I was having a discussion the other day with this Lubavitch guy regarding the benefits of Zionism towards the preservation of the Jewish people and Judaism. This guy refused to call himself a Zionist because of all the negative connotations that he believes the term implies. Whether is be Labor Zionism or Revisionist Zionism or Religious Zionism or whatever, he objects to them all in one way or the other.
I pointed out to him that he was picking on these individual movements without looking at the common denominator between them all - that is the support for the existence of a Jewish State on the historic Land of Israel. That is it really. And since he does support that idea then he would then be de facto a Zionist.
In any case, the conversation went to his Chabad travels where he did outreach efforts all over the world. And interestingly he would tell those attracted souls to stay in a local religious community rather than to settle in Israel. I found that surprising. Israel, I would think, would be the most supportive atmosphere to engender Jews to return to Judaism, but this was not so according to his understanding.
See, Israel is really a rather secular country with a significant religious minority, yet the Jewish secular majority is extremely antagonistic to that religious minority. And when a newly intrigued Jew comes to the country, they may feel that they are Jewish enough by being an Israeli and being invested in the Israeli popular culture. It could easily stall their religious progress. This kind of process is sometimes seen conversely when mostly secular Jews turn to Judaism in foreign lands to connect somehow to their heritage. One can passively be a Jew in Israel, but one must actively be a Jew in the Diaspora. Thus religious progress is counter-intuitively aided by being outside of Israel's borders. This also explains the dearth of liberal movements of Judaism within Israel, yet their relative strength in the US and in Europe.
But what about the high rates of intermarriage in the Diaspora? Isn't that a worse danger to the Jewish future than possible secularization in Israel? Then here he got a little silly pointing out the increasing numbers of gentiles in Israel, like the non-Jewish Russians and the increasing Arab populations as equally dangerous as sources of intermarriage. But the numbers are completely different. The American Jewish population has a current rate of intermarriage at over 50% and has shrunk about ten percent in just the past couple of decades. Israeli Jewish intermarriage does exist, but its rates are far lower.
Then I really came to understand his point of view. It comes down to the fact that he cares less about the Jewish people as much as he cares about the Jewish religion. Millions of secular Jews could disappear as far as he was concerned as long as a vigorous religious core continues to exist somewhere in the world. So then I asked him point blank which he held to be more important.
He said I was right and that he valued religion over peoplehood since Judaism is what defines a Jew and this "secular Jew" business is a tenuous sort of identity. He agreed that telling people to go to Israel would probably be better for Jewish peoplehood but he insistently claimed that Jewish peoplehood apart from Torah is nonsense and would not stand the test of time. Maybe. That remains for time to tell.
Anyway, I was reading a different book over Pesach about Jewish acculturation and assimilation in history and in modern America. And in one instance in quotes an interesting story from the midrash, Tanna deBei Eliyahu Rabba (chapter 14). In it a man comes to Elijah and questions him on a matter of the law.
He said to me: "O my master, I have two things in my heart, both of which I love dearly, Torah and Israel. But I do not know which of them takes precedence over the other."
I said to him: "It is the way of men to say that Torah comes before all else, as it is stated (Mishlei 8:22): 'The Lord created me at the beginning of His way.' But I say, the holy people of Israel come first, as it is stated (Yirmiyahu 2:3): 'Israel is holy to the Lord, the first fruits of His increase.'"
Apparently Jewish tradition lies in my favor on this one.