The place of israel in the identity of reform jews

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Dr. Michael Livni


With a Joint Response by

Dr. Lisa Grant

Rabbi Michael Marmur

Excerpted from

Dr. Daniel Ben Moshe and Zohar Segev, Ed.


Sussex Academic Press

(September 2007)


Dr. Michael Livni is a member of the Reform kibbutz – Lotan. Livni (then Langer) was the first shaliach (emissary) to the Union for Reform Judaism. He has been active in Reform Zionism for thirty years. His books include Reform Zionism: An Educator’s Perspective, published by Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem 1999 and HaOptzia Hareformit: Zionut Acheret (The Reform Option: A Different Zionism), published by Tzell Hatamar, Kibbutz Lotan 2002.


Dr. Lisa Grant is Associate Professor of Jewish Education at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute for Religion in New York


Rabbi Michael Marmur is the Dean of the Jerusalem School, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute for Religion.

This offprint has been sponsored by the Reform Zionist Publication Fund,

Tzell Hatamar (Registered Society)


The Place of Israel

in the Identity of Reform Jews

A. Identifying With Israel

The term, "identifying with Israel" straddles the entire range from passive pro-Israelism to active Jewish-Zionist commitment. We must differentiate between political Zionism and cultural Zionism. The finite aim of political Zionism, establishing a state for the Jews, has been achieved and has become pro-Israelism. The aim of cultural Zionism is to utilize the framework of the Jewish state to ensure the continued creative existence of the Jewish people. This aim is infinite. All cultural Zionisms had/have their vision with an ideological action plan, a committed minimal critical number for its realization, and an educational program for its propagation. The dynamics of Jewish-Zionist commitment are a process whereby an individual grows into a group which is Zionist and where one identifies with Zionist role models.

All Zionisms were/are modern ideologies based on the assumption that free will can shape reality – i.e. prophetic. They are incompatible with “priestly” post-modernism which seeks to adapt to reality rather than changing it.
B. Statistics and What They Mean.

Some 90% of Reform Jews, 1.4 million, live in the United States. Only 34% have visited Israel. Only 21% feel very emotionally attached to Israel. Surprisingly, 57% have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. Reform Jews affiliated with congregations, number only 754,000.

There are no hard statistics for Reform Jews outside of the United States. Where it currently exists, NETZER (Noar Tzioni Reformi), the semi-autonomous Reform Zionist youth movement, serves as a partial indicator of the potential place of Israel in the identity of their community. As of 2006, the 40,000 strong Progressive community in Britain sends 15 to 25 high school graduates to a ten month NETZER program every year. A critical element appears to be a youth empowered process built on the principle of identifying with Zionist role models. The non-American Diaspora shows that there is no inherent contradiction between a pro-Israel Reform Judaism and more intense Reform Zionist commitment.
C. Reform and the Zionist Enterprise.

The basis of the classic Reform rejection of Zionism lay in its rejection of peoplehood as such. The Columbus Platform of 1937 affirmed the concept of Jewish peoplehood and partially endorsed the Zionist idea. An important background factor in this partial endorsement was the identification of many in the Reform rabbinate with the prophetic as expressed in the intentional communities of the Labor Zionist variant of cultural Zionism.

The impact of the Six Day War created a shift in Reform social action from the universal to the particular. By 1974, the Reform movement had affiliated with the World Zionist Organization. The Labor Zionist orientation of key Reform rabbis in working with youth paved the way for the establishment of two Reform kibbutzim, Yahel and Lotan. The initiators of the kibbutzim hoped they would be a focus for Reform Zionist identification in both the Diaspora and in Israel. Additional impetus to Zionism resulted from the U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism.
Identification with Israel peaked in the early nineteen eighties. After this, Reform Zionist commitment began to lose ground. Personnel changes in the Youth Division of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in the United States, as well as the passing of the “Labor Zionist” rabbis played a role, as did the waning of Labor Zionism in Israel. The development of an embryonic Reform Zionist youth movement in America was aborted. Yet in other Diaspora countries, NETZER began to establish itself.
D. What Can Be Done?

Strengthening the place of Israel in the identity of Reform Jews is dependent on a process which can create foci of Reform Zionist commitment where the young (and not so young) can identify, at some level, with intentional communities that project a Reform Zionist cultural vision even if only in part. It is the proactive task of the Reform Zionist movement in the Diaspora to further this aim. In particular, a variety of Reform Zionist intentional communities (kehillot kedushot) have to emerge. They will significantly reinforce the identity of Reform Jews with Israel.

E. The Obstacles

There are a number of obstacles to be overcome. The first is the mistaken classical Reform idea that the synagogue rather than an intentional community is the foundation of Jewish life. The second is the professionalization of Judaism that leaves no room for non-professional role models for an alternative to the above view. The institutions for the training of rabbis are a particularly formidable obstacle. The future leadership of the Reform movement is not exposed to alternative visions of Reform Judaism, or extant examples of intentional community. Their Israel experience is largely limited to academic study with academic role models. Finally, in the Diaspora, the Reform Zionist movement cannot concern itself only with political matters. It must give equal priority to educational outreach to congregations in the field.

February 2006

The Place of Israel

in the Identity of Reform Jews:

Examining the Spectrum from Passive Identification with Israel to Active Jewish-Zionist Commitment
Dr. Michael Livni

What Does Identifying with Israel Mean?

The term “identifying with Israel” straddles the entire range from pro-Israelism as a passive element in a Jewish IDENTITY all the way to active Jewish-Zionist COMMITMENT.

Social psychologist, Simon Herman (1912-1995) has noted that in conscious Jewish-Zionist identity the individual identifies with and is committed to Israel as an expression of “a balance between a past, present and future orientation to the condition of the Jewish people.” Significantly, the title of the chapter in Herman’s book on Jewish identity which is relevant to our discussion here is entitled “Zionism and Pro-Israelism: A Distinction with a Difference.”1
In today’s reality there is usually a continuum between these two poles. Transforming passive pro-Israelism to active Jewish-Zionist commitment is an ongoing challenge faced by the Zionist movement world wide.
What are the implications for Jewish-Zionist commitment in the 21st century? Posing this question requires a brief preliminary re-examination of the concept “Zionism” as a category of commitment for Diaspora Jews (and Jews in Israel). Such an examination must identify the separate historical roots and approaches of political and cultural Zionism respectively.
These two approaches were not necessarily mutually exclusive, notwithstanding the tension between them insofar as priorities were concerned. In fact, there always was (and there is today) a “mix” of both approaches in the different Zionist ideologies.
Political and Cultural Zionism

The driving force behind the establishment of Zionism as a national (political) movement by Theodore Herzl was the existential threat posed to JEWS from WITHOUT in many lands of the Diaspora. Political Zionism (a State for the Jews) was a response to the emergence of a malignant anti-Semitism as a byproduct of perceived threats to indigenous national identity by “foreign elements” in a number of emerging nation-states in nineteenth century Europe.

Hence, the FINITE aim of political Zionism was a State for the Jews “like all the nations” in order to remedy the “abnormal” situation of Jewish vulnerability - everywhere a minority, nowhere a nation.
The finite aim of political Zionism has been achieved. Political Zionists in the Diaspora have become pro-Israel - i.e. supporters of the State of Israel.
Within Israel, political Zionists have become conscientious citizens, paying taxes and doing army service as required. Both in Israel and in the Diaspora, political Zionism as such has, in fact, become “post-Zionism”.
The motivating force in the cultural Zionism of Achad Ha’am however, was the threat posed to JUDAISM from WITHIN. That threat was the result of the direct impact of modernity (the Enlightenment) on Jewish corporate society initiated by the Edict of Emancipation (1791) in France.
The Emancipation created a dynamic which resulted in the disintegration of traditional Jewish society and the exposure of the individual Jew to the Enlightenment. Judaism became a matter of individual conscience. It was now possible to limit the function of Judaism to that of a creed with its particular rituals and symbols – similar and parallel to the format of the various Christian denominations – particularly those of Protestantism. This was the path chosen by classical Reform at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The response of CULTURAL ZIONISM to the threat of cultural assimilation was the establishment of a Jewish center in Palestine to ensure the continued CREATIVE existence of the Jewish people wherever they may be. Such an aim was (and is) INFINITE.
The national center would be the place where a Jewish polity would contend with all the challenges of modernity – political, social and economic as perceived through the prism of the Jewish heritage. By doing so, cultural Zionism would renew the role of the Jewish people as a creative force in the history of the nations – a role which ceased with the cessation of prophecy and the destruction of the Temple.
Achad Ha’am’s seminal essay, “Priest and Prophet” was written in 1893. He posited that the creativity reflected in the Bible stemmed from the tension between the prophetic drive for social justice and the norms of the “establishment” personified by the priests (and kings). A renewal of that creative tension could only take place in an autonomous Jewish center in the historic Jewish homeland.2
There never was and there is not now a consensus regarding a cultural Zionist vision of what a Jewish state should be. However, there have been three common denominators to all of the visions that had a Zionist impact either in the past or the present.
First of all, the various cultural Zionist visions had an ideology. Gideon Shimoni has explained the concept of ideology as “...a coherent, action oriented set of ideals that provides those who subscribe to it with a comprehensive cognitive map of their position and purposes.”3
Secondly, the vision and the ideology for its realization had to be capable of mobilizing a minimal critical number prepared to invest their personal lives and resources in realizing the ideology. This usually necessitated life in partnership with like-minded others – i.e. life in a community of purpose (intentional community).4
Lastly, in order to ensure continuity, the ideological nucleus both inside and outside the intentional communities had to establish an educational system, formal and informal, both in Israel and the Diaspora.
Before the establishment of Israel, the premier cultural Zionist ideology was that of Labor Zionism: Hebrew land, Hebrew labor, Hebrew language and social justice. Its role model was the chalutz (pioneer) in the framework of the kibbutz intentional community.
Toward the end of the twentieth century, the Zionist vision of Gush Emunim stemming from messianic Orthodox Zionism and catalyzed by the Six Day War, has been a striking example of cultural Zionist commitment and intentional community (the “Settlements”), regardless of one’s personal opinion regarding its nature.
Zionism and Post Modernism

Both political and cultural Zionism were ideological Jewish responses to modernity. The Enlightenment legitimized free will as a force in human affairs. Ideology proposes plans of action to realize a vision. Herzl’s “If you will it, it is not a fairy tale” reflects the modern belief that ideology embodied in free human will can shape reality.

It is a hallmark of POST-MODERNISM that it rejects ideology and has recruited the social sciences to ascertain “reality” as the benchmark for proposing policy. The Israeli philosopher Eliezer Schweid contrasts the modern with the post-modern: “Guidelines based on ‘modern’ philosophy and ideology deal with what is ‘desirable’. They are determined by the subjective interests of individuals, groups, classes, political parties and peoples. Instead of this we (now) have (the ‘post-modern’) objective and scientific guidelines where the weighted common interests of all are objectively determined...this demands a reform in the social demands theory which reflects actual practice as determined by objective investigation.”5
The post-Zionism of pro-Israelism (both in Israel and the Diaspora) is in fact, an expression of post-modernism. Neither are conducive to the propagation of norms based on a cultural Zionist ideology concerning what the Jewish state should be.
The contemporary priests of post-modernism in the Jewish polity are the Jewish professionals, who have been trained in the post-modern approach of social science, and their non-ideological moneyed supporters. They have delegitimized the prophetic demand of “the desirable that should be” no less effectively than the rabbis who ruled that prophecy had ceased in Israel.6
In light of the foregoing general discussion, we now need to examine the place of Israel in the identity of Reform Jews on the spectrum of passive pro-Israelism to active Jewish Zionist commitment.

Simon Herman studied the dynamics of education towards Zionism in the mid-twentieth century. “The general rule … is that Zionist education requires Zionist groups. Becoming a Zionist is in fact a process of growing into a group which is Zionist.”7 In practice, Herman was talking about Zionist youth movements and camps that constituted a significant framework for Zionist commitment at that time.

But Herman also pointed out that identification and commitment within such frameworks were usually mediated by role models representing a particular cultural Zionist outlook. These could be older madrichim (youth leaders) or shlichim (educational emissaries) from Israel who embodied in their personal lives Torat Chaim, a way of life and a Jewish-Zionist vision. This vision was based on a particular value world which reflected a concept and vision of what the Jewish state should be.
Thus, active identity and commitment to the Zionist enterprise meant identifying with a particular vision of Israel.
What do statistics tell us about the place of Israel in the identity of Reform Jews? Some 90% of Reform Jews live in the United States. However it is of importance to relate to other Diasporas in order to ascertain if the place of Israel and/or the Jewish-Zionist commitment of Reform Jews in other lands parallels that of America
United States

Thanks to the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-01 (NJPS) conducted by the United Jewish Communities, the statistically best documented group of Reform Jews is that of the United States, the largest Jewish Diaspora.

According to the NJPS there are 5.2 million Jews in the United States. Denominational identification was surveyed among 4.3 million Jews who had “stronger Jewish connections”. Of those, 35% “consider themselves” Reform. 26% of Jews “consider themselves” Conservative, 10% Orthodox, 20% “just Jewish” and 9% “other.” The NJPS determined that the Jewish population in Reform households totaled 1.4 million. It is also of significance that some 45% of those considering themselves Reform were not raised Reform.8 In the United States, the trend is in the direction of Reform.
However, it must also be noted that the NJPS records that the actual population affiliated with Reform congregations encompasses a much smaller number – 754,000.9
As for the place of Israel in the identity of those considering themselves Reform Jews compared to other sectors of U.S. Jewry, the NJPS records the following results:10
Orthodox Conservative Reform “Just Jewish”

Ever Visited Israel – % 73 53 34 27

Emotional Attachment

Very Attached to Israel – % 68 39 21 24

These are surely disappointing statistics from any Zionist point of view. They are even more disappointing in light of the finding that 57% of all Reform Jews and 68% of those affiliated with Reform synagogues claim to have “a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”11 This disconnect is surely worth further investigation.
Another indicator of Israel involvement is youth travel under Reform sponsorship. Before the second Intifada, the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) six-week summer tours peaked at 1400 participants. This was still a modest number but, in the wake of Oslo Accords in 1993, it was slowly climbing.
In 2001, at the height of the second Intifada, the Union for Reform Judaism (known as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations UAHC until 2003) was the only Jewish organization to cancel Israel tours outright. This was done in spite of the protest of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) and in spite of the fact that the NETZER countries (see below) carried on. In 2005 there were again 600 participants on these NFTY tours. One hundred high school students attended the semester long NFTY Eisendrath International Exchange (E.I.E.) program. The only post-high school program, the recently initiated “Carmel” program based in Haifa had 12 participants in 2005/2006.12
Other Diaspora Countries

There are a number of common denominators among the Reform movements outside of the United States.

1 They exist in Jewish communities which are younger, more cohesive, and more compact than Reform Jewry in the United States. Hence the Jewish ethnic connection has remained stronger. Zionism/pro-Israelism are more normative in the Jewish community as a whole.

2 The Reform community constitutes a minority, sometimes not officially recognized, within the total Jewish community. Access to the Jewish people’s national institutions such as the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and the Jewish Agency is of particular importance to these Reform communities.

