Why Zionism remains a spiritual imperative

By Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, April 13, 2013
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The choice of model Bar Refaeli to front a pro-Israel campaign has proven controversial (Flash 90)

The choice of model Bar Refaeli to front a pro-Israel campaign has proven controversial (Flash 90)

Should Israel’s hottest supermodel Bar Refaeli be the public face of the Zionism? Recently, Israel’s Foreign Ministry invited her to star in a video promoting the country. She’s an internationally recognised brand and a strong patriot, but some were offended by the choice.

Leading the attack was the Ministry of Defence, which was incensed that someone who had avoided the military draft should represent Israel. Equally appalled were religious Jews who condemned her lack of modesty, especially when photographed adorned in Christmas decor. In Israel and around the world, the choice of Bar Refaeli as an Israeli icon raised questions about what makes a model Zionist.

For purists, the sole measure of Zionism is willingness to settle in Israel. David Ben Gurion, who went on to become Israel’s first prime minister wrote to his father in 1909, “Settling the land –— that is the only real Zionism. The rest is just self-delusion, idle chatter and time-wasting”. Almost 50 years later, when Lord (Barnett) Janner hosted him for a speech in London, Ben Gurion still held fast to his views and while Janner attempted to introduce him, Ben Gurion heckled, chastising him for failing to make aliyah.

Living in Israel is the highest fulfilment of Zionism. Israeli citizens reap the rewards of living in a Jewish country and through taxes and army service contribute in ways which is hard for anyone outside the country to match. The rabbis too saw living in Israel as crucial. Sensing its intrinsic holiness and the religious value of living near our holiest sites of Judaism, they ruled that Israel should be the preferred home of every Jew.

But Zionism is not only about the past or mystical connections to spirituality. The most powerful definition of Zionism I know came from my teacher Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. He said that he made aliyah because although he was one of New York’s most successful Orthodox rabbis, the questions he dealt with rarely went beyond whether a particular brand of peanut butter was kosher or not.

Judaism, he argues should deal with bigger issues and in Israel we have an exciting opportunity to develop a Jewish state, building an infrastructure of schools, hospitals and defence along the ethical lines of our Torah.

Ben Gurion was also passionate that Zionism should reflect our highest ideals. When his own brother dreamt of aliyah with plans to sustain himself by opening a national lottery, the prime minister responded that such a project would corrupt the people and the land. It would be better for his brother to remain in Poland than to import such impurity to Israel.

Writing in deeply spiritual terms, Ben Gurion insisted, “The Land of Israel is not just a geographical concept. The Land of Israel must be a process of repairing and purifying our lives, changing our values in the loftiest sense of the term. If we merely bring the life of the ghetto into Israel, then what’s the difference if we live that life here or live it there?”

Ironically, today, the National Lottery plays an important role in building up the cultural and educational institutions of Israel, but the principle is clear. Israel must reflect our highest Jewish values.

As Israel’s Independence Day approaches with preparations for ceremonies, fireworks and barbecues, we have good reason to celebrate; but Jewish anniversaries are also a time for stocktaking. Religious and moral complacency are never an option.

A Jewish law professor, Albie Sachs, who authored the new South African Constitution, writes about the magnificent revolution that took place in his country and the challenges which still face it. “We are so good at doing the impossible,” he notes, “Now we must learn to do the ordinary.”

Israel has achieved the impossible; miraculously, from the ashes of the Holocaust a modern state has been built and despite numerous existential threats, it has succeeded in almost every field. Now it is time to work towards the ordinary. The days of draining swamps may be over and a strong army enables Israel to handle its immense security needs. Still, challenges remain.

The leaders of religious Zionist political parties who are now key players in the Israeli government largely reject the possibility of making peace and focus instead on retaining as much of the Land of Israel as possible. But Israeli politics moves fast and today it is the ultra-Orthodox questioning the wisdom of the settlements and speaking in favour of territorial compromise.

Britain’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits was among the first rabbis to point out that to meet the highest ethical standards, which should be the hallmark of a Jewish country, we must all play our part in renewing our search for peace with the Palestinians, strengthening Israeli democracy and ensuring the rights of minorities.

In this way, Israel can become a conduit for peace, justice, loving kindness and spirituality throughout the world so that “the Torah may go out from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2: 3).

Last updated: 11:13am, April 15 2013