In the pantheon of parenting pleasures, few rank higher than the joy of taking your daughter out to dinner with her friends. Debbie and I experienced that joy last week when we visited my oldest, who is presently spending a semester abroad. Passover had just ended, and we were breaking bread, literally, surrounded by friends my daughter had just made, together with an assortment of her friends from high school, college, Israel programs – all studying abroad, all seizing the opportunity for a free meal. One of them had, in a manner of speaking, grown up in my home. In Hebrew, the expression is bat bayit, a daughter – in all ways save biology – of my household. For today, I will call her “Maya,” if for no other reason than that the name of every single friend of every one of my four children consists of four letters, two consonants and two vowels: Nava, Nomi, Tali, Sari, Sara, Ella, Emma, Ziva, Gavi, Gaby, Gali, Gila, Gili, Miri, Mira, Mara, Alex, Aviv, Rose – and Maya.
So, I was enjoying my meal when Maya, two seats over, turned to me and said “Rabbi Cosgrove,” a verbal cue signaling that she was about to ask me something beyond another slice of pizza. “Rabbi Cosgrove, at Park Avenue Synagogue, do you have an Israeli flag on the bimah?”
“Yes Maya, we have an Israeli flag on the bimah.”
She then asked, “Rabbi Cosgrove, at Park Avenue Synagogue, do you recite the prayer for the State of Israel?”
“Yes Maya, we recite the prayer for the State of Israel.” Sensing where things were heading, I decided to redirect: “Maya, you’ve been to services at Park Avenue Synagogue many times. What is it you are really asking?”
It is now over a week later, and the precise sequence of words that emerged from Maya’s mouth remains a bit blurry – perhaps due to the beer we were drinking or to my surprise that the words were spoken at all – but it went something like this: “Rabbi, national flags are political statements. Zionism is a political ideology. Jews may be an ethnoreligious group, but ethnicity does not have to be connected to nationality. I wish Jewish communities that claim to be politically unaffiliated would not officially affiliate with Zionism. Throughout history, nationalism has been used to oppress and cause suffering. The Jewish people know this all too well. With the creation of Jewish nationalism [meaning Zionism], though the Jewish people may have more protection, they have now become an oppressor to another group of people – the Palestinians. A Jewish nation-state will never be able to uphold Jewish values because nation-states are not able to. There have always been non-Zionist Jews. It is important to me that there be non-Zionist Jewish spaces because I want to practice Judaism and have a Jewish identity that does not involve nationalism.”
Maya is as sharp as they come. She is warm, wonderful, and very, very funny. She is not just a proud Jew; she is a knowledgeable one. Her father is Israeli-born. She is a product of Jewish day school, Jewish camping, synagogue youth and Israel experiences; no small fortune has been invested in her Jewish identity – by her parents and by the organized Jewish community. And here was a non-Zionist manifesto spewing from her mouth, the substance of which I had read about, but had never heard from someone whom I knew and cared about as I do Maya. A young woman, and this is not a small point, who I joke shares a brain with my biological daughter. I was flabbergasted, and, truth be told, flat-footed. I said nothing. I have since played the scene back in my mind. Was I right or wrong to hold my tongue as I did? Was it because I was shocked, angry, or ill-prepared? The “Mayas” of the world are our people’s best and brightest – the Jewish leaders of tomorrow. We are but days away from the 75th anniversary of Israel’s birth. How shall one respond to a non-Zionist Jewish Gen Z-er?
Whatever regrets I may have about not speaking then, I am comforted knowing I have a pulpit. This is what I wish I had said.
Maya, first and foremost, I hear you. I hear you, your voice is important, and you are not alone. Judaism is not Zionism, and Zionism is not Judaism, and the flag on the bimah and the prayer for Israel are complicated. There is indeed a long history of non-Zionist Jews, people who loved their Judaism but held what is called a non-statist view of peoplehood. Not wack jobs or self-hating or waiting-for-the-Messiah Jews. But proud Jews: bundists, labor Zionists, cultural Zionists, even religious Zionists who had attachments to the land but not to establishing a state. Big names like Mordecai Kaplan, who saw the Jewish people as a national civilization; Simon Rawidowicz, who believed in global Hebraism; and Hans Kohn, who had a vision of cultural humanism. When political Zionism began to take hold in the late 1800s, it was rejected by Orthodox and Reform Jews. Louis Finkelstein, the past Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I became a rabbi, believed that nationalism was the root cause of World War I, and though he supported the idea of a Jewish national homeland, as late as the 1940s, he saw no need for a state. Tuesday night is Yom HaAtzma’ut. Park Avenue Synagogue is having a big concert, and Derek Penslar, a Harvard professor of Zionism, will be speaking. His forthcoming book on Zionism mentions that the First Zionist Congress did not call for a state, but for a Jewish “national home, secured by public law”; that Herzl’s vision did not include a military or borders or many of the other trimmings of a state; and that even Jabotinsky and Ben Gurion, at different times of their lives, had non-statist visions of the Jewish homeland. Maya, there are some people – good people who are my friends and mentors – who would call you, for what you are saying, an “unJew.” Those people throwing shade, Maya, trying to mess with your self-expression, those people need to calm down. Maya, not only are you not alone, but you are a good Jew, and you stand in some very good Jewish company.
