I had the incredible zechut (and also the zechus!) to spend Yom Ha’atzmaut 75 in Yerushalayim. As the wrenching sadness and stoic determination of Yom Hazikaron faded and the mood brightened, I joined thousands (literally) at an exhilarating and uplifting musical Tefillah Chagigit sponsored by OU Israel. Yom Ha’atzmaut is such a special—and complicated—day. With our hearts still broken by the losses of so many Jewish soldiers and terror victims, including too many recent and raw losses, we gathered to express our gratitude to Hashem for the blessing of being in Israel, in Yerushalayim. And to pray for peace and redemption.
And yet, there is dissonance. I live in New York. Am I an impostor, an outsider, a voyeur on Yom Ha’atzmaut—especially in Israel? However often I visit, I am a visitor. I consider myself to be a Zionist. Here are my Zionist bona fides: I was a member of a Zionist youth group while in high school. I spent a summer working on a kibbutz. My shul recites Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim (without a berachah). I still get misty-eyed when I hear the haunting ballad “Yerushalayim shel Zahav.” I attended ulpan twice. Three of my children have made aliyah. I buy blue-and-white cookies for my children and grandchildren.
And yet . . . I live in New York.
Those of us who identify strongly with Israel but who choose (choose!) to live in chutz la’Aretz should perhaps be a little more humble about using the Zionist moniker.
Alas, Zionism is a trigger word for so many, both within and outside of our community.1 Pre-1948, Zionism was a fault line between different political, economic and religious factions within the Jewish community. Among leading Orthodox rabbis, there were sharply divergent views about the appropriateness of establishing a state. Within Israel, these divergences persist and manifest in important political, tribal and cultural differences that impact on identity.
Zionism in Israel is tied up with identity and politics. But what does it mean to be a Zionist who chooses to live in the United States and not in Israel? And what does it mean to be a non-Zionist when the State of Israel is seventy-five years old and the strongest country in the Middle East?
Let’s put “Zionism” to the side. I submit that when it comes to our relationship with the State of Israel—not any particular party or politician or policy, but its very existence—we actually agree much more than we disagree. Here is a partial list of propositions about which I suspect there is something of an American Orthodox Jewish (dare I say?) consensus:
1. We care deeply about Israel (whether we refer to it as Israel or Medinat Yisrael or Eretz Yisrael). We follow the politics and other goings-on there closely, often more closely than we follow the news about the US. We grieve when there is a terrorist attack. We send money.
2. We have strong opinions about what happens in Israel, even though we do not have a vote.
3. We are very happy and grateful to Hashem that Israel exists, however flawed its founders and current leaders may be.2 We do not think the Jewish people and the dissemination of Torah would be in a better place had “Palestine” been governed for the past seventy-five years by the Turks, the British or the Jordanians.
4. We are very happy and grateful to Hashem that Israel has a strong army and defense force that are far superior to those of its neighbors. We believe the physical security of Israel is provided by Hashem, and Torah and mitzvot are crucial in this regard, while our hishtadlut requires a strong army, weaponry and technology as well. These beliefs do not preclude us from debating, from the comfort of our living rooms, the merits of Chareidi enlistment in the IDF.
5. The learning of Torah—for men, women and children—has flourished in Israel for the last seventy-five years both qualitatively and quantitatively. Many of us have studied Torah in Israel and/or have sent our children to study Torah in Israel. For many of us, Torat Eretz Yisrael (or the Torah we learned while in Eretz Yisrael) has propelled our religious growth more than any other factor.
6. We love to visit Eretz Yisrael. The Kotel, Kever Rachel and Ein Gedi would exist without a State of Israel, though I query whether we would have access to them. Everything built since 1948? Highly doubtful.
7. Our commitment to Israel is not conditional on the makeup of the government on any particular day.
8. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we believe instinctively that the creation of the State of Israel has religious significance, even if we do not often think about this. The Shoah had religious significance, which we acknowledge on Yom HaShoah or Tishah B’Av. How could the return to Tzion of what now constitutes nearly half of world Jewry not be equally significant in Jewish religious history?3 Yes, some claim they know what that religious significance is, while others humbly demur and prefer to wait until Hashem reveals His plan. But significant it is.4
So what about Israel/Zionism do we disagree about so passionately? And I am speaking about Israel’s existence, not its internal politics and culture. Whether we culturally and hashkafically align more with Gush Etzion or Bnei Brak is not relevant to this conversation.
Yom Ha’atzmaut remains a flash point. Some of us celebrate and say Hallel to thank Hashem for the miracle of Israel’s existence and continued flourishing. Others cannot fathom adding to the religious calendar and changing nusach ha’tefillah for a day established by non-religious Jews, a day whose date shifts year to year and whose celebration often clashes with the minhagim of the Sefirah period.5 The differences here are stark, but no more so than the differences in religious practice and customs between different communities, and these latter do not generate the same passion.6
If I am correct, then, American Orthodox Jews outside the Chassidic communities are in broad agreement about Israel 364 days a year. That’s not bad for Jews. For that one day, it would be wonderful if we could all acknowledge that the other side’s position is not unreasonable, despite our strong disagreements. Something to work on.
And, as noted above, the word “Zionist” is a trigger.7 Those of us who identify strongly with Israel but who choose (choose!) to live in chutz la’Aretz should perhaps be a little more humble about using the Zionist moniker. And those from the other camp should perhaps acknowledge that there are a great many good Jews and Torah scholars among the “Zionists.”
To be a Zionist, or a non-Zionist, living in America in 2023/5783 is to live with dissonance. We love Eretz Yisrael, but our embrace is not complete . . . yet. We are more than visitors but less than full participants in this magnificent and complicated project of Jewish history. We are dreamers.8 V’techezenah eineinu b’shuvcha l’Tzion b’rachamim.
- Of course, Zionism has been catnip for antisemites. Infamously, the UN in 1975 equated Zionism with racism, sparking massive demonstrations (of unity!) in New York and elsewhere and permanently staining the UN as an institution, even after the declaration was repealed.
- The theological objection of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, zt”l, of Satmar to the creation of a sovereign Jewish state in Israel before the advent of the Messianic era has not achieved wide acceptance outside of his community.
- In 1949, Winston Churchill said: “The coming into being of a Jewish State in Palestine is an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand or even three thousand years.”
- Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, z”l, objected to including “reishit semichat Geulateinu” in the Prayer for the Peace of the State of Israel as “spiritual arrogance” . . . “I prefer to view the events of our time as providential and not (necessarily) Messianic” (Seventy Faces: Articles of Faith, vol. 2 [New Jersey, 2002], p. 216).
- A head of school once told me that the question most asked by prospective parents was whether the school said Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut. (Some of the parents strongly wanted the answer to be yes, others the opposite.) He shook his head in wonder that the school’s curriculum and educational philosophy were of less concern than what happens for ten minutes one morning in Iyar.
- I attended a Shacharit minyan on Yom Ha’atzmaut this year where Hallel was recited with a berachah. At my Minchah minyan up the block, Tachanun was said.
- An Israeli Chareidi rabbi who was speaking recently to an American audience was asked about aliyah. After waxing eloquent about the benefits (and some challenges) of living in Israel, he paused and said with a twinkle in his eye: “But don’t accuse me of being a Zionist. I don’t want to be kicked out of my own shul!”
- See Tehillim 126:1.
Mitchel R. Aeder is president of the Orthodox Union.
This article is dedicated to the memory of my father-in-law, Dr. Jaime Sznajder, a”h, who passed away this Yom Ha’atzmaut. Grandpa loved all Jews, from Bundists to Satmar Chassidim. He was a passionate Zionist who had a close relationship with the late chief rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, zt”l. Yehi zichro baruch.