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Why I Am Not a Zionist (But Christians Should Be)

The Jewish community has been energetic lately in disciplining Jews who say the wrong thing about Israel. In January, the American Jewish Committee branded Jewish leftwing Israel critics as inciters of antisemitism. Meanwhile, when the Jewish anti-Zionists of Neturei Karta sent representatives to meet with Iran’s notorious president, Jews of all persuasions howled in outrage at the ultra-Orthodox eccentrics. Then there is Alan Dershowitz, with his tireless crusade against anti-Israel professor Norman Finkelstein.

And so it goes. I’m taking a bit of a risk, then, in admitting here that—precisely because I’m an Orthodox Jew—I am not a Zionist.

This is the first time I’ve said this publicly, and it may surprise readers familiar with my books or other writing. I call the Jewish community to a more traditional understanding of Judaism, and I remind Jews not to take for granted the friendship of conservative Christians, not least because of their support and love for the state of Israel.

And yet the truth is I believe that Zionism, in making a pedestrian and foreign 19th-century-style nationalism so central to contemporary Jewish culture, has caused us to neglect the higher mission God has in mind for us. If we are ever to take that mission seriously, we must be honest about Zionism and the deleterious effects it has had on Jewish life.

Zealous pro-Israel partisans will say that now is the worst time to make such a confession. A bitter struggle among pundits and activists is being waged about pro-Israel lobbying. If Jews do anything other than cheer for the Jewish state and decry her critics, couldn’t this weaken America’s support?

No. Republicans are Israel’s best friends, and this is not because of Jewish influence. It is because of Christian Zionism in the Evangelical community. I believe that Christian Zionism stands on firmer theological ground than Jewish Zionism, and I doubt that Jewish debate about Israel will change what President Bush and his fellow Evangelicals believe. So why not be frank about Zionism?

Religious Zionists invest sanctity not only in the land of Israel, a cardinal principle of Judaism that I embrace, but also in the idea of a Jewish-led state. But I don’t see any holiness in Jews squabbling and voting in a Knesset that happens to sit on top of the Holy Land.

I am not an anti-Zionist, however, but simply a non-Zionist. If my son Ezra, when he grows up, were to join the Israeli army to protect its citizens, I would be proud. For better or worse, about half of world Jewry lives in Israel. Obviously, their safety is of great concern.

For Jews, though, this practical concern somehow gets translated into a spiritual obligation. I remember the atmosphere that accompanied the yearly Israel Day Parade when I lived on New York’s Upper West Side. In shul, we were solemnly urged to attend the event as if it were a religious commandment. I recall overhearing a conversation at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Conservative rabbinical students were comparing how many of their comrades had attended, versus how many of the “Orthos.” Everything about this—counting heads at a silly parade, as though chanting nationalist slogans and waving flags were sacred Jewish acts—struck me as mundane and demoralizing.

Today, religious Jews seem mostly in agreement about Israel’s spiritual significance, but this has not historically been the case. In fact, a debate about religious Zionism goes back to the mid–19th century, decades before secular Zionism was championed by Theodor Herzl.

The intellectual and religious originator of Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, argued that Jews have a “mission” to humanity. He stressed the Jewish role as “patriots” in their adopted home countries, contributing to the spiritual and physical welfare of their neighbors.

This is the famous idea of tikun olam, repairing the world. In the traditional understanding, tikun olam means acting to lead humanity toward a deeper understanding of God and His laws. Hirsch argued that this is “a God-given destiny which…overshadows the existence of a state.”

The concept is central to Judaism. It is embodied in the famous instruction God gave to the Jews upon their arrival at Mt. Sinai, where they would receive the Ten Commandments: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6). Jews are literally intended to minister to the world as priests, teaching and inspiring humanity. Merely to have a state, to be like other peoples, is not our destiny.

This is one important implication of a famous passage in the Talmud (Ketubot 111a). Rabbi Zeira explains there that the Jews are forbidden to ascend to the holy land en masse with the use of force until “it pleases” God.

But how will we know when this pleases Him? When mass migration to Israel is unopposed by other peoples living there.

When will that be? In the time of the Messiah. Or so would have been the standard Jewish response up until the last century or so.

Unfortunately, American Jews have mostly abandoned our unique destiny. Today, when we speak as Jews in public forums, it is rarely to apply the insights of our tradition to any of the great problems our nation faces. Much more typically, we discuss Israel, how unfair her critics are, how deserving she is of protection from enemies in her neighborhood, and so on. This is at a time of unprecedented openness in the Christian world to Jews and Jewish wisdom.

As for Jews in Israel, in this post-Holocaust era, just when Gentiles were ready to begin hearing what we have to say, they have retreated to a holy sanctuary where they are cut off, largely irrelevant to any discussion of how the world’s nations should construct their politics and culture. Zionism has tragically distracted us from the historic role of the Jewish people, just when our best opportunity to fulfill that role has presented itself.

Our dereliction of duty doesn’t change the fact that we have a duty. Our mission to the world “forbids us to strive for the reunion or the possession of the land by any but spiritual means,” as Hirsch put it. To return as a people to Israel in the messianic era, called by God, when our mission to uplift others has been accomplished, remains the divine plan.

But why doesn’t any of this concern Christian Zionists? Today, if asked why they seek to protect and defend the Jewish state, and why they see this as a religious obligation, thoughtful Evangelicals point to their straightforward reading of Biblical verses.

When Christian Zionists do this, they find numerous promises made by God to the prophets—on four separate occasions to Abraham alone—about the divine gift to the Jews in the form of the land of Israel. Their plain reading is that these promises still apply in full force.

In his recent book, Standing with Israel: Why Christians Support the Jewish State, David Brog devotes special attention to Genesis 12:3, in which God promises Abraham, the first Jew, “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you.” Brog, who is Jewish, finds that Christians cite this verse most often in explaining their Zionist commitment. Pat Robertson, Gary Bauer, Richard Land, John Hagee, and Jerry Falwell come back to that verse again and again.

Why are Christian Zionists, who read the Bible so conscientiously, not moved by the Biblical vision of a Jewish mission to the nations? The answer is simple. For Christians, Evangelical or otherwise, the special task of the Jewish people was accomplished two thousand years ago, when we produced the Christian savior.

Traditional Jews and Evangelicals share a commitment to reading the Hebrew Bible with integrity. But Jews do not share the Christian belief that the redemption promised by the Hebrew prophets has already arrived. Christians, unlike Jews, believe that Jews have already accomplished their mission in the world.

We Jews must remember our primary purpose of uplifting the world, not retreating from it. The wonderful irony is that we can do this without for a moment abandoning the Israeli Jews who, however prematurely, are already in residence in the Holy Land.

Even as we rethink our historic mission, America’s Christians will continue to make sure that the world’s greatest nation, our own, stands in defense of Israel. They ask only that we refrain from abusing their friendship too much. The paradox is worth savoring. With their own very different concept of why God put Jews into the world, Christians make it possible for us enact our own understanding—the true understanding, I believe—of the Jewish national purpose.

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