NCSY discusses Jewish identity, Zionism, & a binational state after the Six-Day War

Highlights from a 1968 NCSY Guide to Israel -- an unapologetically Religious Zionist text that also promotes intellectual engagement with ideological opponents -- with editing contributions from Meir Kahane

While in my shul’s library over Shavuot,1 I found a paper booklet published in June 19682 by the National Council of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), the primary Modern Orthodox youth group. Titled Israel: Eretz Israel, Land of Promise, it provides a fascinating picture of how American Modern Orthodox Jews saw the State of Israel in the wake of the Six-Day War. 

The booklet — which had a price of $1.50 — is about 110 pages and an absolute treasure trove of historical and sociological information. Selecting which parts to quote here was very difficult. (I would upload the booklet in its entirety, but I don’t see a way I could do so without violating copyright. If you would like a pdf for personal or research use — feel free to contact me.) 

Here are cover, title pages, and table of contents:

  • The cover of Israel: Eretz Israel, Land of Promise

Table of Contents

As one can see from the Table of Contents, the book is filled with articles on a variety of topics. What is less apparent is the diversity of format — there are essays on religious ideals as they relate to Zionism and Jewish identity, accounts of the Six Day War, and halakhic issues of ascending the Temple Mount. There’s also a fictional discussion between a young NCSYer visiting his “Uncle Shmuel” in Israel for the first time and a panel discussion of NCSYers discussing responses to the 1967 war (“Jewishness in Israel.”)

And the last section of the book is the most fascinating: titled “Food for Thought — Topics for Discussion — Plans for Action,” there are a series of contemporaneous topics for discussion and activity. 

Preface

The preface, from Rabbi Pinchas Stolper,3 explains that the manuscript of the book was originally written by Michael Rosenak,4 “a resident of Jerusalem, who was active for many years in American Jewish youth movements.” Stolper continues:

Mike [Rosenak] is a prominent educator and author who is on the faculty of the Machon Lemadrichei Chutz La’aretz5 in Jerusalem. Despite the fact that I discussed changes in the manuscript with Mike, I have subsequently taken liberties with the text without consulting him; I therefore assume all responsibility for the final form of this text. In the second edition, further editions and changes were made by Rabbi Meir Kahane and Yaakov Kornreich. [emphasis mine]

I’m not anywhere close to well-versed in Kahane’s writings, but given that this was published in the same year that he founded the JDL (1968), I’m not sure how far right he was holding on questions of Zionism at the time. If there’s any writing in this book that shows obvious signs of his ideology, I’m not learned enough to recognize it. Still, Kahane’s name definitely jumps out of the page as an interesting historical quirk.

Here are some highlights from the rest of the booklet.

The Land of Israel as a Conditional Gift

Near the beginning there are lots of sections explaining religious concepts as they relate to modern Zionism. This one, “Eretz Israel — A Conditional Gift” (p. 19), stood out to me. Putting behavioral conditions on Jewish presence/control of Eretz Yisrael — an idea with plenty of rabbinic sources and even explicit verses in the Torah6 — seems less emphasized in Religious Zionist circles these days:    

When the [Jewish] people went into exile, they realized the meaning of the Torah’s promise that their sins would result in the destruction of their country. Then they realized that the Land of Israel is a workshop, a laboratory given by the Lord to a people previously called into existence for the purpose of using the land to carry out G-d’s mitzvot.

Thus, as it developed, the difference between Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel and other nationalisms is that the country of the Jewish people is a conditional gift, bestowed only on those who will use it in the service of the Creator and for the establishment of a righteous Torah society. The homeland is truly a Land of Promise. It is given to the Jewish people in return for their promise to do His will by observing the Torah. [emphasis in original]

Panel discussion among NCSYers 

In a section titled “Jewish Youth Discuss: Our Challenges After The Six-Day War” (p. 69), six NCSYers take part in a panel discussion moderated by Michael Rosenak in Jerusalem. Participating are Alan Bricker (South Africa), Marvin Cohen (United States), David Reinhertz (Israel), Solomon Lieberman (Sweden), Yitzchak Tepper (Uruguay), and Hedy Matyas (Sweden — and the only female representation on the panel). 

Rosenak opens with a question asking the panelists’ first impressions after the Six-Day War:

…Now, five months after the war, which are your conclusions? What do the events we have experienced ‘say’ to you? How do you think they have affected the Jewish people? What are the primary tasks that they have thrust upon us? 

Below are some excerpted answers, which describe a variety of reactions in Israel and the Jewish diaspora.

David Reinhertz (Israel):

“…I think today, Israeli youth has more confidence in itself. For the Jewish people as a whole, the whole war has proved again that our national and religious identity are one and the same.”

