Upon request from a potential fellow for the CJP/PresenTense Social Entrepreneur Fellowship in Boston, I dug up the essay I submitted back in 2002/3 for a contest run by the Jewish Agency, Vision and Covenant.
I entitled the essay “Reclaiming Hebrew Roots,” and originally gave it as a speech to a Yavneh Olami shabbaton run by my now-partner in PresenTense, Aharon Horwitz. Aharon had been reading my columns in the Columbia Spectator on the Middle East, and he wanted me to come and shake things up a bit at his Shabbaton from the Hashomer Hatzair perspective. I was honored, and prepared a speech inspired by discussion many years back with Menachem Alexenberg, one of my mentors and teachers.
To make a long story short, after the conference Aharon, Alieza Salzberg, Shira Landau and I — all of which who were there — decided we should open up the question of ‘what do Zionist ideas have to do with the present’, and we invited Rachel Fish and Michael Fish (no relation — seriously) to join what we called the Creative Zionist Circle. Here is our original website.
Re-reading this essay, I find that while there are a good number of elements I would not agree with presently, I still stand behind the general idea:
Our yearning for Zion should not only be based on our desire to be free in our land, but on our desire to be free in order for us to fulfill our role amongst the family of nations. Instead of viewing the State of Israel as an end, as solely the freedom from anti-Semitism, we should see Israel as a means towards an end, a means towards the realization of the potential of the Jewish people.
Our potential is suggested within our national biography. As our narrative goes, Israel started as a family but became a nation at the feet of Mt. Sinai. What made us a nation was the book of laws put upon our shoulders, and our charge to bring its rules, regulations, and responsibilities to the other peoples of the earth. Our state was given, as the story goes, so that we would be better able to work that moral force, and enforce those moral laws given throughout our time in the wilderness.
Whether or not one chooses to accept this narrative, it has continued to be relevant in our second and third exiles, both Babylon and Europe. Whenever we have been separated from our land, Jews have been informed by our centuries of minority status and have gravitated to the idea of social justice and humanitarian causes. It is an undisputed fact that Jews have been at the forefront of progressive causes, such as human rights and civil rights. To paraphrase the former prime minister of Malaysia, Mohammed Mahathir, we have been integral in the creation and propagation of liberal democracy. Thus, our history has chosen a path of sorts for us; whether we were chosen by Gd or nature is up to one’s own frame of reference, but a giraffe has a long neck no matter what process produced it.
In order to empower itself and the Jewish people, Israel should become an engine of liberation—this time of human liberation, tearing down the forts of oppression and tyranny with our trumpets of justice. Zionism should stress the Jewish connection to the land and the region, to its history and its culture. Israel should be both a Middle Eastern state for the Jews and a Jewish State for its peoples. A Middle Eastern state for the Jews in that it will be a state in which the Jewish people will finally be once again able to control their own destiny, and represent themselves in government. A Jewish State for its peoples in that the state will draw upon the laws of social justice implanted in the soul of Judaism to ensure the wellbeing of the sick, the widow and the orphan. One where the stranger, or Ger, is treated with the same respect as any Jew, since we know injustice and we remember the slavery and disenfranchisement of Egypt and the Galut. We should rethink the European concept of the exclusive nation-state and create a Jewish vision, a just vision, for relations between our linked peoples.
Read the full essay here.