Evening in Safed, Northern Israel, al_la via iStock

Zionism Is Intrinsic to Judaism

Marilyn Freedman
6 min readJan 14, 2022


The tweet from a pro-Palestinian Jewish organization member said to boycott your synagogue if it supports Israel. It was trolling and a cruel suggestion. What the hell kind of Jew says a thing like that? I imagine the tweet came from a secular Jew who doesn’t understand that the synagogue is the heart of Jewish life in the Diaspora.

A synagogue is mostly a religious institution with a big emphasis on community. Most synagogues have enough educational and cultural activities that you can participate in Jewish communal life without participating in religious services if that’s how you roll.

One question — why boycott synagogues — leads to another question and another. Can you separate Zionism and support for Israel from Judaism? I don’t think so.

Don’t Walk Away from the Conversation Before It Starts

Zionism was never a unified ideology. Many groups and organizations in the late 1800s pursued a dream of returning to Eretz Yisrael from 2,000 years of dangerous exile. There is no question that Diaspora life was dangerous. Mass attacks and killings of Jews occurred as long ago as 38 C.E. in Alexandria, Egypt. By the mid-1900s, hundreds of thousands of Jews had died in Europe and the pogroms of Eastern Europe. I know I’m not telling you anything new. Most of us Jews know our history. It continues to this day with mass killings in France and the United States. Part of me always wants to live someplace safer.

For some nascent Zionist groups in the 1800s, Zionism was a religious movement; for others it was secular. Labor, language, agriculture, and physical strength were some of the ideals embedded within a desire to return from exile. It took a Zionist Congress (1897), under the prompting and guidance of Theodor Herzl, for a political organization with a coherent message and action to emerge from the streams of grassroots movements that led to the first aliya from 1882 to 1904.

Regardless of the diversity of ideals, what inspired early Zionism — the spirit of Zionism — is the same today as it was close to 150 years ago: the longing to return to a homeland, to no longer live in exile, to live life as a Jew in relative safety.

Zionism means something spiritual to me, not something political. Jewish liturgy and Torah underpin why I feel Zionism is a spiritual matter. Joking, I tweeted that I would prove the link between Zionism and Judaism by counting the number of times prayers in the Sim Shalom prayer book mention Zion.

I examined the Friday night service because it is beautiful; I knew I would enjoy reading the prayers. The service comes in two parts. The first, Kabbalat Shabbat, sets the stage by singing in Shabbat through psalms and hymns. The second part, the Evening Service, includes the Sh’ma and a silent meditation. I counted mentions of peoplehood in the prayers as well as specific use of the word Zion. Here is what I found:

Kabbalat Shabbat

P. 17, Psalm 97: “Zion exults,” “the cities of Judah rejoice”

P. 18, Psalm 98: “the House of Israel”

P. 19, Psalm 99: “Adonai is great in Zion,” “ordaining justice and compassion for the people of Jacob”

P. 22: “May God comfort you together with all the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”

P. 24, Mourner’s Kaddish: Yisrael lines 3, 11, and 13

Pp. 25–26, Sources for Study & Reflection, Source 2: “The Congregation of Israel” and lines 4, 5, and 7

P. 27, Kaddish: Yisrael lines 3, 10, 17, and 19

The Evening Service

P. 29, Yisrael lines 1 and 8

P. 30, Sh’ma: Yisrael line 1

P. 31, Yisrael line 1

P. 32, Yisrael lines 2, 11, 15, and 27

P. 33, Yisrael and Jerusalem, line 11

P. 34, Yisrael lines 1, 3, and 15

P. 36, Amidah (silent meditation): Yisrael lines 17, 19, 21, 24, 25, and 30 and Zion lines 30 and 31

P. 37, Yisrael lines 14 and 23

P. 38, Yisrael lines 1, 3, 5, 6, and 19

P. 48, Yisrael lines 7, 11, 19, 22, and 24

P. 53, Yigdal: Yisrael line 13

I’m not sure what nearly 50 mentions of Zion, Yisrael, or Jerusalem tells me. Is it a lot or a little? What I know is that reading the prayers gives me a “you-are-there” — in ancient Israel, getting ready for Shabbat — feeling. And it’s supposed to.

