What is Zionism?

Dear Rabbi, Is there a difference, or can we make a difference between being Zionist and Jewish? Are all Jews Zionists? Do they all support Israel right or wrong, or can they even imagine a “wrong” when it comes to Israel?

Terms like Zionist and Zionism often carry a lot of emotional baggage. If we are going to use these terms we need to define them clearly. For me Zion, Zionism, and Zionist refer to the unbroken 2500–year Jewish longing to return to the Land of Israel as the Jewish homeland. The word Zion is first used in II Samuel 5:7 where it is a synonym for Jerusalem. Over time it became a synonym for the Land of Israel and eventually the modern State of Israel as well.

Unlike Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam which are global by design, Judaism is global by default: Judaism spread around the world because Jews were forced to scatter around the world. While Buddhists may visit Bodh Gaya, the place of the Buddha’s awakening, Christians may visit Jerusalem, and Muslims may make the Haj to Mecca, followers of these religions are not taught that they should relocate to India, Jerusalem, or Saudi Arabia. But Jews are taught that we belong in Israel, and pray daily to return there, and end our Passover Seders with the prayer, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

So in this sense almost all Jews are Zionists. Where we differ is over when and how to make aliyah (going up) to Israel. Some Jews believe that we have to create and maintain the State of Israel by our own efforts. Others believe that God is working through these efforts. Still others believe that our efforts are an affront to God and that we should wait for God, via the Messiah, to bring us back home. And still others think the entire idea of a literal homeland is ridiculous and should be read as a metaphor for a world redeemed by justice and mercy.

Being a Zionist in this way is not the same as being pro–Israel or pro any specific government in Israel. One can, and Israelis are, quite diverse in their opinions regarding politics, and while they all want to be safe, secure, and prosperous in the State of Israel how they would bring that about is a matter of heated debate—far more heated than what passes for diversity of opinion here in the United States.

My own position is this: I am pro–human. The way I am pro–human is by being pro–Judaism, when Judaism is understood as a means to this end: nations beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning, cease to both engage in and prepare for war, and create a world where people sit beneath their vines and their fig trees with no one to make them afraid (Micah 4:3–4). To the extent that Jews embody and promote this understanding of Judaism, I am pro–Jewish. To the extent Israel seeks this same end, I am pro–Israel. Indeed to the extent that any people and any nation seek to realize the prophecy of Micah I am pro them as well.

This is not to say that in the short run people should abdicate self–defense or efforts at liberation, but that they should do so justly, compassionately, and humbly (Micah 6:8) and with the greater Micah vision as their stated end-goal.

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