Solomon Lieberman (Sweden):

“…It is only since my arrival in Israel this fall that I have come to understand the true miracle of this victory. I have seen the superior Arab battle positions with my own eyes and I have heard first-hand accounts by soldiers of miraculous happenings. As a result of these happenings, Jews in Israel, even those who were formerly anti-religious, seem more favorably inclined toward religious attitudes. But this change is likely to be a temporary one, and we must take advantage of this transient change in attitude before it passes. This is the time to foster Jewish feelings, both national and religious, in the Diaspora and in Israel…”

Hedy Matyas (Sweden):

“The Jews in Sweden…don’t make the impression that they have been very shaken by the victory of Israel. In fact, they’ve already returned to their routine and petty worries.” 

On the newly occupied territories

Rosenak later asks a question about the newly captured territories in the Six-Day War (the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights, and Sinai Peninsula):

…What should be our attitude towards settling the “occupied” territories? Yitzchak has suggested that we should be the first to settle the territories. Do you agree that this is the leadership that religious Jewry should give, or do you think that for religious Jews there are other values of Judaism that have priority (e.g. the image of the Jew in the world, the possibility of gaining peace by compromise, etc.)?  

Yitzchak (Uruguay) reiterates his position, saying that there “is no question in my mind that we have the right to keep the new territories.” He cites the halakhic opinion of Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim, and claims that the real issue is finding new immigrants to populate the territories. He also dismisses concerns about the Arabs (“they have demanded total annihilation of ‘the intruder’ for the past twenty years. Now they request the return of their territories”) or world opinion (“we know that it is pliable” and regardless, it would have been useless if Israel had actually faced defeat in the war.)  

Marvin, the American panelist, expresses a pragmatic view in line with demographics. Of all the participants who answered this question, he is the only one who suggests land for peace:

Let me express a dissenting view. For me, the most important thing about this state is that it is a Jewish state, in terms of ideals and population both. If we retain the territories, we shall become a minority in our own country in a very short time. Thus our short-range prospects are for a cultural conflict between a Jewish minority engulfed by an Arab majority. And, in the long run, I fear that we shall see here the emergence of an “Israeli” rather than a Jewish society and culture. We may, you say, have gained the world and lost our souls. 

Alan (South Africa) disagrees with Marvin, saying that retaining the territories is “an economic and military necessity,” and specifically notes that returning the Golan Heights to Syria would be dangerous given how the Syrians used the Golan Heights militarily. Regarding settling the occupied territories:

“I look upon settlement of these areas as a mitzvah. The problem of justifying these measures is not really the problem. All fait accomplis justify themselves.”

David (Israel) stresses that keeping the territories will help in attracting olim and projecting a more powerful image internationally, attracting “real friendship” because “we [Israel] are a desirable ally.”  On the Arab population:

“Clearly we must be moral in our dealings with the Arab population, but that doesn’t mean we need neglect our own interests in dealing with them. Our interests too, as well as those of the Arabs, have moral weight.”

The American representative, Marvin, continues to explain his disagreements:

I think we are letting ourselves be carried away here. Just how “powerful” is this “Greater Israel” going to be, that everyone will clamor for its friendship? As powerful as the United States? As the Soviet Union? Frankly, I don’t think that countries will ever align themselves with Israel because of its power but because of its image, what it represents. And so it would be self-defeating for our national goals, as Jews, to maintain any but a “beyond censure” policy towards the Arabs.  

The rest of the discussion primarily focuses on methods for keeping immigrants in Israel, given the difficult adjustments many new immigrants have when moving to a still-developing country.

Discussion questions

The final section of the book has a large number of discussion prompts about issues of the day, ranging from issues of Jewish identity (concepts of chosenness, Jewish identity in exile), to Zionism (going on aliyah), to political issues in Israel (religion and state, Israeli international relations, new immigrant populations.)

Russian Jewish immigration to Israel?

On p. 96, there is a discussion prompt regarding the idea of Russian Jews (not described in the most respectful terms) settling the occupied territories:

It has been suggested that the problems of Russian Jewry and settlement of Israel’s newly conquered territories might both be solved if Russia’s Jews were allowed to come to Israel. What would be the impact of three million assimilated Jews in name only be on Israeli culture and society? 

 

Being Jewish in America vs. Israel

In the section “Can a Jew Really Be at Home in America?” (p. 90), the reader is asked if it is possible to feel “at home” in American society, even if they live in a religious Jewish neighborhood. But the reader is also asked to think of reasons why it might be more difficult to be a religious Jew in Israel. Example reasons include:

In Israel, there is no need to practice Torah Judaism in order to identify yourself as a Jew. Everyone is Jewish and your very citizenship identifies you.

