Being a Zionist

Over the past few years, I have spoken about many topics during the High Holy Days. I’ve discussed high holy day themes such as forgiveness, repentance, and self-compassion. I’ve spoken about inclusion and Temple Beth El’s rich history. I’ve discussed topical matters such as antisemitism, and climate change. But there is one topic I have not yet addressed during these holiest days of the year: The State of Israel.

As much as it pained me, I knew I could not talk about Israel in this forum before now. Israel, once nearly universally the pride of the Jewish people, is now much more complicated to discuss. It is an emotional topic for so many of us. For some, it is home, and for others, an acquaintance, but as Jews, we all have a relationship with it.  Today I am choosing to talk about Israel because I am a Zionist, and I encourage you to be one as well.

A colleague recently spoke about a trip he led to Israel. Each day of the trip was packed from sunrise to sunset, as participants heard stories and perspectives on the politics and challenges of the country from a wide variety of people. If two Jews spur three opinions, you can imagine how many different outlooks they took in during four days of meetings with Israeli Jews, Arabs, and Palestinians of different backgrounds and political leanings! By day four, the group’s heads were swelling with the multiple narratives they had taken in. What were they supposed to think? Whom were they supposed to believe? As they discussed their experiences and learnings, one man stood up in a moment of clarity and said, “I think they are all right.”

To be an Israeli and to be a Jew is to live with multiple—and sometimes conflicting truths. Our community is made up of AIPAC supporters and JStreet supporters, holocaust survivors, and tenth-generation Americans, people who stood around radios celebrating Israel’s creation in 1948, and people who grew up during the second Intifada. Some of us have family in Israel or have spent years living within its borders. Others may be troubled by the news stories that provide most of their information about Israel. But all of us share a connection to our Jewish homeland.

Our connection to Israel dates back to Abraham and Sarah, the parents of the Jewish people. Four of our five books of Torah take place in the desert, as our people journeyed for forty years to get to the promised land. Moses’ greatest joy was watching his life’s goal fulfilled as they entered it. Even then, we understood that the land of Israel was central to our identity. We need a place in which we can truly feel at home.

In the 1890s, Theodor Herzl came to the same conclusion. Herzl was a secular Austro-Hungarian journalist tasked with covering the Dreyfus affair, in which Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus was accused of being a German spy. Until then, Officer Dreyfus had been a well-respected captain, but he was the only Jew serving in the French Army’s General Staff headquarters. Despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence, that didn’t stop him from being accused of treason. He was dishonorably discharged from service, demoted, and convicted. Even when the real traitor was identified and Dreyfus was declared innocent, many factions in France continued to treat him like a criminal.

For Theodor Herzl the message was clear: no matter how devoted a Jew was to his government and what status he had achieved, he could not expect to be fully accepted. Herzl concluded that the Jewish people needed a country of their own, a country in his own words, in which “Every man will be as free and undisturbed in his faith or his disbelief as he is in his nationality.”

Herzl didn’t live to see the state of Israel created, but he was instrumental in creating a safe haven for Jews worldwide. Since the 1800s, Jews have flocked to Israel, escaping pogroms in Eastern Europe and antisemitism in Europe, Asia, Africa, and beyond. They continue to immigrate today.

That is why the Jewish community was so deeply moved when David Ben Gurion came on the radio in 1948, declaring the state of Israel. Some of us here remember gathering around the radio, and hearing these impactful words:

“We, members of the people’s council, representatives of the Jewish community of Eretz-Israel, and of the Zionist Movement, are here assembled on the day of the termination of the British mandate over Eretz Yisrael” David Ben Gurion declared. “by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael, to be known as the State of Israel.”

Tears flowed, and Jews began to dance in the streets, celebrating the realization of a millennia-old dream to return to the land. Those earliest years were not easy, as Israel, being a small country in a sea of hostile Arab countries, needed to defend itself from destruction. Israel’s ability to survive attacks from surrounding countries in 1948, 1967, and 1973 was nothing short of miraculous. Time and time again, Jews beat the odds. In his book We Stand Divided, Daniel Gordis recalls gathering in an open space at camp as campers were told about Operation Entebbe. In the summer of 1976, terrorists hijacked a plane in Entebbe, demanding that Palestinian militants be released. The IDF, unwilling to negotiate with terrorists, responded by sending 100 commandos to rescue the hostages. With thoughtful precision, they were able to rescue 102 of the 106 hostages on board.  Gordis explains, “We sat on that lawn stunned and brimming with pride…. This once again, was the Israel on which we’d been raised. It was an Israel that represented the kind of Jews we all wanted to be: proud, strong, brave, invincible.”

They were not alone. Jews all over the world took pride in the Jewish state. They were unapologetically Zionists.

A Zionist is someone who believes in the Jewish right to self-determination, insisting that we, much like other nations all over the world, should be able to have a homeland of our own. To be a Zionist is to say that Israel exists and that we want it to continue to exist. If you believe in Jewish self-determination, you are a Zionist. And yet, today, many of us feel uncomfortable calling ourselves Zionists.

As Rabbi Angela Buchdahl explains, this is because the term Zionist has become twisted and coopted to mean something it was never intended to. It has, in the words of Haaretz columnist Nora Gold become “a dirty word,”[1] equated with colonialism or racism. There is a false idea that being a Zionist means promoting hatred—or even more absurd—white nationalism. It means neither.

Zionism has always meant to believe in Jewish self-determination, that in a world filled with antisemitism, Jews have the right to a land of our own. That’s it. It does not mean that agree with the government’s policies or actions any more than being an American today means that we agree with everything our government does.

