Was Moses our teacher a Zionist as he looked over the Jordan longing to enter the land?
The religious Jew is commanded to have a love for the land, and indeed, settling in Israel—as an individual—is part of the Jewish religious aspiration. Nevertheless, Zionism cannot be said to be the same as the traditional love of the land to which the religious Jew is commanded. Originally a secular political ideology, created by secular people, it was initially rejected by both the Orthodox and the Reform (albeit for different reasons).
It took some time until the secular religious aspects could be reconciled with the traditional religious ones, and I believe that these matters may still have not been fully worked out—resulting in much of the political chaos we see today, from the position of women in the public square to that of the religious extremists’ views on settlement and attempts both to use and ultimately to uproot the secular government.
Nevertheless, to some extent, modern Zionism is a mixture of both religious and political aspirations. For me, as a religious Jew, Zionism is and must be a Zionism of Jewish covenant, but I understand that covenant very differently than do the settlers.
Zionism must be covenantal, not only with God, but with other humans, Jewish and non-Jewish; a result of human obligation not to take the land but to engage a wide spectrum of moral behaviors. It is impossible that a Zionist government could be theocratic. Despite the messianist aspirations of some extremists, for Israel to be a Jewish state, the state itself must be democratic and secular—human beings cannot take upon themselves the role of God, and rule as if they could know God’s plan.
Yeshayahu Leibowitz wrote in his commentary, “The connotation of a Divine prophesy is not like a pagan oracle that tells us what will occur in the future...A Divine promise is always a demand made of man; this is the way things ought to be...This applies equally to Israel’s redemption and its return to the land: all of this is what should be, but whether it will be that way depends, at least to some extent on us.”
How do the extremist settlers interpret this? They say that we must get the land, steal the land, and fight for it, whatever it costs us, whatever it costs others. But I cannot, we cannot, understand the words that way; these are not the ways in which we are commanded to walk. To the contrary, Jewish law is emphatic about how we treat one another, and forbids theft of any kind, from anyone.
The Torah tells us of the covenant between God and Israel, that we inherit the land of Israel. That covenant is not simply a promise. Rather, it is a agreement between two parties, both of whom have obligations. When we inherit the land we are warned not to defile it with bloodshed (Num. 35:34) and furthermore, if we so defile the land, we are warned it will vomit us out (Lev 18:28).
I don’t approach Israel as “a state like any other,” but as one which carries a deep moral purpose. For Jews, Israel is our center, and it is, traditionally, to be a reflection of the divine kingdom—which means that we cannot tolerate the depravity of theft from, or violence and discrimination against, our cousins, the Palestinians. The land itself demands of each of us the greatest generosity towards one another and towards our neighbors.
“Wherever I go, I am going to Jerusalem,” is a famous quote from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. If Zionism is a promise that we can stand where our ancestors stood, in community with the stranger, with all fetters broken, then we are going towards Jerusalem. If there is a home for all, place enough for two states, so that all can live in peace, then we are going towards Jerusalem. Even if we have not yet arrived, we are going towards Jerusalem.