Maya, as someone of my generation, I can’t imagine Judaism without Zionism, but I agree with you that Zionism is not Judaism. It is regrettable that the organized Jewish community made it seem so. When the state was founded in the wake of the Holocaust, American Jewry’s support was critical. If we weren’t going to move to Israel, then we were going to support those who did – philanthropically and politically. I understand why Israel advocacy was embraced as a tool for solidarity: a response to antisemitism and a prophylactic against assimilation. We have our slogans, we march in our parades, we buy Israel Bonds, we plant trees, and we write checks – acts important for themselves but also as a rallying cry and bonding agent for American Jews. It didn’t happen all at once, but yes, somewhere along the way American Zionism became, in the words of the late Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a “substitute religion.” Even worse, it became a litmus test for Jewish loyalty, in Hertzberg’s words: “the lack of support for Israel being the only offense for which Jews can be ‘excommunicated.’” (Penslar, p. 139). Support for Israel was instrumentalized to paper over the thinness of American Jewish identity. You know me, Maya, I am as big a supporter of Israel travel, Israel study, Birthright, and otherwise as there is; we need to give it all we’ve got. But Maya, I am with you and then some, that if the strongest statement of Jewish pride and philanthropic muscle out there to reinvigorate American Jewry is travel to Israel, then American Jewry has some serious soul-searching to do.
And yes, Maya, I also get it. When you look at Israel, when I look at Israel, when anyone looks at Israel, we see an Israel that stands in breach of many of our values, our Jewish values: democracy, religious pluralism, gay rights, the Palestinian right to self-determination– the very ideals that your Jewish education has instilled in you. I am deeply worried about what will become of liberal Zionism should Israel cease to be a liberal democracy. How can I ask anyone to support an Israel that doesn’t support their values, an Israel that doesn’t even see you? The math is not complicated. Fifty two percent of young Israelis are either Haredi or Arab; for them non-Orthodox diaspora Jewry is an abstraction. A typical secular Israeli expends zero psychic energy thinking about the shared destiny of the Jewish people. Diaspora Jews play no role in Knesset politics. Why exactly should you care about a place that does not acknowledge you, care about you, or even think about you? Maya, you are not crazy. If you didn’t ask the questions you are asking – now that would be crazy.
Maya, I didn’t say that the synagogue was apolitical; you did. It is a sermon for another day, but on a certain level, a synagogue – a good synagogue – is not only a house of prayer, but a place that helps Jews identify, explore, and wrestle with Jewish values and inspires them to realize those values in this world – sometimes through the instrument of politics. High on the list of those values is love of Israel. Yes, there is a strand of non-Zionist thought embedded in the Jewish DNA, and yes, the project of Rabbinic Judaism took shape almost entirely outside the land of Israel, but it is, I believe, a profound misreading of Jewish history to call Judaism anything other than a land-centered faith. From God’s first call to Abraham – “to the land that I will show you” – to our arrival in the Promised Land, through the First and Second Commonwealths, through the exile, in the words of our prayers, the direction in which we pray, the rituals we observe, and the aspirations we hold, our eyes have always been turned towards Zion. Not just a shared faith, language, and culture, but an attachment to the land. Living there if you choose, and if you choose otherwise, supporting those who do. Supporting Israel is, in my mind, fundamental to what it means to be a Jew today. It is why we have the flag on the bimah, it is why we recite the prayer for Israel, it is why I am a proud Zionist, it is why I am politically engaged on behalf of Israel and why I ask that my congregants be as well.
