I Am a Zionist

Yom Kippur Evening, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Those of you who know my son at all, know he’s a huge Duke basketball fan. (And that I need to have his permission to share this — which I do.) So he looked forward to this year’s NBA draft like it was a holiday. Three Duke players were taken in the Top Ten, but all eyes were on mega-superstar Zion Williamson. Zion was selected number one overall by the New Orleans Pelicans, and Eli immediately declared he wanted to go to a game. “I want to make a big sign,” he said, and he held his hands up over his head. “I Am a Zionist.’”

Clever pun — he’s a clever boy. But, oh, that term: Zionist. That complicated, fraught, magnet of a term. Just imagine the reactions that sign would attract. Imagine standing on a street corner holding a sign, publicly proclaiming to the world, in this day and age, that you are a Zionist. How would it feel? What might happen?

Some people would surely come up to encourage you, pat you on the back, or honk and shout their approval as they drove by. Yet some of those, maybe many, would be people with whom you haven’t agreed, have even vehemently disagreed, about virtually everything else happening in the world as of late.

Other passersby would shun you, yell at you, vilify both you and Israel. And some of those would be people with whom you have felt quite close, people with whom you’ve stood side by side on so many other important issues and causes. 

Still others would call your sign a lie. You’re not a Zionist, they would say. Why do you love Israel? How do you love Israel? They might question your loyalty to Israeli leadership — never mind that Israelis, of course, support an array of leaders themselves. Why else are there so many elections? “It is a great folly of American Judaism,” Yehuda Kurtzer writes, “that ideas and beliefs that constitute legitimate participation within Israeli political discourse can be considered illegitimate and treasonous in American Jewish institutions. There is greater freedom of expression and ideology in Israel’s Knesset than in the mainstream American synagogue pulpit.” [1] More baffling still, these individuals might question your Zionist loyalty based on who you support in American leadership. So — even as you stand there, holding your sign, proclaiming your commitment to, and love of, Israel — they would apply the label “pro-Israel” to other people, some elusive group whose identity is difficult to pin down, but clearly does not include you.

It would all be enough to make your head spin and your heart hurt. Maybe enough to declare it just isn’t worth it. So you might, understandably, leave that sign at home, push it to the back of the closet. In this sea of confusion and frustration, disillusionment and anger, you might even be tempted to throw it away — not just the sign, but the identity it affirms. 

When it comes to Israel, so many of us have turned aside, tuned out, or walked away altogether.

And yet… 

Israel is in our souls. 

On virtually every page of our liturgy. 

Woven throughout our collective historical memory. 

On Yom Kippur, among our many sins, we atone for the sin we have committed by too easily forgetting Zion; the wrong we have done by not working at the relationship. We acknowledge that turning in love toward Zion is an act of healing; that supporting the State of Israel is an act of repair. And we pray for a year of Zion aglow with light for us and all the world. [2]

Despite it all, we need Israel and Israel needs us. If we take this particular piece of atonement seriously, we can struggle, we can challenge, we can wrestle, and we can debate — but we cannot afford to walk away.

Late one evening this summer, at nearly 1:00 in the morning, Hurricane Dorian was plodding toward us here in Charleston. I was hoping for one more update on the storm, one more favorable spray of spaghetti (a turn of phrase that only makes sense in this quirky corner of the globe). So, before I turned in for the night, I scrolled through Facebook, scanning updates — birthdays, articles, a few clever (and not so clever) memes — when I saw a link to a live feed from Women of the Wall. The group had gathered, as they do every Rosh Hodesh (the beginning of a new Hebrew month), for prayer and Torah at the Kotel, the Western Wall. 

