So It Has Come To This

Diaspora students supporting Israel. (courtesy)

As a Jew, an Australian and a Principal of a Jewish Zionist school, I feel obliged to explain — for the first time in my life and career — why I am a Zionist.

Zion, the biblical term for the land of Israel, has been the spiritual homeland for Jews for millennia. As the oldest monotheistic faith, there has been a continuous Jewish presence in Zion for thousands of years, documented in the Torah (what Christians call the Old Testament), the founding document of Judaeo-Christian civilisation. Even the Romans called what was then a monocultural Jewish region ‘Judea’.

Religious Jews refer to Zion many times a day – in blessings after they eat as well as in the thrice-daily Amida prayer. When the Torah Scroll is removed from the ark, Jews recite For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

Having just finished the festival of Passover, our final prayer on each of the first two nights was Next Year in Jerusalem. Jesus himself would have commemorated Passover, not just because he himself was a practising Jew, but also because the Last Supper was this very ceremony.

The Middle East and North Africa is home to 315 million Muslims and 20 Muslim countries. Islam is amongst the most recent of the great faiths, starting 600 years after Jesus and around 2,600 years after Abraham began his monotheistic journey. Worldwide, there are an estimated 1.9 billion Muslims (and 2.4 billion Christians for that matter).

By contrast, globally there are just 15.7 million Jews. Yes, you read that correctly. That’s fewer than the total population of New York City.

And there is just one Jewish country in the world – Israel (or Zion, if you like)- which is about the same size as Wales and a third the size of Tasmania.

So what, then, is Zionism? Simply put, it is the belief in a Jewish homeland for Jewish people in the land of Zion, or Israel.

It seems that, for some, it is too much to ask for this small population to have a tiny slither of land in an area that that they have inhabited, and prayed towards, for thousands of years.

Some people who have the privilege of not needing to earn a living have taken to blockading roads, ports and universities in defence of a cause they most likely had heard nothing of a few months ago but whose popularity has been fuelled by the metaphorical fashion of the keffiyeh – and the social (and social media) implications of not donning it.

Their ilk have been trolling Jewish organisations, shouting at us in the street, putting up stickers near our places of work and protesting outside of our place of worship. People yell at our school children at sports matches and our school social media accounts have to monitored hourly for hateful comments.

Colombia University in the United States has had to ban a poster saying Zionists don’t deserve to live whilst university examinations have been punctuated with chants of Say it loud, say it clear, we want Zionists out of here. And as with so many other social movements, where America leads, some Australian university students are not far behind.

The apologists for the pro-Palestinian protests insist that when they chant against Zionism they are not chanting against Jews. They have no problem with Jews, it is just with Zionism, they say. Jews who disavow Zionism are fine, it is those who do not who are the problem.

But let us deconstruct that for a minute. Not for one second would I would seek to tell a Christian, a Muslim or a person of any faith what a central tenet of their religion is or is not.

Yet these university students feel empowered to tell me what constitutes my Judaism.

They eloquently pronounce that they accept my being a Jew, but not my being a Zionist. They are confidently cancelling thousands of years of Jewish history, culture, prayer and identity and telling me what my Judaism can and cannot include.

Now, we Jews know what chutzpa is – we invented the word – and this is chutzpa in extremis.

Following the Holocaust – the slaughter of over a third of the world Jewish population between 1939 and 1945 – Jews were finally granted a homeland. After centuries of ‘Jews go to Israel’ hatred, we now face a new era of ‘Jews leave Israel’.

Embed from Getty Images

Embed from Getty Images

What are we to do? As an educator, a Jew, a citizen and a human, allow me to suggest some ideas.

Firstly, being a Zionist and being pro-Palestinian is no contradiction. This is a truism despite there never having been a Palestinian state previously, even though a two-state solution was agreed to by Jews when the State of Israel was founded but rejected by a combined invasion of Arab armies in 1948 (what Israel refers to as the War of Independence and the Palestinians refer to as the Naqba, the Catastrophe). This is still true even though Israel has been attacked in 1948, 1967, 1973 and countless other times.

Palestinians who, in addition to the 20 other nearby Muslim countries, want their own peaceful state living side by side with Israel should and must be granted their wish.

Secondly, I am proud that that the students and families in the school I have the privilege of leading sing Advance Australia Fair in every assembly and at every gathering, whilst also yearning for a safe and secure Jewish homeland in the State of Israel. Our ANZAC assembly this year reminded us of the contributions of Jewish Australians to this wonderful country, and of that of General Sir John Monash, the Australian military commander who was also the first President of the Zionist Federation of Australia.

Thirdly, this awful conflict has to end soon. The Left needs to be as devastated by Hamas’s 7 October massacre of over 1,200 innocent mainly Jewish Israelis as it is at the civilian deaths in the ensuing Gaza War. It needs to see that calling for a ceasefire when hostages are still held only benefits one side.

Indeed, if you were ever unsure what ‘From the River To The Sea’ means, have a look at the map of all of Israel on Hamas’s logo.

Commensurately, the Right needs to accept and articulate that a Palestinian state is possible and desirable.

And we all need to be reminded that few wars avoid civilian casualties and even fewer end without compromise.

Fourthly, we have to continue to be kind and inclusive during this time of conflict. My school was a proud and active member of the wonderful Building Bridges initiative which saw children from (amongst others) Muslim and Jewish schools host each other and share their stories. We continue to have an open door and an open heart to our fellow Abrahamic faiths, but it takes two to tango, and it seems as if, at least at the moment, only we want to dance.

It should not be provocative to say that I am a Zionist. I believe in the State of Israel as a homeland for Jewish people – and indeed a homeland for non-Jews too.

It may not serve some narratives to know that Israel has Muslim Arab political parties, Muslim Arab members of parliament, Muslim Arab judges and Muslim Arab diplomats. It may be inconvenient for some to admit that the majority of Jewish Israelis are non-white, and that they are predominantly descended from the hundreds and thousands of Jews expelled from Muslim Arab countries yet they are not seeking a right of return or compensation. But this and much more is true.

Is Israel perfect? Of course not, what country is?

But my ancestors have prayed for Zion for thousands of years, and my children and their children will continue this proud and ancient tradition.

This is, and always has been, our Judaism.

And no-one should have the chutzpa to tell us otherwise.

About the Author
Jeremy is Principal of Bialik College in Melbourne, Australia. Bialik is a pluralist Jewish school of 1,100 children aged 1 to 18 years. Jeremy was previously the founding Headteacher of the UK's Jewish Community Secondary School. A fellow of the Australian Council for Educational Leaders, the recipient of the 2021 NeiTA leadership award and an MBA graduate, Jeremy is a history teacher by training and a philosophy teacher by temperament.
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