Do I have a religious duty to support Israel?

December 27, 2012

Question: I am proud to be Jewish and actively support a number of communal charities but I no longer have any feelings of affinity with the state of Israel. I have been told that is not compatible with being Jewish. But am I religiously obliged to support Israel?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

A century ago you would have been in very good company. Some of the most respected Orthodox rabbis were vehemently opposed to Theodor Herzl’s plan to build a Zionist state and they were accused by leading secular Zionists of not being true to Jewish values.

One leading secular Zionist Max Mandelstaam went so far as to state, in an open letter in the Hebrew language periodical Hamelitz, that “any Jew who is not a Zionist, at least in theory alone, is not a Jew” and that “the Orthodox rabbis who come out against Zionism… are worse than those who abandon Judaism and reject the faith of their fathers.”

These charges elicited an equally strong response from a number of prominent Orthodox rabbis (including Hayim Soloveitchik, Shalom Dov Ber Schneerson and Herman Adler) in the form of a sharply worded pamphlet entitled Ohr Layisharim, in which they accused the secular Zionists of “casting off the yoke of Torah and mitzvot and turning the hearts of Israel away from God”. Furthermore if they were to achieve their aims and settle the land, they would “sully it and make it impure”.

History, however, has moved on and much has changed since the turn of the 19th century. The state of Israel is not a theoretical debate, it is a reality. Six million Jews now live there and their welfare should be of paramount concern to all Jews. In religious terms there are more (state-funded) institutions of Torah study than ever before in Jewish history and religious life thrives in a way that 19th-century rabbis could not have imagined in their wildest dreams. In practical terms, Israel provides refuge to Jews all over the world, which after the Holocaust takes on an entirely new significance that previous generations could not fully appreciate.

This does not mean that the state of Israel is imbued with intrinsic sanctity (as some religious Zionists believe). Nor does it mean that the only place to live a fulfilling Jewish life is in Israel (as most religious Zionists believe.) It does not mean that one must slavishly support the policies of the Israeli government (as some diaspora Jews believe). Nor does it mean that one must conflate Israel with Judaism (the former is but the means, the latter is the end).

It does mean, though, that Israel is central to 21st-century Jews and Judaism. Its vitality and future should be a matter of deep concern to Jews everywhere.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

Hillel’s one sentence summary of Judaism was “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour; the rest is commentary” (Shabbat 31a). It is quoted more than any other person’s précis of Jewish teaching because it rightly puts the emphasis on one’s relationships with other people.

We might wish to add belief in God, but then Hillel could respond and say that behaving badly towards others is as much a denial of God as blaspheming against God directly.

But if we marry the two together and accept that Judaism is primarily about actions and belief, then self-evidently your lack of feelings towards a political state the other side of the Mediterranean does not disqualify you from being Jewish. Nor need it stop others from considering you a good Jew.

It is also worth pointing out the unpleasant fact that if, though may it never happen, Israel were to be destroyed, Judaism would carry on, as it did before, and Jews would be no less Jewish.

So you can rest assured that your Jewish status is intact. But perhaps it is also worth considering why so many Jews do feel that supporting Israel is an important part of their Jewish identity.

The land of Israel is the backdrop to much of the Bible. It is the location of many of the festivals (be it historical ones such as Chanucah or season-bound ones like the three harvest festivals). It is the only country where the ancient tongue of Hebrew is an everyday language. It is the home of six million Jews. Its day-to-day existence is a living expression of Jewish life. Intellectually and emotionally, it provides the heartbeat of much of Jewish life elsewhere. Its actions and reputation affect the perception and treatment of Jews worldwide.

That is not to say that everything that Israel does is right or defensible, and, just as with Britain, there can be a big distinction between one’s attitude to the policies of the government of the day and to the country as a whole. Of course, identification with Israel can be taken to extremes. Putting attachment to the land over moral actions is breaking Hillel’s dictum and veers towards blasphemy. Alternatively, British Jews who make Israel their sole mark of Jewish identity and ignore all other aspects of Jewish life are also problematic. Balance is a much under-estimated religious concept, and applies here too.

Last updated: 12:45pm, February 4 2013