Zionism is a modern movement that has employed age-old beliefs to support the urgent need for a refuge from antisemitism. Zionists today are obligated to move Israel to embody Jewish values of justice and peace.
Somewhere in third-century Babylonia, Amora’im (Talmudic rabbis) were discussing a mishnah from Tractate Megillah on the subject of sacrifices before and after the building of the permanent Temple in Jerusalem. (It was a seemingly theoretical discussion since the First Temple to which they were referring had been leveled 900 years earlier and the Second Temple more than 200 years before their time.) The mishnah had noted that the impermanent Mishkan/Tabernacle had stood in Shiloh and served as the de facto Temple until the “eternal” structure could be erected at a site of God’s eventual choosing. But after the Shiloh tabernacle was itself destroyed—and before the Solomonic Temple could be erected—numerous minor sacrifices were apparently allowed in private or local bamot (altars). Yet once the Temple had been brought into being, all sacrificial worship was centralized and consolidated there.
The important point in the mishnah was that from the moment when the First Temple was itself destroyed in 586 BCE, no sacrifices of any kind were re-permitted at local altars. In other words, the permanence of Solomon’s Temple had wiped away any possibility of future localized sacrifice. The existence of that Temple—referred to by these Talmudic rabbis (Amora’im) as nakhalah (“inheritance,” adapting the term from Deuteronomy)—had forever established the physical Jerusalem as the one and only center of Israelite-Judean religion. Jerusalem, and by extension the Land of Israel, was now the nakhalah.
Or was it? The Talmud is not so sure. Some Amora’im believed that the dedication of Solomon’s Temple had been intended “for all time.” Others seemed to think that the very same dedicatory ceremony had been meant for “its time,” but not necessarily (though still possibly) for “all time” as well.
Theoretical? Hardly. Here were rabbis trying to ascertain the place of Jerusalem—and I mean the actual Jerusalem of their own time, centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple—in the overall meaning of Jewish existence. Their argument may have been couched in arcane details of the defunct sacrificial cult, totally irrelevant to themselves except as a rich trove of metaphor for their own emerging avodah she-balev, or oral prayer. But the core of the mishnah’s puzzle—whether the Jerusalem Temple changed everything for all time or only for the time being—allowed them to rethink their own creatively tense relationship with the limping Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael.
The Amoraic rabbis who lived in the Land of Israel continued to claim that they themselves—and not their colleagues in Babylonia—were central authorities because of where they lived, even though it was the Babylonian community that was thriving. Throughout the Talmud, we can hear the Babylonian rabbis responding with respectfulness, if not always with agreement. For it was obvious to both the vibrant community in Babylonia and the decimated community in the Land of Israel that Jerusalem had become the place of Jewish memory, but no longer the locus of vital Jewish cultural generation. All hearts were in Zion, to paraphrase Judah Halevi, but the action was elsewhere.
I introduce this left-field example to show that the question of Jews’ relationship to the actual Jerusalem, and by extension to the entire Land of Israel, is old and very nuanced. It was not and is not obvious to everyone that our nakhalah is something we need to retrieve for ourselves in order to constitute Jewish sacred peoplehood in our age or any other.
Nonetheless—and every student of Jewish history or liturgy knows this to be true—the idea of a real Jerusalem persisted in our prayers, in our collective memory and lore, and especially in that strange theological politics of Messianic Zionism. That doctrine posits a miraculous appearance of God’s anointed who will literally resurrect our dead and replant us on the literal soil of Eretz Yisrael. I use the word “literal” purposely, for that is indeed the intention of this doctrine. The rabbis believed whatever they believed, but they claimed to believe that it was God’s intent for us to be reconstituted as a nation in the ancient homeland, just as the Torah itself had spelled out in Genesis 12 and elsewhere. I myself reject this notion, but I accept the fact that as myth it kept alive the palpable attachment of Jews not to a metaphoric Promised Land, but to a real one locatable on a map.
It was probably good for the Jews and for Judaism that we circumnavigated the globe of lands and cultures for 2,000 years. An incubated people in tiny Israel would have never developed the rich array of intellect, philosophy, music, cuisine, language, literature, costume and custom that it did in its many diasporas.
Still, those diasporas reinforced in insidious ways the built-in idea that we Jews are not of the places we are from, and that we would never be both of and from the same place until we were back in our own homeland of yore. Various diasporas tried mightily to evolve beyond this notion. None ultimately succeeded. Majority sovereignties would never allow it. Some got strikingly close, but no host culture ever fully embraced the Jewish people as “normal” or “native.”
