Yom Kippur 5780 – Reclaiming Zionism

Bipartisan support for Israel is declining. Younger generation support for Israel, among both Jews and Gentiles, is declining. And that worries me, and it should worry you.

I love Israel. Of all the places I’ve lived – and I’ve lived in ten states and five countries – it’s the only place that really truly feels like home.

We’re here together in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the year. Yet a few hundred feet away from where we sit, out on East Mercer Way, it’s simply another Wednesday.

In Israel it’s Yom Kippur for the entire country. For 25 hours you see hardly any cars on the streets. Even Christians and Muslims stay off the streets, at least in Jewish areas. Pedestrians, bicyclists, and skateboarders take over all the roads. 

You can ride your bike on the highway from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.

It has to be seen to be believed. The entire country is literally shut down, in a way you never ever see in America, not even on Christmas.

It’s far easier to live an intensely Jewish life in Israel than anywhere else in the world. That’s why many Conservative Jews in Israel live a lifestyle that to outside appearances is very similar to the Orthodox. It’s not such a big deal to keep kosher if everything in the grocery store is kosher. You don’t even have to look at the packages. 

There’s a synagogue on almost every corner. And not just Orthodox synagogues – I have 3 Conservative synagogues within easy walking distance of my home in Jerusalem, and a 4th that’s a little bit of a longer walk. Even in Conservative circles, people overwhelmingly live walking distance to the synagogue, and walking distance to each other. 

For those of us who grew up in America, where Jews account for just 2% of the population, there’s something amazing about living somewhere with so many Jews – the person waiting on you in the restaurant is Jewish, the person who does your hair is Jewish, the person picking up your garbage is Jewish, the cop giving you a ticket for jaywalking is Jewish.

For 2,000 years our ancestors could only dream of a state that’s run by Jews, based on the Jewish calendar. It’s here. Any Jew in the world is free to not only visit, but to move there and become part of the dream.

The US has historically been a supporter of the Israeli dream – but that support is now fading.

Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar aren’t the only people in Congress who support BDS: a resolution calling on the US to officially boycott Israel was defeated by a resounding vote of 398 to 17 with 5 abstentions. But the fact that there are now 22 members of Congress who expressed some level of support for the measure is a huge change.

A new poll from the Economist shows a steady decline in American support for Israel over the last four years. Support for Israel among all Americans has declined from 47% in 2015 to just 37% today. 

The generational gap is even more striking: just 25% of young adults say Israel is an ally, versus 55% of senior citizens.

We’re fasting, which doesn’t help brain function, so I don’t want to throw too many numbers at you. But even among Republicans, support for Israel is way weaker among young Republicans than among old Republicans. Even among Israel’s most die-hard supporters, evangelical Christians, there’s a big decline in support for Israel among younger evangelicals.

The differences between young Israeli Jews and young American Jews is also increasing. Young Israelis are increasingly right-wing, and young American Jews are moving increasingly to the left. 

These trends led one commentator in the NYTimes to posit that American Jews and Israeli Jews are headed for a messy breakup.

We should all be concerned about these trends. The Israeli miracle didn’t happen in a vacuum. Israel is the amazing country it is because of the very strong partnership between Jews like you who may live in the Diaspora but who support Israel with their dollars, hearts, and votes, and Jews like me who’ve decided to make our home in Israel and help build the country directly – with our votes, our tax shekels, our children, and our grandchildren. 

Israel’s military is ranked the 17th most powerful in the world, which is very impressive for a country our size. We can’t be complacent however – Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, and Egypt are all ranked higher than we are on military firepower. The only reason we rank as high as we do is because of support from America. Under a ten-year military aid deal signed by President Obama, Israel receives nearly $4 billion a year in military aid from the US, on top of $16 billion paid for by Israeli taxpayers. More important than the money, though, is that the US gives Israel access to the latest and most powerful weapons in the arsenal, including the F-35 fighter.

Israel is no longer as dependent on support from the Diaspora as it once was. In 70 years, the country has gone from being very poor and so primitive it didn’t have TV until 1966 to being a member of the OECD, an organization consisting of 36 of the most developed economies in the world.

