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With a Joint Response by
Dr. Lisa Grant
Rabbi Michael Marmur

Excerpted from
Dr. Daniel Ben Moshe and Zohar Segev, Ed.
ISRAEL, WORLD JEWRY
AND IDENTITY

Sussex Academic Press
(September 2007)

ABSTRACT

A.  Identifying With Israel
The term, "identifying with Israel" straddles the entire range from passive pro-Israelism to active Jewish-Zionist commitment. We must differentiate between political Zionism and cultural Zionism. The finite aim of political Zionism, establishing a state for the Jews, has been achieved and has become pro-Israelism. The aim of cultural Zionism is to utilize the framework of the Jewish state to ensure the continued creative existence of the Jewish people. This aim is infinite. All cultural Zionisms had/have their vision with an ideological action plan, a committed minimal critical number for its realization, and an educational program for its propagation. The dynamics of Jewish-Zionist commitment are a process whereby an individual grows into a group which is Zionist and where one identifies with Zionist role models.

All Zionisms were/are modern ideologies based on the assumption that free will can shape reality – i.e. prophetic. They are incompatible with “priestly” post-modernism which seeks to adapt to reality rather than changing it.

B.  Statistics and What They Mean.
Some 90% of Reform Jews, 1.4 million, live in the United States. Only 34% have visited Israel. Only 21% feel very emotionally attached to Israel. Surprisingly, 57% have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. Reform Jews affiliated with congregations, number only 754,000.

There are no hard statistics for Reform Jews outside of the United States. Where it currently exists, NETZER (Noar Tzioni Reformi), the semi-autonomous Reform Zionist youth movement, serves as a partial indicator of the potential place of Israel in the identity of their community. As of 2006, the 40,000 strong Progressive community in Britain sends 15 to 25 high school graduates to a ten month NETZER program every year. A critical element appears to be a youth empowered process built on the principle of identifying with Zionist role models. The non-American Diaspora shows that there is no inherent contradiction between a pro-Israel Reform Judaism and more intense Reform Zionist commitment.

C.  Reform and the Zionist Enterprise.
The basis of the classic Reform rejection of Zionism lay in its rejection of peoplehood as such. The Columbus Platform of 1937 affirmed the concept of Jewish peoplehood and partially endorsed the Zionist idea. An important background factor in this partial endorsement was the identification of many in the Reform rabbinate with the prophetic as expressed in the intentional communities of the Labor Zionist variant of cultural Zionism.

The impact of the Six Day War created a shift in Reform social action from the universal to the particular. By 1974, the Reform movement had affiliated with the World Zionist Organization. The Labor Zionist orientation of key Reform rabbis in working with youth paved the way for the establishment of two Reform kibbutzim, Yahel and Lotan. The initiators of the kibbutzim hoped they would be a focus for Reform Zionist identification in both the Diaspora and in Israel. Additional impetus to Zionism resulted from the U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism.

Identification with Israel peaked in the early nineteen eighties. After this, Reform Zionist commitment began to lose ground. Personnel changes in the Youth Division of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in the United States, as well as the passing of the “Labor Zionist” rabbis played a role, as did the waning of Labor Zionism in Israel. The development of an embryonic Reform Zionist youth movement in America was aborted. Yet in other Diaspora countries, NETZER began to establish itself.

D.  What Can Be Done?
Strengthening the place of Israel in the identity of Reform Jews is dependent on a process which can create foci of Reform Zionist commitment where the young (and not so young) can identify, at some level, with intentional communities that project a Reform Zionist cultural vision even if only in part. It is the proactive task of the Reform Zionist movement in the Diaspora to further this aim. In particular, a variety of Reform Zionist intentional communities (kehillot kedushot) have to emerge. They will significantly reinforce the identity of Reform Jews with Israel.

E.  The Obstacles
There are a number of obstacles to be overcome. The first is the mistaken classical Reform idea that the synagogue rather than an intentional community is the foundation of Jewish life. The second is the professionalization of Judaism that leaves no room for non-professional role models for an alternative to the above view. The institutions for the training of rabbis are a particularly formidable obstacle. The future leadership of the Reform movement is not exposed to alternative visions of Reform Judaism, or extant examples of intentional community. Their Israel experience is largely limited to academic study with academic role models. Finally, in the Diaspora, the Reform Zionist movement cannot concern itself only with political matters. It must give equal priority to educational outreach to congregations in the field.