Confessions of a Reluctant Zionist

By Friday, May 5, 2017

I confess that I sometimes feel like a not-very-good Zionist. I realize this sounds a little strange coming from someone with my profile. After all, I live in Israel. I chose to make Aliyah with my family from North America – a place of safety, freedom and economic stability. And as an observant Jew who prays with regularity for the return of our exiles to the Promised Land, that all sounds like a recipe for an unabashed, straightforward, praise-the-Lord kind of Zionism that I envy in others.

But at the same time, I am a person who tends toward a certain cynicism, toward always seeing what’s lacking, toward a critical lens. It all helps to make a good academic, but I’m a bit of a drag at Independence Day parties.

As a general rule, I spend a lot of time watching and writing – and moaning and complaining – about the divisions, the challenges and the shortfalls that beset the realization of the Zionist dream. I notice the gaps in the education system, the insufficient salaries that families must manage on, the racism that still plagues us, the maniacal driving.

And it’s not just theoretical. I look at my eldest son, who was 7 years old when we made Aliyah. Our greatest worry was whether he would manage to learn enough Hebrew to make friends. He is soon to receive his first call up to register for IDF service and I wonder – what have we done? Army service is a whole lot different in theory – gloriously defending the homeland and all that – than it is when you look at your boy in 10th grade, soon to be swept off into uniform with all his young friends.

What are we doing here?

Anyone with the ability to pass their imagination between the powerless, feeble, doomed Jewish children at Dachau to the (bli ayin hara – they should not get an evil eye – as we say) healthy, Hebrew-speaking, empowered Jewish children in my house can see that the thriving state of Israel presents us with a clear, revealed miracle.

Israel is a place where my children’s names are not foreign. Where their daily language emerged from the Bible. Where they will never feel like freaks for maintaining their cultural customs and religious traditions. Where their Jewishness is as natural to them as the air they breathe. Where they are free to be both who they are and whom they choose to be, at once fulfilling the communal destiny of their people and their destinies as individuals.

Sometimes it’s the language that trips us up. God’s gifts to us apparently have very little in common with that well-wrapped, state-of-the-art gadget you receive as a birthday present from your significant other. God’s gifts are not Tiffany rings or beautiful scarves. And they tend to not come with a gift receipt “exchange it for something you like better” option. Rather, his gifts come in the form of calls, as challenges, as opportunities. Sometimes those are nestled in a beautiful wrapped box.

Or perhaps even a blue-and-white flag.

It is a cherished Jewish tradition to devote time on the six Shabbat afternoons between the end of Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) to the study of the second-century set of rabbinic sayings called Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”). On this last Shabbat, we sat (together with our six very Israeli-Canadian children) in the living room of the house that we built in the Galilee, discussing chapter two. And there at the end was tucked this reminder, before Independence Day for all us reluctant Zionists out there: “It is not incumbent on you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Our challenge is to learn to acknowledge the gifts and to still hear the call. To be grateful without feeling satisfied too easily. To accept compromise but to always strive for more. And to remember that this state is a holy work in progress, under construction. And yet nonetheless a holy work.

Faydra Shapiro

Dr. Faydra Shapiro is the Executive Director at the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations.