Why progressive Jews mustn’t give up on Zionism

Israeli left-wing activists hold placards and their national flag during a Peace Now march calling on Israelis to end the occupation of Palestinian lands, in Tel Aviv, Dec. 19, 2015. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (JTA) — As progressive American Zionists, we take seriously the critique of Israel and Zionism by professors Hasia Diner and Marjorie N. Feld, contained in their Aug. 1 Haaretz article, “We’re American Jewish Historians. This is why we’ve left Zionism behind.”

However, unlike them, we affirm progressive Zionist values. And those values mandate activism in order to ensure that Israel is both a democracy and the national home of the Jewish people.

The difference between us and professors Diner and Feld is that we continue to believe in the Zionist enterprise and the viability of the state of Israel, despite troubling trends: the rightward turn of the Israeli government; the corrupting influence of the nearly 50-year Israeli occupation of the Palestinian people in the West Bank; the growing messianic nationalism of the settler movement; the ultra-Orthodox influence on the Israeli government and its control over Jewish religious life; the second-class status of Palestinian Israeli citizens. We have a duty as Diaspora Zionists to critique Israeli policies whenever we believe that the State of Israel violates Jewish and democratic values as articulated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

For us, Jewish “nationalism” cannot be the sole objective of Zionism. Rather, Zionism and the Jewish nation is a means towards the perfection of the Jewish people and the world (tikkun olam).

Since its establishment, Israel has meant many things to many people: a haven from persecution, a catalyst for Jewish renewal and a place where the rhythms of civic life are Jewish rhythms. We regard the State of Israel as the Jewish people’s laboratory of Jewish ethical living, one that has seen unparalleled achievements and successes, as well as considerable deficiencies and failures. We regard the founding of the state as a consummate historic opportunity, to test the efficacy of Jewish ethical values, institutions and the diversity of Jewish peoplehood all while holding onto political power as a sovereign state.

Sadly, the professors base their argument on the highly reductionist notion of Judaism as simply a religion, and they even seem to breathe life into the 40-year-old defamatory attempt to label Zionism as racism. They suggest that it was Israeli homogenization that led to the demise of Jewish communities around the world, as if the great holy communities of Warsaw, Vilna and Krakow would somehow be intact today if it weren’t for… Zionism.

They also deeply oversimplify the reality here in the U.S., with its religiously neutral environment. America, and American Jews, have championed the “Goldene Medinah” — the Golden Land — as the great melting pot and exalted land of assimilation and acculturation. But today, Jews throughout the U.S. struggle with the challenge of balancing the benefits of American religious freedom while responding to communal trends in which Jews struggle to find connections, meaning and relevance in being Jewish.

As Zionists, Israel is the center of global Jewish life, and, it is important to recognize, it has managed to create a vibrant and creative Jewish society with a rich and incredibly ethnically diverse Judaism. Yet, Diaspora Jewry is a partner in assuring Israel’s viability as a democracy and a Jewish state, and its security as a sovereign nation. Our role in the Diaspora is different than that of Israeli citizens, but it is no less important. Indeed, our two centers need each other’s wisdom and support.

Professors Diner and Feld seem to have been defeated by their mythic understanding of Zionism and Israel. Though there is merit to their legitimate concerns about the “other” and what Jewish nationalism must do to include non-Jews as equal citizens in the state, it is unfortunate that they are turning away from Zionism altogether. Their relationship with Israel seems to be conditional. We would like to suggest an unconditional relationship to Israel. That means, like family, when we see troubling trends and abhorrent behavior, rather than disavow the entire enterprise, we prefer to roll up our sleeves and get more involved.

They are right that the Palestinians are entitled to empathy, justice and redress. Israel cannot continue to occupy another people and remain true to its democratic and Jewish values. The only way to preserve Israel as a Jewish state and a democracy is for Israel and the Palestinians to enter into negotiations leading to two states for two peoples.

Similarly, Israeli Jews and Diaspora Zionists must actively engage non-Jewish Israelis to address the real tensions within Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state. Making Israel both more democratic and more Jewish is a serious challenge, but it is the essential struggle of Zionism. And as we reject Professors Diner and Feld when they give up on Israel as a Jewish state, we oppose Israelis and other Jews who take actions that threaten Israel’s essential nature as a democracy.

Ultimately, our vision of progressive Zionism — which is embodied in the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the Zionist movement’s Jerusalem Program — is one grounded in hope and action. And we will continue to strive to fulfill this vision to ensure a just, secure and peaceful future for all Israelis, and an Israel that can be a dynamic inspiration to Jews around the world.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg and Rabbi John Rosove are the President and Chair of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. Gideon Aronoff and Ken Bob are the CEO and National President of Ameinu.