In My Own Words: Zionists and anti-Zionists

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Zionism is defined as “an international movement originally for the establishment of a Jewish national or religious community in Palestine and later for the support of modern Israel.” I am a Zionist because I believe the state of Israel has a right to exist, just as does every other established nation. Is Israel perfect? No, but, then again, no nation is. Has it done things of which I don’t approve? Yes, but so has the United States, Canada, Germany, Japan, Russia, etc. (a list that could include almost every nation) and no one is claiming they don’t have the right to exist.

Anyone who knows me personally knows that I am a Zionist. Then, why do I feel the need to proclaim that fact in this column? It’s because of an oped that appeared recently in the Forward. The column was written by two former students of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (my alma mater). They claim that RRC is such a hotbed of anti-Zionism that any support of Israel was considered racist by their fellow students, which was just one of the things that made them so uncomfortable they withdrew from the school. 

According to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency article, Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, noted during the recent graduation ceremony that “the stance of the Reconstructionist movement since the time of Mordecai Kaplan to this day is that Israel has a right to exist and is a vital center for Jewish life and the Jewish people.” However, she also noted that “any litmus test we have in the Reconstructionist Movement is not about particular stances around Israel.”

I know many Reconstructionist rabbis who support Israel. I also know many who don’t, including some who do not believe the state of Israel has a right to exist. This was confirmed in the JTA article, which noted that “RRC graduates and students make up at least 25 of the 45 members of the rabbinical council of Jewish Voice for Peace, the biggest Jewish anti-Zionist organization.” However, a group of Reconstructionist rabbis recently formed Beit Kaplan, which notes on its website that its members “unequivocally support the right of Israel to exist, and to exist as a Jewish state.”

I consider myself part of the post-Holocaust generation, meaning a generation for whom the world never felt like a completely safe place. I remember talking to my mother about the Holocaust when I was a teenager; she asked me if I thought something like that could happen in the United States. My answer was a simple yes. That answer has now been informed by a greater study of Jewish history. If the United States lives up to its ideals, then Jews will forever be safe here. But so many countries have not lived up to the ideals of their founders, that there is always a question mark about the future.

At the same time, I have no desire to move to Israel. The United States is my home and I feel an obligation to help it become the nation of its ideals. But in the back of my head, Israel has always been a potential safe haven, the place that would be open to me if Jews were once again persecuted. That is something that the anti-Zionists obviously don’t feel: the need to know there is a place Jews can go if they are once again oppressed or expelled.

I understand some of their frustration. I am not happy with Israel’s current government. I am actively displeased with its policies in the West Bank and Gaza. But that does not mean that I don’t believe it has the right to exist, anymore than I don’t believe the United States should exist for its continuing policies that adversely affect our Native American population. And I have to wonder what exactly would happen to all my fellow Jews in Israel if groups like Hamas controlled the country. I fear the October 7 massacre would only be a preview of the horrific actions that would take place.

Right now, all I foresee is the creation of another generation – on both sides – filled with hate and murder. However, if people think that all the problems in the Middle East will disappear if the state of Israel ceases to exist, they are only fooling themselves. Other countries in the area are fighting wars within their borders and no one cares about those innocents dying. Only when Jews or Israelis are involved do the protests begin.