(“Everyone is Jewish” and equating Jewishness with Israeli citizenship is ironic given the discussion of the Arab minority below — but of course plenty of people still do that in casual conversation today.)

And similarly:

If you are a Sabbath observing father in America and your son asks you why others are driving their cars, you can answer: “We are Jews.” What will the father tell his son in Israel?

Also in this section are questions which are still seen as fundamental today:

Is Israel a democracy or a Jewish state? Is there a difference? 

How are we to decide how Jewish Israel is to be?

Engaging with non-/anti-Zionist arguments

The education guide, while being avowedly Zionist, does not shy away from encouraging debate about non- and anti-Zionist ideas, at least to understand and defeat them.   

In the section “The Jews in Exile,” after discussion questions about why Russian Jews might have supported socialism (one suggestion was a subconscious Messianic yearning), a new proposed activity (p. 84):

CONDUCT A TRIAL of the Jew who insists we are a nation. Among the witnesses for the prosecution:

  1. The American Council for Judaism7
  2. The Internationalist Jew8
  3. The Egyptian delegate to the U.N.9

Another activity (p. 99) suggests not merely a student-led mock trial/debate, but actually inviting speakers to from Neturei Karta (religious anti-Zionist group) and Mizrachi (religious Zionist group):

INVITE a member of Neturai Karta (extreme Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem who do not ‘recognize’ the State of Israel) to discuss his stand with a member of the Mizrachi. Who is more consistent? Who is right?

Proposed engagement with anti-Zionist arguments — especially engaging directly with advocates of such positions — is out of the question in most American Jewish communities today. But the authors of Israel: Land of Promise seem confident that the NCSYers’ Zionist convictions are strong enough to withstand anti-Zionist critique (and indeed might be strengthened by it.)

It might be instructive to imagine which individuals and groups are similar in ideology today, and compare/contrast how they are treated by Jewish institutions. I hesitate to compare the Neturei Karta of today to those of 1968, since some members of Neturei Karta have more recently attended conferences alongside Holocaust deniers.10 But there are still, for example, Satmar Jews who espouse a religious anti-Zionism.

And today’s analogue of the Egyptian U.N. delegate could be, roughly speaking, a BDS activist leader who sees Israel as an illegitimate colonial entity. 

Finally, another section asks readers to examine the reactions of the Old Yishuv to newer Zionist settlement (p. 98):

READ the chapter on the settlement of Petach Tikva in Aliyah: the Peoples of Israel by Howard Sachar. (Why was the ‘old Yishuv’ in Jerusalem opposed to the idea of settlement?)

Discussing a binational state after the 1967 War 

In “Political and Moral Problems of the State of Israel,” there is a section on “The Arab Problem,” which reads as follows:  

Until the Six Day War, the Arab minority in Israel had been granted full political rights, including the right to vote and form their own political parties. In view of the large number of Arabs in the newly conquered territories, and their hostility, should they be granted the same political rights? In the early days of Zionism, the possibility of a bi-national state (Arab and Jewish) of Israel was raised and rejected. Would such a state be workable today?

Leaving aside the historical issues in the framing of the question,11 it is still quite striking to read this today, when suggesting a binational state is completely out of bounds in any mainstream Jewish institution (and generally equated with “denying Israel’s right to exist” or even “destroying Israel.”) Tracing how and when the boundaries of acceptable discourse changed is an endless source of fascination for me. 

Militarism in Israel

The following section, “Is Israel Too Militaristic,” asks teens to debate the practice of military parades on Israel’s Independence Day, a practice later discontinued in Israel due to financial concerns.12 It also asks about what seems like a forerunner to today’s Jerusalem Day flag parade:

What about a parade in the liberated sections of Jerusalem. [sic] Was it a political necessity, or just rubbing salt into Arab wounds?

At the time of publication (June 1968), parading through the Muslim Quarter could not have been characterized as an annual tradition. But today, the annual Yom Yerushalayim flag march has widespread participation among Religious Zionist youth every year, including American gap year students.13 While surely there are those who avoid participating, there seems to be little Religious Zionist opposition. 14

Conclusion

The ways in which the text both paralleled and deviated from contemporary conversation/education about Israel in American Jewish communities is fascinating. 

Some questions are still seen as relevant: how can a state be both Jewish and democraticWhat is the role of Judaism in the public sphere? How does Jewish life look different in the United States vs. Israel?

