About ten years ago, I fell out of love with Israel. I don’t remember exactly how, when, or why this process started. When I was in elementary school I wasn’t sure who I’d side with in a war between the US and Israel and when I was in 8th grade, at the beginning of the Second Intifada, my social studies teacher once told my mom that she was afraid that I was going to enlist in the IDF. But by the time that I was a sophomore in high school, I had already started questioning Israel’s actions and eventually I came to a situation in which merely expressing some doubt as to the wisdom of Israeli policy led a good friend of mine to stop speaking to me for three days.
Since then, Israel has been a topic I’d rather not discuss. I’ve been cowardly: I’ve been fearful of both the punishing silence of lost friends and the vicious volume of loud strangers. I retreated into a silent, irritated indifference. Poisonous politics spoiled any possibility that I might have had of appreciating this place for its own sake.
Until now. When I began rabbinical school at the Hebrew Union College, knowing that I would have to spend my first year in this country, living on this land, speaking its language, meeting its people, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to break down the concrete barriers in my mind and find a way rebuild my relationship with Israel out of Jerusalem stone. But fortunately, this has changed thanks to HUC’s exceptionally thoughtful approach to Israel studies—dedicating a weekly daylong seminar to soaking in the rich milk and golden honey of voices that constitute this society—and to a two-day colloquium on Israel engagement that I participated in with my fellow HUC students and students from other liberal seminaries. It has been a gradual process, punctuated by periods of powerful repulsion and profound appreciation. However, especially through my conversations with other Americans about their own ways of connecting with Israel, I believe that I have discovered the intellectual architecture with which I can reconstruct my collapsed connection with this place.
I call it experimental Zionism. Experimental Zionism understands Israel to be the grandest experiment in the history of the Jewish people, a messy exploration of what it looks like to create a society of Jews, by Jews, and for Jews. And the experimental Zionist’s first reaction to this society is fascination: it is something to study, to examine, to behold. But fascination alone—like unconditional, unquestioning love—is not enough to be Zionism. Zionism requires something more: vision.
Thus, experimental Zionists are not as concerned with Israel’s right to be as they are with what Israel could be. We quickly learn through our observations that this place is as imperfect as we are imperfect, but also that it is as perfectible as we are perfectible. Thus we concern ourselves with a more fundamental question: what do we want this Jewish society to look like, to sound like, to smell like, to taste like, to feel like, to act like? And just as important, how can we test these hypotheses in this world and see the resultant Jewish society that they create?
Admittedly, after all this time, I find myself surprised to be able to once again call myself a Zionist. But I can no longer say that I am indifferent to the state of affairs in this country; instead, though I still expect to spend my life in the diaspora, I also plan to support the ongoing, challenging, but essential evolution of Israel towards my hopes, a Jewish state that can truly be a light unto the nations. Among my hopes is that all of us who have found ourselves in a state of silent, irritated indifference when it comes to Israel can find our way to experimental Zionism: instead of talking about Israel’s impossible politics, we can imagine its possible wonders. We can start with the dream, and then will it to be.
Dan Ross is a first year student at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.