Passover’s Reminder of Judaism’s Inherent Zionism

The holiday of Passover is itself one of many reminders that Judaism is inherently Zionist. 

It’s something I think about every time people try to claim they’re anti-Zionist, not antisemitic, or that Zionism is incompatible with Judaism. Quite often, these people define Judaism as a religion only, and Zionism as nothing but a 19th century political movement. But they’re wrong.

Judaism is a native identity. Like many similar indigenous identities, it predates the modern separation of religion, culture, mythology, morals, nation and land. These elements have actually all been tied together for Jews over the course of millennia. Much like other native identities, Judaism sanctifies (the religious element) the bond between the people (nation) and the place where their ancestors had lived (land) and had formed their native heritage (culture, mythology, morals, language and so on). In other words, much like many people can accept Native American tribes seeing their ancestral land as sacred, a belief that isn’t nullified even when they have been displaced from it, that’s how these same people should understand the unbreakable, holy, indigenous connection in Jewish identity between the People of Israel and Eretz Yisrael. It might be that only in modern times we came to refer to this bond as Zionism, when it took on the form of a political movement, but it has always been there, a constant Jewish longing, an intrinsic part of our faith, history and legacy.

And there are so many expressions of Zionism within Judaism itself! I’ll share an incomplete list, in no particular order, which hopefully demonstrates why anyone who wishes to erase the Zionist core element of our Jewish identity, is inevitably changing Judaism itself into something else.

  • When Jews pray, no matter where around the world we may be, we do so in the direction of the Hebrew Temple in Jerusalem, Israel.
  • Israel, Jerusalem, and Zion are all mentioned in the Hebrew Bible hundreds of times, often in connection to the importance of the bond between the Land of Israel and the Jewish People.

    The scroll of Eicha, opened to a page containing both the words “Zion” and “Jerusalem” (on the bottom left). Source: Wikipedia
  • The Hebrew calendar and Jewish holidays are based on the agricultural year as experienced specifically in the Land of Israel. For example, we celebrate Shavu’ot, also known as Chag ha’Katzir (חג הקציר), the Jewish festival of the harvest, during the Hebrew month of Sivan, which is roughly around the Gregorian month of June. In Australia, June is the rainiest month of the year, with severe temperature drops, it’s absolutely not the right time for the harvest. But Australian Jews still celebrate Shavu’ot at the same time as all other Jews, in Sivan, which for them is the cold and rainy month of June. Because we all honor and preserve through our holidays the yearly agricultural cycle of our ancestors in Israel.

    Illustration. Source: Alami
  • Many Jewish prayers express a desire to return to Israel, and to see our society re-built there. One example is the Jerusalem blessing (the 14th out of the 18 blessings in Tefilat Amidah), which is centered on asking God to re-build Jerusalem as the holy city, and the Hebrew Temple within it. Another example is maybe the most common expression of Judaism’s Zionist longing: “Next year in Jerusalem” (in Hebrew: לשנה הבאה בירושלים). In fact, this is how we conclude the Passover Seder every year.

Here’s a greeting card, drawn by Shoah survivors at Linz, a Nazi concentration camp in Austria, which was turned into a DP (displaced persons) camp at the end of the war. The card features the above three Hebrew words on the bottom right side (you can see the freed prisoners of the camp on the left, heading towards a land with palm trees on the right, with one of the buildings having a Star of David on top):

Source: Yad Vashem
  • The holiest site for the Jewish people in the entire world is the thousands of years old Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where the Hebrew Temples stood (the compound includes the Western Wall) in Israel. In fact, every holy city and site Jews have is found in Israel.
  • Many Jewish holidays explicitly celebrate Zionist ideas, meaning they uphold the importance of the bond between the Jews and the Land of Israel. For example, Chanukahis a celebration of the native Jews fighting off the forces of the Greek occupiers, and re-establishing Jewish sovereignty in Israel, which allowed our ancestors once more freedom from religious persecution, by re-dedicating the Hebrew Temple in Jerusalem to Jewish worship, after it had been defiled by the Greeks. Passovercelebrates the deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt, which is not complete until they get back home, to their ancestral land in Israel. The Seder includes Ha Lachma Anya, which contrasts the foreign land of Egypt as a place of enslavement, with Israel, the ancestral homeland of Jews and their land of freedom. The Passover Seder also includes Dayenu, an expression of gratitude for the fact that God had not only delivered our ancestors from Egypt, he also brought us back to our homeland of Israel and built the Temple in our holy capital of Jerusalem. And of course, the Seder is concluded with that expression of longing to be returned to Israel: “Next year in Jerusalem!” The redemption and emancipation our ancestors were granted was not complete until they entered their holy, ancestral land. The implication of that last line in the Passover Haggadah is that in every generation, our freedom is not complete, until we get to return to and live in the one place where we are truly masters of our own fate, our ancestral home of Israel.

    1940’s Passover Haggadah from Cairo, Egypt with the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem” at the bottom. The Star of David at the top contains the Hebrew word “Zion.”
  • The language of the Jews is a native one. It’s Hebrew, which is the last Canaanite language, meaning the last of the languages spoken by the native peoples of Israel. In fact, Hebrew is specifically tied to the geography of the Land of Israel. For example, in the Bible, the Hebrew word for “west” is also the Hebrew word for “sea,” because Israel’s western border is the Mediterranean Sea. Similarly, the Hebrew word for “south” is also the name of the desert that makes up the southern part of Israel, the Negev. Every Jewish language which developed in the diaspora (such as Yiddish, Ladino or Yevanic) features at least some words borrowed from Hebrew, in addition to Hebrew having always remained the Jewish language for prayer, for Jewish studies and sometimes even for communication across different Jewish communities. In that sense, no matter where Jews ended up, no matter what they spoke, they always carried a part of their native land with them, through their language that it shaped.

Here’s an Israeli poster made in 1949, honoring the country’s newly introduced ‘Sea Day.’ The three Hebrew words at the bottom are “ופרצת ימה ונגבה,” meaning “And you shall spread to the west and to the Negev,” from a biblical verse (Genesis 28, verse 14): “And your seed shall be as the sand of the earth, and you shall spread to the sea and to the east, to the north and to the Negev, and blessed in you and in your seed will be all the families of the Earth.”

Israel’s Sea Day 1949 poster. Source: State of Israel’s archives
  • Among the 613 Jewish mitzvahs, biblical decrees that religious Jews observe, one explicitly states that whenever possible, Jews should live on their ancestral land, in Israel. This is called in Hebrew, “mitzvat yishuv Eretz Yisrael” (מצוות ישוב ארץ ישראל). Chazal, the Jewish sages, determined that observing this mitzva is equivalent to observing all other mitzvahs together.
  • Among the 613 Jewish mitzvahs, there are 26 decrees that can only be observed while living in the Land of Israel. These are called in Hebrew, “mitzvot ha’tluiot ba’aretz” (מצוות התלויות בארץ).
  • For centuries, Jewish homes have included a decorative piece hung on the eastern wall, called “mizrach” (the Hebrew word for “east”), because that was the direction of Israel for most Jews. It usually included a biblical verse in Hebrew, often one that either mentions the east, Israel or Jerusalem, and also illustrations of Jerusalem or Israel.

Here’s an 18th or 19th century mizrach from Germany (it includes a biblical verse which starts with the Hebrew words ממזרח, which means ‘from the east,’ on the left side a drawing of a high priest in the Hebrew Temple in Jerusalem with the Menorah behind him, and on the bottom center a drawing of Jews praying at the Western Wall):

Source: Kedem
  • In Jewish synagogues, especially in Europe, the eastern wall was the most important one, because it was the one facing Israel and Jerusalem. This wall was called “kotel ha’mizrach” (כותל המזרח), which means in Hebrew “the wall of the east.”
  • The word “kotel” refers specifically to the walls of the Temple Mount. For example, the Western Wall, the only one of the Temple Mount’s four walls which remained accessible to Jews for prayer (giving this wall its current importance) is simply referred to in Hebrew, “ha‘kotel” (the wall). So why would a wall in a synagogue be referred to as “kotel,” too? Because every Jewish synagogue is called “mikdash me’at” (מקדש מעט), a lesser temple. Every Jewish synagogue is a reminder and placeholder for the destroyed Hebrew Temple in Jerusalem.
  • Accordingly, many Jewish synagogues feature reminders of Beit Ha’Mikdash (the Hebrew Temple). For example, this holy ark from a synagogue in Romania, has survived the Holocaust, and is today presented at Yad Vashem (Israel’s national Holocaust museum). It includes two pillars on its sides, a reminder of the Temple in Jerusalem’s pillars. The holy ark’s pillars are named exactly like the Hebrew Temple’s two pillars, Boaz and Yachin. This holy ark also features two hands, representing the high priest’s while he’s performing the priestly blessing, an ancient Jewish ceremony that was conducted on the steps of the Temple in Jerusalem.

    Source: Yad Vashem
  • In fact, over the centuries, one of the most prominent Jewish symbols in decorations and even Jewelry, has been the menorah, the candelabra which was eternally lit in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

Here’s the Temple Menorah being stolen by the occupying Romans, as it’s been immortalized on the Titus Arch in Rome:

Source: Wikipedia

The menorah incorporated into ancient Jewish jewelry thousands of years ago:

Source: The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel (HUJI)’s Institute of Archaeology
  • For centuries, Jews create art and culture, which expressed Zionist longing tied to their Jewish identity. For example, the Sephardi doctor, philosopher and poet Rabbi Yehuda Ha’Levi wrote what is maybe the most famous of the “Zion poems” while living in Islamic-occupied Spain: “My heart is in the East, and I am at the end of west / How shall I taste what I eat, and how should it be an enjoyable taste? / How shall I repay my vows and commitments, while / Zion is in the ropes of Edom, and I am in the bonds of Arabia? / It would be easy for me to leave all of the good of Spain, just like / It would be precious to me to witness the ashes of a ruined temple.”
  • In 1140, Rabbi Yehuda Ha’Levi finally fulfilled his wish, and boarded a ship for the Land of Israel. We don’t know what happened to him, but the phrasing in a Hebrew letter found in Egypt, written by Jews who knew him, implies that he was murdered. For almost 2,000 years, it was dangerous for Jews to try and return to Israel. It certainly wasn’t possible on the scale of a national movement. Jews knew it was dangerous. And yet for millennia, despite the hardships and dangers, individual Jews like Rabbi Yehuda Ha’Levi persisted in attempting this return. Sometimes even families and small communities. This is a part of Jewish history. It’s not just that for thousands of years, there has always been a small number of Jews, who managed to remain in Israel despite the repeated expulsions and massacres of Jewish people from our homeland, it’s also that there was a small number of Jews who dared attempt the return to Israel continuously, over centuries, and neither of these things would have happened had Judaism not been Zionist. Always.
  • For millennia, every Jewish wedding includes a part, where the groom recites an oath of loyalty and longing for Jerusalem. The text itself is taken from the Bible, from the second part of Psalms 137: “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget itself, let my tongue be glued to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not raise Jerusalem to the height of my joy.”
  • For millennia, every Jewish wedding included a symbolic reminder of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and our ancestors’ following expulsion from the Land of Israel, by breaking a cup made of glass.
Source: Mitformit
  • For centuries, many Jewish homes featured an unfinished patch, as a similar reminder of the Temple’s destruction. My best friend’s house has a hole in the eastern wall, intentionally left there.
  • In fact, the destruction of the Temple, and the following expulsion of the Jewish people from Israel, is SUCH a traumatic and significant event in Jewish history, that there is a religious day of mourning and fast every year, on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av (the date when Jews believe the first Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem by the Babylonian occupiers, and the second one, re-built after an expulsion and return of the Jews from Babylon to their native land, was destroyed by the Roman occupiers).
  • Ethiopian Jews, who for too long were probably the most disconnected Jewish community, have a special holiday called Sigd. This name is derived from the Hebrew word for worship or prostration, “sgida.” It features asking God to return them to Israel. Since the State of Israel has helped the Ethiopian Jewish community to return to this land, starting in 1982, it has become a part of Sigd to celebrate it specifically in Jerusalem.

The Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel celebrating Sigd in Jerusalem:

Source: Jerusalem’s municipality
  • In fact, other than Yom Kippur, the three major Jewish holidays are also called “the three pilgrimages” (“shloshet ha’regalim”), because for as long as the Hebrew Temple stood in Jerusalem, they were observed through a pilgrimage of all Jews coming from every place in Israel to the capital, to celebrate the holiday together. These three holidays are Sukkot, Pesach (Passover) and Shavu’ot.

Here’s a piece of art depicting Jews in antiquity during sholoshet ha’regalim:

Source: Yisrael Chiburim
  • The Hebrew Bible itself expresses the Jewish Zionist longing, the desire of our people to return to their ancestral land after they were expelled by the Babylonian occupiers from Israel, and which drove their return from their first exile, as recorded in the Bible, and supported by historical documents and archaeological finds. Here’s the first part of Psalms 137, the same hymn featured in Jewish weddings:

    Upon the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, and we wept, as we remembered Zion. On willows there we hung our harps, because there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors for joy. “Sing to us from the song of Zion!” How shall we sing God’s song on foreign soil?

    It’s a distortion of Jewish identity, and an erasure of Jewish history, to deny that Judaism and Zionism are intrinsically linked to each other. It’s a betrayal of generations upon generations of Jews, who understood themselves and their Jewishness through these terms and customs. On this Passover, I will wish for the Jewish People, that we will find our footing, strength and certainty in not allowing such distortion, erasure and betrayal of countless Jews, who couldn’t possibly comprehend this being done to their Judaism, now and in all generations past and to come. Chag sameach!

About the Author
Alice Marcu's story begins in Communist Romania, where even after a part of her family survived the Holocaust, Jews were still persecuted, despite the ruling ideology's promise of equality for all. Her family was thankfully rescued, thanks to the State of Israel and Jewish solidarity. She served in the Israeli army with the paratroopers, the artillery forces and the women's officers course. She studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, majoring in Psychology, as well as General and Comparative Literature (with an emphasis on queer and feminist studies, plus Jewish history and literature). She volunteered at the Jerusalem Open House, the city's queer community center, including giving GLSEN-equivalent lectures, and has worked at Yad Vashem for the last ten years, giving tours, lectures and workshops.
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