But some questions are no longer up for debate. A binational state is considered anti-Zionist, if not antisemitic, by mainstream American Jewish leaders. Directly engaging with anti-Zionists, even as people with whom to disagree, is similarly out of the question. And in Modern/Centrist Orthodox circles, where NCSY still operates, land for peace is seen as nothing more than a hypothetical proposal at this point. (Actively promoting a two-state solution and opposing settlement construction that conflicts with that goal is not a normative political stance.)

By cherry-picking certain examples, I don’t want to misconstrue the text — the worldview is very much in line with religiously motivated Zionism, specifically one that embraces a post-’67 messianism. 

But positions on certain questions that are dogma, or nearly so, in Religious Zionist circles today were as yet unresolved at the time this guide was published. And because not very much time had passed since Israel’s founding, the wider range of acceptable discourse on Zionism that characterized the pre-state/pre-WWII period can still be seen, in such a way that often appears progressive by today’s standards.

In the last several years I’ve watched (as an outside observer not professionally involved) the rollout of newer, more progressive Israel education curricula. And there are some genuine innovations, such as including events like the Nakba and deeper attention to Palestinian/Arab citizens of Israel. Certainly, Israel: Land of Promise doesn’t address such issues (it mentions “Arab refugees” once in passing) — though historical scholarship on the matter was stalled while Israeli archives remained sealed. 

But the idea that a more open discussion about Israel — including engagement with certain ideas that are are non-/anti-Zionist, or at least don’t support a “Jewish state” — is a radical departure from the past isn’t accurate. It’s certainly a departure from the past few decades, but examples like this (which are more common before 1967, and even more so before 1948) show that Jewish communal leaders placed value on conversation among Zionists who supported a Jewish nation-state, Zionists who supported something else that they still saw as fulfilling Jewish self-determination, and those who were non- or anti-Zionist.

Today, discussion of a binational state and inviting anti-Zionist Jews to speak does not happen in most American Jewish communities, sometimes as a matter of written policy.15 In some respects, the NCSYers of 1968 could have — with approval of their adult leaders — a more open discussion about Israel in their own Jewish community than most of today’s Hillel students could in theirs. 

And this wasn’t a publication written by the teenagers themselves! The only content from them was the symposium. This was what adults thought would be educationally valuable.

Every individual or institution who suggests — implicitly or explicitly — that non-/anti-Zionism and/or positions conflated with it (like supporting a binational state) are fundamentally objectionable should be pushed to explain, in light of the history of such voices being part of the larger conversation, why those ideas are fundamentally objectionable today. 

Because it matters that there were Zionist leaders who didn’t support a Jewish nation-state.16 And it matters that, even in 1968, NCSY thought some of these ideas were worth discussing.  What circumstances changed? If a two-state agreement now looks unworkable, why is it a grave offense to draw inspiration from pre-’48 sources in imagining an alternative? 

Not knowing the full breadth of ideological diversity that existed within the yishuv and Diaspora Jewish communities causes many people to assume that the current range of acceptable positions hasn’t changed. But it has, and recognizing that makes today’s discursive boundaries look a lot less tenable. Instead of arguing against such boundaries on the purely ideological basis of open discussion/debate, by pointing to historical precedents, one gains practical examples that can be useful in convincing others. How can an idea be inherently objectionable if it’s part of the mesorah?!

And by analogy — we don’t consider someone learned in halakha if they only read the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. Ideally, they should read the relevant Gemara, Tosafot, Acharonim, etc. to see different approaches and minority opinions, why some were accepted and others rejected, and by whom. For some reason, it seems we don’t do this when teaching about Israel, especially when it comes to possible political arrangements for the Jews and Palestinians who live there. (And it goes without saying, that this is not even considering Palestinian voices, which should absolutely be studied as well.)    


There’s so much in here that I didn’t cover — I got insights from every article, and there are lots of excellent quotes that are too long to type here. But this is a small taste of what’s inside. If you have any specific questions about the contents or want to put in a request for a pdf, feel free to shoot me an email

