct at Camp David in 2000. And – though it is inconceivably difficult today – it remains the only correct path.

This is not the format for analyzing the history of our conflict and its political dimensions, and I’m not the person to do it. You can read historians and political experts on your own. Here is one helpful bon mot, however. 

Albert Aghazarian, a Jerusalem Armenian-Palestinian, memorably summed up our national conflict this way: Zionism is the story of a person who jumped out of a burning building and landed on another person’s head. I was fleeing a burning building, said the first. But you landed on my head, said the second.  

I find Aghazarian’s description moving and open-hearted (though he was no Zionist). Israeli and Palestinians are locked in a tragic cycle of victimization, hostility and mutual incomprehension. We must break the cycle and share the land. 

I can understand – without agreeing – why Palestinians think Israeli Jews are interlopers who should never have come in the first place and should leave now. I can understand – without agreeing – why they think decades of Palestinian suffering vitiate Israeli legitimacy. But this is futile. Israeli Jews are not leaving. 

I can understand why Palestinians considered partition unjust in 1947. But I hope they regret that error. I hope they regret doubling down on that decision in 1967. Over the last 30 years, the PLO took partial steps to changing paths; Hamas never has. When I hear pro-Palestinian Americans chant “we don’t want no two states/we want all of 48,” I despair. This path will liberate no one. It will be naqbas forever. But I am not Palestinian, so I am not responsible for their bad choices. 

I do feel responsibility for my people’s bad choices. Some of you will point out, correctly, that Israel has not made its own hard choices of how to share the land. Too many nationalist extremists occupy the territories. Too many occupy senior ministerial jobs.  Some may say I’m feeding myself a comforting illusion. Some will argue that Israel is no longer the society willing to divide the holy land, if it ever really was.

I cannot accept that fatalism. There is no apologizing for Jewish fascists and racists. They must be defeated at the polls and held legally responsible for their violence. Vigilantes belong behind bars. But the difficulty of attaining this transformation only demonstrates how urgently we need it. We must fight harder. Invest. Support. Argue. Vote. Because there is only one answer to the scourge of illiberal Zionism: it is ethical Zionism. At stake is the future of the Jewish people. Surrendering is not an option. That fight will always be worth having. 

I Believe in Looking Generously:

Let me conclude with a short passage from the great Shai Agnon’s 1939 novel A Guest for the Night, in which a Jerusalem writer visits his sad old home town in Poland, still diminished by World War I. This character – an apparent stand-in for Agnon himself – meets a rabbi who bemoans how young Zionist immigrants to Palestine are infamously irreligious. The Agnonian narrator replies with a short homily:

“A verse came to my mind: ‘See the good of Jerusalem all the days of your life.’ [Psalms 128.5] The word see is in the imperative. It is a person’s duty to see all the good of Jerusalem, and not its shortcomings, God forbid. On Shabbat, Jews set aside their work and dress in their finery. Those who can study Mishna, do that. Those who can read the Bible do that. Those who cannot, stroll with their families and speak the Holy Tongue. With their own lives, they fulfill the Talmudic teaching [Ketubot 111a]: ‘All who walk four cubits in the Land of Israel and speak the Holy Tongue are assured of life in the world to come.’” (Agnon added the part about speaking Hebrew, which does not appear in the Talmud.)

There are no shortage of reasons to judge Israel harshly and to point out its failings. On this Yom Ha’Atzmaut, I urge us to see the good of Jerusalem, all the days of our lives. 

To the extent we can rejoice, on this Yom Ha’Atzmaut, I wish you a hag sameach.