Can there be a ‘progressive Zionism’?

I want to contrast two widely divergent views of the Jewish people and what the relationship of American Jews toward Israel should be. First, Rabbi Daniel Allen of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists:

If we take Israel seriously, and if Yom Ha’Atzmaut is a holiday for all Jews, which it should be, then how do we celebrate the success of Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, this April 25/26 as Israel turns 64?

The answer is relatively easy; make a commitment to make Israel an always improving society. In a recent study in the United States by the Public Religion Research Institute, the question was asked: What is most important to one’s Jewish identity? The leading answer, with 46%, was a commitment to social equality. Support for Israel was second with 20%. If the Jews in group one and the Jews in group two could be combined, then 66% of American Jews could work together to create more social equality in Israel.

And Rabbi Daniel Gordis:

[Peter] Beinart’s real problem is that Israel is not, and was never meant to be, a felafel-eating, Hebrew speaking version of the United States. It is not ethnic-neutral. It was created, and our children die for it, not simply so there can be another democracy in the Middle East. Is one more democracy worth my soldier son’s risking his life? No, it’s not. Israel is about the revitalization of the Jewish people. It is, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, “of the Jews, by the Jews and for the Jews,” all while protecting and honoring those who are not Jewish. Are we perfect? Hardly. But do we aspire to America’s ideal of a democracy? Not at all. We’re about something very different.

To be fair, you need to read all of both articles. But — leaving aside the (I have to say it) typically American arrogance in Rabbi Allen’s piece, the idea that we know better than Israelis what their democratic country should be like — there is a fundamental difference in their conceptions of the nature of our people, and therefore of the function of a Jewish state.

Allen writes,

As Reform Jews, we are committed to social equality. As Reform Jews, we are already making Israel an ever more inclusive democratic state.

I think it’s not unfair to say that, like Beinart, Allen believes that the essence of Jewish ethics is equal treatment for all human beings. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but he would probably explain the concept of chosenness as being chosen to bear the burden of being a “light unto nations.” He would probably reject the idea that Israel should treat Jews differently in any way than non-Jews.

Gordis emphasizes the tribalism — “a view of the world that says that we are not just like everyone else, that we are distinct and ought to remain that way” — inherent in Jewish tradition. For Gordis, chosenness is about more than just visibly following the same ethical precepts espoused by Unitarians. And he believes that the distinctness, the deliberate separateness, of the Jewish people both informs and is preserved by the Jewish state.

But in order for this to happen, there can’t be equality in every respect between Jews and non-Jews — although it is possible and important to ensure that all of Israel’s residents have civil rights as we understand them (keeping in mind the special circumstances of Israel as a nation under continuous siege).

If you do not believe in an essential difference between Jews and non-Jews, how do you justify giving Jews a right of return to Israel but withholding it from Arabs? Why should the national anthem include the words “a Jewish soul still yearns” when some Israeli citizens are not Jews? How, in other words, can we demand a specifically Jewish character for the state when we we don’t recognize anything special about the Jewish people?

The problem with the identification of Jewishness with a universalist ethics plus some ritual and cultural — food, etc. — baggage, as Beinart and Allen appear to do, is that it leaves no rationale for the existence of a Jewish state.

These are hard questions for progressive Zionists. Maybe Rabbi Allen will answer them.

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