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For Our Creative Survival: Liberal Zionists Speak Out

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The following column is part of a series. For more, go to Liberal Zionists Speak Out.

I am a Zionist.

Zionism is the belief that the establishment of a Jewish and democratic state in the Land of Israel is essential for the creative survival of the Jewish people.

Being a Zionist does not require that I live in the Jewish state, but it does require serious and thoughtful advocacy for the proposition noted above.

My definition is carefully phrased and is rooted in the values and ideals of historical Zionism.
Zionism calls for a state that is democratic, and that means democratic in the commonly accepted sense of that term; it must offer equal rights to all those who permanently reside within its borders. Those who oppose a two-state solution or who advocate never-ending Israeli control over the territories without granting full rights to their Arab inhabitants have abandoned democracy and cannot legitimately claim to be Zionists at all.

Zionism calls for a state that is Jewish. While I have my own strong views on the subject, I know that the precise nature of Israel's Jewish character has yet to be defined and will evolve over time. The task of Zionism now is to assure that the Jewish state has a secure Jewish majority so that her Jewish citizens can determine by democratic methods what it means for Israel to be Jewish. Still, it is important to emphasize that Zionism does not see the Jewish state as "a state of all its citizens," except in the narrow sense that all Israeli citizens must be guaranteed full civil and human rights. Zionism calls upon Israel's Jewish majority to embrace its majority status and give it public expression; Zionists do not apologize for the fact that the Jewish state was created to promote the religion, civilization and culture of the Jewish people and its dominant Jewish majority. The Jewish state is to be the one place in the world where the national anthem is Jewish, where Jewish holidays provide the rhythm of the calendar, and where Jews openly apply Jewish values and the Jewish spirit to every aspect of life; it is the one place where others must struggle with the problems of being a minority -- even as they are assured democratic rights.

Zionism calls for the Jewish people, operating through the democratic institutions of their state, to master the gun and to exercise power, both against their enemies and -- when required -- against their own citizens who refuse to accept the verdict of democratic decision-making. By bestowing sovereignty on the Jewish people and returning them to history, Zionism gives the Jewish people control over their own destiny. Using power is complicated and often morally compromising. Zionists hope that, tempered by Jewish values, Israel's rulers will exercise power responsibly and will be especially sensitive to issues such as religious freedom and minority rights. But Zionism is not ambivalent about power, because in the absence of power, all other values are turned to dust.

Zionism bestows upon Jews everywhere a role in determining the character of the Jewish state. Final authority rests with Israel's citizens, whether Jewish or not. But Israel is not primarily the state of Israelis; it is the state of the Jewish people. (If it were only the state of the Israelis, Jews elsewhere would have no reason to connect with it in any way.) And as the state of the Jewish people, it invites Jews in every country of the Diaspora to visit frequently, engage in its affairs, participate in its debates, generate support for its policies, offer criticism of its actions, and to at least think about living there. Doing all of these things -- including expressing criticism, even harsh criticism -- requires no special permission from Israeli or Diaspora leaders; the right to do so is inherent in the Zionist mission.

Can the Jewish people survive without a Jewish and democratic state in the Land of Israel? For a while, perhaps. But as my definition suggests, creative Jewish survival needs such a state to strengthen Jewish identity, foster Jewish unity, boost Jewish morale, and offer a meaningful Jewish response to the boredom and emptiness of modern life. That is why I am a proud Zionist and why I urge others to be Zionists as well.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as the President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. In 1983 he was named Executive Director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). In 1992 he became vice president of the URJ and director of its Commission on Social Action. In addition, he served as executive editor of Reform Judaism magazine. In 1999 The Forward named Yoffie the number one Jewish leader in America. He has been deeply involved with a wide range of issues, including gun control, LGBT rights, the death penalty and religious pluralism. He has been a proponent of increased traditionalism within Reform Judaism and a pioneer in interfaith relations. In 2005, he was the first Jew to address the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Later that year, he harshly criticized the Religious Right for its exclusionary beliefs but in 2006 he accepted the invitation of the Rev. Jerry Falwell to address the students and faculty of Liberty University, where he spoke frankly of areas of agreement and disagreement. In 2007, Yoffie was the first leader of a major Jewish organization to speak at the convention of the Islamic Society of North America. Throughout the years, he has been an advocate of Israel and of the rights of Reform Jews in Israel, and meets frequently with Israel's elected officials to present the concerns of the Reform Movement and North American Jewry.