“As long as within our hearts
The Jewish soul sings,
As long as forward to the East
To Zion, looks the eye –
Our hope is not yet lost,
It is two thousand years old,
To be a free people in our land
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
In 1878, Naphtali Hertz Imber, wrote this poem, expressing the deep yearning Jews feel all over, a tangible, keen yearning to return to our homeland and to end our 2000 year old exile. That exile, imposed upon us by the mighty Roman Empire after the Great Revolt of 73 CE, was the greatest catastrophe to befall the Jewish people. Together with the destruction of the Second Temple, this single tragedy condemned us to endure without the opportunity of recourse, more humiliation, prejudice, discrimination, rape and murder and eventually genocide, than any other nation. When asked, what the most meaningful day of mourning on our calendar is, most people would say the Holocaust. I say Tisha beAv. Had the Temple not been destroyed, and had we not been forced into exile, had we remained in what is today Israel, the Holocaust would never have happened.
Imber, born in Eastern Europe, probably experienced the fear and panic of the pogroms, followed by feelings of abject hopelessness and despair, that there was nothing we could do to change our collective lot in life. Yet, the embers of hope still burned inside him, inspiring him to write this poem, at the same time, both touching and determined, in Hebrew, not Yiddish. I think that is something very significant.
In late 1895, Theodor Herzl wrote his book Der Judenstaat. He lit a flame, which immediately spread, like a brushfire. Young Jews, desperate to break the cycle of congenital victimhood, clutched at the hope that this book inspired, as a drowning man being swept away in a river, would a solitary branch protruding from the bank. The astounding speed with which the Zionist movement grew, from America to Russia and throughout Europe, is testament to the intense thirst the Jews felt, to aspire to change their lives, their destiny. Initially it was nothing more than a concept, a distant star, seen, but unreachable. But, it inspired hope, and thus it was only fitting that Imber’s poem was unanimously adopted in 1897 as its anthem, at the first Zionist Congress.
Inspired by Herzl and the Zionist Congress, Jewish thinkers and philosophers allowed themselves to dream and imagine what this “new” Jewish Homeland would look like. They occupied themselves with the nature of the society we would build, and its character. Some, although they were a small minority, thought about the borders this Jewish Homeland would have, but the vast majority were concerned with its future character. They not only had ideas, they were idealistic. Their thoughts and desires for what this Jewish Homeland’s society would be like were derived by the experiences of the societies they lived in. More precisely, how undesirable it was for our future society to be like their present societies. They had had enough of prejudice, and cowering, wondering if today the Czar was going to unleash his Cossacks to go on the rampage, or if they were going to suddenly arrive to collect taxes from the shtetls. They wanted safety and security and to be left alone; but more importantly, they wanted it to be different from the society they knew.
Even as a student at university, I was infatuated with Zionism. I was not only active in Habonim, but I wanted to learn everything I could about the Zionist enterprise. I literally consumed volumes of writings of Zionist philosophers. From AD Gordon and Borochov, to Jabotinsky and Rav Kook. From Nachman Syrkin and Hess, to Buber and Ahad Ha’am. I read them all, fascinated by the depth of their thoughts and the breadth of their imaginations. There were socialist philosophers, to whom I naturally gravitated, and political Zionists. There were religious and cultural Zionists and Revisionists, whom I found it hard to read, but I forced myself to do so, in order to better understand their thinking (in the vein of “know thine enemy?). However, they all had one thing in common; the society they visualized was a moral society, a society with a conscience. A society, not only where the Jews were emancipated and the culture could flourish, but also a society devoid of prejudice. Although not overtly articulated, at the core of the society they envisioned was that all people living in it were equal before the law and the authorities. They had all had a bellyful of being on the receiving end of prejudice; their society, our Jewish Homeland’s society would be just.
In 1947 Israel declared independence and it was clear that our national anthem would be this song of hope, Hatikvah, now a hope realized. Every time I sing the anthem, my heart swells a little bit, as I marvel at the realization of this hope. It still has profound meaning to me.
However, lately, 69 years after we adopted this song of hope and yearning as our anthem, a certain dissonance has crept into the fabric of our existence. When I look at Israeli society today and I think about all those who dreamed for and tirelessly worked to realize that dream, I cannot help but feel that we have missed something. I look at this country I love so deeply, this country to which I have dedicated my life, and I no longer see the hope. We have a “leader” who tells us that we need to brace ourselves to live by the sword forever. We have another wannabe leader who views half the country as traitors, and is more obsessed with land acquisition and annexation, than with the nature of the society that we will have as a result of that. I don’t think that it is because of the interminable wars and conflicts with our neighbors and the Palestinians, I think it is that we no longer have a vision. I do not believe that our desire to have a vision should end, because we now have our country and security. There will always be security concerns, and we will deal with them, without compromise – and when I say that, it is not lip service, I mean, that I will actively participate in doing that, without compromise. However, the time has come to take a look at the character of our society; that which occupied the minds of some of the greatest thinkers I have studied. The time has come to start thinking about how we want to live not just living.
Today, I see a fractured and divided people, on the verge of making the same mistake we made 2000 years ago during our civil war. Today, with dread, I see the emergence of a new strain of Messianic Zionism, which wants to restore King David’s biblical kingdom, destroying the Israel we know, as a democracy. This is a Zionism, where the Torah and its laws take preference over the laws of the country, not only on a theoretical level, but on a practical level, whenever they reach such a moral crossroad. It is precisely this type of zealotry, which fanned the flames of disharmony among the Jewish people 2,000 years ago and led to the murder and assassination of fellow Jews, eliminating all the moderate Jewish leaders during the Roman occupation. Let me be clear: this is a fundamentalist stream of Judaism, which is no less destructive to our religion as fundamentalist Islam is, to that religion. When a religious person can publicly announce at the end of fasting on Tisha beAv — mourning the destruction of our Temple – that the Temple will be rebuilt, but first they need to deal with the Leftists and the Arabs — in that order — we need to all sit up and take a step back, before we self-destruct, like before. But, that didn’t happen. People absorbed it as part of the current discourse of our society.
Allow me to reveal something to you: this is not about politics, of Left and Right. I fully believe that one can be right wing, believe in a “greater Israel” and still be committed to a just and moral society, freedom of speech and democracy. One can believe in the settlement enterprise and still acknowledge that people have a right to disagree, without calling into question their loyalty to Israel. They can advocate for a strong army and the security of Israel and Israelis, and not become racist and an oppressive force, becoming reminiscent of the Cossacks who plundered the shtetls. This is about the character of our society, making sure we do not have a society that our thinkers wished our society would not become, only with us as the enfranchised and powerful, and that other nation that lives alongside us and among us, filling the position we once held in Eastern Europe. It is about regaining our vision for how we want Israel to be. It is about reaffirming our national anthem. Either that, or we need a new Hatikvah.