I remember Israel’s 50th birthday. I would have been 10 years old, wearing a festive dress in the expansive parking lot of my local JCC, which had been converted into a fairgrounds featuring live music, warm falafel, and booths offering a variety of activities and items for sale. There’s a photo of my twin sister and me from that day, holding Israeli flags. Despite the physical distance between the midwestern suburb in which I grew up and my birthplace, the indigenous homeland of the Jewish people, I remember a warm, celebratory mood and an unquestioned connection to Israel that transcended time and space.
Things have felt distinctly more fraught in the weeks and months leading up to this year’s Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israels’ 75th. So many thoughtful writers have contemplated the confusing, complex, and deeply emotional developments in Israel, and here in America, the Jewish community has been grappling with how to understand and respond to these events overseas. As we approach the 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence, many of us are turning our eyes toward Israel’s future with concern, with apprehension, with fear. So many of us feel so deeply the urgent need to maintain a safe, secure homeland for the Jewish people. Its existence is simply not optional, and yet its internal and external challenges feel, at times, insurmountable.
Recently, I came across this famous quote by Theodor Herzl: “I once called Zionism an infinite ideal…as it will not cease to be an ideal even after we attain our land, the Land of Israel. For Zionism…encompasses not only the hope of a legally secured homeland for our people…but also the aspiration to reach moral and spiritual perfection.”
In revisiting it, I was invited to redirect my perspective as I consider Israel’s 75th. Yes, the future is uncertain—the same can be said for any state, institution, or seemingly timeless element of our society. But perhaps the approach this moment calls for is to ground ourselves in the past—in the visions of what Israel was meant to be, and what it still holds the potential to become.
Pre-state Zionist thinkers brought their own unique perspectives to their visions for the future state, but amid their various aspirations, timeless values emerge from their writings and activities that can continue to serve as a guide for Zionists today. Ahad Ha’am envisioned a Jewish state that would serve as a spiritual and cultural center and would reinvigorate Jewish culture throughout the diaspora. Chaim Weizmann brought a vision of opportunities for scientific research and advancement into his aspirations for Zionism. Rachel Yanait Ben Zvi’s aspirations for the state included equal pay for equal work and equal opportunities for women. Rachel Cohen-Kagan, a member of the first Knesset, advocated for gender equality within the family structure and society at large and government support for families with children. Herzl’s famous depictions of the “new society” included free health care, equal voting rights, freedom of the press, and other surprisingly prescient ideas that continue to inspire modern readers. And this list is by no means exhaustive, rather it invites us to delve more deeply. We can arm ourselves with the original intentions, with the inspiring aspirations, in order to fight for the best possible future.
The Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” sings of the hope of the Jewish people to live freely in our homeland—and of the deep, enduring desire in our hearts to return to Zion. But we might expand this hope, this desire, to include the aspirations of all that this land was meant to become, of all the purposes it was meant to serve. A safe haven, a refuge, a source of security for the diaspora, a cultural and educational beacon, a model society, a country built on the concepts of freedom, justice, and peace. Israel was an opportunity to return, but also to restart—and to do so with progressive ideals that could help this nation stand apart and serve as an example to others who sought the best circumstances for their people and the betterment of the world at large. That hope remains, as evidenced by the waving of Israeli flags as protestors have taken to the streets in recent months. As several commentators have recently noted, the 2023 Israeli protests have clearly been rooted in a deep love for the potential of Zionism. I would add that they reflect the enduring hope for the future of this modern miracle.