Israel just celebrated its 70th birthday, and I had the honor of being there. The celebrations and positive energy moved me to my core. There was singing, dancing, some crying, and the true spirit of Zionism was all around me.
Now that the festivities are over and I have returned to New York, I want the world to know that Zionism is a positive force for all of humanity. It’s something to be celebrated. Not just on Israel’s birthday, but every day of the year.
Zionism is the dream of returning home after being gone for too long, it’s the manifestation of hard work, it’s a light at the end of a dark tunnel.
At its core, Zionism means nothing more, and nothing less than the belief that the Jews are a people, and the Jewish people have the right to live in their ancestral homeland; the land of Israel.
I read an interesting statistic recently. A 2018 Gallup poll showed that 74% of Americans view Israel favorably. See “Americans Remain Staunchly in Israel’s Corner.” So it’s not Israel that is challenging to Americans.
Like the United States, Israel is a democracy. Democracies are complicated. They are aspirational, works in progress. In much the same way that the US constitution compels us to strive for “a more perfect union,” Israel’s Declaration of Statehood lays out its ideals.
As someone who leads a movement of over 300,000 “practical Zionists” I can tell you one thing for sure: Zionism is not going away, and we should start talking about what it really is, and not what others have appropriated it to be. And make no mistake- we are constantly striving to live up to its ideals.
As Gil Troy, historian and author recently wrote: “…resist internalizing our oppressors’ hatred of us. Reclaim the Z-word: Zionism.”
Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold did more for the land of Israel than any other Jewish woman of her era. She spoke of a Zionism rooted in “Jewish ideals of universal peace and universal brotherhood.” That is exactly the kind of Zionism I work towards every day.
In 1918, Szold went to then mandate-Palestine and set up field hospitals to treat easily curable diseases that people were dying from due to lack of modern medical care. Today, Hadassah Medical Organization is housed on two campuses that follow the same model. It doesn’t matter if you are Jewish, Muslim, Arab, Druze, white, black or brown. We care about all people. That model of diversity is also reflected in Israel’s government and its Defense Forces. Their makeup includes representatives of many faiths, races and ethnicities.
Israel emergency response teams are often among the first to arrive after disasters worldwide – the first to arrive after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, one of the first teams to arrive after the 2011 earthquake in Japan, training first responders in Mexico City after their 2017 earthquake, and teams of Israeli responders arrived in the US after numerous hurricanes, including Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Hurricane Harvey in Texas, and most recently Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. That’s also practical Zionism — rooted in the Jewish teaching of Tikkun Olam, or “repairing the world,” Jews and Israelis take the job of helping those in need very seriously.
In this age of political polarization, it is easy to get swept up in the “us or them” feelings, the “right or wrong” feelings. I choose stay above the politics and follow what I know is true.
When Americans are upset about government policies, do they pack up, leave the US forever? Do they denounce the United States’ right to exist? Of course not. They mobilize and advocate for the things they believe in.
If you don’t like the way Zionism manifests itself today, don’t turn off. Get more involved, help others understand your vision of Zionism. Henrietta Szold and others like her made sure that Zionism strived towards goals that all can believe in.
I will never denounce my Zionism. I choose to keep practicing a Zionism that is a positive force for all of humanity.
American Zionist and civil rights advocate Chloe Valdary said of the principles of Zionism, “no matter the consequences we will inevitably face when standing for the truth, we must nevertheless stand, because it is the right thing to do… Zionism is a universal principle. In advocating for the rights of the Jewish people, we are advocating for the rights of all human beings.”
Ellen Hershkin is the National President of Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Inc.