We all know how this story plays out as antiquity morphed into the Middle Ages, which in turn led into the Enlightenment and Romanticism, and the eventual emergence of “nationalism” as a double-edged force in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Did the Jews of the world (and here, I am not sure I can include the uniquely situated Jews of North America) have a choice other than to latch onto nationalism as the best hope for salvaging their increasingly marginalized existence? Host countries were simply not going to reverse their anti-Semitic trends. Between czarist Russia at one pole and pre-Nazi Germany at the other, European Jewry was imperiled, if not doomed. Middle Eastern and North African Jewry were another matter, of course, but they, too, were experiencing the pressure of centuries of living as a subordinate culture without autonomous control over their own civil and human liberties.
Otherwise, Jewry could have gone on as it had been doing for, well, 2,000 years. Otherwise, there would have been no pressing need to consider “Zionism”—the uniquely Jewish version of nationalism whereby Jews in their incarnation as a national people would reclaim their ancient national territory and start to govern themselves from top to bottom, without dependency on any “host” nation other than their very selves. Otherwise, the tacitly radical idea of resurrecting landed Jewish nationhood would have been absurd, or at least unimaginable in any realistic sense.
But it wasn’t “otherwise.” It was what it was. The old joke about being given three days to learn how to live underwater had come true. Jews had run out of options. Yes, more than 2 million Jews had found their way to North America, which gave the lion’s share of these migrants respite and a chance for a renaissance of Jewish religio-cultural life. But that option was not open to most of the world’s Jews. It was severely limited before 1928. It was horrifically closed entirely thereafter, and remained so as the St. Louis and fellow rescue ships turned back from United States shores towards the port of Auschwitz.
No one needs to repeat the misnomer that the State of Israel was founded in response to Auschwitz. Adaraba, as our talmudic rabbis would say, au contraire, it was created so as to avoid Auschwitz. It was created by savvy Jews who saw in the emergent mechanism of nationalism a solution for themselves that elegantly (or maybe inelegantly) combined the immediate need for survival with the ancient and persistent ethos of nakhalah, of the literal homeland as the alt-neu locus of our people.
Many of us who have spent our careers creating centers of Jewish life everywhere but in Israel love to ponder the ruminations of figures like Ahad Ha’am, who at the dawn of modern Jewish nationalism posited a Jewish home in Eretz Yisrael that would radiate culture and inspiration to a far-flung Diaspora. He prophesied that the Diaspora would continue to persist—indeed, persist more successfully than ever—due to the very existence of the Jewish yishuv (community) in the literal homeland.
Ahad Ha’am’s vision seems wistfully benign in contrast to the militarized, industrialized, politicized state we actually created. The heart of his vision did, in fact, come true, and it is one of the reasons why Zionists like me cannot imagine living in a world without an independent Zion. That is to say, the cultural fountain that the State of Israel has become, primarily through the revival of Hebrew, but also through the flourishing of Jewish scholarship and the emergence of a relatable secular identity that is fully Jewish and fully modern, is something without which contemporary Jewish life is inconceivable.
I believe this is true both for Jews who for all intents and purposes have no perceived relationship with Israel whatsoever, as well as for Jews like me who speak Hebrew more or less fluently, who travel to Israel frequently, who know the geography and history of ancient and modern Israel, who have close ties to friends and family in Israel, and who feel most fully Jewish when we are physically there.
I know that many will disagree with this last point, but in my experience, it is fairly simple to make the case that every Diaspora Jew who enjoys the freedom from being encumbered by their Jewish identity, as well as the pleasure of accessing the output of the current Jewish spiritual and intellectual renaissance, owes that freedom and access to the fact of the State of Israel. I believe this is still the case, even as Israel’s reputation grows ever more tarnished by its failure to extricate itself from an occupation that is immoral by Jewish standards, though not necessarily (unfortunately) by the harsh rules of modern global morality.
Had the much-feared monster of hyper-anti-Semitism not actually come to be, the wisdom of having created a Jewish state might be called into question. Indeed, it is called into question by well-meaning and ill-meaning Jews alike every day.
But, as I said above, that “otherwise” did not happen as hoped. The worst became the true. In the main, the Jews of the world had (and have) nowhere else to go but home (or “home” in quotes, as many would have it). Individual Jews can go anywhere, but they cannot all go anywhere. And since they had to go to the Land of Israel, they might as well have used necessity as the mother of a fabulous invention: the re-invention of the Jewish imagination, based on the illustrious past, but extending far beyond anything the past could have conjured.
