Suddenly, it all started to make sense as we were enjoying dinner at a tasty Ethiopian restaurant in the center of Tel Aviv with a long-time friend from Westfield and his companion, Rachel. As a teenager, Rachel had made aliyah with her family from Canada to Israel.
A light flicked on in my brain as she announced: “When I made aliyah to Israel 35 years ago, I was a Zionist. Then I lost my Zionism and now…I have found it again.”
“Where did you find it?” I asked.
Her response: “In the high tech, start-up companies that I work for.”
My wife and I had just completed a week of study, prayer, dialogue, and exploration with 330 Reform rabbis. The Central Conference of American Rabbis gathers in Israel every seven years to learn, to engage, and to reaffirm our commitment to the Jewish State.
This was perhaps my 35th visit. (My first was three years after the State was established and I’ve long since lost count.) This time I knew something was different, but I couldn’t put my finger on it until that moment.
A new Zionism has emerged. It is taking many forms, but most dramatically I discovered it in the start up companies that are transforming Israel into a high tech powerhouse and an engine for improving the quality of life for millions of people worldwide.
The most dramatic example we learned about is ReWalk, a commercial bionic walking-assistance system that uses powered leg attachments to enable paraplegics to stand upright, walk and climb stairs. ReWalk is transforming the lives of those paralyzed by stroke, falls, and spinal cord injuries.
Steak TzarTzar is a start-up that delivers affordable and sustainable grasshopper (yes, grasshopper!) protein. Their goal is to enable populations globally to enjoy high quality, environmentally friendly nutrients that can substitute for animal source protein.
Start-ups become global powerhouses. Consider waste-water reclamation. Israel is today a water and irrigation superpower, No. 1 in the world in recycling waste-water. Israel partners with Kenya to develop desalination on Kenya’s 500 km. coast along the Indian Ocean, and to support Kenya’s new Water for Schools Program to connect all its public schools to water. It all began with a start-up from the old Zionism days in the Negev. Netafim, the Israeli-developed drip-system, enables underdeveloped countries worldwide to irrigate fields with a fraction of the water normally used.
Old Zionism was built on an agriculture driven, kibbutz-based model that attracted pioneers who reclaimed the land and supplied Israel’s population with tomatoes, oranges, and cucumbers. Those early settlements provided a refuge for Jews persecuted in other lands and a security buffer against Israel’s regional enemies.
What motivated Rachel’s family and most olim (immigrants) from the West to settle in Israel has disappeared. Israel no longer secures her borders with settlements, no longer absorbs large numbers of olim, and no longer propels its economy with agriculture.
New Zionism is based on a global economy that rewards innovation in technology, especially in health care, environment, security, and communication (software for your voicemail was developed in Israel). Israeli brainpower and entrepreneurial spirit provide a new foundation for building a prosperous and hopefully secure Israel.
But two clouds hang heavy over this New Zionism and the Jewish State. One is the continuing occupation of the West Bank. The enduring conflict between Jews and Palestinians, and the failure to progress toward a two-state solution is a threat to the stability and democratic character of Israel. The other threat is the disproportionate leverage which the ultra-Orthodox exert in the government coalition resulting in relentless attacks on human values, pluralism, and progressive Judaism in Israel. These are the flaws in Israeli society which lead Israelis like Rachel to wonder if they can still embrace Zionism and which discourage American Jews – especially those under age 45 – from enthusiastic support of the Jewish State.
But here too, there is hope in the form of a New Zionism. Sixty-five percent of Israelis support a two-state solution and a whopping 86% support freedom of religion. This is reflected in the Israelis we spoke with who are committed to strengthening the state by curtailing settlement expansion and aggressively working for peace. Theirs is a vision which aligns with the democratic, pluralistic values of most American Jews.
In recent years, Reform Judaism has made enormous progress in Israel. Since 2009, our congregations have doubled to nearly 50. In November, Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem will ordain its one hundredth Israeli Reform rabbi. In a recent survey, 34% of Israeli Jews said that the Progressive movement is the Jewish movement they most identify with. (23% stated that they identify most with Orthodox Judaism).
At our convention, Reform rabbis prayed shacharit at the area of the Kotel which the Israeli government has officially designated to be operated by progressive Jews for egalitarian and pluralistic prayer. The Supreme Court has ruled that every public mikvah must be open to non-Orthodox Jews. A handful of Reform rabbis and synagogues now receive financial support from the government. These breakthroughs were unimaginable 20 years ago. Even civil marriage is a realistic possibility in the near future.
My friend Rachel is once again a Zionist. She can see that a growing number of Israelis are committed to democratic values, the end of the occupation, and pluralistic Judaism. She recognizes that with courageous, enlightened leadership, Israel can once again be a beacon of hope not only for its citizens, but for people in need throughout the world. She senses that most American Jews share her vision. She hopes – and so do I — that we will make our voices heard.
Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff is Rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, New Jersey, and past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.