Zionism: The great Jewish ethical project

The author claims, as Israel reaches a milestone in her modern history, that "Religious Zionism is fundamentally flawed, directionless, and even broken in many ways."

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

OpEds טקס הגיוס של השוטרים הסרוגים
טקס הגיוס של השוטרים הסרוגים

When I was a younger man living in Efrat, I stood with around 130,000 of my brothers and sisters to create a human chain stretching from Jerusalem to Gaza. That day, we were protesting the disengagement plan from Gaza, for we knew that when the Israeli Defense Forces left Gaza, their absence would only lead to extreme radicalization of those living in the strip (which proved correct). Our purpose that day was to spread a message of hope, peace, and solidarity. For my Jewish identity, this event was formative. It was essential. It was a moment of realization and purpose. Yet, for too long, the focus by Jewish religious communities has been on the land of Israel, rather than the moral purpose of Israel. At this moment, seven decades out from the miraculous formation of Israel’s modern state, we are overdue to solidify the real Jewish moral priority that is indispensably linked to Zionism. This is the Israel and the Zionism we want to see in the world today.

I’m proud to be an unabashed Religious Zionist. For me, Zionism is part of the great challenge to create a just state guided by timeless Jewish values. But the actualization of the Zionist vision is not fulfilled merely through achieving and maintaining sovereignty. That is, of course necessary but a low bar nonetheless. Rather, it is by building a society on ideals that transcends borders and bottom lines that makes Israel a global beacon of hope and inspiration. The midrash refers to Jerusalem as ir tzedek, City of Righteousness, since the city should ideally serve as an ohr lagoyim, a Light to Other Nations. When Jews—no matter where they reside—do not meet the high ethical standards intrinsic in the Zionist paradigm, we collectively feel pained and suffer the consequences together.

And right now, sadly, as Israel reaches a milestone in her modern history, Religious Zionism is fundamentally flawed, directionless, and even broken in many ways. As factions fall into their corners of disconnection, the time is right to re-explore and re-connect to the foundations of Religious Zionism as a model for social justice and a model for a just state. The world demands, unfairly, that we should operate by a higher standard, but rather than merely dismiss that critique, we should indeed seek to lead by the highest moral standard and meet the highest prophetic moral standard.

But, at the same time, it’s vital to recognize that the Zionism at the core of Israel’s unique identity is stagnating as a mechanism to further and foster justice. And, as a result, we are losing enthusiastic progressive Zionists within Israel and in the Diaspora. How do we move the centrality of social justice ethics back to the heart of the Zionist experiment? How do we engage those who many believe can no longer be engaged in the Zionist enterprise?

The answer is simple: the call to justice, liberty, and dignity. In this respect, we progress beyond the ultra-nationalistic, land-idolatry, distortion of Zionism and instead we return to build off the broad-based ethos of Herzl’s vision of a protective nation for a susceptible people. Indeed, whenever negative news regarding Israel comes across my screen, I stop and pause to reflect on the most telling line of Israel’s Declaration  of Independence, which states that Israel “[Fosters] the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or
Lamentably, we are rapidly losing young American Jews to the allure of anti-Zionist movements on college campuses ...
sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…” The notion of Israel itself is its strongest asset to its mission of justice and equity in the world. We should be proud of our ability to grow trees, our successful technology sector, and the strength of the military but our most central goal should be our highest commitment to Jewish values and ethics. Rather than cheer proudly with an exhausted mantra that we’re the most ethical country, we should keep striving for moral growth. And as Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz says: “If you think you have made it, you are lost.”

Lamentably, we are rapidly losing young American Jews to the allure of anti-Zionist movements on college campuses because of myopic partisans who say “Good riddance to those liberals in the Diaspora. What does it matter what they think?” If there is going to be a vibrant Jewish future, then the health of Jewish discourse must be robust, honest, and collaborative. Indeed, Maimonides explains that the purpose of halakhah is to perfect the body and the soul. In Platonic parlance, by “well-being of the body,” he means the creation of the just state; by “well-being of the soul,” he means perfection of the mind. He continues to explain that the primary purpose of Jewish law and our main priority must be to create the just state, “because the well-being of the soul can only be obtained after that of the body has been secured” (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:27). As an American living many thousand miles away from Israel, I feel a deep responsibility to bring the culture of tolerance, diversity, and civic engagement to Israel to strengthen the commitments there. But, as a believer in Zionism’s vision, I also strongly feel that only in our own land can Jews fully actualize, in a sustainable and methodical manner, the Jewish values of tzedakah, mishpat, rachamim, and chesed. As stewards of a secure homeland, we are responsible for these values. And in every way, even if we are separated by oceans or aspirations, we are watched. We have no excuses; only we control Israel’s destiny.

And, of course, we must never forget, that Israel as a construct and an ideal, is built on the palace of Torah and that Torah must always carry more weight than mere nationalistic ideologies. Indeed, it is the shared commitment to make Torah ethics manifest in our time that shapes the Zionism I long to see restored. While Israel is excelling in many areas—including medical technology, animal welfare, and forming just courts —we must also be honest about where Israel is falling short and losing respect. When we’re honest about the alienating treatment of liberal non-Orthodox diaspora Jews, the treatment of Sephardic Jews in Israel, the treatment of Palestinians, the plans to deport thousands of African refugees, treatment of Israelis living below the poverty line, we’ll see that Israel, and Jews, are falling short of our moral excellence. We need not get immediately defensive and curse at those among us who, with trepidation, point out these flaws. We continue to love the earthly Israel and the heavenly Israel like a family member who we would never separate with even as we struggle together.

While an ideal Israel has a long way to go to create model citizens that will inspire the world, the Zionist dream endures. We should be proud of how much progress has been accomplished in only seventy short years. The progressive philosophy that built modern Israel is rapidly being forgotten. It is time to restore this dream to its former glory. But, before we can do so, there is much more important work we have to do together to ensure that Israel is the best it can be. The responsibility for any committed Zionist is to entangle tikkun medinah (healing of state) with tikkun olam (healing of world). It is incumbent upon Zionists of all stripes and persuasions to do the critical work of cultivating the moral and spiritual progress within the country and to ensure that Israel radiates its inherent ethical promise back into the world.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is a member of the Open Orthodoxy movement. He is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Founder and President of YATOM, and the author of thirteen books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named him one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews..