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A “Non-Zionist Synagogue”: Who Owns the Flag?

The news that Rabbi Brant Rosen, previously at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Illinois, has started a “non-Zionist synagogue” comes as no surprise, given his courageous stand against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. But the term, “non-Zionist synagogue” is problematic. If there can be a “non-Zionist synagogue,” the implication is that there are “Zionist synagogues.” And although individuals may identify themselves as Zionists or not, congregations are neither; they are Jewish — and they welcome people of differing viewpoints, particularly when it comes to Zionism. “Zionist” no longer means what it used to mean. Originally, a Zionist was someone who believed that Israel should be the center of Jewish life, that only in Israel could a Jew live a fully Jewish life, and that the proper goal for all Jews was to “make aliyah” — clearly, not what most American Jews mean when they identify themselves as “Zionists.” They mean that they admire and support Israel or, as another imprecise term implies, that they are “pro-Israel.” Perhaps describing a congregation as “non-Zionist” is meant to suggest that its purpose is not to be cheerleaders and fundraisers for the State of Israel but to dedicate itself to Talmud Torah; tikkun olam, or repairing the world, and other mitzvot that have constituted the standard Jewish curriculum long before the creation of the Third Jewish Commonwealth. I suspect that many people in other synagogues might readily identify themselves as “non-Zionist” in this sense. The great Israeli literary critic Barukh Kurzweil argues that even as Modern Hebrew literature represents a secular revolt against classical Judaism, to revolt against a tradition is still to be attached to it, in some ways to be controlled by it, and therefore in some sense to represent its continuation. By the same token, to identify as “non-Zionist” is to allow, however unwittingly, the “Zionist” camp to own the flag of Judaism.

Dov Taylor Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Solel of Highland Park, Illinois, and spiritual leader of Chavurat Ki-tov: A Gathering for Jewish Life and Learning Woodstock, Vermont.

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