Israel as an idol

“With the erosion of belief , God has been replaced by Israel as the credo of the Jewish people to the benefit of neither.”

Rabbi David Goldberg

The first of the Biblical Ten Commandments declares, “You shall have no other gods before me.”  In Jewish history, the worship of something other than God, can be found at the very beginning.  At the foot of Mt. Sinai, a golden calf was erected as an object of worship.  Idolatry has been defined as the worship or fetishization of an idol or cult image in place of God. It seems alive and well at the present time

In many ways, those who have made Israel “central” to their Jewish  Identity are, in fact, engaging in a form of idolatry, making the State of Israel a virtual object of worship and veneration, replacing God and the Jewish moral and ethical tradition.  This can be seen as synagogues display Israeli flags, use their religious schools to teach Israeli culture, and promote Birthright Israel trips for young people to make sure that their Jewish identity is tied to this proclaimed “homeland” of all Jews.  Replacing Judaism, the religion of universal values, with Zionism, an ethnographic-political movement, is idolatry carried to an extreme.

Religion is repeatedly being used by many Israelis and their American friends to advance the thesis that Israel’s role in the Middle East is ordained by God.  Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, has used the Bible repeatedly to advance the Jewish connection to the land. Speaking before a Security Council meeting in May, Danon opened the Bible, held it up and declared, “This is the deed to our land.”

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who is an ally of the Israeli settler movement, and opposes the creation of a Palestinian state,referred to the relationship between the U.S.and Israel as “an altar of holiness” and the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem as a “shrine.”  At a ceremony in Jerusalem, he declared that Israel “was on the side of God.” The U.S. and Israel, he said, should grow even closer, which would be a sign of “holiness.”

Making the Israeli State “holy,” and therefore a legitimitate object of worship, has been accompanied by the virtual canonization of those who embrace its occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Miriam Adelson biblical scholar

Miriam Adelson, wife of billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, and a major contributor to the Trump campaign as well as Birthright Israel and other Zionist causes, on June 27 proposed that the story of Donald Trump, “hero and patriot,” ought to be added to the Bible.  Her article, entitled “A Time of Miracles,” appeared in the Israeli daily newspaper Israel Hayom, which her husband owns and she publishes.   The paper supports Prime Minister Netanyahu, opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, and supports annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank.

According to OpenSecrets, the Adelsons have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the Republican Party and tens of millions of dollars to Donald Trump.  In November 2018, Miriam Adelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a gesture which ABC’s Robert Schlesinger said, “Perfectly captures the crassly transactional nature of Donald Trump and his presidency.”

In her branding of Trump as a modern-day prophet,Miriam Adelson framed his unpopularity among Jews in biblical terms:  “Scholars of the Bible will no doubt note that the heroes, sages and prophets of antiquity were similarly spurned by the very people they came to raise up.  Let us at least sit back and marvel at this time of miracles for Israel, for the U.S. and the whole world.”

For many years, the idea that the State of Israel is “central” to Jewish identity has been widely proclaimed. In 1968, the 27th World  Zionist Congress adopted a resolution recognizing “the centrality of Israel in Jewish life.”  In the years following, America’s major Jewish religious bodies, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, have adopted this position.

To the Zionist refrain that the conquest of Palestine was simply a return to Jewish roots, Jewish social psychologist Erich Fromm had this response:  “If all nations would suddenly claim territory in which their forefathers had lived two thousand years ago, the world would be a madhouse.”  In fact, the history of Palestine is far more complex.  According to the Bible, so often cited by Israeli leaders and others, the Israelites were not the original inhabitant and their rule extended for only a brief period of that land’s complex history.

In her book “Arab and Jew in the Land of Canaan,” Ilene Beatty reports that, “  The Jewish kingdoms were only one of many periods in ancient Palestine.  The extended kingdoms of David and Solomon , upon which the Zionists base their territorial demands, endured for only about 73 years.  …Then it fell apart…(Even) If we allow independence for the entire life of the ancient Jewish kingdoms..we arrive at only a 414 year Jewish rule.”

Many thoughtful Jewish voices have objected to what they view as idolatry in making Israel “central” to Jewish identity.  Rabbi Henry Siegman, former head of tge American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America, laments that, “For many American Jews—-and I suspect for most American Jews—-Israel has become the content of their  Jewish religious identification.  It has very little other content.  I rarely have been at a Shabbat service where a rabbi gives a sermon where Israel isn’t a subject of the sermon.  And typically they are.  The sermons are not in the spirit of Isaiah, you know, who says, ‘My god, is this what God wants of you?’ Your hands are bloody, they’re filled with blood.  But he doesn’t want your fast,   He doesn’t want—-he despises the sacrifices and your prayers.  What he wants is to feed, to feed the hungry, to pursue justice…So what I mean is that there is much more to Judaism …than support for the likes of Netanyahu.”

From the very start of Zionism, prominent Jewish leaders viewed it as a rejection of Judaism itself.  The chief rabbi of Vienna, Moritz Gudemann, denounced the mirage of Jewish nationalism.  “Belief in one God was the unifying factor for Jews,” he declared, and Zionism was incompatible with Judaism’s teachings.  

For Reform Jews, the idea of Zionism contradicted almost completely their belief in a universal prophetic Judaism.  The first Reform prayerbook eliminated references to Jews living in exile and to a Messiah who would miraculously restore Jews throughout the world to the historic land of Israel,and who would rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.  The prayerbook eliminated all prayers for a return to Zion.  The respected rabbi Abraham Geiger declared that the Jewish people were a religious community destined to carry out the mission to “serve as a light to the nation’s,” to bear witness to God and His moral law.  The dispersion of the Jews was not a punishment for their sins, , but part of God’s plan whereby they were to disseminate the universal message of ethical monotheism.

In 1929, Orthodox Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamarat wrote that the very idea of a sovereign Jewish state as a spiritual center was “a contradiction to Judaism’s ultimate purpose.”  He declared that, “Judaism at root is not some religious concentration which may be localized or situated in a single territory.  Neither is Judaism a ‘nationality,’ in the sense of modern nationalism, fit to be woven into the three foldedness of ‘homeland,Army, and heroic songs.’  No, Judaism is Torah, ethics and exaltation of spirit.  If Judaism is truly Torah, then it cannot be reduced to the confines of any particular territory.  

One of the leading Jewish theologians of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel,who marched with the Rev.Martin Luther King, Jr.for civil rights for all people, said, “Judaism is not a religion of space and does not worship the soil. So, too, the State of Israel is not the climax of Jewish history, but a test of the integrity of the Jewish people and the competence of Israel.”

While the organized American Jewish community has adopted the idolatrous view of Israel as “central” to Judaism, there is increasing evidence that growing numbers of American Jews, particularly young people, reject this view.

In recent years, sympathy for Zionism among American Jews has been in steady decline.  A study by social scientists Ari Kelman and Steven M.Cohen found that among American Jews, each new generation is more alienated from Israel than the one before.  Other polls show that among younger non-Orthodox Jews only 30% think that “caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish.”

Slowly, idolatry is being recognized for what it is.  The era of Judaism’s new Golden Calf is clearly in decline as more and more people recognize it for what it is.


Allan C. Brownfeld is editor of ISSUES, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism. Edited for length.