Expressions of Zionism, Then and Now

The sun beat down relentlessly on their Sarafan covered heads as they swung their picks, splitting the rocks with a clattering sound, which echoed in the valley. The blisters on their hands had long since turned to calluses. Their muscled forearms, exposed to the sun, once pale white, were now a chestnut brown, reminiscent of a gnarled olive branch, oiled to a dark, shiny finish. There was no shade but for a simple tarpaulin tent, with the metal water urn and ladle, placed in the middle, in an attempt to keep it cool. The heat was oppressive, and the humidity on the valley floor of the Kinneret literally pulled the sweat from the pores of their skin, drenching their shirts and causing discomfort, as their calves stuck to the back of their knees, every time they bent down to pick up the broken rocks to load them onto the cart. It was hard to breathe in this heat, each deep breath, an effort. When they looked up to view their progress, of the road they were paving, the yellow-brown slopes of the Golan Heights in the background seemed to blur in the haze that came off the lake.

At night, around the bonfire, after they had exhausted themselves with Hora dancing to drive away their hunger, some sat, staring into the shifting flames, and sang nostalgic songs, brought from their homes in Eastern Europe. Swatting away the mosquitos, they occasionally shuffled their shoulders, to loosen the backs of their shirts, stiff from the dried sweat, from the day’s work.

Early Zionist pioneers. Founding fathers. courtesy Wikimedia.org.

This is what I imagine, when I think about early Zionism; the pioneering spirit, the determination to build a country, personal example, living one’s beliefs. And alongside all that, the hardships they endured, and the Spartan existence.

Zionism has never been an easy choice. As an ideology, it is – and has always been – revolutionary. As much as it was a national revolution to build a homeland for Jews that had not existed for 2000 years, thereby ending The Great Exile, for the individual it is a personal one. It demands a conscious decision to drastically change one’s life. In those early years, it demanded that one not only abandon one’s family, but one’s bourgeois lifestyle and comforts. The prospect of leaving everything you knew behind, to travel thousands of miles to a foreign land, with no knowledge of what awaited you, must have been daunting. Yet, placing faith in their ideology, these intrepid young men and women (and some, like A.D. Gordon, not so young), did just that – and we today have so much for which to thank them. They are our iconic figures, the founding fathers of modern Israel.

While difficult physically, back then it seems that expressing one’s Zionism was simple, in the sense that it was tangible. The goal was clear. We built kibbutzim to set and defend our borders. We built cities and settlements to provide homes for the Olim. We built an army to defend ourselves. We created industry for self-reliance and subsistence. The challenge was clearly defined, the imperative, immediate.

Today, it is not so simple. Israel today is a modern industrial country with eight million citizens, six million of which are Jews, a thriving economy and a secure future as a country. I remember attending a lecture by Zvi Kesa sometime in the mid-1980’s in which he expounded that with Israel now a developed country, we need to rethink our Zionism. Israel’s imperatives have changed. Building new kibbutzim and settlements, was no longer a Zionist imperative. It was actually an unnecessary drain on our resources. Instead, we should be looking to strengthen the established. He used the analogy of always planting new trees with shallow, vulnerable roots, which always need intense care and nurturing, as opposed to deepening the roots of an existing tree, allowing them to spread wide, making the tree stronger and permanent. (He also called this policy “folly”, an ideological trap, charging that the Kibbutz Movement was building new kibbutzim as a Left Wing Zionist response to the settlements being built in the West Bank, but that it was untenable and would bring about the economic collapse of the Kibbutz Movement – which it did). He was right, but at the time I found it hard to agree with him, being a founding member of the kibbutz we were building, in the Galil.

The challenges of Zionism today are more subtle. Less visible, or tangible, but no less essential to Israel’s long term future. I think it is important to make a distinction here, that the words “Zionism” and “patriotism” are not interchangeable and we should not confuse the two. Loyalty to one’s country is patriotism. Pride in one’s country or support for it, is patriotism. Zionism, on the other hand, while it embodies patriotism, has an extra dimension which makes it more than just patriotism. One element of this dimension, which we cannot ignore, is that Israel’s existence is of importance not only for those living in it, but for Jews throughout the world. The persecution we as a people endured for centuries and the imminent extinction, which unceasingly clung to us like an unwanted shadow and which we all faced, primarily because we were homeless and without a place of unconditional refuge, will always make Israel special to Jews. No other country but ours is obliged to wear this mantle. This element is an important one, but it is not the definitive element of Zionist expression – as opposed to the rationale behind Zionism. The definitive element, in my opinion is a vision of a better Israel, an aspiration to achieve a deeper goal, beyond the existence or well-being of Israel as a country.

