The ideology of Religious Zionism is commonly described by the phrase “Am Yisrael, Be’Eretz Yisrael al pi Torat Yisrael” (The nation of Israel, In the land of Israel, according to the Torah of Israel). The integrated elements of all three components of Jewish identity underscored much of the conversation of last weekend’s Religious Zionist conference in Perth.
A number of things became evident through the sharing of experiences. Whilst there is a vibrant and growing Modern Orthodox Jewish community in Australia, amongst the ranks of which come most Australian religious Zionist activists, it was apparent that the wider community of Australian Jews, Christian Zionists and other supporters of Israel as a Jewish State, are not well versed in the ideological motivations of Religious Zionism. At the opening of the conference I was asked by a community leader of a local Jewish organisation what the difference was between a secular Zionist and a religious Zionist. After all, both support Jewish national self determination in the land of Israel.
Rabbi Davey Blackman and Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth in the course of their talks over the conference weekend both touched on one of the major distinguishing factors. When it comes to plain Zionism, it is reflected by a love of the land of Israel. When it comes to religious Zionism, the land of Israel is a physical manifestation of the love of Hashem. Put another way, Zionism is based on values that are relative to an ideology which is subject to change due to societal influence. For example, post Zionism is an expression that suggests traditional Zionism has been outdated, due to the ideals of Jewish settlement of the land having been acheived. The mission of creating a nation has been fulfilled, therefore the pioneering spirit is no longer required. By contrast, religious Zionism is based on more eternal values, which are not relative to external influences (economic, commercial, political), but rather the values of the Torah and the law of Halacha.
Secular Zionism regards Israel as a destination, and religious Zionism regards Israel as a destiny. What is the difference? Too often people confuse these terms or consider them to be one and the same. The reality is that when you reach a destination your journey stops. Secular Zionism sends out the signal; We have Israel, our destination point has been reached and therefore we need nothing further except the expression and celebration of a cultural norm. Destiny however is something different. It is the process of actualisation and the mission of our people. Moses pleaded to Pharoah – “Let my people go, so that they may serve me”. Secular Zionism takes the first part of the quote – let my people go so we can reach Israel. Religious Zionism takes this one step further by adding purpose – let my people go so we can reach Israel and fulfill the covenant that G-d entered into with our people.
One of the outcomes of the Religious Zionist conference hosted last week was to inject greater visibility and pride into the religious Zionist activities that are accessible to the Jewish community. All of this can only be acheived through collaboration and involvement (as opposed to an exclusionist approach and superiority complex that sometimes unfortunately becomes the prevailing attitude of the religious sector). There are bridges to be built. The Tzohar movement in Israel is an example of this. It was noted by Rabbi Neuwirth that the relative bounds of religious tolerance in Israel have significantly shifted in recent years. There is greater tolerance and less of a divide between the observant and non-observant, leading to unity and respect. That is a trend that we can only learn from and emulate in our own community.
Rabbi Neuwirth also noted in a conference speech that Israel has much to learn from Perth. We have a single school that caters to the spectrum of the community’s youth. We have a unified community and evident vibrancy and pride. The enthusiam of the Jewish youth of Perth is noted in Israel as our community members attend Israel programs, attend smachot, and make Aliyah. Rabbi Neuwirth described Perth as a model Jewish community from which Israel can learn many lessons about Jewish cooperation and unity across different ideological groups.
It was cynically remarked that a conference on Religious Zionism hosted anywhere outside of Israel is an oxymoronic concept. It is true that the expression of any form of Zionism, but particularly religious Zionism, is served by example – being in Israel. In the context of noting that this opportunity exists today in a way in which has not been possible for 2,000 years, to be a citizen of a Jewish State in the land of Israel, it is an important and absolute expression.
For those of us in the Diaspora, Religious Zionist education takes a different form and focus. We can do our bit from afar, during our own temporal stay in exile, to support Israel, and enthuse Jewish youth with their own Jewish experience and develop their own desire to connect with Israel. To acheive this we need a little of Israel, in the form of Shlichim, to join our communities and develop this kesher. Nobody is pretending that being a religious Zionist advocate in a Diaspora location is an ideal, or a satisfactory substitute to the Mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisrael. However circumstances are that there is still a Jewish Diaspora, and so long as this is the case, that Diaspora still has a role to play in the ingathering of our people to their homeland, reishit smichat geulatenu.
Last weekend the Perth Jewish community delivered a spectacular event to a number of professional educators and youth leaders to support, connect and enthuse their efforts to deliver their brand of Religious Zionist Jewish identity into the Jewish commuinties of Australia. It is a cause well worth supporting, and the quality of leadership that sits within the Religious Zionist institutions of Australia has again shown itself to be world class.
Of all the outcomes of the conference, and there were many, the biggest lesson was that Religious Zionism is a two way street. As much as we can learn from Israel, so too, Israel can learn much from us.