Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

Sorry, Bernie, but you’re a Zionist too

You have to feel sorry for Bernie Sanders. He was born with an albatross around his neck. He is a Zionist.

Well, perhaps that is two albatrosses, because he is a Zionist; because he was born a Jew.

While it may not be true that all Zionists are Jews, the fact is all Jews are Zionists.

Let us study some Torah.

Two weeks ago, we heard God say to Moses, “Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving to you….” (See Leviticus 25:2.)

“When you enter the land” appears in the Torah 10 times in exactly those words, and twice in a slight variation. That makes 12 times altogether, and that is only the beginning of the Torah’s association of Israel to its land.

In recent weeks, for example, it made observing rules of moral conduct the main condition for retaining possession of the land.

That connection goes back to a promise God made, as God noted to Moses early in the Exodus saga: “Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage….And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession.” (See Exodus 6:6-8.)

In the portion we will read this Shabbat, the Torah details all of the horrors that will befall Israel — that will befall us — if we abandon God. Then God is quoted as saying:

“When I, in turn, have been hostile to them and have removed them into the land of their enemies, then…will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham — and I will remember the land….I will remember in their favor the covenant with the ancients….” (See Leviticus 26:41-45.)

However we believe the Torah came to be — whether it was given to Moses by God, or was the product of human beings, divinely inspired or not — we have to admit that history has proven those words to be 100 percent true.

No other ancient people, dispossessed from their homeland, ever returned to that homeland — or even survived losing that homeland.

Israel did. The Jewish people did. We did. We survived.

Regardless of whether we believe in God, we cannot deny history. We cannot deny what our eyes have seen and our ears have heard. Nearly 4,000 years ago, the “curses” in Leviticus 26 were written down. Jewish history was recorded before it happened. Nearly 4,000 years later, those words have been fulfilled.

And they were fulfilled in what many saw as a miracle of monumental proportions. Seven Arab nations went up against a ragtag army of farmers and Holocaust survivors. They not only failed to toss Israel into the sea, they left Israel larger and stronger than the day they invaded it.

No matter what we believe about Torah and God, history says Torah is true, God is true, and that God kept His word to us.

That word was — and is — that we and the land are inextricably linked. That word was — and is — that Israel is our homeland and has been for nearly 4,000 years.

If we believe that — and how can we not believe that in the face of recorded human history — if we believe that, then we are Zionists.

If we accept the designation “Jew,” then we must accept that we also are “Zionist” because the two terms have been linked since our birth as a nation nearly 4,000 years ago.

Zion began as a synonym for the City of David, then for all of Jerusalem, and then for the land of Israel itself.

If we believe that Jews have a right to have a place of their own on this planet, we are Zionists. We do not have to agree with Israeli policies to be a Zionist. (I certainly do not.) We just need to believe we have as much right to a homeland as every other people in this world.

All Jews are Zionists, whether they are willing to acknowledge it or not.

Sadly, in today’s world, Zionism is perceived as a dirty word. Zionists are perceived as evil incarnate. To be a Zionist, it is said, is to be nothing different than to be a Nazi.

Why this perception?

It is because, as even Donald Trump says, Israel does not want to make peace with its Palestinian neighbors. People believe Israel wants to persecute the Palestinians, crush them into the ground, obliterate them from history.

They do not accept what their eyes see and their ears hear. They believe the hype and ignore the facts.

The Palestinian Authority sends emissaries throughout the world to encourage people to paint Israel as an aggressor nation, a rogue state.

The world listens, and believes. The world, however, does not listen when that same Palestinian Authority names schools, streets, buildings, and sports events after people who strapped bombs on themselves to kill Jews. It does not listen when Palestinian leaders say “we want peace” in English and French and German, but say in Arabic, “today the West Bank, tomorrow all of Israel.”

It does not listen when Arab children’s television programming, such as a knock-off of Sesame Street, teaches children to hate Jews and to kill Jews.

Does Israel have such television programs? No.

Palestinian textbooks demonize Israel and Jews, and praise martyrdom. Do Israeli textbooks teach hatred of Arabs, including Palestinians? No. Just the opposite; they teach tolerance of the Other, whoever the Other may be.

Pity Bernie Sanders. Because he is a Jew, he is a Zionist, and he will have to live with both albatrosses.

As for the rest of us, we have an opportunity this Sunday to proudly proclaim that we are Zionists. All we need to do is line the streets of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, and cheer loudly as the parade marches by.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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