Two Criteria for Every Zionist to Consider

July 21, 2020Rabbi Joshua Weinberg

"וַיָּבֹ֥אוּ בְנֵֽי־גָ֖ד וּבְנֵ֣י רְאוּבֵ֑ן וַיֹּאמְר֤וּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה֙ וְאֶל־אֶלְעָזָ֣ר הַכֹּהֵ֔ן וְאֶל־נְשִׂיאֵ֥י הָעֵדָ֖ה לֵאמֹֽר׃ וַיֹּאמְר֗וּ אִם־מָצָ֤אנוּ חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ יֻתַּ֞ן אֶת־הָאָ֧רֶץ הַזֹּ֛את לַעֲבָדֶ֖יךָ לַאֲחֻזָּ֑ה אַל־תַּעֲבִרֵ֖נוּ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּֽן׃"

“The Gadites and the Reubenites came to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the chieftains of the community, and said … It would be a favor to us,” they continued, “if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan.”

The determining factor, in my opinion, as to who can be considered a Zionist and who not, is not dependent on one’s solution for the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s not about one state versus two states, nor is it about one’s perspective on the potential annexation of territory. The definition of a Zionist is about two determining factors:

  1. A Zionist throws one’s fate in with the Jewish people. 
  2. A Zionist affirms the centrality of the Land of Israel.

After these there are a myriad of nuances and qualifiers. But whatever pre-hyphen adjective you choose – Reform, religious, progressive, liberal, egalitarian, proprietary, labor, socialist, revisionist, or any kind of Zionist under the sun – a Zionist must affirm these two criteria.

It is important to offer these distinctions for two reasons.

First, this week, as we complete the Book of Numbers, we read about the negotiations between Moses and the representatives of the Tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe. After 38 years wandering in the desert, those two tribes decided to forfeit entry into the Promised Land in exchange for settling east of the Jordan – in the much more fertile land of Yazer and Gilead. I can’t imagine Moses’ internal reaction to their petition, yet I have to believe that it was devastating.

Nonetheless, with great resolve Moses posed a question that is both practical and emotional:

"הַאַֽחֵיכֶ֗ם יָבֹ֙אוּ֙ לַמִּלְחָמָ֔ה וְאַתֶּ֖ם תֵּ֥שְׁבוּ פֹֽה"

“Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” (Numbers 32:6)

To ask it in a different slightly tongue-in-cheek way:

“…despite your decision to refuse entry into the Land that God has given you as a part of the Covenant we have as children of Israel; despite your preference to prioritize your own material well-being over fulfillment of the dream: Do you place your fate with the fate of our nation? Do you affirm the centrality of the Land of Israel?”

With one simple question Moses demonstrated rational leadership and offered them a prescription for action. After a bit of drama and negotiation, the tribes of Reuven and Gad provided a resounding “Yes.”

“We will not return to our homes until every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion,” (32:18) they stated matter-of-factly. Despite the decision not to share territory with the rest of B’nai Yisrael, there was no question that their fate was tied to the fate of the people, and they shared that Covenant.

Second, the questions arising from this week’s Torah portion are not merely academic and theoretical. The discourse around Israel, Zionism, and the fate of Israel/Palestine has experienced a robust debate stemming from the proposed vision of Peter Beinart on the pages of Jewish Currents and The New York Times. Despite the shock value of the headlines, the arguments are not terribly original nor is he the only one making them or nuanced. What’s more, they have been discussed and argued at great length by Chemi Shalev, Daniel Gordis, Shmuel Rosner, Dan Shapiro, Anshel Pfeffer, and Yehuda Kurtzer (my personal favorite of the responses), just to name a few.

While the arguments are interesting and important, I’m less interested in rehashing the debate as to whether or not a bi-national state would result in the dismantling of the Zionist enterprise (I think it would) or whether, as Beinart posits, it would result in the only way to end the conflict (it likely will not). What I ask is this: Is the one making the suggestions and prognosticating the fate of the Jewish people doing so from within or outside the Zionist camp?

It is the same question that Moses posed to the tribes of Reuven and Gad, and the same questions that we can ask ourselves. Do you place your fate with the fate of the Jewish people and do you affirm the centrality of the Land of Israel for the Jewish people?

If yes, then we can debate for the sake of heaven as to where the borders should be drawn. If yes, then we can champion the cause of Palestinian human rights, civil rights, and political rights. If yes, then we can debate what might work as the best political arrangement for the two peoples living on one strip of Land, and agonize over the many ethical challenges.

If not, then I as a Jew and as a Zionist will revert to my instincts for self-defense, self-preservation, and survival. 

Beinart’s vision is nothing short of beautiful. His eschatological utopian dream based on equality and human rights is wonderful. Unfortunately, his conclusion that equality for the Palestinians in both Israel and the West Bank is incompatible with Zionism fails to resonate with the Israeli Jewish mainstream and that his seeming disregard of the Israeli and Jewish experience renders his argument dead on arrival. In this case he would, as would we all, do well to learn from Reuven and Gad that even if we choose to live outside the Land we can affirm our fate with our people.