Fragile Identities in Dialogue: What is Zionism today?

Jul 20, 2017 by

Fragile Identities in Dialogue: What is Zionism today?

I grew up in an age when the State of Israel was touted as the panacea for the lost American Jew. We celebrated Yom haAtzmaut as fervently as we celebrated Purim. The most exciting skits put on by our day camp counselors all ended up with the characters realizing they could just go to Israel. It was messaged, both subtly and not-so-subtly, that the greatest move we could make as a Jew was Aliyah. The State of Israel was a modern miracle. I do not remember the word Zionism crossing anyone’s lips, but I was certainly raised a Zionist.

When I ventured to Israel for the first time as a senior in highschool, I came back fully bought into the triumphalist Zionist narrative of the State of Israel as the culmination of all Jewish history; the reclamation of Jewish strength; the realization of Jewish sovereignty, and, soon, in vague whispers, the messiah. Then I went to college in Gambier, OH, and I found that there was another side to the story – a reality of oppression inflicted by the State of Israel upon the Palestinians that wasn’t justifiable.

In search of answers, I returned to Israel for my junior year abroad in 2004-2005, and now off the rails of the high school Israel-as-Disneyland experience, I was free to see a much broader spectrum of Israeli life. Busses exploded blocks from my dorm in Beer Sheva; religious extremists refused to leave their settlements in Gaza, threatening to tear apart the country; Bedouin were rounded up and forcibly settled in the Negev against their will, often in abject poverty. I returned from that experience confused and concerned. Why had I been taught this State was the answer to all my questions about Judaism? What even is Zionism, and do I want anything to do with it?

Dr. Joshua Holo, the dean of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, writes in the upcoming release from CCAR Press, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism, that Zionism “seeks to guarantee Israel’s existence and its Jewish and democratic character…(and) merely reflects the fact that Jews and Judaism are tightly bound up with the Land of Israel.”

Regardless of the inner conflict, the crack at the foundation of my relationship to Israel, I still feel bound up with the Land of Israel. After writing a graduate thesis on the development of secular Israeli identity, and spending my first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem, I am no longer surprised by the disappointments the government of Israel consistently bring me. It no longer hurts when my very Jewish identity is denied authenticity by that same government. My anger no longer burns so strongly at the continued and worsening oppression of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli government. It has all become old hat, and as predictable as the rest of the Jewish calendar.

Coming from the perspective of a Jewish educator, in her chapter from The Fragile Dialogue titled, “Educating for Ambiguity,” Rabbi Dr. Lisa Grant, writes, “Just as all would agree that God, Torah, and shabbat are integral to Jewish experience but that different Jews have different beliefs and practices, the same can be said about Israel. There is no one right way to engage with Israel, but engaging is an essential aspect of Jewish experience.”

Words are slippery creatures. Jewish tradition has spilled much ink arguing over the definition of one word or another. Once a word referring specifically to the lofty dream of a new nation State for the Jews, upon the accomplishment of this goal it has now spun into a multitude of different amalgamations: Religious Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, Classical Zionism, Anti-Zionism – and, as these writers discuss, Liberal Zionism.

I’m not sure if I’m a Liberal Zionist, but I am sure that no matter what I do, the State of Israel is as basic to my daily thoughts as Torah and the Jewish calendar. Although I no longer see the State of Israel as a miracle (just as I no longer think that Moses literally parted the Red Sea), I can not cut the ties that bind me to her. So I must join the conversation, and welcome all the voices, from Religious Zionists to Anti-Zionists, but also be willing to stand and put my own relationship with Israel into words.

During Purim we celebrate the story of the victory of the Jews of Persia over their oppressors, and also look critically, even ashamedly, at the end of the book of Esther in which these same Jews massacre 75,000 of their enemies. If we can manage this confusing and confounding tradition each year, we can celebrate the accomplishments within the contemporary State of Israel, as well as protest the moral failings we see in its government.

Andy Kahn is entering his fifth year as a rabbinic student at HUC-JIR. He has served as the CCAR Rabbinic Intern and is currently the Rabbinic Intern at East End Temple in New York City. 

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4 Comments

  1. Sandee Holleb

    So young and so wise! Thank you for putting my feelings into words. We’re lucky to have you at HUC.

    • Andy Kahn

      Thanks for your kind words, Sandee! I’m glad to have had the privilege to share my thoughts on this platform, and am doubly glad they rang true with you

  2. Rabbi Lawrence Englander

    Andy, thank you for your sensitive and insightful comments. I hope we’ll have a chance to meet some day!

    • Andy Kahn

      Thank you Rabbi Englander! I, too, hope we get a chance to meet.

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