A Plea To My Liberal Zionist Friends: Live With the Tension
The South African Jewish community where was I privileged to grow up was overwhelmingly non-observant. Most people drove to shul on Shabbos. It was a large, Orthodox shul with barely a minyan of observant families. In the US, we would have been called Conservative or Reform, but everyone identified as Orthodox.
I have often joked that if a South African Jew would drive to shul on shabbos morning and see that there was no mechitza, they would get back into the car and drive to another shul. And they would have bristled noticeably if told that they were Conservative or Reform.
This orientation might seem ludicrous to a modern American mindset. The hypocrisy is obvious. If you're orthodox, don't drive! And if you drive, why care about a mechitza?
The answer is as simple as it is profound. For most South African Jews, Shul was Shul, Shabbos was Shabbos and mechitzos were mechitzos. As to an individual's own observance? That was a separate question entirely. There was simply no problem with knowing something to be true and living in contraction with that truth.
I personally grew up living with this unresolved tension. I was an orthodox kid who drove to shul on Shabbos. How did such internal conflict work? It didn't really seem to bother anyone. But I have been doing some serious introspection this week to understand this way of thinking, because Liberal American Zionism is cracking under the pressure of two identities that can no longer be contained within one worldview.
To name the beast: Explicit and implicit accusations of hypocrisy have overwhelmed public discourse and personal identity. In the past two weeks, it has reached a breaking point as a wave of liberal Jews has begun triumphantly and publicly, distancing themselves from the State of Israel and Zionism. This could not have come at a worse time: Anti-semitism is rising faster than ever before in this country.
For months, people have dutifully highlighted how language unconsciously shapes public opinion and leads to systemic racism. Yet those same people seem somehow blind to the reality that calling the Jewish State “genocidal” could have anything to do with a terrifying rise in anti-Semitism.
We are witnessing that so many people, Jews included, who were so quick to condemn every other kind of hate, are now deafeningly silent as Jews are assaulted in broad daylight.
Of course, we have all read the countless equivocations from politicians and celebrities: “Anti-semitism is wrong!... And also Israel is perpetrating genocide... And also, Islamaphobia is wrong!”
But these sentiments don't exist in a vacuum. The more honest of the tweeters and posters might well explain that that are not blind to the effects of their words. They acknowledge that anti-semitism is tragically rising, but will argue that it's a small price to pay in the service of higher cause. To them, the facts on the ground are obvious. Israel, or at least “Bibi's Israel”, is committing, or at least complicit, in heinous humanitarian crimes against the Palestinians. Morality thus dictates that one should stand up for the weak and defenseless Palestinians, even at the expense of a little extra Jew hatred.
Let me be clear: I do not agree with any of these sentiments. But I don't want to have that discussion today. I am not going to try to convince you that Israel is right and that the Palestinians are wrong. I don't expect that we will agree on politics, policy or Halacha. I am also, most definitely not addressing actual anti-semites. (Anyways, I think it's highly unlikely that anti-semites read the BRS Weekly or follow me on Facebook.) Instead, I would like to address my friends, neighbors, colleagues and congregants who feel caught in the cross fire of two ideals and two identities.
On the one hand, you care deeply about the Jewish people, the Land of Israel and the State of Israel. On the other, you are dedicated to the eradication of prejudice, racism, and hatred. Politically, you believe strongly in the possibility of a two-state solution, and you argue that the nationalism of the right is dangerous fanaticism.
I know that you do not deny, even for a second, that Hamas is the true evil here. But you also believe that Israel is the stronger of the two sides, and that strength obligates the State of Israel to take a far greater share of responsibility. As it stands, the morality of liberalism is now irredeemably at odds with your Zionism.
I hear you. I understand you. Many of your ideals are my ideals. Much of your distress, is my distress. Of course, in all likelihood, we disagree on the most optimal solution and we might not share the same eventual goals and dreams. I still pray and hope and yearn for a sovereign state of Israel with the rebuild Beis HaMikdash at its center. I dream of a day where that will be possible without bloodshed or pain. You might not agree with my vision of a redeemed world or how to get there. But I know that you care about a State of Israel free from bloodshed or pain.