But Israel is still a small country, and a lot of people hate us. US support in the UN Security Council has been essential – the US veto is often the only thing that stands in the way of biased if not anti-Semitic resolutions against Israel. The rabbis in the Talmud say that the First Temple was destroyed because of the sins of the people, and Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred among Jews, but the truth is the temples were destroyed because Judea was a small country and trying to take on the Babylonian and Roman Empires was a very bad idea. Israel is still a small country, and if we’re going to survive, we need allies who are bigger and more powerful than we are, and there’s no better ally for Israel to have than the United States.

What happened to the strong bipartisan support for Israel? Why is it eroding?

I believe the shift can be best understood in light of a shift in the usage of the term “Zionism.”

The term Zionism has different meanings to different people.

To our enemies, Zionism is a type of colonialism and racism. To its great disgrace, the United Nations issued a Resolution in 1975 that declared, “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” To its credit, the UN revoked that resolution in 1991. 

The people who would kill me for being a proud Zionist believe Zionism is a racist movement and “one of the most vicious tools of imperialism.” They have no idea what Zionism is really about – all they see is the negative side of what happened in the process of the Jewish people getting a state, which is the displacement of Palestinians.

We know that what Zionism means to those who hate us is not what Zionism really means. But within Israel itself there are some very different views of what exactly is the “real Zionism.”

I saw this in the early summer of 2005 when I visited Jewish settlements in Gaza to see what it was that we were giving up. I sat in a living room in Neveh Dekalim, a Gaza settlement that no longer exists, and watched a clash between two competing visions of Zionism.

One of the Gaza residents told us that her husband grew up in a house that used to belong to an Arab in Ashkelon, a city south of Tel Aviv which has always been part of Israel.  She said “what’s the difference?  Why should we have to give up Neveh Dekalim, but we get to keep Ashkelon?”  To her, all of Israel from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea belongs to Israel, there is no difference between Tel Aviv and Gaza, and if we’re entitled to any of it we’re entitled to all of it.

“Why should anyone lose their child so you can live here, surrounded by millions of Arabs who hate you?” was the heated response from an older secular Israeli who lost a child serving in the Israeli Defense Forces.  One of the other visitors said, “as painful as the disengagement is for you, are you totally incapable of seeing the pain of the Palestinians?”

To understand these competing visions of Zionism – and the implications for bipartisan support for Israel – we need a little history.

Jews have always had a strong connection to the land of Israel, but for almost 2,000 years the idea of actually having an independent country was a dream waiting on the coming of the Messiah.

Waiting for the Messiah to come and bring us home required a great deal of patience.  They say that the town of Chelm in Poland hired a watchman, so that if the Messiah came in the middle of the night he could run around and wake everyone up and let them know the good news.  They say the job didn’t pay very well, but it was steady work!

A little over a hundred years ago, some Jews got tired of waiting.  In 1897 Theodore Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. The delegates weren’t religious Jews longing for the Messiah. They were secular Jews who wanted to live in dignity in a place where Jews could ply any profession, belong to any country club, serve at all levels of government.  They were tired of being second class citizens wherever they lived.

After substantial debate, the delegates agreed on a statement of the key principle of Zionism: “The aim of Zionism is to create for the Jewish people a home in Eretz Yisrael secured by law.”

Even this idea—that we shouldn’t just wait for God, but we should go ahead and work to bring the Jewish people home on our own, was controversial in its day.  The vast majority of Orthodox Jews didn’t support it because they believed we shouldn’t try to “push God’s hand.”  They believed we should wait for God to bring us home when the Messiah comes.  

Most Reform Jews didn’t support Zionism, because at that time they believed they were transcending narrow nationalism by striving for acceptance among the nations.  

In 1885 the Reform Movement had a major conference in Pittsburg, and they issued a resolution that said,

…we consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community; and we therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning a Jewish state.

We can be proud that Conservative Judaism was the first of the major movements to embrace the idea of Zionism, ever since 1906, when Solomon Schechter, one of the guiding lights of the Conservative movement, said, “Zionism is the Declaration of Jewish Independence from all kinds of slavery, whether material or spiritual.”  

The founding generation in the Zionist movement, the ones that “did the heavy lifting,” who made aliyah and built organizations like the Jewish Agency and Histradut were mostly secular Jews from Eastern Europe, Jews fleeing persecution.  Hence their vision for Israel was as a haven to escape anti-Semitism—not as a place to fulfill Messianic expectations.

