It happened again. I was on my recent trip to Israel, meeting the people on the streets, talking to the cab drivers, meeting relatives, and picking up hitchhikers. This always gives me a precious opportunity to connect to the people of Israel and hear firsthand how Israelis feel. The question came up again and again:” nu, so do you plan on moving here?” I decided not to take the popular modern orthodox path of saying something like: “well, we are thinking about it”, I answered with a simple “no”. There was a shock and a sadness in the air following my simple answer. As one young man said so beautifully:” 2000 years we waited for this, and you don’t come?!”. Another Jerusalem cab driver exclaimed with love and care:” this is your country; it always will be!”. As an ardent Zionist, it made me think, can you be a Zionist if you don’t actualize the gift of Zion? Can one be a true Zionist at a time in which a 10-hour flight is all that stands between you and a prosperous and safe land of Israel? The answer is a resounding yes.
There is no question the ultimate fulfillment of the Zionist ideal includes the physical relocation to the land of Israel the very word of Zionism includes the word Zion—Israel—in it. And yet, there are Jews living in Israel who define themselves as anti-Zionist and oppose the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. There are Jews like the Rothchild family, Abba Ibn, the heroic volunteer fighters and pilots who fought in the newly formed IDF in 1948, and countless others without whom the state of Israel would never exist who chose to reside outside of Israel. They were all undeniably part of the Zionist ideal and continue to leave their mark on modern day Israel.
Clearly, we can’t begin one-upping each other’s Zionism. There are many people who contribute in many ways to the state of Israel. Who are we to say that someone who lives in Israel and does little for its well-being does more than an Israeli diplomat working day and night overseas towards the betterment of the state of Israel? Surely, we cannot say that an Israeli living in Israel exercising their rights to free speech and supporting the BDS movement is more of a Zionist than an American working day and night to create and support hospitals in Israel. The path of one-upmanship is not a healthy one when it comes to Zionism and we ought not apply litmus tests and entry barriers to the world of Zionism.
So, what does it mean to live outside Israel and be a Zionist? Is there any meaning to the belief in an ideal so tied to a land and place lacking the physical presence in that place? Here are three key components to what it means to be a Zionist while not living in Zion, the include the past, present, and future:
First, being a Zionist means believing that the historical land of Israel remains the unalienable homeland of the Jewish people. It is the belief that no matter what happens, the unbreakable between the Jewish people and their ancestral homeland will forever bind our people with the land of Israel. No exile, no ideology, no politics—or practicality—can draw a wedge between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. You don’t need to live in Israel to believe in this. How do I know? Because for hundreds of years Jews in Babylon, Syria, Egypt, and many more countries lived not far from the land of Israel and believed in this inalienable connection. I know it because when Theodor Herzl, Haim Weitzman, Rabbi Soloveitchik, and many other great leaders spoke of the iron-clad connection, they did so from the diaspora. Being a Zionist is an ideology and as such it must entail a system of beliefs.
Secondly, the present. Unlike so many generations, our generation in blessed to live through the marvelous success of the state of Israel. This is not a theory or ideology, there is a live and beating country which is a national home to Jews from around the world. No matter who they are, no matter what they are, it is there for us. Currently, there are more than 6.2 million Jews living in this country. Zionism calls for action. Being a Zionist—regardless of where you live—means you are taking some kind of action to support the ongoing existence of this magnificent homeland. Whether it is through activism, leading a productive life within the state of Israel, or through supporting the state of Israel from wherever you are. Zionism today, means something it did not mean in many points in history. Zionism today means not only an ideology; it means supporting the magnificent— yet at times costly and demanding— needs of the state of Israel.
Finally, the future. Even if all Jews in the world would move to the state of Israel—as David Ben Gurion had desired and envisioned—the Zionist ideal does not come to its end. Zionism is an ever-evolving enterprise. Young, creative, and industrious leadership will always be tasked with taking Zionism a step further. Innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity, idealism, passion, and commitment will always be ingredients vital to Zionism. Without a constant infusion of these vital ingredients, Zionism will never even just stay put. Zionism will always rely on new ideas and energy as the oxygen off of which it lives. Sometimes, shaping the future of Zionism won’t always be done by positive and happy forces. The recent urgent migration of Jews from Ukraine, France, Ethiopia, and other countries to Israel are just examples of the steady, yet everchanging role, Zionism plays in the life of the Jewish people. Being a Zionist, regardless of where one lives, is the fulfillment of a moral imperative to support the shining city on the hill Israel and the powerful role it plays in the personal and national life of the Jewish people.
As I sit on an airplane returning to New York City, I recognize while most American Jews— myself included— do not play a role in the religious and historical return of Jews to Zion, we too play a vital role in this return; we must. No one can take that role from us, nor can anyone diminish the vital role diaspora Jews have played in the establishment and existence of the state of Israel. Zionism is not just about where we are, Zionism is about who we are. It is what we believe, what we do, and the impact we have on Jewish self-determination. No matter where I am, I am a Zionist.