Home » Divrei Torah & Sermons » The Case For Liberal Zionism: An Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

The Case For Liberal Zionism: An Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

This summer was a challenging one for the Jewish people.

Israel, once again under attack. Another war; another round of us vs. them. Another deep sigh as we try to figure out what it all means; what we think and feel and believe; what we can realistically hope for.

Another frustrating round of media coverage and finger pointing, of hatred and labels: Anti-Israel, Anti-Palestinian, Antisemite. . . And so much death. No words can adequately express the tragedy of it all.

It feels endless and hopeless. It is sad and painful. It evokes questions we have difficulty answering.

Last month, I invited members of this community to join me in a dialogue about this summer’s war in Gaza; to bring their questions and thoughts to share.

One of the outcomes of that conversation, was a reminder of how important it is to be informed about Israel – to know what the issues are and how you feel about them – not only during times of crisis, but more importantly in some ways, during times of relative peace. So that when the conflict flares up again, we’re not caught off-guard – scrambling to catch up, overwhelmed by the media and social-media onslaught; trying to figure out what channel to watch, what print and online newspapers to read, who to believe, and to whom we should direct our financial support.

It’s so important to know where you stand in relation to Israel.

I am proud that during this critical summer we sent members of our own temple community to Israel along with family and friends from our local Church communities, to explore their own relationship to the country where both Jews and Christians feel deeply connected. During a time when others were criticizing Israel, we were affirming our support, and during a year where the UCC is contemplating boycotting Israel, this shared support is more important than ever.

And it’s not always easy to support Israel, even if you’ve been there. The challenges are varied and complex. They tug at our heartstrings; they touch deep, primal and tribal parts of us that maybe we didn’t even know we had; they put our values in tension with our loyalties.

And yet, it is important to have a clear statement of relationship; a place from which to begin; a point to which we can always return.

If there’s one thing I know for certain when it comes to where I stand in relation to Israel, it is this: I love Israel.

Let me say it another way: I am a lover of Zion – or, how’s this? – I am a Zionist.

ZIONISM.

When I say it, do you cringe? Are you wary? Curious? Could you confidently explain what it means?

The term Zionism was coined in 1890, a relatively new idea for a people dating back over two millennium. In general, it can be explained as a movement for people who hoped that Jews would one day be able to return to the land of Israel, not just as residents, but as an autonomous, self-governing people.

In 1948 that dream was realized and since then, Zionism has also come to mean the movement for those who care about the development of the State of Israel and its ability to protect and defend itself.

If you Google Zionism and scroll past the definitions and credible information, you will also find a lot of misunderstanding, misinformation and hatred. Zionism has come to be used as a dirty word by those who seek to make Jews look bad by equating it with colonialism and racism.

But Zionism is neither of those things.

Colonialism has been understood to mean, “living by exploiting others,” but the Zionist pioneers were idealists; city-dwelling Jews who strove to become farmers and laborers and live by the work of their own hands.

And as for Zionism being racist – an idea first promoted In 1975, when the UN adopted a resolution equating Zionism with racism – the accusation falls flat.

Racism is the belief that all members of a race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race. It includes prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against those of different races based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.

Zionism, on the other hand, holds that Jews, like any other nation, are entitled to a homeland of their own. In other words, Zionist’s don’t claim entitlement to a homeland because they think Jews are superior to others, Zionist’s claim entitlement to a homeland because they believe that Jews are the SAME as others!

While Zionism recognizes that Jewishness is defined by shared origin, religion, culture and history, Zionism does not promote prejudice, discrimination or antagonism of those who are not Jewish, nor does it limit the definition of Jewishness to exclude particular visible ethnic or racial characteristics.

Fortunately, the UN’s equation of Zionism with racism has been reconsidered, and the General Assembly voted to repeal it in 1991.

But even after we’ve dispensed with the negative rhetoric, Zionism is no less easy to understand.

Although Zionism has been advocated by Jews of all kinds, from the political left, right and center, and from both religious and secular communities, disagreements in philosophy have led to rifts in the Zionist movement so that a number of separate forms of Zionism now exist including American, Christian, Messianic, Political, Practical, Religious, Revisionist, Socialist, Spiritual, Synthetic, Territorialist, and Liberal forms of Zionism (to name a few!).

Clearly, we don’t have time to define and discuss each of these this evening! But I do want to talk about Liberal Zionism with you, because I am a Liberal Zionist, and I want to share with you what that means to me and why I feel it is crucial to support liberal Zionist efforts.

If I can leave you with one summary of what it means to be a Zionist, it would be this one, put forth by Rabbi Josh Weinberg, who is the President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He recently wrote that being a Zionist, “means to work to improve Israeli society and hold Israel up to high standards, in addition to wanting Israel to reflect our values.”

To me, being a liberal Zionist means that I want to see my values – the values of democracy, equality, freedom and justice, values that I also identify as ones coming from Torah – reflected throughout Israeli law and society. It means that I see Israel as extended family, and, just like with my immediate family, I love them even when I don’t agree with everything that they do; and sometimes I show that by lovingly sharing my concerns about their actions or choices, by making suggestions for how they can improve themselves and/or their relationships, and by offering to support them as they endeavor to make those changes.

Sometimes the support that they need is financial, but there are other ways to support family as well, and Israel, just like family, needs us to do more than just throw money at the problem.