I have to admit, this is the type of post I usually skip. Tuning in via Facebook just doesn’t do much for me, and what Women of the Wall experiences can be upsetting. But something resonated this particular late night/very early morning — the first day of September, and, as it happened, the very first day of the Hebrew month of Elul. On my screen, I saw that Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, held a long, spiraling shofar under her arm, and I recognized this would be my first opportunity to hear that quintessential sound, the sound that calls us to reflection, introspection, and repentance throughout the month of Elul. The sound that encourages us: The gates are open! The book is open! Your future is in your hands! And to hear that call from Jerusalem…

So I tuned in for the sole purpose of hearing that sound. I listened, I watched, and I recalled the time I joined Women of the Wall in person, some 15 years ago now. Women of the Wall is a traditional Jewish women’s group and, once again, I felt the discomfort of participating in rituals with which I was then, and am still, though to a lesser degree, unfamiliar. I struggled to follow along with the rapid Hebrew. And I felt the same anxiousness and anger, as Haredi women kept up a constant barrage in Hebrew: This is a disgrace! You are a disgrace! Disrespectful! Shonda (shame)! Nothing had changed in 15 years.

Nevertheless, I stayed on the feed, basking in the golden early morning light that sets Jerusalem stone ablaze. Even 6,000 miles away, I felt sheltered underneath the canopy they created with a raised tallit; was transfixed as a woman unrolled a klaf — a single, contraband sheet of parchment — since the police would not allow women to bring a Torah scroll to the Kotel. I kvelled with the group as the aliyot were called: Those celebrating birthdays and commemorating yahrtzeits, those honored for their dedication that enabled this special congregation, this kahal, to gather in this sacred place. I stayed on the feed and, at some point, ceased merely to watch. I began to participate — typing “Amen” after the blessing for reading Torah, joining the wishes typed to one another for a chodesh tov, a good month. I had even changed my iPhone keypad over to Hebrew.

And then, finally, came the sound I had been waiting for, the notes of the Shofar: T’kiah, sh’varim, t’ruah. The most ancient sound we have in our tradition literally called to me that morning from the remains of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. And, just like that, my spirit soared, I was covered in goosebumps, and my heart was in the East.

In many ways those thirty or forty minutes — I lost track of time — perfectly encapsulate my relationship with Israel. There are many things that leave me uncomfortable, angry, frustrated, and pained: The treatment of women, and the subjugation of progressive Jews, as though we practice a second-class Judaism. The devastation inflicted upon both Israelis and Palestinians in unceasing cycles of violence. Leaders who lack the moral clarity and political creativity to realize their citizens’ strong desire for peace; to represent the 84% of Israeli Jews who support religious freedom. [3] The occupation of a people, no matter how one one understands the status of the land, which is eroding Israel’s soul. And so I have a tendency — sometimes it even feels like a need — to distance myself, step aside, just scroll by. But when I stop, when I do engage, when I am willing to invest myself in the struggle, I invariably find that I am so much richer for it. And look what was happening in Israel that particular morning: Religious Israeli women were asserting their rightful ownership of Jewish tradition and claiming their place at Judaism’s most sacred site. Their activism for equality and justice is making Israel better — and because I had joined them that morning, these women, and Israel itself, were one soul stronger.

Friends, the sign grows heavy; the criticisms, borne from so many directions, are exhausting. Nevertheless, I stand, not on a street corner, but on this bimah, and declare with pride: I am a Zionist.

And so let me respond to some of those reactions such a statement, uttered by any of us, in any location, is sure to attract. 

To those who would deny us our Zionist identity because we are critical of Israel’s moral failings, I note that criticism of Israel is as ancient as it is current — and it’s also homegrown.

“Learn to be better, seek justice, support the oppressed, bring justice to the fatherless, argue the case of the widow,” implored the prophet Isaiah to the ancient Israelites in Jerusalem. (1:17)

“He has told you, O man, what is good, and what Adonai requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk faithfully with your God,” exhorted Micah, as he traveled between rural Judah and the bigger cities of the Promised Land. (6:8)

And, of course, the powerful charge we will hear in tomorrow morning’s Haftarah:

This is the fast I desire:

To unlock fetters of wickedness,

And untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free;

To break off every yoke.

It is to share your bread with the hungry,

And to take the wretched poor into your home;

When you see the naked, to clothe him,

And not to ignore your own kin.” (58:6-7)

This conscience-raising chastisement, too, was born in ancient Israel.

