The Challenges of Long-Distance Zionism
1. The need for balance regarding communal responsibilities in the Diaspora with meaningful
expressions of religious Zionism is evident in many areas, prominently including decisions about
voting and charitable donations. Regarding voting, the American voter who places Israel-related
concerns at the forefront of his decisions is often accused of being a “one-issue voter,” of having
“dual loyalties,” or of narrow-minded tribalism.
It’s true that support of any political candidate is a complex decision, necessarily affected
by multiple considerations, all demanding harmonization into one zero sum conclusion, one that
more often than not represents the lesser of two evils. That being said, there is much about the
support of Israel that justifies an outsized influence upon electoral preferences, and it is far more
than tribalism that is involved. On a basic practical level, the challenges Israel faces are
existential, life and death threats on a national scale, and Israel is unfairly targeted for exclusion
and derision on the international stage. These aspects alone justify prioritized attention.
More fundamentally, though, when properly understood, Israel’s cause is America’s
cause. The support of a lone democracy committed to human rights surrounded by autocratic
regimes bent on its destruction is the essence of American values. Further, Israel’s struggle
against terrorism is one in which it fights on behalf of the entire free world, whether they realize
it or not. Is the targeting of innocents for slaughter in the name of a political end acceptable, or is
it not? If it is acceptable in Israel, then it is also in France, England, Spain, and America.
Regarding financial support, the question has additional complexities. Prioritization
among charitable causes is a multifaceted, subtle analysis, but the issues can be organized around
two axes: a) that which most urgently begs for our financial assistance, and b) those causes
which through our support give voice to our own most cherished values and ideals. From both
perspectives, institutions and programs in Israel deserve prominent ranking.
However, as American Jews, the two axes are processed differently. Causes in Israel are
in need of support, but so are those in the Diaspora communities. The apparent affluence of
American Jewry masks a profound crisis in the sustainability of its institutions and frameworks,
most sharply in the area of education. This predicament is the result of many factors, some of
them organizational and attitudinal, but it is undoubtable that among them is need for greatly
enhanced philanthropic attention. While the support of Israel is given great emphasis in the
codified laws of tzedakah, most authorities rule that the standard of “the needs of your locality
take precedence” continue to apply (see Bach, Y.D. 251, s.v. aniyyei, who considers this point
“obvious,” and Shakh, 251:6; see also Birkei Yosef, 251:1; Chiddushei Sefat Emet to Y.D., and
Resp. Shevet Ha-Levi V, 135:5). As these local needs indeed loom large, they do demand
The second axis, the expression of personal values through communal support, does
speak loudly to the American Jew: as he has not taken the step of personally settling the land,
and of contributing physically and demographically to its development, financial backing seems
the main avenue to avoid being a Zionist in name only. This instinct is compelling, and
particularly appropriate toward Israeli institutions with which one has personal connections or
benefits. Nonetheless, the magnitude of such philanthropy must be assessed carefully against its
impact on the very real needs of Diaspora communities.
2. The dream of ascending to the land of Israel, and of realizing the manifestation of God’s
mission in its most tangible sense, should be ever present in the Jewish soul and mind, at
minimum as an ideal. This is true both as a personal spiritual goal post, as well as the appropriate
desire to play a role in the fulfillment of the national aspiration.
Nonetheless, this does not eliminate the need to factor in other considerations, which
impact on both aspects. These considerations are highly personal and complex, but go to the
questions of how one’s actual personal needs, be they spiritual or otherwise, will be affected, as
well as to the second question of how effective will one be in contributing to the mission of am
Yisrael, including the opportunity costs of pursuing one option over the other.
My great great grandfather, R. Zevulun Leib Barit z”l, was a passionate rabbinic
advocate of religious Zionism and wrote eloquently about it, in letters to R. Zvi Hirsch Kalischer
and others. In one such letter (printed in Shivat Tziyon, vol, I, 43-52), he details the various
benefits to inhabiting the Land, including the inherent mitzvah fulfillment; the enhancement of
religious accomplishment in all areas, especially Torah study; a diminished focus on
materialism; and the creation of a unifying center to bring together the entire Jewish people.
Regardless of one’s personal decision of where to live, it is incumbent on every Jew to recognize
the role Yishuv Eretz Yisrael plays in all of these values, and to strive to maximize them in all
decisions, both in terms of personal development and in terms of contributions to the klal,
whether from within its spiritual homeland or from afar.
R. Barit prefaces his letter with a citation from Yalkut Shir Ha-Shirim (4), which he
explains at its close. The winds fought with each other, the Northern wind saying I will bring in
the exiles, and the Southern wind saying the same. God made peace between them, and brought
them all through the same entrance. In his explanation, the north and south are references to
placement in the Beit Ha-Mikdash, respectively the shulhan, representing material sustenance,
and the menorah, representing the Torah and its scholars. Each wants to play the primary role in
bringing the redemption. However, ultimately it will be the harmony of all playing their unique
roles and working together towards the broader picture, harnessing their instincts, talents,
abilities, and resources towards the realization of God’s vision for the Jews and humanity. May it
soon be His will.
Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman is a Rosh Yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at
Yeshiva University, as well as an instructor in the Sy Syms School of Business and the Wurzweiler
School of Social Work, and serves as the Executive Editor of the RIETS initiative of YU Press.
See the full symposium prompt and other responses here: