Rabbi Emanuel Cohn
Former Avrech in Montreal (2001-2003)
Founder of “Torah MiCinema” – Teaching Film and Judaism


Since we commemorate this year the 100thYahrtzeit of Theodor Herzl z”l, it is worth contemplating Zionism for a moment. The term “Zionism” was coined in 1890 by Nathan Birnbaum , who later played a prominent part in the First Zionist Congress in Basel(1897). In 1893, he published a brochure entitled “The National Rebirth of the Jewish People in its Homeland as a Means of Solving the Jewish Question”, in which he expounded ideas similar to those that Herzl was to promote subsequently.

However, it seems that till today the definition of the term “Zionism” is highly controversial. Who is a Zionist? Only a person who makes Aliyah to Israelor even a Jew who supports the Jewish State from abroad? And if so, what nature of support are we talking about?

Interestingly this week’s Parsha tells us about an episode which occurred about 3300 years ago, but it is still relevant today and deals directly with our topic. When the Jews were about to finally enter the Promised Land, not all of them agreed to the “Aliyah”-enterprise:

“Now the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad had an exceedingly large number of livestock. So when they saw the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead, that it was indeed a place suitable for livestock, the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben came and spoke to Moshe and to Elazar the priest and to the leaders of the congregation… They said, ‘If we have found favor in your sight, let this land be given to your servants as a possession; do not take us across the Jordan.’”

What a blow. After forty years of wandering through the desert as a direct punishment of the previous generation’s skepticism towards the Holy Land, the Jewish people find something to complain about again. After forty years of waiting and suspense, the tribes of Gad and Reuben don’t see the Landof Israelfit their “business” considerations. It is therefore more than understandable that Moshe, who himself was refused by God to cross the Jordan, a journey he longed for so much, would be especially upset after hearing this refusal to the Divine plan. His reaction is indeed very harsh and emotional, and he uses four different tactics to dissuade them:

“But Moshe said to the sons of Gad and to the sons of Reuben, (1- Moshe appeals to their national conscience:) ‘Shall your brothers go to war while you yourselves sit here?’ (2- Moshe appeals to their educational conscience:) ‘Now why are you discouraging the sons of Israelfrom crossing over into the land which God has given them?’ (3- Moshe appeals to their historic conscience:) ‘This is what your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land. For when they went up to the valleyof Eshkoland saw the land, they discouraged the sons of Israelso that they did not go into the land which God had given them… So God’s anger burned against Israel, and He made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until the entire generation of those who had done evil in the sight of God was destroyed.’ (4- Finally Moshe gets personal and appeals to their moral conscience:) ‘Now behold, you have risen up in your fathers’ place, a brood of sinful men, to add still more to the burning anger of God against Israel. For if you turn away from following Him, He will once more abandon them in the wilderness, and you will destroy all these people.’”

After hearing these shocking accusations from their leader, we would have thought that the tribes of Gad and Reuben would give in. But as “good Jews” they continue to argue:

“Then they came near to him and said, ‘We will build here sheepfolds for our livestock and cities for our little ones; but we ourselves will be armed ready to go before the sons of Israel, until we have brought them to their place… We will not return to our homes until every one of the sons of Israelhas possessed his inheritance…’”

After listening to this short proposal, Moshe’s reaction changes completely. Forgotten are all the accusations, threats and moral considerations which he mentioned a minute ago.

“So Moshe said to them, ‘If you will do this, if you will arm yourselves before God for the war, and all of you armed men cross over the Jordan before God until He has driven His enemies out from before Him, and the land is subdued before God, then afterward you shall return and be free of obligation toward God and toward Israel, and this land shall be yours for a possession before God…’ The sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Your servants will do just as my lord commands…’” (Bamidbar 32, 1-25)

Now that we have read about this dispute between Moshe and the tribes of Gad and Reuben, what relevance does it have to the initial question we raised: Who is a Zionist? Were the tribes of Gad and Reuben Zionists? Or were they the first historical example of Jews who loved Israelbut preferred to settle outside its borders, at a “place suitable for livestock”?

The first reaction of Moshe seems to show that the economic reason is not strong enough to justify not entering the Holy Land. The original plan of Gad and Reuben was indeed non-Zionist. But after their proposal to send soldiers to the conquest of the Promised Land and not to return to their homes until every one of the sons of Israelpossessed his inheritance, Moshe views them as “kosher Zionists”. Therefore one could derive from here that a Jew who serves in the IDF -i.e. endangers his own life for Israel-so that his brethren can live in the Jewish Homeland in peace, and then returns to live abroad for personal reasons, could be defined as a Zionist.

However, it is not as simple as it sounds. One chapter after the above episode, God gives Moshe a ”Road Map” for the conquest of the Promised Land, in which He elaborates on the different steps PRECEDING the actual taking possession (Hitnachlut) of the land:

“Then God spoke to Moshe in the plains of Moab by the Jordan opposite Jericho, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Kanaan, then you shall… destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places; and you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it…’” (33, 50-53; see Rabbi Hirsch’s commentary on the last Pasuk).

In other words, before the “possession” of the land can take place, one thing must happen: The cleansing of the land from evil and immoral content such as idol-worship. According to this a Jew abroad finds himself in a Catch 22-situation. On one hand he can leave the land, once his people have settled there in a politically and militarily stable entity, but on the other hand the actual “settlement” of the land is not completed until evil (terrorism, corruption etc.) is eradicated from the land. And this process takes -as we unfortunately know- a long time. However, from this section one can derive as well that supporting the improvement of spiritual and moral conditions in Israelcan also be defined as an integral part of the Zionist agenda.

This dialectic notion is reflected in the definition of the term “Zionism” by the Oxford Dictionary, where it says: “Zionism, noun – a movement for the development and protection of a Jewish nation in Israel.” If we understand this according to its broadest interpretation, “development” can also be achieved to a certain extent through financial support, and “protection” can also be done to a certain extent through political lobbying outside Israel. But obviously the ideal Zionist develops the Holy Landwith his own hands and protects it with his own body.

Maybe we have not succeeded in clarifying the definition of a “Zionist” so far, but one thing seems clear:

An indifferent Jew who lives in Israel, is a Zionist.
An indifferent Jew who lives outside Israel, is not a Zionist.