Laura Ben-David
Sharing Israel with the world through my lens

What’s a Zionist anyway?

As long as Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart…

I had a lot of holes in my Zionist education. Oh, I don’t blame my parents; they had holes too. In fact, you would think that the expensive Jewish education they stretched their budgets to put us through would have filled those holes. They didn’t. For ten years I went to a yeshiva elementary school only to find out about Yom Ha’Atzmaut in my last year—by accident.

Growing up I always considered myself Zionistic. After all, I loved Israel, and we marched in the Israeli Day Parades. What more did it take? But then, what did ‘Zionism’ even mean and what did it have to do with Israel? I didn’t actually know. I had never even been to Israel. I just knew in my soul that this was a place I should love. This much I got from my family.

With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion…

Actually, I knew very little about Israel as well. I imagined it as a two-bit, one-horse (well, camel…) town with a lot of sand. Actually, I think I was imagining the Sahara Desert, but with the Western Wall. It didn’t really matter to me; Israel was my Home or at least I hoped it would be one day, whatever it looked like.

degel baby
Photo credit: Laura Ben-David

It was quite a surprise for me to discover one day, when I was 13, that Israel actually had its own day of independence. Well, whaddya know? I wondered why it was such a well-kept secret. I mean, my school didn’t even know about it. Well they must not have known, because they never told us.

I really didn’t have a clue. I’m not quite sure how I found out about Yom HaAtzmaut that April day so many years ago. It was purely by chance, and I was completely stunned.

As it was only the night before the holiday when I found out, I quickly called my friends and told them about this incredible discovery I made about ‘tomorrow’. We decided we would all wear blue and white, and we would bring or make Israeli flags. (I still remember the makeshift flag I made out of lined, three-holed school paper, and a blue, ballpoint pen…) We were going to make this a festive occasion! We were going to let the school know what they were missing! It was going to be GREAT!! Boy, was I naive…

Celebrating Yom Ha'Atzmaut in Israel. Photo credit: Laura Ben-David
Celebrating Yom Ha’Atzmaut in Israel. Photo credit: Laura Ben-David

Instead of thanking us for enlightening them, we got in big trouble. You see, they knew about Yom HaAtzmaut all along and had chosen to ignore it. After all, it wasn’t their holiday. It was a holiday made by secular Jews, for secular Jews. It was even important enough for the dean of the school, who wasn’t well at the time, to make a special appearance at an impromptu assembly of all the 8th graders, to let us know why it was so awful to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut.

One thing I can remember from that assembly: being told that the person who wrote HaTikva was a drunk. Well there, that does it. If the guy was a drunk, then the song must be lousy and couldn’t possibly stir the emotions of all those who hear it and sing it. Except that it does…

Where lies the problem? I could not see it then, I do not see it now.

Then our hope – the two-thousand-year-old hope – will not be lost

I’ve had the pleasure and honor of participating in many, many Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliyah arrival ceremonies. Each closes with a thousand people singing Hatikva, and I get misty-eyed each time… Looking around the room as I always did, I would see Jews of every stripe, young and old, veteran Israelis and new immigrants, married and single, and of the whole spectrum of religious observance. I cannot promise that everyone was singing, but they were all there… as they should be.

To be a Free People in Our Land…

It’s nowhere near perfect, this land of ours. But it’s OURS. After 2,000 years of ‘Mizrach’ (East) signs on Jewish living room walls, it’s time to pack them away and actualize the yearning that has been professed for so long.

Yom Ha'Atzmaut barbecue
Typical Yom Ha’Atzmaut barbecue. Photo credit: Laura Ben-David

On Tuesday we will be celebrating the holiday of Yom Ha’Atzmaut together with our brothers and sisters all over Israel. We will be wearing blue and white, Israeli flags will – and already do – decorate cars and windows across the country, specials programs will be held in every town and city, and grills will be fired up for the biggest barbecue day of the year.

The land of Zion and Jerusalem

Conspicuously, and quite on purpose, Yom Ha’Atzmaut falls out immediately following Israel’s Day of Remembrance for our Fallen Soldiers & Victims of Terror. It was only with tremendous sacrifice that we have built our precious country. The sacrifice knows no demographic bounds. You would be hard-pressed to find an Israeli who does not have someone they personally knew who is remembered on this day.  We are so deeply and inextricably connected to this Land.

Over the years I have come to understand that ‘Zion’ means nothing less then Jerusalem, even the Temple Mount itself. This says a great deal. The founders of modern Zionism may have been secular; they may have been many things. But no one can deny that they got a ball rolling that had been stuck in the mud for centuries. And we will never let it get stuck again.

sunset flags
Photo credit: Laura Ben-David

As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,
Then our hope – the two-thousand-year-old-hope – will not be lost,
To be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.







About the Author
Laura Ben-David is a photographer, public speaker and Israel advocate. Inspired by her Aliyah experience, Laura began writing and never stopped. She is the author of the book, MOVING UP: An Aliyah Journal, a memoir of her move to Israel. She has spoken all over the world about Israel, Aliyah and other topics, often with beautiful photographic presentations. Formerly the head of social media at Nefesh B'Nefesh, Laura is the director of marketing at Shavei Israel as well as a marketing consultant.