We often feel powerless when faced with Israel’s myriad conflicts. Israel’s relationship with it’s neighbors is overwhelming enough, never mind all the societal concerns – the ethnic racism; the religious and gender inequalities. But how can we do that when we don’t live there when we can’t vote for the politicians and policies that might affect change?

Believe it or not, we can.

We can influence policy in Israel, and not just through our finances, although that, in and of itself, actually gives American Jews more pull than you might think, when it comes to political advocacy.

Many of you may not realize it, but there is a system in which YOU can vote, that directly influences political and social change in Israel.

That system is the World Zionist Organization. Often called the “Parliament of the Jewish people,” the WZO was convened in 1897 by Theodore Herzl, “the father of modern political Zionism.” At it’s inception the goal of the WZO was to unite the Jewish people and to bring about the establishment of the Jewish state. Today, it continues to try to unite the Jewish people and to support the now-established State of Israel.

The WZO is a global organization. International political parties, representing different groups of Jews around the world, compete in elections every five years to determine their number of delegates within the WZO. In addition, Jewish organizations like Hadassah and B’nai Brith have fixed representation, and Israel’s political parties are represented based on the number of seats they have in the Israeli government.

Reform Jews are represented in the WZO by the international party called Arzenu, which means “Our Land”. Arzenu’s mission is, “to imbue all Reform Jews with a common vision of Jewish peoplehood” and, “to see…Israel as the Jewish, democratic state inspired by Reform (and) Progressive values.” For liberal Zionists like me, voting for Arzeinu is the best way to ensure that those who share our values have a seat at the table where pressing matters about Israel are discussed, and have the ability to influence the decisions made there, which directly impact Israeli policy.

Why is this important? Here’s an example:

On behalf of the Reform Movement in Israel, Arzenu uses its position in the WZO to impact budget allocations in Israel with an eye to equality for all Jewish streams. This has led to the Reform movement in Israel receiving more federal & charitable funds than ever before, although they are certainly a long way from getting funded on par with the Orthodox communities.

Arzenu’s influence in the WZO is also important because it has established a Joint Faction with some of the important Israeli political parties. This Joint Faction allows them to influence the Israeli government and society with Reform Jewish values as a guide.

At the Zionist General Council meetings held in 2013, the Joint Faction was able to pass three resolutions, one of which called on the Israeli government to implement the establishment of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.

These resolutions were an important step in the creation, finally, of a state-sanctioned and funded section of the Western Wall where men and women can pray together, and where women can legally wear talitot and read from the Torah.

This summer, I stood in that place with a talis on my shoulders, with both men and women from our TBD community, and I wept with joy. It was the first time I truly felt at home in that most sacred place, the first time I felt that Israel, my homeland, validated and supported my religious choices instead of those who would prefer to sublimate them.

If Arzenu loses the ability to influence Israeli policy-makers then that amazing place might not exist next time you or I go to Israel, and all the progress made in the past year or so to gain religious and gender equality in Israel could easily be reversed.

This summer, the need for active and articulate liberal Zionists was clearer than ever. In response to the Gaza War, Rabbi Weinberg, who speaks on behalf of liberal Zionism in America, wrote the following words: “As a liberal Zionist, I take pride in the fact that we openly express sympathy for the loss of Palestinian life in Gaza, question the necessity of ground incursions and targeted strikes, and actively support Israel’s ongoing – but lesser known – humanitarian aid to the Palestinians…I take pride in the notion that we do not turn our back on Israel, even though we may be at times critical. We do not view our connection to or support for the Jewish State as conditional.” Rabbi Weinberg called on the Israeli government to look towards diplomatic steps toward lasting peace, to look to the international community, including the Arab states, as partners in the pursuit of peace, and in the rebuilding of Gaza.

Reading his words, and his call to action, I was proud to be a liberal Zionist, and grateful to have my values so clearly articulated for the public and the politicians to hear, in both Israel and North America.

If Rabbi Weinberg’s sentiments strike a chord in you as well; if you agree with all or even most of his points; if you found yourself nodding along or feeling relieved that someone was voicing your perspective, then you may be a Liberal Zionist.

Arzenu’s website states, “If you care about the Reform Movement in Israel, if you support egalitarian prayer, if you believe in freedom of religion, the right of Reform rabbis to conduct marriage, divorce, burial and conversion, if you believe that women should have equal status…” (then you are a Liberal Zionist).

And if you are, you may want to consider voting in the next WZO election, so that your voice can continue to be heard.

Often, we end discussions about Israel with the question, “What can we do?”; How can we ensure that Israel is a place that reflects not just our history and heritage but our values as well?

This is one answer.

If you’d like to know more about participating in the WZO elections then please refer to the postcards that were on your seats when you entered the room this evening. You can also find them in our lobby after services.

Our Sages taught, kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh, each member of the Jewish people is responsible for the other.  After a summer like the one we just had; after far too many years of racial and religious inequality in the country we call home, we can no longer afford to be silent.

I am a Zionist.
I am a lover of Israel.

If you love Israel too, and you want to have a say in how the Jewish Homeland conducts itself, this is how you do it.

May we no longer sit idly by.

May we live to see a day when Israel is a true reflection of our values and of the values of Torah.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s will.

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