There are moments, like those first notes of the shofar heard from Jerusalem, in which our hearts might turn to the East. But our moral compass always points there. The teachings that ground our ethics, the roots of our most enduring values — they all began there. What could better demonstrate genuine love for Israel than to challenge her to rise to her own highest call?

To those who would shun us for declaring ourselves Zionists — who bristle at the very term Zionism, and unilaterally equate Israel with oppression and injustice — to these individuals I urge caution. Too easily, anti-Zionism slips into antisemitism. As Natan Sharansky has summarized: When Israel is demonized, delegitimized, or held to a double standard, the bounds of acceptable criticism have been crossed. Yes, Israel can and should be held accountable for her actions. Absolutely. But the need to be better does not obviate her right to exist, nor does it account for the disproportionate scrutiny placed upon her relative to other erring nations around world, and within the Middle East itself.

And an entire country is never only one thing. Beyond the realm of Israel’s government and its policies, just like here, citizens are realizing the vision of Isaiah and Micah in so many ways, big and small. We often hear about Israel as a Start Up Nation. But do we realize how many young Israeli companies and nonprofits are involved in the work of Tikkun Olam — bringing “repair” not only to Israel, but throughout the region and the world? 

Road to Recovery organizes thousands of Israeli volunteers to drive Palestinians in need of medical treatment — mostly children — from checkpoints between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to hospitals in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In 2018 alone, they organized over 10,000 trips for over 20,000 patients, covering 800,000 miles of travel by close to 2,000 volunteers. Kayla Ship, the Israel-based guide who will lead KKBE’s upcoming trip to Spain, is a regular volunteer with Road to Recovery. Even though it requires her to miss several hours of work, one day every two weeks, it’s a commitment her employer has not only allowed, but encouraged, her to make.

Save A Child’s Heart is an Israeli-based international humanitarian charity whose mission is: “To improve the level of pediatric cardiac care throughout the world.” Their staff, and the over 120 medical team members they have trained, have saved the lives of 5,000 children from 61 countries around the globe. The organization’s logo was taken from a drawing by an early patient:

Four year old Katya arrived from Moldova with very serious heart defects. She was near death and her body was deep blue due to the lack of oxygen. Some five months and four highly complicated surgeries later, Katya was ready to go home. Before she left, she drew a picture of a hand holding a little girl with a heart. When asked to explain, she told her doctor: “I had a dream, there were many colors over my bed, then a very big hand came in the middle of the night. We flew to a far-off country and they gave me a new heart, and I could run and dance.” [4]

Tikkun Olam Makers, another organization, seeks to improve the lives of people living with disabilities, the elderly, and the poor. They’ve launched dozens and dozens of groups working to bring accessible, affordable solutions to those who need them most. Extra Set of Hands incorporates a grabber into a cane, pulling an object up its length, so that someone with Parkinson’s can pick it up without losing the balance the cane provides. Aut2Talk is an app through which you can record videos of yourself performing tasks to help nonverbal autistic individuals better understand and communicate feelings and needs. Countless groups are working on innovations to help paraplegic and quadriplegic individuals overcome impaired mobility, including equipment and devices that actually restore the ability to walk. The goal of Tikkun Olam Makers is to improve the lives of 250,000,000 people — and, seeing their successes, one can’t help but feel that their moonshot objective is in reach.

These are only a few of the many inspiring ways in which Israelis, and Israel itself, are making the world a better place. But let me be very clear: None of them excuse Israel’s shortcomings. It’s not my intention or goal to whitewash the difficulties and challenges Israel’s actions often present. Far from it. Yet these kinds of stories — Israeli companies and citizens engaged in Tikkun Olam — do encourage me to invest in deepening my relationship with Israel. 

I want to support a country whose creative and technological advances are promoting greater accessibility and justice. I want to support a nation that is improving the lives of not only its own citizens, but those living throughout the region and around the world. And I want to connect with a nation that can, at the highest levels, engage in deep soul searching and accountability.

