Interview with R. Yosef Blau: Religious Zionism Today
R. Blau serves as a Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS, and is the senior Mashgiach Ruchani at both Yeshiva and Stern colleges. R. Blau is also the current president of the Religious Zionists of America, the American branch of the World Mizrachi movement.
AS: What does being a religious Zionist mean to you?
RB: Religious Zionism is the continuation of groups of religious Jews who returned to Israel over the generations of galut including baalei ha-tosfot, Ramban, R. Yehuda Halevi and students of both the Gr”a and the Baal Shem Tov. A critical decision made by R. Reines, founder of Mizrachi, was to work within the framework of the World Zionist Organization even though the bulk of the leadership was not observant. Religious Zionists after the state was established worked for the Jewish character of the entire state and not only to protect the needs of religious Jews.
Among the Religious Zionists have been those who saw the creation of a state as a return to our native land and creating a safe haven for Jews. Others, particularly the followers of R. A.Y. Kook and his son R. Tzvi Yehuda, as having Messianic implications. Following the Six Day War, the latter perspective became dominate and focus shifted to building settlements in Yehuda and Shomron to solidify Jewish control over our biblical homeland. As a student of R. Soloveitchik, my personal leanings are to the pragmatic model, stressing Jewish education as the best method of insuring the Jewish character of Israel. It is of paramount importance that the state reflects the highest moral values and I accept defining Israel as a Jewish democratic state.
Functionally, in the United States many Orthodox Jews sympathize with Religious Zionism; but organizationally the women’s organizations such as AMIT and Emunah, which concentrate on specific projects in Israel, are the most successful.
AS: What then is the role for ideological organizations such as the Religious Zionists of America?
RB: To increase awareness of Religious Zionist ideals, support Israel, and promote Aliya.
AS: What role should YU students play in supporting Religious Zionism?
RB: YU students have a unique background in Torah and secular education and can bridge the gap between the religious and secular communities in Israel (as well as in America).YU students also have a unique perspective to bring to Israel, having spent at least a year of their lives studying in Israel. In this regard work needs to be done however to prevent the year [from] becoming an American experience located in Israel.
AS: How do you deal with the tension between being a Religious Zionist in America versus making aliyah and supporting change from within Israel?
RB: Certainly, I believe that the future of the Jewish people is in Israel, and that we have an obligation to be part of that. At the same time, we should acknowledge the complexity of individual needs and circumstances and the fact that there are five and a half million Jews in the United States, and that they also need leadership. I think all Jews have to make aliya a serious part of their calculations. It may turn out in some cases that it’s not the right move for various reasons. We don’t want people going on aliyah, being unsuccessful, and coming back. We should prepare properly. People who are going to take on educational roles in helping maintain American Jewry can justify living in America, particularly if they would not be as successful in Israel.