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Theodor Herzl, father of modern political Zionism, and other early Zionist leaders like
Israel Zangwill had one passion: to save the world’s Jews by giving them a homeland—
and it didn’t matter where. They seriously considered a British offer of territory in Kenya,
East Africa. As Weisbord notes, a commission even explored the territory in 1905 and
“the British government was bombarded with applications for land.” But that same year,
the Seventh Zionist Congress rejected “either as an end or as a means all colonizing
activity outside Palestine and its adjacent lands.” “The rest is history,” a history we
celebrate in 2008 as Israel’s 60th anniversary.
Why did the “African Zion” proponents lose the day, despite Zangwill’s claim that “a
flourishing community of Jews on a fertile territory of eighteen thousand square miles
would be nearer to Palestine than all the Zionist societies of the world ‘talking
They lost because of the special relationship Jews have always had to the land, described
to Abraham in Genesis 13:14 and reinforced through the Canaan settlements of the
Children of Jacob/Israel, the exploits of the Judges, the soaring messages of the Prophets,
the United Monarchy of Saul and David, Solomon’s House of God on a Jerusalem
hilltop, years of exile that only strengthened our ancestors’ attachment to the Promised
Land, the return to Zion and a new Temple. Rome may have destroyed the Second
Temple in 70 C.E., but not the Jewish attachment to the land or the dream of restoration
that lived on in legend and daily prayer. As the 19th-century British Prime Minister
Benjamin Disraeli put it, a nation that remembers both its land and its vintage when it has
neither land nor vintage will soon reclaim both.
Herzl’s publication of Old-New Land in 1902 refired the dream, which came to fruition
60 years ago in 1948 after Israel’s War of Independence.
Early Reform leaders rejected the Zionist idea because they believed it went against the
stateless, Messianic, utopian society they envisioned for the world. The Central
Conference of American Rabbis’ Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 stated: “We consider
ourselves no longer a nation but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a
return to Palestine...nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”
But in 1943 the CCAR declared that it “discerns no essential incompatibility between
Reform Judaism and Zionism,” and Israel’s triumph in the 1967 Six-Day War fostered a
fusion of Reform and Zionism. Nine years later, a new CCAR platform, “A Centenary
Perspective,” stated: “We have both a stake and a responsibility in building the State of
Israel, assuring its security, and defining its Jewish character.”
The Central Conference went even further in its 1999 “A Statement of Principles for
Reform Judaism”: “We are committed to the State of Israel and rejoice in its
accomplishments. We...encourage aliyah, immigration to Israel.”
In recent decades, Reform Jews have been in the forefront of support for Israel, despite
the fact that Reform demands for Jewish religious pluralism in the Jewish state are not
being met. When compared with our Orthodox and Conservative counterparts, however,
Reform Jews are on the whole less passionate about Zionism, writes Prof. Michael A.
Meyer in Reform Judaism, Summer 2005. “We visit Israel less often than our
Conservative and Orthodox counterparts; our religious lives as Reform Jews are less
linked to Zion” (source: National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001). Meyer believes
that “The time has come...for those of us who care about Israel to consider a new
approach to Zionism that will reverse the growing apathy and restore our Zionist
What might that approach look like? Meyer poses (and occasionally answers) questions
such as: Do we favor an all-Jewish state or a state of all its citizens, Jewish and Arab
alike? Do we favor a complete separation of religion and state, which would prohibit any
state interference in matters of individual religious freedom? Where should Israel’s
Jewishness reside? How are we to consider the holiness
of the land?
Rabbi Marc Rosenstein, an American Reform Jew who made aliyah, says he “see[s]
Israel as the demonstration site for Jewish values. For years we Jews had to explain away
why we couldn’t fulfill all the requirements of our tradition—we were not in control of
our own destiny, we were living under others’ laws.... Now we have no more
excuses....we have to face the question of how we live out Jewish values when we have
sovereignty, independence, and power.”
On the occasion of Israel at 60, the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA),
directed by its Institute for Reform Zionism, published a 2-page “Open Conversation
about Reform Zionism” written in large part by Rabbi Peter Knobel, in the Spring 2008
Reform Judaism, as a means to encourage Reform Jews to add their voices to this “sacred
debate.” Some key points: “Reform Zionism is inseparable from Reform Judaism”; “The
rebirth of Israel is a modern miracle”; “Aliyah is a mitzvah, the highest expression of our
ideal...This in no way diminishes the need for, or role of,
the Diaspora.” To read more and add your comments visit
What can we—as individuals and congregations—do to further Reform Zionism today?
Rabbi Andrew Davids, executive director of ARZA, offers these 10 ideas; for help in
realizing them visit or call 212-650-4280.
1. Sponsor a congregational Israel day, week, or year.
2. Establish an Israel or ARZA Committee.
3. Create a congregational trip to Israel.
4. Build the next generation of Israel supporters—send teens in your community to Israel.
5. Join ARZA.
6. Enhance Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day.
7. Bring a Reform Israeli to your community.
8. Deepen your knowledge of Israel and Hebrew.
9. Fund an Israel project.
10. Move to Israel.
In addition, ARZA, in partnership with Hadassah, has created “One Heart, Two Homes:
Israel and the Sacred Identity of American Jews”
(, an adult education program that addresses
“Why should I, an American Reform Jew, have a relationship with Israel?”
Reflecting on the question of homeland, the curriculum says, “The Torah presents settling
in the Land of Israel and setting up a model Jewish society there as the overall enterprise
of the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 4:5-8). It could not conceive of a time when Jews
would willingly live outside the Land of Israel. Exile from the land is the punishment
prescribed by the Torah for the sins of idolatry and abandonment of God’s
commandments (Deuteronomy 4:25-27; 11:8-9). Yet most of the Jews who had been
exiled to Babylonia after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem (586 B.C.E.)
chose to remain there even when the Persians gave them permission to return, just as
most American Jews have decided to remain in America even though we could choose to
live in the State of Israel. Clearly the meanings of terms such as ‘home’ and ‘homeland’
have continued to change from generation to generation.”
Overview Questions for Discussion
1. How close do you feel to Israel?
2. What made Disraeli so confident that the Jews would some day reclaim their historic
3. Do you favor an all-Jewish state or a state of Israel for all its citizens? Why?
4. Do you favor a complete separation of religion and state in Israel? Where should
Israel’s Jewishness reside?
5. What do the terms “Promised Land,” “Homeland,” and “Holy Land” mean to you as a
Jew living in North America?
6. Is Israel holy to you? Explain.
7. Do you agree that Israel is the “demonstration site for Jewish values”? What Jewish
values does Israel demonstrate? What values might Israel be failing to uphold?
8. Why does the CCAR’s “Statement of Principles” refer to a vision of full civil, human,
and religious rights?
9. Do you agree with the IRZ platform that “Reform Zionism is inseparable from Reform
10. Is aliyah a “mitzvah, the highest expression of our ideal”?
Section IX Question for Discussion
Is the State of Israel important to you and your Jewish identity?
1. Israel = Salvation?: Steve Arnold believes Israel is very important because it is “the
final refuge of all Jews.” Jennifer Warriner’s “love of Israel embodies the 2,000-year
Jewish hope for a homeland.” Why does Israel merit the term “our homeland”? And why,
then, do most Jews not live there?
2. Israel & Jewish Identity: Ellen Morrow says, “Making Israel central to Jewish
identity is dangerous.... If, God forbid, Israel were to cease to exist, given its current
centrality, what would happen to Jewish identity?” Do you agree?
For religious school and youth groups: Discuss 6 reasons Israel has a special place in
Jewish hearts.
3. Israel as Home: Dawn Mollenkopf felt herself on familiar soil on her very first visit to
Israel—a “sense of being ‘at home.’” Jennifer Warriner sees Israel as its “people and
places,” feels “a knot of love and respect” in her chest, and wonders about the welfare of
her Israeli friends. Judy Fisher’s family has been to Israel often “to feel that sense of love
and connection and being ‘part of something.’” What are your feelings when you think
about or visit Israel? What aspects of Israel have been most important to you? How is it
that millions of Jews around the world consider Israel their home?
4. Jewish Comfort Zone: In Israel, Judy Fisher wears her Magen David necklace
proudly. At home, she often tucks it under her shirt because Israel’s “the only place I feel
fully comfortable being Jewish.” Do you/might you experience greater Jewish comfort in
Israel than where you live?
5. Israel Fulfills Zionism: Steve Arnold “was a Zionist before I was a Jew.” Laurence
Kaufman sees “Zionism and the centrality of Israel as integral to Jewish life. Those who
want to classify Judaism as only a religion are in denial.” Do you agree that all Jews are
Zionists? Would you call yourself a Zionist?
6. Considering Aliyah: Kaufman also believes that Israel must become a “residence of
choice rather than a refuge for Diaspora Jews” to fulfill its mission “as the cultural nexus
and spiritual center for the Jewish people.” Barbara Holender “wanted desperately to
make aliyah” as a teenager in 1947; her parents forbade it. Do you agree with Kaufman’s
concept of Israel’s mission? Have you considered aliyah (literally, going up) to Israel,
either permanently or for the short term? What are your arguments for and against?
7. Israel Is Not Perfect: While Judy Fisher feels at home in Israel, she also notes, “I
don’t always like the political decisions Israel makes. But Israel is a sovereign country
and they are her decisions to make.” Ellen Morrow criticizes Israel’s discrimination
against Reform and Conservative Judaism. How do you reconcile your support of Israel
with particular Israeli policies/practices you may find objectionable? Do you agree that
“they are [Israel’s] decisions to make”? What is an appropriate role for Jews outside
Israel with respect to influencing Israel’s decisions?
8. Israel Requires Our Support & Defense: Kaufman asserts: “Diaspora Jews have an
obligation to support and defend Israel.” How do you support the Jewish state? Is such
support a Jewish obligation, personally and collectively?
For religious school and youth groups: Discuss 6 things you can do to support Israel.