Notes

  1. There is no writing on the inside pages that indicate who owned the book or how it found its way into my shul’s library, so I can only assume it was donated by a former NCSYer (or parent thereof) at some point when cleaning out their personal shelves.
  2. According to the preface, a first edition was published in June 1964, but given how much content is clearly post-1967, there must have been a lot of changes.
  3. R’ Stolper founded NCSY, served as its national director for eighteen years, and was also an executive vice president of the Orthodox Union. Bio here.
  4. From an obituary written by Prof. Jonathan Sarna: “Prof. Rosenak made aliyah in 1958 and became one of the foremost philosophers of Jewish education of our time. His books include Teaching Jewish Values (1986), Commandments and Concerns (1987), Roads to the Palace (1995), and Covenant and Community (2013).” Also, in the progress of writing this post, I was informed by a friend of mine — and great-nephew of Rosenak’s — that Rosenak was a founding member of Meimad, the currently inactive left-wing religious Zionist party in Israel (which was coincidentally part of my spring 2019 Israeli elections satire post.)
  5. Machon Youth Leadership Training
  6. A few examples: Leviticus 18:26-28 (Rashi), Leviticus 20:22-23, Radak on Genesis 14:18Pirkei Avot 5:9 
  7. The American Council for Judaism (ACJ) was founded in 1942 in reaction to a resolution by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR, the Reform rabbinical association) supporting the formation of a Jewish paramilitary force in Mandatory Palestine. A group of Reform rabbis opposed the passing of this measure, which reversed the CCAR’s previously stated neutrality on Zionism (1937). See the page for the ACJ manuscript collection on the American Jewish Historical Archive website. 
    While researching this post, I was surprised to find that the ACJ still exists! Here is their still-updated website (it appears to be mostly one person writing lately), their about page, and their “Position Statements” page. “One of our major principles affirms that Judaism is primarily a universal religious commitment, rather than an ethnic or nationalist identity.” They take no unified position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though they note: “The State of Israel has significance for the Jewish experience. As a refuge for many Jews who have suffered persecution and oppression in other places, Israel certainly has meaning for us. However, that relationship is a spiritual, historical, and humanitarian one – it is not a political tie. As American Jews, we share the hope for the security and well being of the State of Israel, living in peace and justice with its neighbors.”
  8. It is unclear to me to what this is referring. The simple interpretation is that it’s referring to any Jew who claims to be what we would call a “global citizen” and rejects Jewish nationalism on those grounds.
    But the capitalization suggests a more specific idea. I can find no organizations/groups with that name. The only obvious option is that it’s somehow related to The International Jew, an antisemitic treatise published by Henry Ford in the early 1920s. However, the relevant chapter, Jewish Testimony on “Are Jews a Nation?”, argues that Jews in fact are a nation and view themselves as such (and incidentally cites many early Zionists.) “International Jew” in Ford’s title rather seems to be used as a “globalist” antisemitic trope, i.e. that Jews push a universalist/anti-nationalist agenda as regards other national groups in order to undermine them, while supporting particularist/nationalist ideas for themselves. So it would not make sense for someone inspired by this publication to argue against Jewish nationhood. (And it also seems strange that they would be a Jew themselves.) What the authors meant by “The Internationalist Jew” might indeed be simply a Jew who personally rejects Jewish nationalism.
  9. I would imagine the first association with an Egyptian official might be the Khartoum Resolution (September 1967), specifically the “Three No’s”:”no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it…”
  10. Satmars: Jews at Iran Holocaust Conference ‘Reckless Outcasts’, Haaretz, December 2006
  11. Claiming that Arabs in Israel had “full political rights” is quite the stretch, seeing as they had been under martial law until November 1966, less than two years before the publication of this book. There had also been policies to strip them of citizenship and systematically expropriate their property.
  12. As Trump holds divisive July 4 military parade, here’s why Israel halted them, Times of Israel, July 4, 2019
  13. Tens of thousands of Israeli youth join Flag March through Jerusalem,” JTA, June 2, 2019
  14. An exception I remember reading a few years ago: “The biggest chillul hashem of the year,” Noah E Abramowitz, The Times of Israel Blogs, April 28, 2015; Michael Rainsbury, Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi, argues for re-routing the parade: “Jerusalem Day: Reroute the parade, reframe the day
  15. See Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines: Standards of Partnership; Reut Group (formerly Reut Institute): Policy Paper: Reut’s Broad Tent and Red-Lines Approach (2011), which informed the policies of Hillel and others. More recently: Groups seek to fight Israel’s delegitimization with a bigger ‘big tent’ (Times of Israel, Febrauary 2017) — on a joint ADL/Reut “strategic plan” to “combat Israel’s delegitimization” by advising communal leaders how to respond to individuals/groups that espouse different views on Israel.  See also Boston Jewish community council says members cannot work with anti-Zionist Jewish groupsJTA, January 2019.
  16. Coincidentally, an interview with Dmitry Shumsky, author of the recently published Beyond the Nation-State, was published in +972 Magazine a few days ago: “With extensive quotes by Zionism’s forefathers — Leon Pinsker, Ahad Ha’am, Theodore Herzl, Ze’ev Jabotinsy and David Ben-Gurion — he shows that over the course of Zionism’s first five decades, from the late 19th century until the early 20th century, the movement didn’t aim for establishing a “nation-state” the way it is commonly understood today…” Also coincidentally, I do own the book, though I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.

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