Today one needs to examine Israel’s society in order to identify the imperatives you wish to address; to find how you want to express your Zionism and for it to be meaningful. Given the complexities of issues Israeli society has to deal with, this is no easy task. It is daunting, even intimidating.

But I want to tell you about one movement which has done precisely that. Dror Yisrael was founded in 2006, by graduates of the HaNoar HaOved Youth Movement in Israel as a follow-on movement after the army. Up until about the 1990’s, the aim of the HaNoar HaOved garinim in the Nahal Brigade, was to remain on the kibbutzim they had settled and helped establish, during their army period. Between 1930 and 1980, over 100 kibbutzim were founded and settled by the movement. However, following the decline of the kibbutz movement – both financially and ideologically – as described above, the graduates of Noar HaOved began to reexamine alternative paths to express its Zionism. It chose to establish urban communes and city kibbutzim, which work within Israeli society, to bring about positive change from within, through education and social programs. Thus, Dror Yisrael was born. Living in these cities Dror Yisrael’s members undertake a variety of missions, such as education and work with at-risk youth, and vocational training for them, by having trained madrichim working together with them on projects, thus providing them with skills for future employment.

Israeli society is fractured. Dror Yisrael, as a grass roots movement, strives to address this situation, by contributing to build a just and moral society, with democracy, equal rights and social justice for all of Israel’s citizens at its core. They do this through education and cooperation. Guided by the principle of leadership by personal example, Dror Yisrael garinim seek out challenges in the sectors of society which need attention the most. You will find them in Sderot, and Akko, in the neglected neighborhoods of Haifa and development towns throughout the country.

Dror Yisrael Akko city kibbutz. Courtesy of Dror Yisrael.

But I want to tell you about a special program. A central aim of Dror Yisrael, is its commitment to meaningful service in the IDF and Israel’s security. One cannot serve in the army today, especially in the West Bank, without being confronted by moral dilemmas which undermine one’s belief in the justice of the activities one undertakes, or alternatively places the soldier at odds with his or her sense of decency and humanity. Soldiers are not equipped to deal with the impact of such situations, and it reverberates in our society, eroding our sense of right and wrong. Our failure as a democratic society to categorically repudiate the actions of Elor Azaria and his extrajudicial execution of a mortally wounded terrorist already in our custody, is evidence of this.

Recognizing the need to equip our soldiers and officers with practical tools to deal such moral dilemmas, which they encounter on the job on a regular basis, Dror Yisrael runs an education program for commanders of the IDF and Police, to train them how to help their soldiers deal with such situations and to strengthen their commitment to the values and codes of ethics of these bodies. I think this initiative is amazing, and perhaps the best expression of a Zionism, which believes in an uncompromising commitment to Israel’s security, while at the same time maintaining our humanity and respect for human dignity.

Until my son joined Dror Yisrael, I never knew of its existence. Because of him, I became interested in their activities, and I was blown away. For a movement barely more than twelve years old, what they have achieved, and the impact they have made, is incredible. It is not surprising that the kibbutz movement feels threatened by its success – the alternative it offers for high quality, ideological young men and women looking for a framework in which to live their ideology is far more inspiring than settling on kibbutz. If I was a young man today, I would join them in a heartbeat. I believe our founding fathers would be very pleased to have Dror Yisrael as their successors.

About the Author
Paul Mirbach made aliya from South Africa to kibbutz Tuval in 1982 with a garin of Habonim members. Together they built a new kibbutz transforming rocks and mud to a green oasis in the Gallilee. He served in infantry during his army service, serving in both Lebanon and the West Bank, including on reserve duty during the first intifada. Paul still lives on Tuval with his wife and two sons.
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