I support a nation where, every year, Rabbis for Human Rights publishes an expanded Vidui, the Yom Kippur confessional. They’ve been doing this for over fifteen years, “condemning the treatment of the poor and the sick, the Palestinians, and people seeking refuge in Israel … [as well as demanding] justice for the Jewish settlers who lost their homes in the Gaza Strip during the disengagement process in 2005.” [5]

For the sin we have committed before You by discrimination and exclusion.

For the sin we have committed before You by putting faith in unworthy leaders, those who stoked the public with fear and despair.

For the sin we have committed before You by smugly disparaging those whose concept of justice is different than our [own]. [6]

I support a nation where a former education minister encouraged citizens to vote with democratic ideals in mind. Three days before the most recent Israeli election, Shay Piron, who is also an orthodox rabbi, posted the following on Facebook:

Just before entering the voting booth, everyone should say to themselves:

I don’t hate.

I don’t hate Haredim.

We disagree with each other — but I don’t hate.

I don’t hate leftists.

They were a major factor in establishing the State of Israel.

They built communities and kibbutzim.

They are seekers of peace, even if I believe it endangers us.

We disagree with each other — but I don’t hate.

I don’t hate right-wingers.

Even those who are on the economic right, which, to me, seems destructive.

And even those who want to hold on to the entire Land of Israel,

I know how precious all of Israel is to them.

We disagree with each other — but I don’t hate.

I don’t hate the Arab citizens of Israel.

Their fathers and mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers were born here.

I am part of a people that knows what it means to be a minority and to yearn.

I will not give up my state. But I understand and feel their pain.

We disagree with each other — but I don’t hate.

I want to do good.

I want to make Israel a model society.

I don’t want to give in to everyone. I don’t want to give up on anyone.

May it be Your will

That I won’t hate.

That I won’t make myself hated.

That I will know how to say what is in my heart

Straightforwardly

Decently

Deeply.

That I will contribute in some way to the good life in the good land

Of all of us. [7]

And I support a nation where one of her most prolific songwriters, Ehud Manor, captured the pain of his country with these lyrics, found in our High Holy Day prayer books:

I will not be silent when my country has changed her face

I will not give in to her, I will remind her

and I will sing here in her ears

until she has opened her eyes. [8]

It is not easy to be a Zionist, it never has been, and that today’s reasons feel unnecessarily challenging makes it that much more difficult. Nevertheless: Al chet shechatanu l’fanecha… For the sin we have committed before You by too easily forgetting Zion — by being silent; by giving in; by turning aside, tuning out, walking away — forgive us. O God, turn our hearts toward the east, even as our moral compass always points there. Hear the prayer we offer in love for the Israel that we love:

Eternal God,

give us hope for Israel and for her future.

Renew our wonder at the miracle of the Jewish State.

In the name of the pioneers who made the deserts bloom,

give us the tools to cultivate diversity of Jewish expression.

In the name of her fallen soldiers, 

give us courage to stand up to zealots,

those among her neighbors and in her midst.

In the name of the inventors who have amazed the world with their innovations,

help us apply the same ingenuity to finding a path to peace.

In the name of them all, for the sake of us all — 

grant us the strength to conquer doubt and despair.

Replace doubt with action.

Replace despair with hope.

And let us say: Amen. [9]

 

 

[1] “Why the Witch Hunts?” Yehuda Kurtzer, The Times of Israel, September 6, 2016.

[2] Compiled from Mishkan Hanefesh, Yom Kippur.

[3] “2019 Israel Religion & State Index and Post-Election Survey,” September 26, 2019, hiddush.org.

[4] Saveachildsheart.org.

[5] “Al Chet in Israeli Culture,” Dalia Marx, We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism: Ashamnu and Al Chet, Lawrence Hoffman (ed.), p. 71.

[6] Compiled from various compositions by Rabbis Yehoyada Amir, Levi Weiman-Kasman, and Arik Asherman.

[7] “A Prayer for the Israeli Elections,” Times of Israel, September 16, 2019, adapted.

[8] “I Have No Other Country,” (Ein Li Eretz Aheret), Ehud Manor (1982).

[9] Anat Hoffman, adapted.

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