A Message from President Rehfeld on Yom HaAtzmaut: The Aspirations of Zionism - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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A Message from President Rehfeld on Yom HaAtzmaut: The Aspirations of Zionism

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Dear Friends,

Our commemoration of Yom HaShoah last week and Yom HaZikaron this week was followed immediately by the celebration of Yom HaAtzmaut. Their pacing is remarkable, as we move from grieving to joining a national celebration of the 72nd birthday of the State of Israel. Around the world, and particularly in Israel, our rituals capture the mood of these days – from mourning, reflection, remembrance, and sorrow, to singing and dancing, eating and celebrating.

Literally overnight.

These three holidays are perhaps the most nationalistic holidays in our Jewish calendar. We should pause to recognize both the dark and bright sides of the nationalism that they highlight.

In Yom HaShoah, we see the consequences of nationalism’s noxious form, creating tight bonds of affection through the exclusion and persecution of others. Those who don’t belong are not merely “other,” they are the embodiment of evil. It is a nationalism embodied by its authoritarian leaders who elevate the value of political glory, if not their own interests, above the needs and welfare of the people that government must serve. In its noxious form, nationalism closes borders and closes minds. As we know from our own experience, it shuts down public discourse through attacks on the media, undermines the credibility of experts to serve its political interests, and promotes distinctions based on false categories like race.

Yom HaAtzmaut, the 72nd anniversary of the birth of the State of Israel, celebrates a different, aspirational form of nationalism in Zionism. It is a nationalism that recognizes the necessity of the state for protection of the weakest who are victims to the bigotry, racism, and antisemitism of other nations. It is a nationalism that promotes collective sacrifice and the flourishing of our people and our shared culture. And, critically, it is a nationalism that limits itself by the power of the state, which must be exercised in accordance with universal principles of justice, principles that respect and promote the human rights of all who live under its jurisdiction, without regard to race or religion.

And this aspirational form, aiming to protect an historically persecuted people and promote its flourishing as a means to achieve universal justice, is the very Zionism upon which Israel was founded and that we celebrate on Yom HaAtzmaut.

On this Yom HaAtzmaut, we recognize HUC’s enduring, sustaining commitment to Zionism and Israel since the 1950s. Our Taube Family Campus, dedicated in 1963, was the first permanent North American academic institution with a physical home in Jerusalem. Expanded in 1986 by architect Moshe Safdie, it is currently undergoing a $15 million investment in renovation and invigorated educational and cultural outreach thanks to the philanthropic vision of Tad Taube and the Taube Philanthropies.

This year, we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of our pioneering Year-In-Israel Program. HUC was the first seminary to require its stateside rabbinical and cantorial students to spend their first year of study in Israel, embedding them within Israeli society to create strong, lifelong personal bonds with the people, history, and land of Israel. HUC’s education, nonprofit management, and Ph.D. students similarly experience intensive studies in Israel as part of their studies. And we have also expanded our Israeli programs to train Israeli Reform rabbis, pluralistic educators, multi-denominational pastoral care-givers, and interfaith teachers building tolerance, to contribute to strengthening Israel’s religious life and the public sphere.

For almost three generations, the nearly 4,000 stateside graduates of our programs have emerged to lead thousands of Jewish communities throughout North America, Israel, and around the globe, carrying with them their love of Israel and the essential spark of Jewish peoplehood. They have transmitted these commitments to millions of Reform Jews, connecting diaspora Jewry with their fellow Jews in the Jewish State and inspiring them to understand the core Jewish values of mutual respect and concern, Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, all of the people of Israel – all Jews – are responsible for each other. A good number of them serve as leaders of AIPAC, ARZA, the World Zionist Congress, JStreet, the New Israel Fund, Rabbis for Human Rights, and the full alphabet soup of Israel advocacy agencies. They are building the bridges of Israel-diaspora partnership every day. And through this engagement of all kinds they are combatting the biggest threat to Israel from North American Jewry – disengagement and apathy.

So we celebrate Israeli Independence Day as a day to recognize the potential of nationalism to combat its noxious forms. By strengthening our bonds to community and peoplehood we recognize that particularism – whether as Jews, Israelis, or Americans – is the most effectively way to mobilize to achieve our ultimate aims of universal justice.

Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D.

For more on these ideas, read President Rehfeld’s article, “What it Means to Be a Zionist and Love Israel: Lessons from America,” here.