My Parents’ Zionist Idealism and Our Realism

Me on the left with orange/red skirt doing a hora in my childhood home backyard during my mother's 50th birthday party

I grew up in Toronto, the biggest city in Canada. As a child, I may as well have been in Israel. My neighbors were Jewish. My parents’ best friends were a mix of Israeli, Polish and Russian immigrants who were all Zionists. My three older siblings and I all attended Bialik Hebrew Day School, which at that time was the only Zionist, non-religious Jewish school in the city. From the ages of five through 14, nearly all of my schoolteachers were Israeli. We were also taught Yiddish by two Holocaust survivors.

My parents and their friends were active in Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist Zionist youth movement established in 1913, and the only youth movement of its kind still in existence. All four of us kids were active members and three of us went to Israel for our first times with the organization.

I performed Israeli folk dancing and sang the same songs as early Israel pioneers. For my mother’s 50th birthday I danced a hora with adults in a flowy, Israeli-like skirt, in our backyard.  In a city where Jews were a tiny minority, I barely knew of anything outside of the Jewish community until high school.

My parents were comfortable and confident in the bubble they created. My dad had gone to Israel from Philadelphia in 1952 with an agricultural degree in hand, eager to live there and use his fresh knowledge to build the land. But he was such a peace idealist that when he was given a gun and asked to guard the Kibbutz he was on, in addition to the extreme heat, he decided that it wasn’t for him. But his trip was meant to be, as he was set up with my mom by a couple from Montreal who he met on the ship to Israel. With his socialist ideals, moving to Canada was the next best thing to being in Israel.

My mother had never been to Israel but was just as much of a Zionist as my dad. She grew up in the Montreal ‘ghetto’, and cherished her friends, family, and culture. She spoke fluent Yiddish and was one of the best Jewish, Eastern European cooks and bakers of her time. My parents were active in all the left-leaning Zionist organizations, including my dad having served as president of Friends of Pioneering Israel.

I used to call my parents “armchair Zionists,” since they provided financial support to Israel but never visited beyond my dad’s one time. But I now realize that they were so much more than that. They strongly advocated for a vision of a Jewish state – led by Israel’s first Prime Ministers – that lived peacefully with its Arab citizens and neighbors. The Israel 1948 Declaration of Independence started with, “THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants.”

At that time, it seemed totally viable. Over the years, there would be bus bombings and other terrorist activities, but there was no social media or amplifications of anti-Zionist hatred anywhere near us, and the dream of a peaceful state persisted. My dad wasn’t thrilled when I declared in 1990 that I was moving to Tel Aviv, just as Iraq was soon to launch missiles right there, but he was still proud of me and supported my decision to be there (my mom died in 1985, two months before I went to Israel for my second time, at age 15).

It saddens me that 39 and 24 years after my parents’ deaths, after only 75 years of Israel’s existence, that the reality of antisemitism and anti-Zionism has become so grim. As progressive Jews, we can’t even support Israel now without adding the caveat, “but not its government.”  My progressive Jewish friends and our children still believe in a form of peaceful co-existence between Jews and Palestinians, but the proliferation of Jihadist terrorist regimes has made the potential impossible for many years to come.

I get to have an opinion. I’m not a historian but I spent years in Israel. I grew up in a Zionist household. I have Israeli family and friends. So, I know what I’m talking about. But armchair anti-Zionists, they do not. To them, I say this: you have no right to be critical of Israel, including how it’s handling the current war, when you have never been there or anywhere in the Middle East. If you want to share an opinion or spew antisemitic hate, at least first spend a few days in Tel Aviv. See what it’s like. Talk to Israelis of all backgrounds. Go to a massive protest on Kaplan Street on any Saturday night, with people from all over Israel demanding to bring hostages home and to hold new elections.

Especially to kids on college campuses, who have obviously been completely brainwashed by professional pro-Hamas agitators, I think you would find that you would like it very much. You may even (God forbid!) want to live there. Otherwise, do us a favor and go back to actual learning. It would be for your own good. If you get your chanting wishes, and Israel is destroyed, you will be too.

The early Zionist ideals have been shattered. Now, we must support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish ancestral homeland, minimize threats, and when ready, start to rebuild. Imagine the possibilities if Israel could share its world-leading advances in technology, medicine, energy, and other industries to help Palestinians become independent and thrive, as Israeli Arabs have been able to do for many decades. Imagine if young adults would be open to having conversations with anyone who disagrees with them, instead of taking out their loneliness and agita on an entire people, to the point of violence.

It will take a very long time to get there, but hopefully we can once again envision, and create a better existence for everyone – Jews, Jewish and Arab Israelis, and Palestinians. Hopefully that’s more realistic than idealistic, but time will tell.

About the Author
Reba Stevens is a public relations executive who grew up in Canada, lived and studied in Israel and has been in the US for the past 25 years.
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