Even though most of the founders of Israel were not religious, they felt a spiritual connection to the land, they felt a sense of mission, and they felt a connection to the Torah as a repository of the Jewish people’s history.  They were idealists, in the words of A.D. Gordon: 

As we now come to re-establish our path among the ways of living nations of the earth, we must make sure that we find the right path. We must create a new people, a human people whose attitude toward other peoples is informed with the sense of human brotherhood and whose attitude toward nature and all within it is inspired by noble urges of life-loving creativity. 

Those on the Israeli left are the spiritual descendants of A.D. Gordon’s philosophy.  They have a vision of Israel as more than just a home for Jews, but as a place where we apply the moral vision of Judaism.

The attitude of today’s secular Zionists is most eloquently expressed by the famous Israeli author, A.B. Yehoshua, when he wrote about the withdrawal from Gaza: 

We, who love our homeland and suffice with the Land of Israel inside the Green Line, are regarded by the opponents of the disengagement plan as alienated folks who have betrayed the ‘Land of Israel’ of the Zionist vision.

Yehoshua analyzes how much land is in Israel, how much in the West Bank, and how much is not currently populated by Palestinians—and he concludes that the whole battle is over what to do with eight percent of the western land of Israel—a large part of which is the Judean desert, as if Israel lacks for desert.  He continues, 

And because of that small area, the opponents of disengagement want to stay in this bloody cycle, and to pollute Zionism, to drag themselves over the rocks, to paralyze the state and to threaten a civil war?… The God that governs these people’s hearts and guides their action is a god of ‘quantity of soil.’ A tragic and absurd degeneration of the Jewish spirituality of yore.

If the secular Zionists are clearly the spiritual descendants of the founders of the Zionist movement and the founders of the state of Israel, from where do the religious Zionists draw their claim that THEY are the REAL Zionists?  Why are they so obsessed with holding onto every square inch of the land of Israel including the lands of the West Bank?

The spiritual founder of religious Zionism was Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook, appointed the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel in 1921.  Like the secularists from Ukraine and Poland, Rabbi Kook believed that all Jews should move to Israel—but for a completely different reason.  Rabbi Kook wrote, 

Apart from the nourishment it receives from the life-giving Jew of the holiness of Eretz Yisrael, Jewry in the Diaspora has no real foundation and lives only by the power of a vision, and by the memory of our glory, i.e., by the past and the future. 

The secular Zionists said there was no hope for Jews living in the Diaspora; Rabbi Kook said there is no hope for Judaism living in the Diaspora.

For the religious Zionists, settling the land of Israel is not primarily about escaping anti-Semitism.  It’s primarily about fulfilling the prophecies that the Jewish people should be restored to their land, and about fulfilling commandments to live in Israel and to settle the land of Israel.  

The messianic inclinations of the religious Zionists got a big boost in 1967—after Israel regained Biblically important lands in Judea and Samaria, as well as the land in the Gaza Strip and of course the Old City of Jerusalem – and Sinai and the Golan Heights as a bonus.  A more radical strand came to the fore—Gush Emunim, Bloc of the Faithful, who believed it is our divine destiny to hang on to every inch of the land of Israel.  

Gush Emunim has since transformed into the “Yesha Council,” an acronym from Yehuda, Shomron, and Aza, the Hebrew names for Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. They believe

…that the promise of the entire land of Israel is a pledge of absolute divine validity. No moral consideration can stand against it, and any Arab national rights have no weight against it.

In the settler-driven nationalistic view of Zionism it’s a sin to give up an inch of land in “greater Israel,” without regard to how many people will die defending that land, without regard to world opinion, and certainly without regard to the feelings or situation of any Arabs currently living on that land.  Their rabbis like to quote Numbers 33:53, “And you shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land, and live in it; for I have given you the land to possess it.” 

The rise of religious Zionism is what’s behind much of the decline in support for Israel. The values of religious Zionism are contrary to the values many Americans and younger American Jews hold near and dear. 

