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Are You a Zionist?

Are You a Zionist?

Before you vote in the World Zionist Congress (WZO) elections, the organizers want to know: "Are you a Zionist?"

There’s a joke in Hebrew in which a pollster asks a homeless person, a cult member, and a Zionist the same question: "What is your opinion of the meat shortage?" The homeless person asks, "I'm sorry, but what do you mean by 'meat'?" The cult member responds, "Forgive me, but what do you mean by an 'opinion'?" The Zionist angrily raises his voice to the pollster, asking, "What the hell does 'excuse me' mean?"

It's funnier in Hebrew. But it tells the truth that Zionists can be tough – and tough to define for many modern Jews.

It is tremendously important that each of us considers what it means when we say we are Zionists. The WZO means, “Do you accept the Jerusalem Program?” Read the text of the Jerusalem Program – the ratified program of the WZO first written in Basel in 1897 and last modified in 2004 – for its precise wording. Ultimately, it supports the vision of a Jewish, Zionist, democratic, and secure State of Israel. It lifts up the shared responsibility of the Jewish people for its continuity and future, stating positions on aliyah (immigrating to Israel), Hebrew, Jerusalem, Jewish education, fighting anti-Semitism, and more.

But some say true Zionism is no longer possible in North American synagogues. Others say Zionism is something you can only claim if you actualize your beliefs by moving to Israel. A different group altogether says that Zionism is truly accessible, and that Zionists are those who support Israel, invest dollars there, throw our political support to Israel, or volunteer to do charitable work on her behalf.

What do you think Zionism is? It matters.

In Under this Blazing Light, Amos Oz distinguishes between the motives of Zionism and its justification to others. Oz explains that our historic longing for Zion would've made it impossible for Israel to exist anywhere but in the land where David Ben Gurion declared Israel's independence. But justifying Zionism is something entirely different. He says Israel's justification to exist is nothing more and nothing less than the principle that "a drowning man [must] grasp the only plank that can save him. And that is justification enough."

Oz steadfastly refuses to use such words as "promised land," which are indicative of a "simple and carefree" Zionism. He prefers a Zionism that is "hard and complicated," one that distinguishes between Israel as a "drowning man who grasps a plank and makes room for himself by pushing others sitting on it to one side...and Israel as a drowning man who grabs the whole plank for himself and pushes the others into the sea."

I bet you would make the same distinction, and would want delegates to the WZO to represent your views.

It's not as if the delegates voted to the WZO will be unanimous. That's not even a laudable Jewish goal! Often when one stands at a rally supporting Israel, those standing next to you carry placards whose words are quite different, even anathema to your views. Yet aren't you both Zionists?

Alan Wolfe's book At Home in Exile lifts up the idea that one can be a Zionist but also part of a Jewish culture that has no personal reason to seek an exclusive return – neither physical, emotional nor spiritual – to our ancient land in Israel. The book reflects on the dialectic between the benefits of a diaspora of strong Jewish communities and an equally strong Israeli society strengthening its ability to live by values that are both progressive and Jewish.

Wolfe cites Simon Rawidowicz, whose book Jerusalem and Babylon provides the metaphor that Jewish history is best understood as two houses:

"The first house, corresponding to the time of the First Temple in Jerusalem, gave the Jew the advantages of their own home. But it also made him like any other people. The second house of the Jewish people, the Diaspora, contained no political sovereignty for Jews."

But what did the second house give us? Empowerment through imagination, memory, and interpretation of Judaism to solidify our communal ties and expand our minds. Rawidowicz warned that “Jerusalem may be the destination [of the Jewish people], but Babylon is the means to get there. Without Jerusalem there is no security, but without Babylon there is no dynamism."

So indulge me for a moment with an unscientific poll:

  1. Did you grow up with the desire to visit and see Israel with your own eyes, traveling, studying or perhaps even moving there?
  1. Do you remember a time when there wasn't a State of Israel (before May of 1948)?
  1. Do you believe “Zionist” is only a term for those who support everything Israel does?
  1. If a terrifying anti-Semitic incident took place right where you live, would you likely follow the direction of the Israeli Prime Minister to move from your home and settle in Israel?

I know, that last question might make even the most calm, collected Zionist forget what "excuse me" means. But as anti-Semitism increases across the globe, it is essential that Jews weigh in on the Zionism expressed at the WZO. If you were agitated by the questions in my poll or wish you could reword the Jerusalem Platform to more closely match your views, chances are, you’re a Zionist.

Unsure? So were the delegates to Theodor Herzl's first meeting of the WZO congress in 1897. Now, 118 years later, we have a chance to determine, by voting in the WZO election, whether the delegates will be progressive, right-wing, or somewhere in between.

You want a simpler, more carefree Judaism and Zionism? I agree with Amos Oz. Israel is no dream. It is a reality willed into existence by a Zionism that is hard, complicated, and, nevertheless, worth the effort. Whether you live in Jerusalem or Babylon, Cleveland or Paris, the world needs your Zionism more than ever.

Rabbi Robert A. Nosanchuk is the senior rabbi of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, OH, and co-chair of the Rabbinical Leadership Council for the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).

Rabbi Robert A. Nosanchuk
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