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The theme of this 37th World Zionist Congress was Zionism itself.

509 delegates representing the Jewish world gathered Tuesday and launched into a provocative discussion of Jewish, Zionist and Israeli identity and how they interconnect and create a whole Jew.

Hila Korach, a leading Israeli morning talk-show host, moderated a panel including American Professor Arnie Eisen, President of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Dr. Einat Wilf, Senior Fellow of the Jewish People Policy Institute & Adjunct Fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and writer Sarah Blau. The plenary was introduced by Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Dr. Eisen began:

“Zionism is as deep as it gets. As a child, for me Judaism and Zionism was one…when I became an adult and studied Torah, I was electrified by the vision beheld as the people passed over the Jordan River and came into the land and had the opportunity to have a relationship with God that had never been before. And I was moved by Lech L’cha that promised the people a society in which the Eternal judge does justly and in which we might become a blessing to all the peoples of the earth.

There is no separation between Judaism, the people of Israel, Jewish history, culture, ethics, and the land of Israel. Zionism … is far more than politics and money. It’s an affair of the spirit – a 3000 year tradition..the up-building of the entirety of the Jewish people in the birth place of the Jews.”

Dr. Wilf characterized Zionism as a “Jewish revolution,” for it put history into Jewish hands and countered the classic religious view that Jews must wait for the Messiah before returning to the land.

“The early Zionists revolted against God,” she said. “You can be the Messiah of your own self. But, Zionism didn’t sufficiently conclude its revolution. We now need to move from the rabbanut (rabbinic authority) to hibanot (the rebuilding  of ourselves).”

Dr. Wilf is a secular Israeli and she advocated that the Orthodox Rabbinate get out of the way of the people and allow the state of Israel to take over responsibility for conversions, kashrut and all Jewish affairs.

“Let the people take Zionism forward, not the rabbis, for their authority excludes large parts of the Jewish people.”

Many in the room were not pleased. Later, however, former Minister and MK Yaron Yadlin said that what is needed is not the elimination of the Orthodox rabbinate, but a fight for the inclusion of all religious streams in the life of the people in the state of Israel.

Yadlin’s words resonated powerfully throughout the hall unleashing the strongest applause of the morning.

Dr. Eisen challenged the American Jewish community to become open to “an honest, loving, well-informed, and civil conversation about Israel and Zionism because it has ceased in the United States and in many other communities. For Zionism to be truly Zionist, then it must be a living tradition that  brings the Jewish people together, despite our wide differences, and move us  forward.”

The message of the morning was that for the entire Jewish people, Zionism brings us into deep relationship with state of Israel and with one another. Dr. Eisen concluded that “there is no Jewish people without Zionism, and there is no true Zionism without the creation of a just society, in which every citizen is treated equally and with dignity.”

For so many Jews around the world, however, Zionism has become a dirty word. Since its inception, Israel’s enemies have slandered Zionism by equating it with genocide, apartheid and racism. It is, of course, none of those things. It is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people that returns our people to itself in the land of our birth.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence articulates the foundational values of Zionism and the Jewish state:

“The State of Israel …will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

Though a great democracy and Jewish state, Israel is still a work in progress, and we Jews need not deny its imperfections even as we give our full support.

All this being said, many Jews have come to believe that identifying with Zionism and Israel makes them bad Jews.

The speakers urged that it is for us to define ourselves and not allow others to do it for us.