The following is the text of a speech I gave at the 7th annual Memphis Friends of Israel Festival in Memphis Tennessee on June 7, 2014.
Should you wish to know the Source, From which your brothers drew… Their strength of soul… Their comfort, courage, patience, trust, And iron might to bear their hardships And suffer without end or measure? And should you wish to see the Fort… Wherein your fathers refuge sought… And all their sacred treasures hid, The refuge that has still preserved Your nation’s soul intact and pure, And when despised, and scorned, and scoffed, Their faith they did not shame? And should you wish to see and know Their Mother, faithful, loving, kind Who…sheltered them and shielded them. And lulled them on her lap to sleep? If you, my brother, know not Then enter now the House of God, The House of study, old and gray, Throughout the scorching summer days Throughout the gloomy winter nights, At morning midday or at eve… And there you may still behold, A group of Jews from the exile who bore the yoke of its burden who forget their toil, through a worn out page of the Talmud. And then your heart shall guess the truth, That you have touched the sacred ground Of a great people’s house of life. And that your eyes do gaze upon The treasure of a nation’s soul.
Chaim Bialik, Israel’s national poet wrote those words for the love of his country and the love of his people. He eloquently captured the spirit of a nation who though persecuted throughout history by malicious statesmen and conquering kings, although shackled by the evil dictates of man, though exiled and scorned at times it seemed by the whole world, this nation with unbreakable tenacity and persistent determination marched forward and dared to live and dared to be. Today that forward march continues and today all of us here are doing our parts to ensure that forward march never dies.
That forward march represents the totality of we call Zionism. Yet, it is difficult to capture the true meaning of that word. When we explain what Zionism is to our peers, defining it by what we read in the dictionary is insufficient. We understand that Zionism is, and I quote, “the national movement of Jews and Jewish culture that supports the creation of a Jewish homeland defined as the Land of Israel.” But Merriam Webster does not do it justice. These textbook definitions cannot convey to the world what is, at the very least, a great and noble civil rights movement.
So perhaps it is better not to explain Zionism merely by reciting definitions but by telling the story of the people whose lives it has affected.
A young man and his brothers were leaders in their village. They loved their people and they loved their land. They were simple farmers who tended their flock and watched over their family. The people looked to them for advice and trusted that they would provide them with safety and security. This young man and his brothers desired only to continue their role of protector and guardian of their people. To farm their lands; to marry wives and raise their children up to grow in good health; and to worship their God in peace.
But one day this young man and his brothers awoke to find their lands engulfed in flames. A Syrian Greek army had, over night, invaded from the north and encroached upon their territory. They had taken their people captive, turned them into slaves, and threatened them with murder and exile. The people were compelled to worship pagan deities and were made to desecrate their temples and dedicate places of worship to the same king which had subjugated them. The leaders were forced to witness the death of their people at the brutal hands of the Greeks who were arbitrary in their decision making of who was allowed to live and who would be forced to die.
The Greeks would often line them up outside publicly, and pick one or two out of the people to kill. A young boy, only nine years old, same age as my sisters. A newlywed wife, pregnant, in the prime of her life. The Greeks spared no one.
The people were also barred from leaving their schools open, for the Greeks understood that without knowledge, tolerance for slavery would increase. Indeed, by decree, this people could no longer read out of the holy books of Moses. They were instead ordered to collect them, place them in the city square and burn them until they were no longer.
For the first time in their lives, this young man and his brothers understood what it meant to be slaves. But now, because of the whip of bondage their backs had to endure, they now also fully comprehended what it truly was, in the former days, to be free. From the depths of their soul, they yearned to return to that. They longed for it with all the desire their broken spirit could muster.
But it was not enough to merely yearn for freedom. It was not enough to simply wish for it, to wallow in the sorrow of their predicament and do nothing. It was insufficient to merely be disgusted; It was not enough to merely desire liberty.
Helplessness was not an option.
And this is the first great lesson of Zionism. It is never enough to desire freedom. It is never enough to long for liberty. One must be compelled by their conscience to act to bring about that freedom. Zionism represents both the intrinsic desire within man to be free and the bringing about of that same freedom into fruition.
And this young man and his brothers understood that. They understood that the law of justice commanded them to take action. They understood that it was better to die on their knees as free men then to live on their feet as slaves. And so they armed themselves. Yes its true, their armament was vastly inferior to that of their opponents. Their swords were shabby compared to the Greeks who trusted in the power of her chariots and her horses, all carved from the finest materials money could buy.
But silver and gold were no match for the fired that burned in the hearts of this people. Indeed, the young man and his glorious brothers fought with such passion, such intensity, and such moral acuity and belief in the justice of what they were trying to accomplish, that they earned a name for themselves – Hammer. Or, as we have come to know them, Maccabee.
We honor the Maccabees every winter by lighting candles on Hanukkah. We commemorate their righteous struggle and vow to ensure that that light, that fire is never quenched, and that cause for freedom never dies. And we affirm for ourselves that same conclusion which the Maccabees came to, and this, as I said earlier, is the first important principle of Zionism that we must come to understand. That it is not enough to merely long to be free. What consequence is it if we merely desire something so just but we do not work to achieve it? If our conscience dictates that we must act, and we do not, then we are not truly alive. And that fire, that spirit that existed in that young man and his glorious brothers is not within us.
If you will it, it is no dream. When Herzl dared to write that in his manuscript on Zionism, he did not do so for sheer entertainment purposes. That phrase was never meant to be left as magnets on our refrigerator doors and bumper stickers on our cars. It was meant to be lived. It was meant to be taken seriously, and meant to inspire us that yes we really can will into existence that freedom which is of right, ours, which no man on earth can take away from us. This is the first great principle of Zionism. It is not enough to desire freedom; we must work to achieve it. The reestablishment of the state of Israel in 1948 was the conclusion of the application of that principle.
In 1955, an African-American woman in her 40s had just gotten off of work. She was a seamstress and had been working all day. She wanted to unwind, go home, and be with her family. And so she took the usual route that she always took, she caught a bus. And on this bus a man approached her and asked her to give up her seat because the prevailing thought back then in 1955 was that people of color were inferior, and thus undeserving of certain rights and liberties. This belief was the norm and this woman had been subjected to this treatment before. And in the past she had given in, she had acquiesced, she had accepted the notion that she was not equal to her white brothers and sisters.
But on this particular day, this woman, as I said was tired. She was tired of giving in and she was tired of giving up. And so this time would be different. This time, she was filled with that same spirit of freedom that filled the Maccabees when they fought the Greeks so long ago. And because she was filled with that spirit, that day would come to change both my life and yours.
Rosa Parks, though she knew the consequences of her actions would be harsh refused to give up her seat. She knew that she would be forced to serve jail time or even worse. But this was, in the final analysis, irrelevant. As she said, one must never be fearful about what one is doing when it is right. It ultimately did not matter what she would be forced to endure because one must do right because it is right. And this is the second great important lesson of Zionism. That no matter the beatings, the slanders, the lynching, the murders, the wholesale slaughter of entire societies, we are compelled by the law of God to seek freedom. No matter the cost. No matter the consequence. No matter the injury to our person, we must continue to march forward. We must do right because it is right.
Now this principle is especially important given the landscape that we as Zionists find ourselves in today in 2014. Across college campuses in America, we are being told that because we are pro-Israel, we are sub par. We are unfit to be. Because we dare advocate for the civil rights of the Jewish people, we are not allowed to sit where we want on the proverbial academic bus. We are told that we are not good enough. Our characters are maligned and slandered. Whole campaigns have been created and spread on universities that proclaim to the Jewish nation that they are not equal. That their yearning to be free in their ancestral homeland is itself evil. Indeed, that their very existence in their homeland should be boycotted against. Those who have dedicated themselves to boycotting the Jewish people’s existence are often promoted and praised in classrooms. To deviate from this norm, to think differently, to be a Zionist student on the college classroom often means incurring the wrath of professors and academics who penalize students for daring to pursue the path of freedom.