And yes, Maya, we do live in a time when “nationalism” has become an ugly word – often for good reason. It would be nice to imagine, as John Lennon did, a world where “there’s no countries . . . nothing to kill or die for.” But Maya, we need to live in the factual world, not an imagined one. Political Zionism and the establishment of the Jewish state arose in response to the belief that Jews have a moral right and historic need for self-determination within historic Palestine. If I needed an argument for Zionism, Jewish nationalism, statehood – whatever you want to call it – I could make the argument by way of 2,000 years of Jewish history culminating with the horrific exclamation point of the Shoah, but I don’t need to. Jews have a right to self-determination! To be the subject of our own sentence and not the object of someone else’s. We can quibble whether we are a faith, an ethnicity, a people, a collective – but that debate is a distraction. We are Jews. Nations, borders, the right to self-defense, that is the coin of the day – that is the factual.
Maya, the world changed on May 14, 1948. I can imagine going back in time to sit in a nineteenth-century Viennese coffee shop to debate whether we should be Zionists, just as I can imagine living in a world without penicillin, but I have no desire to do either. Does Israel’s right to sovereignty clash with the Palestinians’ self-same right? Of course it does. Should Israel, no different than the Palestinians, be held responsible for its role in obstructing a two-state solution? Absolutely. Israel is a deeply imperfect state, that, just like any nation state, falls short of its stated values. But Maya, given the choice of a sovereign and imperfect Israel or the moral purity of exiled victimhood, I would choose the former over the latter any day, and so should you. And Maya, if you would deny your own people the same right that you would fight for on behalf of others, well, that is an act of self-abnegation that is more of a “you” problem than it is Israel’s. I didn’t choose to live during this historical era in which there is a sovereign state of Israel, but I do. I am grateful that I do, and you should be, too. Israel is the greatest achievement of the Jewish people in the past century, if not the entirety of our existence – the expression of a multi-millennial hope, the home to half our people. I may not live there, but as long as I live – to be a Jew will mean that I understand Israel as a constituent part of my Jewish being.
Because today, Maya, Israel is not just troubled and troubling; Israel is on the brink. The fault lines have broken open before our very eyes: the future of Israel as a democracy, the outbreak of a third intifada, Israel’s loss of standing in the community of nations, the bitter irony that it is in the Jewish state where one cannot practice Judaism freely. That is not just my opinion; it is the opinion of hundreds of thousands of Israelis protesting on the streets every week. Is some of this pain self-inflicted? Absolutely. Has the complicit silence of American Jewry helped enable our present state of affairs? I think we agree on that. So, let’s stop living in the past and start asking what we do now.
There is a book by the late political economist Albert Hirschman called Exit, Voice and Loyalty. Hirschman explains that when one sees a business, nation, or any human grouping in crisis, there is a choice to be made. One can either exit, meaning walk away, or one can have voice, meaning attempt to repair or change that relationship through grievance, engagement, or activism. There are those who would say that to criticize Israel is a sign of disloyalty. I say otherwise. As always, there is the question of tact: our tradition warns us about how our words and actions can be received and redirected in ways that we never intended. But no different than my activism as an American is an expression of, and not counter to, my patriotism – so too my Zionism. If half a million Israelis can express their love and concern for Israel by protesting its government, so can I. So do I. And Maya, so can you. It is Israel’s 75th birthday, and Israel is in crisis. Are you going to exit – walk away and stand on the sidelines? Or are you going to use your voice – leverage your moral Jewish compass and the piercing clarity of your conscience to effectuate change, to fight for your values, and to help Israel realize the fullness of its founding vision? Given the ideals you champion, given the age you are, why on earth would you cede the discussion of what Zionism is and what it should be to those who are either our people’s true enemies, or to your own Jewish kin who would corrupt Zionism into something it is not and should never be. Encounter, T’ruah, Zionness, Seeds of Peace, Roots, Israel Policy Forum. There is no shortage of organizations fighting the good fight, and I know they would welcome your engagement.
Maya, let me end where I began. I hear you, your voice is important, and you are not alone. As your friend’s father and as the rabbi of a synagogue, I am proud of you, and I am here for you. Not only do you have a place in the Zionist conversation, that conversation depends on you. We might not always agree, but make no mistake, now more than ever, we need you, the community needs you, and on its 75th birthday, Israel needs you. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say in response, but meanwhile, this last piece of pizza is getting cold. Let’s go halfsies, and I’ll order us another beer – let’s keep this conversation going.
Hirschman, Albert O. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972.
Penslar, Derek. Zionism: An Emotional State. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2023.
Pianko, Noam. Zionism and the Roads Not Taken: Rawidowicz, Kaplan, Kohn. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2nd ed., 2010.