So here is my plea: Live with the tension. And don't give up.
I am not asking you to agree with Bibi or Israeli policy. I am asking you to publicly and unequivocally decry anti-semitism. When you are challenged (internally or externally), I beg of you to maintain your Jewish and Zionist identity, even as stands at odds with your liberal identity. These two parts of who you are may well collide irreparably. Please don't attempt to resolve that collision. Live with the tension.
How does one live with such tension without abandoning either side? By knowing deeply that that the current tension is temporary.
It might seem counterintuitive now, but this is exactly what right-wing Orthodox Zionists have been doing since the founding of the State. We have always dreamed of a religious country, run according to Halacha. And yet we have supported a secular State nonetheless. It hasn't been and still isn't easy to see busses running on Shabbos and pork sold in Israeli supermarkets. It was not simple to see Israel's safety put on the line during Oslo and Camp David.
You challenged us to remain supportive of Israel and Zionism when Olmert and Barak were dividing up country in Land-for Pease deals. You challenged us to stay committed to Zionism in the aftermath of the Gaza disengagement. Please understand, you are not the only ones who have been deeply disappointment by the modern State of Israel. But we have lived with the tension. And we ask you to do the same.
Many divorced parents do this same everyday, when they work together in the best interest of their children, despite the fact that they often feel deep resentment for each other. They live with the hypocrisy, pain and tension because the alternatives, while simpler, are demonstratively worse.
I remember considering it as a child. I knew it wasn't right to drive on Shabbos. I knew that it was the only way to get to Shul. I knew that going to shul was right. So, I reasoned: “This current situation is temporary. At some point, I guess I'll figure it out. But for now, this will have to do.” (Please note: this is not Halachik advice.)
This “resolution” is not my own chiddush. The founders of Hashkama minyanim on the Lower East Side did the same a century ago when they arrived in Shul on Shabbos morning with the keys to their stores jingling in their pockets.
Jews have lived with tension throughout the ages.
Why do I ask this of you? Beyond the obvious truth that the Jewish people needs your voice to combat anti-semitism and support Israel, I ask this of you because I don't want to see another Jew fade out of history. There will be no victory in the uncoupling of your Jewish identity from the State of Israel. It's a defeat of the most tragic order.
Whether you are happy to admit it or not, the future of the Jewish people is the State of Israel in the Land of Israel. Disconnecting from it will offer respite from the tension, but the cost is assimilation. It has always been this way, even if it doesn't seem to be now.
In the deepest way, turning away from the Land of Israel is the repeated thematic failure of Sefer Bamidbar. At every twist and turn, a group of people arises and challenges: “Why are we going to the Land of Israel? Why do we care about that place? Let's go back to Egypt!”
These complaints begin this Shabbos:
וַיְהִי הָעָם כְּמִתְאֹנְנִים רַע בְּאׇזְנֵי י״י – The people were complaining, and it was evil in the ears of Hashem.
What were they complaining about? The Torah doesn't tell us. But they were certainly unhappy. What was there to be so upset about?
Rav Hirsch explains: They were frustrated by the entire enterprise of being Jewish, of conquering Eretz Yisrael, of building Klal Yisrael. It didn't seem like a fair exchange for the comfort and simplicity of the life they were giving up.
They had other priorities, other identities. And it was far easier to gravitate to what was more comfortable than grapple with discomfort.
The Seforno writes: “They were complaining about the טורח הדרך – the schlep of the journey.” They didn't enjoy being on the journey to redemption. So they decided to jump ship; and this was the beginning of the end for that generation, who would eventually perish in the desert.
It's been a few thousand years since then, and our journey is far from over. There is much work yet to be done. But I strongly believe we are closer than we have ever been before.
To the Liberal Zionists of the world: Please don't quit on the Jewish people yet. Live with the tension and hold on just a little while longer. With Hashem's help, the destination that He is hoping for is closer than any of us could ever imagine.