This is the challenge we face in 2014. Yet we will not falter. We will not grow weary. We will not refrain from fighting this fight merely because of the consequences we will be made to endure. They will only toughen us; they teach us that striving for good comes through dealing with hardship. And while we may at times be forced to deal with the nightmare of evil that surrounds us at every turn, we know that we will inevitably arrive at the marvelous light of liberty if we but dare to continue to fight.
This is, as I said, the second great principle of Zionism. To continue to strive irrespective of the forces that attempt to stop our forward march. For where would Israel be today if the builders of that great country gave up in the wake of the Shoah, when 6 million of their children were destroyed. And what of the time when their brothers and sisters in Hebron were murdered by Arabs in the 1920s? Where would they be, if they had given up after the British barred her children who were seeking to escape from Germany from entering into Eretz Yisrael? They allowed whole boats of Jewish refugees to sink on the shores of the land they had longed for centuries to return to. They were so close to freedom, they were literally on the cusp, but they were stopped short, drowned in the depths of the Mediterranean. What if they had let that defeat them? Where would we be today?
Instead, they marched forward. They continued to fight. And in the end, they won. Their victory was inevitable not only because their cause was just but because they never acquiesced. Rosa Parks understood this perfectly.
No matter the obstacle, she rose to the occasion and overcame it. Thus, it is no surprise that in 1975, she affirmed the truth of this principle by signing a full page letter in the New York Times which endorsed Zionism as the civil rights movement of the Jewish people. And just as she declared to the world in 1955 that she would not give up her seat, we declare today at this festival that we will never give up ours.
In a certain region of the world, there exists a people, who like the Jewish people have had to endure great hardship and persecution. This people have endured injustice inflicted upon them by their leaders which have denied them basic rights; Their leaders have stolen and embezzled money from them; they have tortured them whenever they dared to deviate from the stipulated rules. They have imposed upon them harsh laws and decrees. They have barred them from freely expressing themselves; they have tortured their own women and girls, forced them to endure gross atrocities like female genital mutilation and honor marriages. They have stripped away their own peoples right to a life of dignity, of empowerment, of progress. They have done all this in the name of human rights. But perhaps most sickening, they have taught their children that the greatest thing they could ever do in this world is to take their own lives and while doing so, take the lives of others as well.
The Arab people at large have not known freedom for a long time. They have instead been all to familiar with the stench of oppression and bondage.
But there is something important I want you to remember. 20.5 percent. Remember that number, cling to it, for in it lies the hope of the Arab world. 20.5 percent. 20.5 percent of the Jewish state has come to know that freedom that the rest of the Arab world lacks. 20.5% of the Jewish state has come to taste of the liberty that the rest of the Arab world has not experienced. 20.5% of the Jewish state Is Arab. And what a marvelous thing it is that there in Israel our Arab brothers and sisters are able to move freely. To worship freely. To think freely. To live! To live! Without compunction. Without being dictated to by mullahs and radical clerics who preach doctrines of death and hatred.
The first time I went to Israel, I almost cried when I saw Arabs living freely. There, they are not forced to do what radical clerics and evil imams dictate to them. They are free. And what a marvelous thing it is to know that Zionism brought that freedom to our Arab brothers and sisters.
Make no mistake ladies and gentlemen, the child in Gaza longs to experience that. A child does not wish for his parents to teach him to hate. A child does not wish to be brainwashed into believing a lie. And as Zionists, we must not blame the children for what their parents and leaders forced fed them to believe. Instead, we must long to see them experience that freedom and liberty that the 20.5% of the Jewish state has experienced.
