Why Zionism Is Losing Its Steam And How We Must Combat That Drift


Dear Future Great-Grandchild,   

I wonder if you can picture the scene on this September 2017 morning. Your great-grandmother and I are sitting on the living room floor of our home in Englewood, New Jersey. We are sifting through and packing more than 40 years of accumulated “life” into boxes as we prepare to make aliyah to Israel.

Why are we going? If you have studied Jewish history (and I certainly hope that you have), perhaps you can answer that question yourself. We believe that the time has come for us to make our homeland our home.  The decision is not an easy one. We are fortunate enough to have led fulfilling lives in the United States, a country that has afforded us with unparalleled opportunity and freedom.  We will be leaving behind beloved family members and friends (including your grandparents). Nonetheless, we feel the strong pull of history. For centuries, our people have prayed for a return to Israel, for the chance to create a self-governing Jewish State. Given the opportunity to participate in the fulfillment of that dream in our lifetime, how can we pass it up? Besides, your Savta [grandmother] has been lobbying for this journey for years. When she sets her mind on something, very little can stand in her way.

But enough about us, it’s actually you that I am concerned about. It may sound strange, but I can’t help but wonder: How connected are you to the Land of Israel? How deep is your bond to the Jewish State?

The seeds of my concern actually emerge from my own time, rather than yours.  You see, many of my rabbinic colleagues and I have felt for a while now that even in our Zionistic communities, Zionism is losing its steam.  Don’t get me wrong. We still jump into gear when political action is needed to support Israel and its citizens. On a daily basis, however, much of the passion seems to have gone out of the diaspora community’s relationship with the Jewish State.

The signs of this phenomenon are clearly evident.  Synagogues fill to the rafters for annual Yom Hashoa commemorations, but struggle during the following weeks to get crowds on Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim. Israel-related events that once garnered excitement and enthusiasm, such as the Israeli day parade in New York, now feel as if they are on autopilot. Of even more concern, support of the State of Israel has become progressively more conditional in some circles, as individuals find themselves at odds with specific political, social or religious policies adopted by the Jewish State.

For others, Israel has effectively become a destination for special events and family vacations; a sort of “Jewish Disneyland,” perfect for bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, weddings, the holidays, or other family trips.  Nearly gone, however, is the enduring sense of amazement, the recognition of Israel’s formation as a major turning point in Jewish history. The daily lives of most “American Zionists” remain unaffected by the fact that the State of Israel exists. The single greatest miracle in centuries of Jewish history, the fulfillment of a dream for which we have prayed for centuries, is met with a collective shrug.

All this is a far cry from the heady exuberance and excitement that your Savta and I remember from our earlier years when the miracle of Israel’s birth after the Holocaust and the victory of the Six-Day War were foundational pieces in the development of our own personal Jewish identities.

Why the dramatic shift?

First and most basically, passion for any cause is hard to maintain as the years pass. Savta and I were born shortly after the State of Israel came into existence. We grew up in homes where the reality of a Jewish State was not taken for granted. Our own parents and grandparents spoke of a different world before 1948. We personally witnessed how the Six-Day War spurred a resurgence in Jewish identity and pride across the globe. But then we made a mistake. We assumed that our children would instinctively feel as we do. We failed to realize that our children would grow up in a world vastly different from our own, a world in which Israel’s existence could, indeed, be taken for granted.

As the years passed, Jews across the globe found their relationship with the State of Israel growing increasingly complex. As long as Israel was a nascent nation struggling simply to survive, the committed diaspora community was unquestioning in its support. Israel could do no wrong. As the State matured and grew in strength, however, its imperfections began to emerge as well. Suddenly, many within the committed diaspora community found themselves wondering whether their automatic support of Israel was as warranted as it once had been.

Finally, and, I believe, most importantly, human beings are naturally averse to dissonance and discomfort. And such discomfort is unavoidable for anyone who is truly honest about his or her choice to continue living in an “exile of choice.” For a time after the establishment of the State of Israel, the decision to remain elsewhere could be easily explained away. Israel was a struggling new country, living circumstances were hard, aliyah was clearly not for all. By now, however, three generations into Israel’s existence, excuses are harder to come by. If the existence of the State of Israel is truly a phenomenon of historical importance, diaspora Jews find themselves subconsciously asking, if the center of Jewish life is shifting to Israel, if I really belong there, then what am I doing here? How can I claim to be a Zionist if I choose to remain in exile? And while there are reasonable answers to these questions, ultimately it becomes easier to avoid the struggle, to subconsciously deny Israel’s centrality rather than face perceived personal failure. The less important Israel is –historically, religiously, Jewishly — the more comfortable I can be with my decision to remain outside its borders. Inexorably, to avoid the dissonance, diaspora Jews have relegated Israel to the periphery of their Jewish lives.

Which brings me back to my concerns for you. If my contemporaries and I are already witnessing these phenomena in our time, what will your connection to the State of Israel be in yours? Is there a future for a committed, passionate diaspora Zionist community? Will such a community continue to exist by the time you appear on the scene?

My reasons for raising these questions are very concrete. My colleagues and I have come to recognize that the answers depend on us. We can no longer ignore the drift within our communities but must intentionally combat that drift. In spite of arguments to the contrary, Israel has never needed us more and we have never needed Israel more. In a world where violent unrest sweeps across the Middle East; where rising anti-Semitism breaks out across the globe; and where Jews are again feeling strikingly less safe wherever they live, an Israel-Diaspora partnership in support of a Jewish homeland is more important than ever. And I can only imagine how important it will be by the time you are born.

That is why, even as Savta and I set our sights towards our new home in Jerusalem, much of my own attention will be directed back to the diaspora. I am honored to have been asked to serve as a senior scholar with Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization world-renowned for its work on behalf of aliyah. In this role, I hope to partner with leaders throughout the Jewish community as we work to revitalize and invigorate Zionism in communities across North America.

The task before us is daunting. We must find a way through programs and curricula in synagogues, schools and community centers, to once again place the miracle of Israel’s existence front and center in the lives of diaspora Jews. We must argue against allowing support of Israel to become conditional upon specific practices or policies. While diaspora Jews certainly have the right to lobby for paths that they may feel are correct, support of Israel must transcend a particular point of view. Most importantly, we must reshape a diaspora Zionism that answers the fundamental questions: “What does it mean to be a Zionist, yet live in an exile of choice? How will the existence of a Jewish homeland affect me in my daily life, wherever I may live?”

The strange thing is that you will be able to determine the extent of our achievements better than we will. If we are successful, then the seeds that we plant today, at this critical juncture in the Israel- diaspora relationship, will bear their full fruit, not in our time, but in yours.

If you are reading this letter, I pray that means that we were indeed successful, and that your relationship with the State of Israel is healthy, vibrant and strong.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin has served as spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, New Jersey, for more than 31 years. A past president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the world’s largest association of Orthodox rabbis, he chairs its committee overseeing the group’s policies and standards for conversion to Judaism. Rabbi Goldin and his wife, Barbara, will make aliyah this month and join two of their children already residing in Israel.