Jewish Unity And The State Of Israel

A pillar of Jewish life is a commitment to the unity of the Jewish people worldwide. Many assume the State of Israel creates that unity -- that support for Israel is, or should be, the thing that unites all Jewish people.

Of course, for much of Israel's six decades of existence, love and support for the state have been among the few areas where modern Jews did find common ground. But over the years, Israel has evolved as a nation, and is now faced with the same internal and external complexities and choices as all other nations. As a result, the debates among non-Israeli Jews over political and policy issues in Israel have become broader and more strident.

And because the notion remains that Jewish unity is based in our collective support for Israel, those who criticize the state -- both on the left and on the right -- have become deeply alienated from other elements of the Jewish community. Their politics and, most important, their membership in the Jewish people, are questioned, and they are accused of being self-hating or racist.

The ingrained belief that "unity" and "Israel" are identical is the legacy of a historical debate -- a debate that was won by the wrong side.

One tell-tale example of this debate dates back to the late 1940s, when the young State of Israel was faced with a decision about the country's official flag. The eventual choice? The Zionist flag, the flag of Israel to this day, with blue and white stripes and the Star of David. The problem? The Zionist flag had been flown worldwide since 1897 as a symbol of Jewish unity. Once that symbol was chosen to represent the new state, the worldwide Jewish community no longer had its own unifying symbol. The State of Israel and the notion of Jewish unity became one and the same.

From the outset, many Jews outside Israel found themselves uncomfortable with this arrangement. Though they felt an affinity for the people living in the newly formed state, they opposed the idea of equating Israel and the Jewish people.

Early Jewish Reconstructionist leaders, who considered themselves fervent Zionists, had it right in 1950 when they argued in an editorial: "The establishment of the State of Israel has not -- and this needs to be emphasized -- changed the nature of Jewish peoplehood; it has only afforded an improved opportunity for enabling Jewish peoplehood to function beneficently in the life of every Jew."

Now that Israel has grown up to deal with the same challenges that plague all nations, it is clear that equating statehood and peoplehood is damaging to the worldwide Jewish community. Further, it complicates the societal challenges that confront Israel's own citizens -- both Jewish and non-Jewish.

Is the State of Israel the sole embodiment of Jewish peoplehood? The answer is no, and it is time to revisit this debate.

In the passion that pervades the current difficult discussions about Israel, the symbolic power that Israel retains is clear. But Israel is not only a symbol. It is a nation.

We must maintain our engagement with and commitment to a safe and secure Israel. However, instead of depending solely on Israel to be the unifying factor for Jews worldwide, we must find additional and tangible ways to live our connections to Judaism and to other Jews, wherever we find ourselves.

Let's ask ourselves, what is the real reason we have such difficulty with Jews who disagree with our political views on Israel? Are we so concerned that they may damage the state itself? Or are we overtaken by a deep disappointment: If Israel doesn't unite us, what does?

Here's a proposition: We Jews should try to see ourselves as united by our bond with the Jewish people -- in our collective efforts to bring peace, wholeness and justice to the world.

Not a simple idea, but perhaps a healthier foundation for us all.

Rabbi Ehrenkrantz is the President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA.