What it Means to be a Zionist, and Love Israel: Lessons from America

By Andrew Rehfeld

The decisions of the Israeli government concerning the conversion and prayer at the Kotel have been difficult for many Jews in the Diaspora to understand. For others, the current Israeli administration has long been heading in a direction that is deeply concerning. Even for those who support the political direction of Israel, the question has to be asked: how do we understand our support for Israel in a manner that does not require us to endorse the decisions of any one of its leaders?

The question itself is a reflection of the times we live in. The very statement “I love Israel” or “I am a Zionist” can sometimes be interpreted as “I fully support the government and its leadership.” The statements thus tend to invoke xenophobic images and blind patriotism, leaving little room for those who are deeply committed to the Jewish state to stand up, declare themselves lovers of the Jewish State, and forcefully object to the direction of the country as Zionists.

I believe we have lost something valuable about our relationship with Israel – we just don’t have a shared story of what it means to be a Zionist and support Israel without referring to the current government. Let me explain by reference to America.

My deep love of America is an expression of my feelings about the values upon which it stands, based on the principles and moral commitments upon which it was founded, and the ideals that made the nation what it is and what it is striving to be. In my understanding this means a commitment to the ideals of individualism (what Tocqueville described as “self-interest properly understood”), freedom, and a certain minimalist view of justice. It means respecting the rule of law and supporting the rights as articulated in the U.S. Constitution that protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority, especially when expressed through the power of the state.

But loving America does not mean loving the political leadership that happens to be elected from time to time. Loving America does not require loving the laws that its lawmakers make, or the policy that its leadership pursues. Loving America does not require that we love President George Bush or President Barack Obama, nor does it require that we endorse Obamacare or Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.

And when people equate any of these things with love of the nation itself, our advocacy can become xenophobic and dangerous.

This is not particularly controversial. Understanding that promoting the values upon which a nation is founded is different from supporting the government or the policies that it enacts is essential for healthy civil discourse.

And what about Israel?

When American Jews turn to Israel, there is a disconnect. The phrase “I love Israel” or “I am a Zionist” sadly now implies an endorsement of a particular politician or policy. And that is a huge loss. A loss that may explain part of why a new generation finds itself alienated from actively engaging the Jewish State on the very basis of their disagreement with its current political direction.

If we have any hope of finding common ground we must reject the view that loving Israel requires the support of any particular politician, policy or law. Love of Israel does not require that we support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or the leaders of any particular opposition party. Love of Israel does not require us to support Israel’s policies in the West Bank or its extensive social welfare system.

Why is it so difficult for us to maintain the distinction between loving Israel’s core values and loving its leadership, policy and laws? Why do we continue to erect boundaries to discourse – explicitly and implicit – that keep non-establishment views off the agenda? Why do we teach our students to hear only one side of the story so that increasingly they feel betrayed when they learn the complexity within? And why do some mainstream Jewish organizations go so far as to restrict debate by groups that take positions with which they disagree?

Some of it may be fear and a deep feeling that Israel is constantly under attack and in need of protection. That is understandable given our people’s history. But I think the real challenge is a challenge of ideas: I believe that many American Jews just don’t have a clear story about what it means to love Israel based on its core values, apart from supporting the government.

For us to foster a culture in which we can unabashedly “love” Israel, and unabashedly be committed to Zionism and the Jewish State, we need to explain first what fundamental values Israel embodies, what fundamental principles ground the existence of the state – without reference to any particular person or party – and reinforce them even as we disagree about how any particular government, policy or individual pursues those values backed by the power of the state.

Just like we do in America.

So let me reflect on this personally. For me, the reason I love Israel, the reason that I stand committed to its existence, the reason I am proud to call myself a Zionist is to pursue what I see as these three core values.

First, I am committed to Israel because I believe that a Jewish state is necessary for the security and safety of the Jewish people. A Jewish state can stand up to governments that persecute Jews and their communities. One can only wonder what would have happened had Israel been a vital Jewish nation before 1930. But we know what happened to Jews in Arab nations whose governments forcibly removed them, evicted them from the lands they were on after 1948: they had a refuge because there was a Jewish State. Having a Jewish State can provide some protection of life and culture for all Jews around the world.

The second reason I am committed to Israel is that it is essential for the flourishing of Jewish culture in all of its diversity, from secular humanism to religious orthodoxy, a culture that is both intrinsically and instrumentally valuable.

Securing a vibrant Jewish culture that celebrates Shabbat (whether around the table, in shul or on the beach in Tel Aviv), that speaks a common and distinct language, that creates its own art forms, that builds educational institutions dedicated to the study of its literature (religious and otherwise), and that rejoices in the ebbs and flows of a shared calendar, has created some of the most innovative developments in Jewish life in two millennia. While flourishing can and does happen in densely populated religious communities in the Diaspora, the ability to share a truly pluralistic culture that extends into the secular world, is simply more difficult and perhaps even no longer possible in the modern world.

Finally I believe that loving Israel one must also embrace the aspirations towards universal human rights and justice upon which the Zionist cause was based, such that Israel may be a light unto the nations. Just as our American values are expressed in its founding documents, these principles in Israel may be found best articulated in its own Declaration of Independence and its “basic laws.” I can do no better than to quote from the text of the declaration itself:

“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster 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 sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

The founders of the state that I am committed to supporting, the state that I am proud to say I love, the state to which I would happily attest to being a Zionist for, is a state that aspires to all three of these principles:

  • the security of the Jewish people;
  • the flourishing of Jewish culture;
  • the promotion of principles of universal justice and human rights.

Does Israel today live up to these three principles? No it does not, nor has it ever, nor has any nation lived up to its own ideals. These are aspirational principles, things we aspire to achieve. Sometimes Israel – like other nations – comes closer than at other times. But wouldn’t we say the same thing about America? America and Israel are going through some tough, even dangerous times right now relative to their aspirations. But I will certainly not back down or run from my commitments to either simply because they are not realized.

It is precisely when a nation veers far from its own ideals that we must make a renewed commitment to articulate the values upon which that nation stands. We must resist the temptation to ignore political and policy complexity, and rather, transparently embrace those challenges and the diverse dialogue that goes with it. We lose the ability to be credible leaders if we don’t. The future of our community’s engagement with Israel may depend on it.

Andrew Rehfeld is President and CEO, Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in the St. Louis Jewish Light, June 28, 2017: “What it means to love Israel: let’s start with America.”