And in our longing for the collective freedom of the Arab people, lies the 3rd great lesson of Zionism. To advocate for the civil rights of the Jewish people is to advocate for the civil rights of all of mankind. And in longing for the freedom of Judea, we yearn to see the freedom of the Arab people as well. And what a beautiful thing it is to note that when it comes to the question of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel and Arab civil rights, the latter is dependent upon the former. So when we affirm and advocate for the rights of the Jewish people, we are simultaneously advocating for the rights of the Arab people as well. They are, after all, our brothers and sisters.
We must not take this fact for granted. When a man who lives in Judea and Samaria under the control of the corrupt totalitarian government of the Palestinian Authority expresses the desire to move about freely…to raise his children up and see them grow to be doctors and lawyers and teachers, not suicide bombers…but movers and shakers and dreamers…whether he knows it or not, he is proclaiming that he is longing for Zionism!
When a family living in the West Bank looks over the security fence into Israel proper and sees his brothers and sisters becoming all that they have the potential to be in this world, and they envy them. They envy them with such vigor and they yearn to be on the other side of the fence because on the other side of the fence is freedom! There, the Palestinian Authority with its corrupt technocrats has no jurisdiction. On the other side of that fence is the promise of a life of dignity and respect! On the other side of that fence is Zionism. And they long for Zionism!
So let us not forget that family. Let us not forget that child in Gaza. Let us not forget the man who yearns for his family what 20.5% of Israel has been so privileged to experience! Let us instead be angry and indeed revile at what the leaders in the Arab world have done to their people! Let us mourn their status of degradation and let us always remember that a beautiful state called Israel did not only bring freedom to the Jewish people, it also presented to the Arab people a glimmer of hope. An ideal to strive towards. And let us endeavor to ensure that ideal, the ideal of unfettered freedom, is spread throughout all the earth.
So then. We have come to know 3 basic principles of Zionism, the cause we celebrate today. The first is that it is not enough to merely long for freedom, we must work everyday to will it into fruition. And if we will it, it is no dream. The moral law of the universe compels us to action, and we affirm our obedience to the Almighty when we ceaselessly struggle against tyranny. Secondly, no matter the consequences we will inevitably face when standing for the truth, we must nevertheless stand, because it is the right thing to do. No amount of pain or hardship we will be made to endure should ever erode our determination and our dedication to ensuring that liberty resounds throughout all the earth. And lastly, Zionism is a universal principle. In advocating for the rights of the Jewish people, we are advocating for the rights of all human beings including our Arab brothers and sisters who of right ought to be free. And we look forward to a time when their leaders will not oppress them anymore.
Judah Maccabee and his glorious brothers; Rosa Parks; Our Arab brothers and sisters. Their stories have each taught us a lesson today. They have taught us 3 great principles of Zionism. We should take pride in them. And we should all march forward knowing that if we remain determined to see this struggle through, it does not matter that clerics and madmen sit in the UN planting our demise. It does not matter how loud ideologues who sit in ivory towers shout and spread lies and seek to sway and manipulate the masses of men into believing falsehoods. We have not come this far up out from the spiritual wilderness over mount Sinai into the marvelous light of freedom and liberty to let such folly deter us.
We have not come this far having risen from under the ignominy foisted upon us by the nations of the world, having fashioned for ourselves a life of dignity and promise to our posterity that justice will continue for as long as we live, we have not come this far to fail to do our duty.
And if history teaches us anything, it is that there is no need for us to be afraid. Egypt could not stop us. Babylon could not stop us. Persia could not stop us. Assyria could not stop us. Rome could not stop us. Spain could not stop us. Germany, and oh how Germany did try, but could not stop us. Who else can dare try to challenge us? Who else will dare to stop us? Where ever they reside, whomever they are, they will fail. So I implore you and encourage you to march forward; Rise up, and do not be afraid. If you learn nothing else from this lecture today, know this: Zionism is righteous and just. So teach your friends and family about the lives who have been affected by Zionism. Learn about it, promote it, and pursue it. Until the sands of the deserts grow cold. Until the earth stops spinning on its axis.
Pursue it and do not cease.