Justice Louis Brandeis said in 1915, “Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with patriotism. Multiple loyalties are objectionable only if they are inconsistent.” At the time, Brandeis was the head of the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs. He and Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah, established a Zionist movement suitable for American Jewry. Whereas European Zionism was all about escaping Europe for Palestine, American Jews saw no reason to abandon a comfortable life in the United States. Brandeis and Szold convinced a skeptical American Jewish community that it was possible to have many loyalties (we would say identities, today). Each of these loyalties makes us better American citizens. The movement of “Philanthropic Zionism” was born in this era of the early 20th century. American Jews did not feel the urgency to leave the States, so they reconciled their loyalty to world Jewry with financial support to reconstruct a Jewish state in our historic homeland.
This pattern of support comes right from this week’s double Torah portion, Matot-Masei . As the Book of Numbers comes to a close and the Israelites prepare to enter the Land of Canaan, the tribe of Reuben and Gad look around and see excellent grazing land for raising cattle and other livestock. The tribal leaders of Reuben and Gad approach Moses and say that they are going to settle on the East bank of the Jordan River (modern-day Jordan) when the rest of the Israelites march into the Land (modern-day Israel). Moses, and soon God, become incensed at the tribes of Reuben and Gad. Because the Jordan River valley runs along a deep continental fault line, traversing the Jordan River can be very difficult. In many locations along the Valley, the River runs between two steep cliffs. Immediately they jump to the conclusion, unfounded or not, we don’t know, that the tribes of Reuben and Gad want to abandon the rest of the Israelites in search of material gain. Moses tells the tribes of Reuben and Gad that they can settle on the East Bank of the Jordan so long as they help the Israelites retake the Land and answer the call to arms whenever they are needed. With everyone in agreement, the Israelites press on and enter the Land.
Both the story of Reuben and Gad and the history of American Zionism are tales of peoplehood in action. Peoplehood is the notion that all Jews are connected to one another in a way that’s larger than religion, or culture, or familial bonds. We share a collective belief that we are responsible for one another, for our protection, and for our shared successes. No matter where we reside, on one side of the Atlantic or the other, the fate of the Jewish people is intertwined.