When there was no Israel, wasn’t every Jew a Zionist dreamer? Every prayer service includes prayers for the return to Zion and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Did they ever wonder what they would actually do if there was an Israel to go live in? Was there any point?
Jews are all commanded to keep the Sabbath and observe the laws of kashrut. Those are subject to so much interpretation that some people have chosen to pile stringencies on top of stringencies while others claim that the text justifies their ignoring all statutes except not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk. But the commandment to settle the land—is that open to the same amount of interpretation? It’s d’oraita (from the written Torah) and pretty clear on the page (Num. 33:53). And yet how many Jews observe it?
Conversely, Jews may live in Israel and still commit sins. (We do, after all, have prisons here too.) So is the commandment to live in Israel just another commandment? It would certainly appear so, at least in most people’s minds.
Whereas keeping most of the commandments is possible anywhere in the world, this one is place-bound. If you want to start keeping kosher, your shopping patterns and how you do things in the kitchen probably need to change, but you can still remain in your home and shop at the same supermarket (depending on how well-stocked it is with kosher food). To observe the commandment of yishuv Yisrael (settling the land of Israel), you have to get up and move, meaning in some (but not all) cases changing your job, leaving relatives and friends, and making a new home for yourself. Kashrut asks much of a person; aliyah asks much more for this one mitzvah.
And yet. I wonder if living in Israel does more than fulfill the commandment to settle the land. What does having a Jewish State mean in the world? It provides a refuge for Jews from anywhere who are oppressed or seek a place where they are freer to live as Jews. Ensuring that a Jewish State exists for them surely fulfills the commandment "lo ta’amod al dam re’echa" (don’t stand by while your neighbor’s blood is spilt; Lev. 19:16). It does the same for other countries who suffer natural disasters when Israel’s medical teams turn up immediately afterward to set up field hospitals and distribute humanitarian aid, and for as many as it can of the Sudanese refugees who have dodged bullets passing on foot through Egypt seeking humanitarian asylum. One mission with which the Torah charges the Jewish people is to be an "ohr le’goyim" (a light unto the nations; Isa. 60:2-3). While Israel falls short in this function in many areas, the list of medical and technological advances achieved by Israelis is extensive. It is also an island of justice and freedom of the press in a sea of oppressive dictatorships. More than once in the past year, when reports of the ongoing investigations of Prime Minister Olmert have appeared in the press, Israeli-Arab journalist Khaled Abu-Toameh has reported that rather than thumbing its nose at Israel’s governmental follies, the surrounding Arab world looks with awe and even admiration at the transparency that exists in Israeli society, and wishes it had the same opportunities to bring its own corrupt leadership to justice. And while Jews in the Diaspora can have as little or as much to do with one another as they wish, to belong to a community or not, to have good relations with other Jewish groups or not, in Israel Jews are forced to come together and work as one to steer the (sometimes tottering) Jewish State—a prime example if there is one of the mitzvah "v’ahavta et re’echa c’mocha" (to love one’s neighbor as oneself; Lev. 19:18) or, to paraphrase, to get along with one’s neighbor whether one wants to or not.
Without its own country, the Jewish people has no official representation in the world. If they are powerless, then they are at the mercy of their fellow citizens. And if they are fortunate enough to rise to positions where they have some influence over the government, they are accused of exerting a foreign agenda. To live in Israel is to be enfranchised as a Jew like nowhere else. While making the commitment that aliyah requires is not to everyone’s taste or in everyone’s personal or financial interest, it does serve to fulfill a number of important mitzvot in ways unavailable outside Israel.
So must everyone be a Zionist to be a good Jew? Maybe not. But it sure helps.