Does this argument from necessity in any way justify the appropriation of another people’s land? Of course not. Not politically, morally or existentially. The great Jewish migration to the ancient land is stained with a blotch not dissimilar to the stain of slavery that mars the history of the United States. It is the blotch on an otherwise great achievement of human civilization.
I say this, though, from my belief in the indisputable fact that the Jews are the indigenous claimants to the Land of Israel, notwithstanding the legitimate overlapping presence of another people who arrived millennia later, but who are deeply rooted in that same land.
The modern return to Zion is a complex story, however. Some of our Zionist sins are those committed in ignorance. Some are intentional, forgivable only through reconciliation and recompense. Some are, in retrospect, not sins we committed alone; and some turn out not to be sins at all. Our victims were often victimizers as well. We often misled Palestinians in our pursuit of territory and hegemony, but we were also the dupes of foreign powers (Britain and the Arab nations, and other culprits as well) that systematically created animosity between us and our would-be neighbors in what could have been not a binational state, perhaps, but certainly a binational project to give two nations independence from our exploiters. Perhaps we could have saved ourselves as Jews through Zionism and participated in history’s noblest experiment in coexistence. We achieved the first, which gives us the luxury of having this important self-flagellating conversation in the first place. We have hardly begun to realize the second.
Now that we have full Jewish control over our internal and external affairs in the Land, Israel persists in allowing a minority with a pre-Zionist mentality to exercise hegemony over the religious tone and practice of Israeli Judaism. If occupation contradicts the essential Zionist dream, so, too, does the ultra-Orthodox stranglehold on civil rights and choices. That stranglehold further distances many of us from our desired closeness to the Israel and all it offers.
And yet! Heroic individuals and organizations abound in Israel and in its occupied territories. Imaginative people are working tirelessly to invent new techniques of dialogue and interpersonal understanding. People infused with what we call in our modern era “Jewish values” are pioneering the uncharted territory of coexistence and equal rights. Groups are fighting tooth and nail for hiddush—or a renewed commitment to freedom of religion and equality. People are trying to correct the sins of the past, sins that cannot be unwritten but can be built upon for a greater future good. Today, our Zionism must include full-throttle monetary and political support for these efforts to make the State of Israel the beacon of justice that its Declaration of Independence envisions. A Zionism that does not center itself on that task is not Zionism, but mere survivalism.
A closing word about alternatives. I live on occupied land. My diverse city of White Plains, N.Y., sits on the former Quarropas, home of a branch of the Lenape Native Americans. Those peaceful folk lived here for 10,000 years until someone came along and displaced them—not because of an existential need for survival, but for a desire to expand their racist notions of human achievement. Virtually every American—Jew or other—who argues against the existence of Israel on the grounds that it occupies someone else’s land is someone who gives no thought to the ugly fact that he or she him/herself lives on stolen terrain. The conscientious among us wring our hands about this from time to time, but I see no one abandoning their home in Cleveland or Manhattan on their way to a rally to protest Israel’s right to exist. I do not expect anyone to uproot their life because of this realization, but I think that honesty calls us to put our grievances in context.
The Jewish people in our time really had no choice but to go to what we had always called the Land of Israel since long before those sages in Babylonia debated whether the land was a sine qua non of our continued covenantal identity. We still have no choice. We went there in ways that were right, but also in ways that were wrong. We went there in wrong ways of our own sinful choosing, and in wrong ways thrust upon us by circumstances beyond our best intentions to control. We went beyond the borders granted to us by the international community, though again not by our own choosing. We settled those new lands illegally in many instances, and we continue to wrestle with ourselves about how, and whether, to extricate ourselves from that occupation’s suffocating morass.
In the meantime, we hold contradictory truths in our heads. We are occupiers who have before us solutions that could create a modicum of justice for ourselves and our neighbors. Simultaneously, we are the creators and beneficiaries of a living Judaism that no previous generation could have dreamed of, and we would be fools to think we could ever again be content to return to the limited Jewish civilization that preceded the birth of modern Israel. Modern Israel defines and buttresses world Jewry, and world Jewry embraces and supports modern Israel. To argue otherwise is to allow sophistry and cleverness to overshadow the obvious truth before our eyes.
So what would present-day Amora’im conclude about that Mishnah? They would say “yes—and.”
“Yes” we must have as our goal a physical return to a literal eternal Zion, without which we cannot understand ourselves as the Jewish people. “And” we must contribute to those societies wherever we find ourselves in the world, always drawing on our essential Jewishness and our unflagging Zionist identity to bring our special Jewish values to bear on the great conversation that is larger than any Judaism, bigger than any human enterprise, grander than anything but the totality of life itself.