What resonates with me – and what I believe has the potential to resonate with many younger American Jews and other Americans – is the original Zionist vision, a vision expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence: 

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; 

One of the central arguments in the most recent election in Israel was over religious coercion, and the way the ultra-Orthodox are forcing their views on the rest of the Israeli public, with everything from onerous rules on who can marry whom to banning stores being open or buses running on Shabbat. A theocracy is not a form of government that resonates with young Americans. This was explicitly NOT part of Herzl’s vision. In The Jewish State, he wrote,

Shall we end by having a theocracy? No, indeed. Faith unites us, knowledge gives us freedom. We shall therefore prevent any theocratic tendencies from coming to the fore on the part of our priesthood. 

For the last ten years Israel has been ruled by a coalition of the ultra-Orthodox and the religious Zionists. That coalition has co-opted the term “Zionist” to mean someone who supports their narrow vision of a state of Jews that has no room for anyone else, and they’ve turned “leftist” into a term of derision, something that people should be ashamed of. So it’s no surprise that American “leftists” don’t feel welcome.

Israel has two problems in regard to public perception among liberals: a reality problem, and a hasbara problem. Hasbara means “explanation” – sometimes translated as public relations or propaganda. The reality problem is the ongoing military rule over the Palestinians living in the West Bank. Most of the rest of the world finds the current situation unacceptable. The hasbara problem is that it’s not all Israel’s fault. Which is why there’s no point to the BDS movement. The Palestinian Authority is no more ready to make the difficult compromises necessary to achieve a peace agreement than is the Israeli government. They’ve turned down several offers already.

Trying to convince young liberal Americans that there’s nothing wrong with the religious Zionist vision is not going to work. It’s too at odds with their values. But if we can show them that there is another type of Zionism – a Zionism that is based on Israel being a Jewish AND democratic state, that supports equality for all citizens of Israel and longs for a future where there’s a Palestinian state living peacefully side by side with our Jewish state, perhaps we could win some of them over, and help keep bipartisan support for Israel alive in the next generation.

Feeling a connection to Israel can deepen one’s connection to Judaism – ask anyone who’s been there. If we can show young American Jews that there’s a Zionism that’s in line with their values, it could also help Jewish continuity in the Diaspora. 

If we can win over more of the younger generation of American Jews and Gentiles, it benefits everyone who loves Israel, whether you’re a secular Zionist or a religious Zionist. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, bipartisan support for Israel is important for the continued safety and security of the country. The most important thing isn’t American aid dollars – it’s American trade, American military technology, and American diplomatic support in forums such as the UN.

Most of the time, those of us living outside of Israel can only sit on the sidelines and watch what happens politically in Israel.  This year is different.  This year we have a vote.

Starting in January there will be elections for the World Zionist Congress. Your vote can influence the way hundreds of millions of dollars are spent by the Jewish Agency. I’ll speak more about this in January when the election period is open. For now, it’s enough to note that you will be able to express an opinion in a meaningful way for the type of Zionism you support, including, specifically, the Zionism of the Conservative Movement.

The organization that represents the Conservative Movement at the Zionist Congress is Mercaz USA. Mercaz supports a vision of the Diaspora and Israel culturally and spiritually nourishing each other, as was described by Ahad Ha’am:

This Jewish settlement, … will become in course of time the centre of the nation, wherein its spirit will find pure expression and develop in all its aspects up to the highest degree of perfection of which it is capable. Then from this centre the spirit of Judaism will go forth to …all the communities of the Diaspora, and will breathe new life into them and preserve their unity.   

May God grant the leaders of Israel the strength, wisdom, and courage to bring about an era of living Zionism which sees Israel at peace with her neighbors, an Israel where all ways of practicing Judaism are accepted.  May God help us realize Herzl’s vision for a state of Israel that is a blessing to all the nations, as Herzl said,

We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes.

The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness.

And whatever we attempt there to accomplish for our own welfare, will react powerfully and beneficially for the good of humanity



Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

3 thoughts on “Yom Kippur 5780 – Reclaiming Zionism

  • October 15, 2019 at 12:20 pm

    Well written article.

    • October 15, 2019 at 3:52 pm

      Thanks, Sam!

  • September 15, 2021 at 4:04 pm

    Even in light of the fact a Jew no longer necessary means somebody adherant to Judaism, if any nonJews were poised to be a majority within Israel they’d be shipped out or shot.


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