Reader Post: Is it a Religious Obligation for Jews to Support Israel?
It is common among secular Jews today to perceive the decision to support Israel as a matter of individual choice. Citing the refusal of some Haredi sects to endorse the State of Israel, and referring to select critical sources among Jewish academics, numerous Jews dissociate themselves from Israel. They distinguish between the act of supporting Israel, whose requirement they consider questionable, and such mitzvot as Tzedakah – charity – or the observance of days such as Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, and Shabbat, whose obligations seem more directly compelling. Those who are openly critical of Israel emphasize the moral imperative of Tikkun Olam – repairing the world – to support their position that social justice supersedes the obligation to advocate for a Jewish land.
An examination of Jewish sources reveals a surprisingly clear stance on this matter.
From a traditional Halachic Jewish law perspective, the principal question regarding Israel is not, “Are Jews obligated to support Israel?” The fundamental question is in fact, “Are Jews obligated to live in Israel?” The Rabbis of the Talmud stated, “A man should always live in the Land of Israel, even in a city of which the majority are idolaters, and not live outside of the Land of Israel, even in a city where the majority is Jewish” (Ketubot 110b). The medieval sage Nachmanides considered Yishuv Eretz Yisrael – inhabiting the land of Israel – as one of the 613 mitzvot compulsory upon Jews, a position supported by others such as the Avnei Nezer, as well as modern religious leaders like Rav Kook and Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. A more lenient position is espoused by those such as Rav Moshe Feinstein (citing Maimonides), who state that a Jew may be exempted from a requirement to live in Israel, should it prove unduly difficult in terms of danger or threat to personal livelihood. In virtually all instances, residency in the land is considered meritorious if not mandatory.
These leaders considered it self-evident that Jews are obligated to support and strengthen Israel – not merely as a site of ancestral origins, but as Jews’ sacred homeland throughout time. From its very outset, Jewish identity was connected with the land of Israel. The origin of Judaism occurs when the patriarch Abraham is directed by G-d to leave his homeland to go to the land of Canaan to which G-d led him (Genesis 12: 1-5). The Jewish nation, religion, language, Scripture and culture all evolved there. When the people found itself in exile in Egypt, Babylon or elsewhere, they continued to identify Israel as their true home.
The Mishnah – the canon of Jewish law – states that, for the Jewish people, “Eretz Israel mekudeshet mi-kol ha-aratzot”: the land of Israel is the most sanctified land of all (Keilim 1:9). The Talmud compares Eretz Yisrael – the land of Israel – to the original paradise of Gan Eden, and mandates Jewish people to develop this proverbial paradise in order to bring about fulfilment of their sacred mission.
According to the Jewish notion of kedushat makom – holiness of place – Judaism’s sacredness rests on the interconnection between Jews, G-d, and the land of Israel. The Torah verse “I am the Lord your G-d, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God” (Vayikra/Leviticus 25:38) signifies that G-d’s commitment to the Jewish people is linked directly to a homeland. Many mitzvot can only be achieved in the land of Israel, while others require people to direct their attention, thoughts and prayers towards Israel. Land, people, and deity constitute the triumvirate of foundations upon which Judaism stands; the removal of any one leads to the nation’s downfall.
For nearly two thousand years, the Jewish people’s sovereignty over its homeland remained an abstract, prophetic ideal, even as Jews maintained their indigenous connection to Israel as a Holy Land and to Hebrew as a holy language. The Zionist movement to establish a modern State of Israel caused Jews to reenvisage their commitment to the land of Israel as reality rather than mere ideal. Though some leaders initially opposed the creation of a modern Jewish state, such religious objection to supporting Israel has dissipated over time – as consensus has emerged regarding the need to strengthen and support Israel as the home of millions of Jews and the greatest sanctuary to Jews experiencing persecution and hatred elsewhere in the world.
Considering the sanctity and centrality of Israel in Jewish discourse, religion, and peoplehood, it is spurious to reduce Jews’ connection to Israel to a matter of mere personal predilection. Throughout Jewish history and peoplehood, love and support of Israel have been fundamental components of Jewish identity. In Judaism, restoration of a homeland is not separate from other tenets of justice; on the contrary, support of Israel is essential for the achievement of justice. It thus remains a significant mitzvah to this day for Jews to strengthen and help Israel.
No one can be forcibly compelled to perform a mitzvah. Some Jews choose not to support Israel, just as others choose not to eat kosher, to observe holidays, or to recite Jewish prayers. Nonetheless, these mitzvot remain fundamental manifestations of Jewish identity. The decision to dissociate from Israel is indeed a personal choice. It’s simply not a Jewish one.