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Why Home? – Biden’s Israel Visit as Reminder

Rena Quint and Giselle (Gita) Cycowicz shared their testimonies of suffering and survival with President Joseph Biden last week at Yad VaShem. Many were struck by the attention and sensitivity displayed by President Biden. The two women rose to greet the president as protocol demands. President Biden invited them to sit. Bending over to better hear the stories of the two women, President Biden clasped their hands, and even went down on one knee. Taking the knee is traditionally a posture adopted when encountering royalty. Unusual for a head of state – particularly the president of the most powerful nation on earth – to adopt a stance of humility. President Biden’s choice reflected something about the sensitivity of the man and the personal meaning of this meeting for him. No doubt that Rena Quint and Giselle (Gita) Cyowicz touched his heart and conscience, and the hearts and conscience of many around the world.

It has long been a tradition of Israeli diplomacy for foreign diplomats to visit the Holocaust memorial and education center at Yad VaShem. In June 1974, President Richard Nixon was the first US president to visit Yad Vashem. And in the nearly half a century since, presidents, ambassadors, ministers, and royalty have all included a visit to Yad VaShem as a pilgrimage station in their diplomatic visits to the State of Israel.

The Shoah looms large as part of the Jewish consciousness and the Israeli national narrative. Considering the historical magnitude and the abject horror, the presence of the trauma of the Holocaust – even as the survivors themselves go the way of all flesh — continues to cast a long shadow.

The State of Israel’s contemporary birth certificate – the Scroll of Independence (May 1948) – opens with an official narrative telling the story underpinning the birth of Modern Israel. A mere three years separated the end of World War II from May 1948. The Shoah stands in the Scroll of Independence not as a long ago and far away historical fact, but as a real existential threat. In 1948, the Shoah was still an unfolding, scorching trauma – of national and personal loss, of a massive Jewish refugee crisis, and quite literally of a people on the brink of extinction.

The history of antisemitism paved the Jewish people’s Via Dolorosa to the Shoah. It was also a key factor that pushed the activists who championed Zionism to emphasize the profound need for some form of Jewish national independence as a haven and refuge from centuries of prejudice and repression. However, the Scroll of Independence does not understand the Shoah and the history of antisemitism as the sole or main justification for the creation and existence of the State of Israel.

The Scroll of Independence marks out at least two additional and fundamental arguments underpinning the validity of Zionism.

First, the authors of the Scroll of Independence reach back to the beginnings of the Jewish story. The Scroll even argues with traditional Jewish origins narratives about a slave people freed by the Divine and born into nationhood with the receiving of the Torah in the desert. The Scroll boldly opens with “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people…” The Jewish people’s story and that of modern Israel does not begin in 1933 with the Nazi rise to power. Nor does it begin with the 1st Zionist Congress in 1897. The story of Israel is the history and memory of an indigenous people who under the duress of invasion and occupation were forced from their land, and became ‘strangers everywhere, and nowhere at home.’ (Leon Pinsker, ‘Auto Emancipation, 1881). Even if the Shoah had never taken place, the historical roots of the people of Israel’s origin’s, development, and ongoing connection to the Land of Israel would justify Zionism as a modern political project to bring Israel home. Hebrew inscriptions and relics, documentation by travelers and conquerors, and even chains of place names of towns, mountains, and abandoned ruins all point to an ancient and deeply rooted presence. And although centuries of foreign rule and shifting populations reduced the Jewish population substantially, Jews continued to live in the Land of Israel, make pilgrimage, and yearn for Zion from afar as the harrows of history allowed.

All nations look to the past to confirm claims and compose coherent national narratives. Few nations – if any – can claim the profound historical links to their homeland and particularly considering so many centuries of exile and longing.

Second, the Scroll of Independence rests on the Zionist turn to basic human rights as enshrined in international law. Theodore Herzl – seen as the founder of modern Zionism – understood the importance of cementing the Jewish claim to self-determination in international law and in diplomatic recognition. Much of his public work in the period following the publication of his ‘The State of the Jews’ (1896) focused on securing recognition for Zionism from the international powers of his period.

Although in 2022, the United Nations is an organization typically seen with no small dose of suspicion and cynicism, its founding – flanking the founding of the State of Israel – martialed in an aspiration that the right to national identity, sovereignty, and self-determination would be guaranteed by the family of nations for all peoples. The same internationally recognized rights that led to the creation of India, Czechoslovakia, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and Ghana also made room for the State of Israel in a period of global de-colonization. Based on the rights discourse – defining Zionism becomes both simpler and more complex.

Simpler – because Zionism can be defined as the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. In the same way that Armenians, and Irish, and Catalans all have the right to organize as national communities and exercise some form of sovereignty – so do the Jews. To deny the Jews alone the most basic right to define themselves as a people is a repudiation of the universal nature of the right of self-determination. To single out the Jews and insist that they have no right to define themselves and safeguard their communal life through some form of national sovereignty is racism.

And justifying Zionism through the human rights discourse also adds layers of complexity. To fairly call on the principle of self-determination as a justification for the right of the State of Israel to exist; Israel must move in a more determined way towards ensuring some form of national rule for the Palestinians. Regardless of what can be said about Palestinian nationalist tactics and strategies, about terror, and about missed opportunities; Israel cannot honestly invoke a human rights discourse on national identity unless it acts on the universal obligation of that discourse particularly with regards to its closest neighbors. Although the two-state solution has become an expletive in some Israeli circles and is nearly non-existent in much of the Israeli public discourse in recent years; it’s revival as a viable political solution is not about embracing political naivete or about philosophical-moral niceties. Its revival is about safeguarding the State of Israel as aspired to in the Scroll of Independence.

The three narrative claims – the place of the Shoah and antisemitism, the origin story and historical connections, and the human rights discourse – are all points of anchor and argument between the variety of versions of outlooks, political positions, and ideologies that make up Israeli life, the Jewish world, and how we are understood by both friends and foes. When Prime Minister Yair Lapid marked the survival and flourishing of a democratic, Jewish state as the central driver for Israel’s future, he was calling on all of us to think about both how the past informs the present, but also about how all Israelis need to consider anew what we share, and how we can disagree towards a secure, shared future.

President Biden’s moving visit to Yad VaShem was a reminder about what is at stake, and about the real-life implications of memory, history, and how Israel chooses to see itself and how others see us. Sometimes you need someone from the outside, a sympathetic guest to remind you why is home. Biden often quotes Seamus Heaney – one of Ireland’s premier poetic and moral voices. I find Heaney reminding me of our own Yehuda Amichai – patriots, humanists, and sages for our time. Reflecting on the necessity of poetry, Heaney commented, “I think that’s where poetry should dwell, between the dream world and the given world, because you don’t just want photography, and you don’t want fantasy either.” Particularly now, I wish that Israel’s leaders would take Heaney’s comment to heart and apply it to politics – not to sink immovable in a status quo that appears immutable, nor to gamble recklessly with futures yet-to-be, but to aspire to that point where ‘hope and history rhyme.’

About the Author
Scott is a veteran educator and guide with a great passion for all things Jewish and Israel. He grew up outside of Boston (and still has a profound accent) and made aliyah from Young Judaea in 1987. Throughout his career, Scott has been involved in leadership roles in a wide variety of cutting edge projects and educational institutions.
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