I grew up in a modern Orthodox community where Israeli flags were hung in every synagogue and in every school. We sang the Israeli National Anthem every day before class, and recited a prayer for the wellbeing of Israeli soldiers every morning before breakfast. To me, it was a given- I was Orthodox, so I was a Zionist. It never occurred to me that the two don’t always go hand in hand and that, in fact, I could be one without the other.
When I was in sixth grade, I went to visit my cousins for a week in Baltimore. Just like I did often with many of my friends, I decided it would be fun to join my cousins for a day in school. They attended at the time an ultra orthodox Jewish day school. I knew the dress code would be different, that there would be only girls and no boys. But what I didn’t know, was that they wouldn’t sing the Israeli National Anthem or recite the prayer for the wellbeing of Israeli soldiers, or have the Israeli flag hanging in the classrooms. At first, I didn’t pay much attention to these things, but since Yom Ha’atzmaut was approaching, it came up in conversation. I asked my cousin, also in sixth grade at the time, what her school does for Yom Ha’atzmaut. I was ready to get into a competitive contest of which school’s barbecue is better, or who gets let out of school earlier. But she told me that her school doesn’t celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, and when I asked her why, she said simply, “Because they’re not Zionistic.”
That’s when I learned that Orthodox Judaism and Zionism are not synonymous.
There are plenty of reasons why many Orthodox Jews are Zionistic. For starters, almost the entire Jewish Bible seems to have the shared theme of getting the Jewish nation to Israel. It is filled with stories of trying to get there, of failing to get there, of finally getting there, and then of being kicked out. But the whole time, it seems like God is on a mission to get the Jews to the Holy Land.
Also, many religious Jews believe it to be one of the 613 commandments of the Torah to live in Israel. Others believe that it is an underlying principle, and all other commandments can only truly be fulfilled if living in Israel is fulfilled first.
Others see Israel as a Jewish homeland. Just as the Jews are a nation, a nation needs a home.
So Then Why Not?
There are many people who accept the religious Zionist stream. Across the world there are religious Zionist schools and communities, both in Israel and not. At the same time, though, there are many religious Jews who are not Zionists, and many who are even anti-Zionists. Why would this be?
Many religious Jews, though having no problem with the state of Israel, do not believe it to be one of the 613 commandments. And so even though they are not necessarily avid Zionists in the religious sense, they are not necessarily not Zionists either.
Some believe that a Jewish state in modern times is simply not necessary. Diaspora has, for the most part, become a welcoming place for Jews of today, and the concept of a homeland has become irrelevant.
And then there are those who are altogether against the Zionist movement. Many religious Jews, for the most part Ultra Orthodox Jews, believe Israel to be the holiest land. It is, ideally, the Jewish homeland, and where, eventually, the Temple will be rebuilt and the Jews will be gathered in from exile. This will come, it is believed, with the coming of Messiah. Meaning, Israel will become the Jewish homeland by the miraculous hand of God, and will be a wholly religious country. Under these beliefs, they are against not Israel as a homeland, but Israel as the modern state it is today. They do not support the human action taken to establish it as a Jewish state. They do not support that it was established mainly by the secular and irreligious. And they do not support that today it is not a religious country up to par with their religious standards.
Wait… so why yes?
Rav Kook, one of the most influential religious Zionist leaders, in a way turned the ultra orthodox frame of thought against Zionism on its head, and instead took their arguments and used them for Zionism. Rav Kook, living to see the very beginning of the gathering of Jews to Israel, believed that the ingathering was God’s hand in disguise, and that he was actually witnessing the beginning of the coming of the Messiah. The fact that Israel was being established at all was beautiful, and that it was being established by the secular? Well, it wasn’t the secularism in them that he valued in them, but the avid Zionism and loyalty to the land.
Am Yisrael Chai
Walking in the streets of Israel, you may see around you the word “chai.” On emblems, jewelry, graffitied walls, this Hebrew word for life is found at every turn in this country. A country so small, a home for all of the beliefs I mentioned and so many more, the goal as a whole is the same, and its dwellers won’t let you forget it- “Am Yisrael Chai”- The Jewish nation should live.