Historians trace the structure and at least some of the content of the Kabbalat Shabbat service to rabbis and scholars of the Kabbalah residing in 16th century Safed. They drew on the spiritual work of Maimonides from the 12th century, who drew on reports of the personal Shabbat rituals of Rabbi Hanina. I imagine Rabbi Hanina going out of Safed, into the countryside of Eretz Yisrael, to prepare himself to welcome Shabbat:

“Rabbi Hanina robed himself and stood at sunset of Sabbath eve [and] exclaimed,
‘Come and let us go forth to welcome the queen Shabbat / Shabbat Malka.’ [1]

The Kabbalat Shabbat service is old. The psalms that comprise most of the service are attributed to King David and are older still. The service was created by Jews who grew up in exile and made aliya, returning to Safed, to better do the spiritual work they felt called to do. They were mystics and Kabbalists, and they imbued the hymns and liturgy they created with their perspectives. Their ritual calls to me, not only to prepare myself for sacred time and rest but also to a feeling of spiritual home.

Drawing on the liturgy for evidence connecting Zionism and Judaism isn’t necessary. Before there was a synagogue and liturgy, there was Torah. Although today we view Torah as wisdom literature, it is ancient and filled with references to a Jewish homeland in Judah and Samaria with a spiritual center in Jerusalem. We keep discovering more of an archaeological record that places some of the action that takes place in the Torah within the borders of modern Israel. There’s a direct connection from Torah to the liturgy to my childhood memories of Friday nights in the synagogue and my heart.

It’s true that Judaism’s religious institutions haven’t always supported the modern state of Israel. For example, in 1898 the Union of American Hebrew Congregations — a Reform Judaism organization — was publicly anti-Zionist, and in the late 1800s prominent rabbis of American Reform Judaism did not support aspirations toward a nation state of Israel. By 1937, however, the Central Conference of American Rabbis embraced a pro-Zionism stance. [2]

I don’t see a way to disentangle a longing for homeland and an identification with peoplehood from Jewish religious practice. I also don’t see a reason to try to separate the two. You can practice Judaism, long for a safe home, see that safe home as Israel, and dislike Israel’s political policies toward Palestinians.

Life is messy. The reality of the nation-state of Israel was always going to be different from the hopes of those who dreamed it into reality. History and events have a way of changing our reality as we live it. Maybe one purpose of Judaism is to help us navigate these contradictions. Aspire to compassion and justice, never stop working to repair the world, all the while knowing that the world needs repair.

What will boycotting synagogues that support Israel accomplish? What is the goal of the suggestion? How will such a boycott improve the lives of Palestinians?

Advocating we boycott synagogues is like walking away from the conversation before it starts. If you genuinely want to help promote Palestinian human rights, you will accomplish more by engaging with synagogue life. You will find others who dislike Israel’s policies and envision greater justice for Palestinians. Maybe the ensuing discussions will pave the way for change.

1 Noam Zion, “L’cha Dodi and the Kabbalist Background to Kabbalat Shabbat,” Torah (blog), Shalom Hartman Institute, July 30, 2014, https://www.hartman.org.il/lcha-dodi-and-the-kabbalist-background-to-kabbalat-shabbat/

2 Union for Reform Judaism, “History of the Reform Movement,” https://urj.org/who-we-are/history; Jonathan D. Sarna, “Converts to Zionism in the American Reform Movement,” in Almog, S., Reinharz, Y., and Shapira, A. (eds.) Zionism in Religion, Brandeis University Press (Hanover, NH: 1998), https://www.brandeis.edu/hornstein/sarna/americanjewishcultureandscholarship/Archive3/ConvertstoZionismintheAmericanReformMovement.pdf.



Marilyn Freedman

Editor and writer, companion to a rescue dog and cat, commentator, witness, advocate, nature lover, good neighbor, and human being. Currently playing Destiny 2.