We must reclaim Zionism for the centre ground

In the face of growing polarisation a liberal religious voice is needed more than ever


Beacon of light: solar panel tower at the Ashalim Power Station in the Negev - an example of Israel's high-tech accomplishments (Getty Images)

Controversy has raged in the past few weeks at one of the country’s largest synagogues, the New North London. It was sparked by an essay published in an alternative Haggadah by one of the Masorti congregation’s younger rabbis, Lara Haft Yom-Tov, who referred to Israeli politicians as war criminals and as having deliberately instigated famine in Gaza.

This whole fraught episode raises wider questions about what our relationship with Israel should look like and the need to reclaim Zionism, which has become such a dirty word, for the centre ground.

In the current impasse in which the community finds itself, both those on the right and the left leave much to be desired. The left-wing elements of the community often swallow tropes from our own detractors. Equally on the right, there is much that should evoke despair, particularly as a result continued conflation by many religious Zionists of political sovereignty with the arrival of redemption and the sense of entitlement that this entails.

Disturbing too, is the sense of apathy that has set in in much of the diaspora, owing to the policies and anti-progressive sentiments of successive Israeli governments . A JPR survey last year, for example, found that 72 per cent of Jews in the UK were pessimistic about the future of democratic governance in Israel. Youth movements have also voiced their outrage at Israeli politicians, highlighting issues of racism and homophobia.

My own love for Israel grew during a gap year, some years ago, when studying in yeshivah just outside Jerusalem. A friend and fellow student from the USA sadly and unexpectedly lost his father.

It was November 1997 and the ground staff at Ben Gurion airport were on strike, meaning that there were no international passenger flights leaving the country, which in turn meant that it was impossible for my friend to make it back to the United States in time for his father’s funeral. One of the rabbis in the yeshivah alerted Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office to this desperate situation.

As it turned out, the only plane that was able to leave the country was the Prime Minister’s and, on hearing about my friend’s circumstances, Netanyahu welcomed him aboard his flight to Paris, thus allowing him to make an onward journey to New York and arrive in time for the funeral.

Whenever I tell this story, I still get goosebumps. There are of course thousands of similar ones demonstrating the importance that Israel holds for our identity in the diaspora. It illustrates for me the emboldened sense of peoplehood and shared destiny that the birth of modern Israel has enabled. And yet in recent years, I can’t help feeling that such stories are rather less frequent.

Owing to Covid and now the war in Gaza, several year groups will have missed out on Israel tours, school trips, gap-year programmes or even just family holidays that would have previously served as pivotal moments to drive ever deeper connections to the land, important understanding of aspects of our people’s history and sense of pride at the momentous achievements of the country.

With ever increasing polarisation on the right and the left and the growing sense of indifference too, what is the liberal, religious Zionist position that can propel us into the future?

The first element must be an appeal, even in these days beset by conflict, to honouring Israel’s remarkable accomplishments. In the words of the late Rabbi Sacks, ‘’its very existence and achievements are living testimony to one of Judaism’s greatest messages to humankind: the principled defeat of tragedy and the power of hope”.

Just as Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine who held that even secular pioneers working to build the land were performing holy work, so too today, those contributing to the country’s innovative economy and generating some of the most creative advances in the fields of high-tech or medicine should be celebrated for drawing the hand of heaven a little closer.

The second principle for a renewed Zionist ethic is, as Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us, that ‘’the roots of our attachment to Israel lie in the spiritual depth of our existence, in the depth of prayer, of memory and involvement in the Jewish tradition.’’ Judaism has of course survived without the land — it did so for two millennia— but with Israel as part of our very being, we have the ongoing opportunity for spiritual renewal and the space for halachic innovation too.

We must also reorient our understanding of holiness and promise in connection with the land, not as a divine fiat but as conveyed through the historical experience of our people.

The final component for a liberal religious Zionist position fit for the age is one that emphasises the more universalistic biblical texts over those of a more particularistic tone. This will in turn correct the balance with those who over-emphasise God’s special concern for His people at the expense of an identification with the other.

The world is broken. This unbearable reality engenders two equally flawed reactions. On the one hand, denial of the world as it is, and on the other, despair.

Judaism however, as developed by the rabbis espouses a middle way between the two. We are not obligated to perfect the world but neither are we exempt from pursuing its betterment either. A liberal religious Zionist proposition must also navigate a middle path and in so doing regain relevance for the next generation.

Simon Eder is co-editor of Voices of Hope, 36 Essays Written in Response to 7 October, Izzun Books

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