As I prepared for the High Holy Days this year, I knew I needed to talk about Israel because the pressure to minimize our Jewish and Zionist identities is rising. American Jewish Communities recently published a study about the struggles Jewish millennials are facing.[2] It found that 23% of millennials hide their Jewish identities because of the anti-Israel climate on college campuses, at work, and in our social circles. Even more feel that their connection to Israel has impacted some of their relationships with others. I have heard from college students, despite loving Israel deeply, are afraid to go to events celebrating Israel or to share their Jewish identities in their social circles.

This study may have been focused on millennials, but as we know, you don’t need to be a millennial to face these pressures. Today, social media and newspapers offer a small glimpse into the realities of Israel. We read about conflict with Palestinians and neighboring nations. We hear about moments of injustice. But there is so much we do not hear.

In the summer of 2006, I flew to Israel to begin a year living in Jerusalem. When I took off, the country was at peace—or at least as close as Israel ever gets to peace. When I landed, the country was on the brink of war. In those few short hours when I was in the air, Hezbollah had captured two Israeli soldiers while out on their regular patrol and killed three others. The next day I went to an archeology site with my cousins when I heard loud noises and witnessed bright lights in the distance. “Rockets,” they said. “No big deal. Happens all the time.” In the days that followed, rockets went into and out of the land of Israel with startling frequency. Lives were lost, and children were traumatized. A few days later, when I got to my apartment, I not only had a key waiting for me, but also a note about how to get to the nearest bomb shelter.

Today the news so often depicts Israel as a military Goliath suppressing the rights of innocent and defenseless Palestinians. This perspective is narrow in both perspective and history. It’s true that Israel is a strong nation with a powerful military. How could it not be when rockets are thought of as “no big deal, they happen all the time”?

How can it not be when Israel, a country the size of New Jersey, has much larger neighbors who have denied and threatened its existence since its inception? 

And sometimes, Israel gets it wrong like every other country on this planet. Innocent people are subjected to aggression and cruelty in unjust ways. When we disagree with actions by the IDF or the Israeli government, let’s continue to speak up.

But let’s not allow others to shame us out of our Zionism. We can work for a better, more peaceful Israel, but we mustn’t give up on Israel.

I feel confident in saying that every person in this room has been less than enamored with our government in recent years. During Trump’s presidency, some of us were distraught about some of the government’s decisions and actions. During Biden’s presidency, some of us feel that way now. But all of us remain proud Americans. We continue to live here and call this country our home, no matter who is in power. We would never question whether America has a right to exist because it does exist. It is our home today. Why then, would we question Israel’s right to exist? Why should we question our right to self-determination, our Zionism?

Today I knew I needed to talk about Israel, encouraging you to embrace your Zionism with pride. Israel needs us to be Zionists. The Jewish people need us to be Zionists. The greatest threat to Israel isn’t Iran or terrorism. It is the apathy and complacency of fellow Jews towards Israel.

That is why this year, cantor Ilan will be leading a trip to Israel. I encourage you to learn more about it at the meeting in mid-October. I will offer my confirmation students a curriculum on Israel that transcends partisan divides and allows them to have a nuanced values-based conversation on their relationship with Israel. We will create opportunities for adults to talk about Israel’s complexity and our relationships with it. We will include more Israeli poetry and music in our temple programs and services.

To be a Zionist isn’t to agree with everything Israel’s government does any more than being American means agreeing with everything America’s government does. To be a Zionist is to remain in a meaningful relationship with Israel.

My friends, Israel is about so much more than her conflicts and government policies. It is a land filled with culture, history, and innovation. Israel was recently declared the 9th happiest place to live in the world—for all Israelis, not just Jewish Israelis. For context, America was 16th.

I want you to fall in love with Israel.

It is a place where the land of our ancestors seamlessly merges with modernity, where children study our ancient texts in their original language and then go on trips walking in the steps that our biblical ancestors.

As David Hartman once said, “One cannot relate to or live in Israel without being affected by the visions of Isaiah and Amos, the passion of Rabbi Akiva, or the age-old longing of Jews to return to Jerusalem, the city where the prophets declared justice and human fulfillment would be realized.”

It is both a land of our deepest aspirations and a country that, like us, falls short of its potential.

It is a country where people clap when the plane touches down and kiss the tarmac while their eyes well with tears.

Where every Friday, Jews gather in crowded open-air markets called shuks, enjoying the aromas of freshly squeezed juice, challah, halva, cheeses, fruit, vegetables, and pastries, as they shop for a festive Shabbat meal.

In Israel, Yom Kippur is not only a date on the calendar. It is felt in the streets, where cars refrain from driving, and people observe this solemn day by fasting and praying.

A few days later, Sukkot line the streets adorned with decorations and colorful lights, filling the atmosphere with joy and beauty. Josh proposed to me amidst a sea of these stunning sukkot years ago.

Israel is the only country that has more trees today than it did 50 years ago.

It is the LGBTQ capital of the middle east.

Within its borders, Israeli and Palestinian parents work together in search of peace and collaboration.

It is a place filled with ancient sites, where the western wall of years ago, is held up by the prayers stuck into its crevices.[3]

Today for the first time, there is a Reform rabbi, Gilad Kariv in the Knesset. The work he has been doing has been phenomenal.

Israel is imperfect, a country still in its adolescence at 74 years young, but I am optimistic for its future.

As Israel inches toward its 75th anniversary this Spring, let us declare our Zionism proudly, celebrating who Israel is and who she has yet to become.

* Although not quoted directly, this sermon was inspired by Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl’s 2014 Yom Kippur Sermon, Noa Tishby’s Israel, and Daniel Sokatch’s Can We Talk About Israel



[3] I learned this from my teacher Rabbi David Wilfond

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