3 In the Jewish communities of the former Commonwealth countries, the venue of a semi-autonomous Zionist youth movement as a framework for informal education was much more established than in the United States – the partial exception of Young Judaea notwithstanding. In order to prevent attrition of Reform youth to secular Zionist youth movements such as Habonim, the Reform movements of countries such as Britain, Australia and South Africa found it expedient to support the establishment of NETZER.
A major methodological problem in assessing the place of Israel in the identity of Reform Jews outside of the U.S.A. is the lack of NJPS equivalents in the other countries of the Diaspora. In the absence of reliable statistics, the elucidation of a specific Reform behavior as common denominator to all Reform Diasporas becomes a problematic quest.
NETZER as Indicator of Reform Jewish-Zionist Identity

The Reform Zionist youth movement, NETZER, (Noar Zioni Reformi) was established in 1980. Initially, NETZER was established in Britain, Australia and South Africa with the informal help of the Israel office of the UAHC Youth Division. The World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) adopted it as its youth arm.

For a number of Diaspora countries, the activity of NETZER is at least a partial indicator of their relationship to Israel. This is so for two reasons:

1 Statistics regarding participation in long-term Israel programs are available from the NETZER Olami office in Jerusalem.

2 Surveying the performance of NETZER has predictive implications for potential Jewish Zionist commitment and identification with Israel in the coming generation.
In addition, the influence of cultural globalization has impacted on the value orientations of Jewish youth (certainly Reform Jewish youth) in the entire Western world – including Israel. Thus, an extrapolation from NETZER to Reform youth in America has become increasingly relevant. This has already been a factor in the recent (2005) formal affiliation of NFTY with Netzer Olami.13
It is of major significance that NETZER was established as a semi-autonomous Zionist youth movement. The empowerment of youth (in the absence of money and/or availability of professional staff) and the organic unity of work with youth through and into young adulthood, was and is a major difference between NETZER and NFTY. The implications of this will be discussed below.
In Britain and Australia in particular, twenty-five years of NETZER have shown that this was a correct strategic choice for ensuring future Jewish-Zionist leadership, professional and lay, for these smaller Reform communities.
In 2004, NETZER reported a membership of 1,400 in Britain – ages 10-25.14 The fact that 1,400 young people are active in an avowedly Zionist youth movement and are the recognized youth arm of the Reform/Liberal movement in Britain clearly indicates a high level of integration of Israel with Reform identity.
The combined NETZER movements of Britain annually send cohorts of 15 to 25 high school graduates for a ten month “Shnat” NETZER program to Israel. If we extrapolate the lower number to the 754,000 Jews actually affiliated to the congregations of Reform Judaism in the United States, we would have a youth movement of 26,000 with annual cohorts of some 280 high school graduates on long term Israel programs.
Australian NETZER parallels the example of British NETZER. There are probably between 15,000 and 20,000 Reform Jews in Australia. NETZER counts 410 members. Annual cohorts of 5 to 10 high school graduates from Australia participate in the 10 month NETZER “Shnat” program.
In the last few years there has been an encouraging development of NETZER in countries of the Former Soviet Union (FSU). NETZER claims 2,000 members in the FSU. Reliable figures for affiliation with Reform congregations are unavailable.
There is a NETZER presence in other countries of the Diaspora as well – South Africa, Germany, Holland, Spain and Argentina. NETZER has not yet found a way to establish itself in the small French Reform community. NETZER has not organized in Canada because of the affiliation of the Canadian Council of Liberal Congregations with the Union for Reform Judaism (U.S.A.), hence the Canadian youth are affiliated with NFTY.
The major conclusion to be drawn from the NETZER experience is

that there is not now any inherent contradiction between a pro-Israel Reform Judaism as such and a more intense Jewish Zionist commitment promoted by a Reform Zionist youth movement.

An additional significant conclusion is that the adult institutions of the Reform movement in NETZER countries have come to see NETZER, a semi-autonomous Reform Zionist youth movement, as normative for the informal education of their youth. In those countries where NETZER has already existed 25 years (Britain, Australia), the adult movement has undertaken considerable financial responsibility for the financing of NETZER staff (including shlichim) and NETZER activities. NETZER graduates, lay and professional, are coming to play a significant role in this continuing support.
Hence, we must inevitably return to the question of what factors, particular to Reform Judaism in the United States, have made the place of Israel (and by extension – Jewish-Zionist commitment) in the identity of American Reform a challenge?

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