October 16, 2018

Reform Judaism Doubles Down on Zionism

In June, the Reform movement decided to resist the headlines announcing the growing, “unprecedented” rupture between American Jewry and Israel by doubling-down on “our ties to Israel,” in the words of Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) President Rabbi Rick Jacobs. The URJ’s North American board meeting passed a resolution re-affirming the Jerusalem Program, the basic articulation of the Zionist Idea. As the “official platform of the World Zionist Organization and the Zionist Movement,” the Jerusalem Program proclaims that “Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people … views a Jewish, Zionist, democratic and secure State of Israel to be the expression of the common responsibility of the Jewish people for its continuity and future.”

It’s outrageous. With one move, that darned movement defied three stereotypes distorting the Jewish — and American — conversation about Israel. How dare the Reform movement affirm its loyalty to Israel and Zionism when everyone knows its members are liberal traitors who prove that liberalism and Zionism are incompatible. How dare the Reform movement refute the claim that relations between American Jewry and Israel are deteriorating. And how dare those Reformers resist the universalist and anti-Israel drift everyone insists is sweeping American Jewry!

Apparently, such insolence runs much deeper than a quick, easy resolution. Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the young, dynamic head of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), reports that ARZA and the URJ are deepening their institutional ties. “Increasingly,” Weinberg said, “we will be building programming, in North America and increasing our support for our movement in Israel, in the pews, in our camps, and in Israel’s streets, reflecting a basic commitment of every Jew to God, Torah and Israel.” Acknowledging that we’re living through “exciting and challenging times,” Weinberg said, “we’re looking to enhance our connection to Israel and to make Israel a central part of every Reform Jew’s identity.”

Rabbi Josh Weinberg
(Photo from Facebook)

Sarcasm aside, the Reform movement is doing precisely what it should be doing. This valued member of the Zionist movement won’t be defined by its enemies — either within the Jewish world or beyond. True, Reform Jews are overwhelmingly politically liberal. But anyone who knows anything about Zionism knows that Zionism without liberalism ain’t Zionism. Israel’s Declaration of Independence — and daily realities — bring liberal nationalism to life.

Even a brief history of Reform Zionism goes deeper. It proves how Zionist the Reform movement has become. It shows how much closer American Jews and Israeli Jews are than they once were. And it suggests that Reform particularists should have an upper hand in the intellectual civil war they must win against universalists.

“Judaism is fundamentally national,” the Cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am insisted in 1910, denouncing “the ‘Reformers’” efforts “to separate the Jewish religion from its national element.” Initially, Reform Jewry rejected peoplehood and Palestine. America’s Reform rabbis distorted Jewish history and ideology — anticipating today’s ultra-ultra-Orthodox Jews — in their 1885 Pittsburgh Platform when they declared: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.”

“Anyone who knows anything about Zionism knows that Zionism without liberalism ain’t Zionism.”

The Holocaust erased any doubts that we are one people, intertwined. In 1937, the Reform movement’s Columbus Platform affirmed the “Jewish people” and their “obligation … to aid” in “up-building Palestine as a Jewish homeland.”

Three decades later, the process peaked. The 1967 Six-Day War’s impact surprised many Reform Jews, deepening, as Reform theologian Eugene Borowitz recalled, “a very personal existential sense of the particularity of what it is to be a Jew, the specificity of being a Jew as a member of an ethnic community.” When “Old Jerusalem was captured and was somehow, to use that marvelous word, ‘ours,’ ” Borowitz wrote, “it hit us with an impact which we couldn’t imagine, and suddenly we realized the depths of roots we had in a very specific place.”

Rabbi Richard Hirsch has made “Zionizing” Reform Jewry his life’s work. A progressive activist who lent his Washington, D.C., offices to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960s, Hirsch moved to Jerusalem in 1973. In establishing the Hebrew Union College’s magnificent campus overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City, Hirsch said the movement was marrying history.

In 2000, Hirsch articulated Reform Jewry’s “Declaration of Interdependence”: “of people and faith, of Jewish tradition and contemporary needs, of the universal and the particular, of Israel and the Diaspora, of each Jew with all Jews. ” The “establishment, protection, and development of the State of Israel are integral premises of Progressive Jewish belief,” Hirsch wrote. “This eternal covenant between God and the people of Israel is inseparable from the Land of Israel.”

Rabbi Richard Hirsch
(Photo from Vimeo)

While ideological rivals, Borowitz and Hirsch affirmed peoplehood and land — not just religion and ethics — as central to Reform Jewry. Rabbi David Ellenson has continued Hirsch’s teaching, demonstrating that the best way to be a good universalist is to be a proud particularist. Dismayed that too many secular Israelis build their identities solely on national and communal lines while too many American Jews build their identities around “individual choice and religious voluntarism above peoplehood and nationality,” Ellenson challenges all Jews to embrace their “national and religious foundations.”

An academic with deep Los Angeles roots, currently serving as interim president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Ellenson celebrates the Jewish people’s “return to history” as an opportunity to apply high ideals developed over millennia in a modern state. “Reform Zionism needs to know and affirm the religious significance of this [political] fact,” he wrote in 2014. Ever balancing, Ellenson explains: “Our Zionism must be built upon the dialectical foundations of universalism and particularism and the interplay between them.”

This is the proud legacy the URJ affirmed. This is the ideological vision it must embrace. I invite Reform Jews to join Jews throughout the world in hosting Zionist salons this year. Read Reform Zionist texts like these, which appear in my book “The Zionist Ideas.” Read other religious Zionists and compare their visions. Discuss progressive Zionists with whom you agree — or even right-leaning Zionists you might dislike.

Let’s jumpstart a modern Zionist conversation, house by house, boardroom by boardroom, synagogue by synagogue. And let’s embrace “identity Zionism,” not only asking what we can do for Israel, but understanding what Israel, land, peoplehood, Zionism, do for us —  individually, collectively, existentially.


Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the recently released “The Zionist Ideas” (Jewish Publication Society), an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s anthology “The Zionist Idea.” A distinguished scholar of North American History at McGill University, Troy is the author of 10  books on American history, including “The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.” www.zionistideas.com