The world is anxiously watching you. Don’t let us down. Don’t allow division to do to you what it did to the Palestinians, the Lebanese, and the Syrians. Set an example for your neighbors instead of feeding your enemies schadenfreude. Show us how the left and right can fight gracefully. We should be applying your model, not the other way around.
Around my neck, I wear the Star of David, for it is to me the seal of the Zionist project – a reminder that anything is possible through solidarity and perseverance. When I look in the mirror, the star tells me: dare to dream. Dreams come true, even a dream the size of Israel. Although the offshoots might point in opposite directions, they share the center.
Last year, I took a class titled “Zionist Thought in Historical Context: From Moses Hess to the Present”. My Israeli teacher claimed that Zionism’s grassroots were purely secular, and I beg to disagree. I am not an expert, but my understanding as a student of Jewish Studies is that the kulturkampf debate between the religious and the secular is still as relevant today as it was when Zionists began conceptualizing the Jewish homeland. Religious Zionism might indeed have risen after the Israeli-Arab wars, however, juxtaposing this rise with the secularity of the Zionist fathers to highlight an alarming development seems inaccurate. Early Zionism did not seek to dismiss Judaism, it sought modernity, and one proof is modern Hebrew.
The Hebrew journal Hashahar (dawn), which was published in Vienna between 1868 and 1884, could have contributed to both Herzl’s and Ben Yehuda’s national projects. Eliezer Ben Yehuda credited Peretz Smolenskin, Hashahar’s publisher and editor, for inspiring his love for the Hebrew language all while fiercely criticizing him in an open letter in 1880. What seems to be most provocative to Ben Yehuda is Smolenskin’s dismissal of the Hebrew language as obsolete and an obstruction to an urgent solution for Europe’s Jewry. Against his great Hebrew literary effort for over a decade, Smolenskin abandoned modernizing Hebrew when confronted with the calamities inflicted by the Russian pogroms. Ben Yehuda almost reprimands the publisher for being short-visioned, and he does it in a fashion that reflects his passion for a Jewish homeland and his faith in an undivided, uncompromised resurrected Hebrew character.
In 1889 Ben Yehuda, along with other community members, founded the Plain Language Association (hevrat safa brura) in Jerusalem having a project almost similar to Herzl’s Zionist dream, although Ben Yehuda’s method was not political. Unlike Herzl who originally supposed German would be the national language of the Jewish state, Ben Yehuda aimed to adopt a sound and unifying Hebrew which would also replace Yiddish and Ladino as mentioned in section B of the document outlining the aims and guidelines of the association.
Menachem Ussishkin who was the Hebrew secretary at the first Zionist Congress moved to Palestine in 1919 to later play an instrumental role in the revival and preservation of the Hebrew language. He acknowledged that “the father of Zionism,” Herzl, wasn’t in favor of Hebrew as a national language of the land of Israel. But he also acknowledged that Ben Yehuda’s dream materialized surprising all those who opposed it; Through persistent endeavors, the Hebrew language was revived and systematically spread. It became part of the Israeli identity.
Although the early renowned Zionists such as Herzl, Ben Yehuda, Ussishkin and others were secular, the project they strived for was on a historical, biblical land; the project they sought was for a people: the Jewish people. May they not be observant Jews or submissive to the commands of the religious rabbinical authorities, nonetheless, these secular Zionists do not seem to resemble their European, Christian peers. French or German secular Christians wanted religion to be a personal spiritual exercise limited within designated spaces. They wanted to prevent the intervention of the church and the clergy in the political decision.
The secular Zionists clashed with Jewish religious authorities as well, but on different premises. Many religious Jews opposed founding a Jewish state, many opposed using Hebrew for mundane communications. Yet many religious groups saw value in the Zionist project and supported it. Therefore, founding a Jewish state was not all in all a religion-free project just because its founding fathers were not observant Jews. The entire endeavor was inspired by the Jewish tradition. And if one argues that the Jewish tradition served as a cultural base, so be it: Judaism is the base of the Jewish culture. It is what preserved the historical connection between the children of Yisrael throughout millennia of exile. And it is what brought them together when they planned a return to the land of their ancestors.
Without a strong sense of Jewish identity, what could have incentivized struggling Jews emigrating from all over the planet to an under-developed corner of the world – to create a homeland for the Jewish people against all odds and an almost global opposition – to embark on the almost absurd journey of transforming the archaic, holy language into the tongue of Eretz Israel? Yet they did it.
Reviving Hebrew is not the sole nor the hardest challenge the Israelis faced. It is also not the sole nor the greatest achievement of the Israelis. In honor of the endeavors of those who paved the way and the hardships they endured, the obstacles they overcame, the deaths they escaped, the compromises they made, find a way to navigate this crisis. Reconcile with your opponents for the sake of Israel and remind the world again that anything is possible.
Wishing you a happy and sweet new year!