Several years ago, Yotam was working on a Greek island when Syrian refugees were struggling to escape from Assad’s murderous regime. When a boat capsized near the shore and a young child was unable to swim, Yotam rushed into the ocean to carry her to shore. Her father was able to swim and was greeted on the beach by other Israelis who welcomed him with blankets and fluent Arabic. The little girl was reunited with her father and when he realized that his daughter’s rescuer as well as everyone else who lined that beach were Israeli, he said, “My own people and the people who are supposed to protect me are chasing me away while my worst enemy has become my greatest friend.”
This summer I met Yotam. I was in Israel attending the Shalom Hartman Institute’s rabbinic convention. It had been three years since my last visit. I did not realize how much I missed being there and the inspiration I would find there among Israelis. I wish to explore what I rediscovered there. I wish to ponder why we need to revisit the meaning of Israel in our own day and why we need to reassess the import of Zionism for our own age. Jewish leaders spend considerable effort talking about why Israel needs us. Let’s instead take a step back. Let us reexamine why we need Israel. First some background.
Zionism, and the nationalisms to which it is related, have become dirty words. Look at John Lennon’s lyrics as but one example: “Imagine there’s no countries/ It isn’t hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion, too.” And while such thinking might very well be part and parcel of a utopian dream and inform contemporary culture, Judaism believes you can only fix our broken world and bring peace to our violence filled earth if you are first faithful to a particular people and in this case, the Jewish people. For millennia we have said you have to be a Jew first in order to put the peace of the world first among your thoughts.
The problem of course is that for much of our history the world has insisted that if we are Jews then we cannot also be loyal to the nations in which we lived. We were forced into ghettos and shtetls throughout our wanderings. We were maligned and persecuted and expelled from numerous countries. No place was ever a perfect home. And this is where Zionism comes in. In the mid nineteenth century Jews began to realize that if no country would allow us to call it our home, then the only solution is to have a country of our own.
The most famous thinker, and the founder of political Zionism, is Theodor Herzl. He was a young reporter, writing for a Viennese newspaper, and stationed in Paris, when he confronted the antisemitism of France. In particular he was flabbergasted to discover how French society could turn so quickly against its Jewish citizens. Here was Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a faithful French army officer, who was falsely accused of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment because he was Jewish.
Hearing the Paris crowds shout, “Death to the Jew” or even, “Death to the Jews,” was an earth-shattering experience for Herzl. Even though he had little attachment to his Jewish roots he developed the idea that we would never be fully welcomed or accepted in the nations of the world. And so, two years later, in 1896, he wrote The Jewish State. The book’s title is a bit of a misnomer because Herzl cared little about the Jewish character of the state. He was more concerned with finding a state for the Jews. He did not care so much where it would be located and at one point favored Uganda over what was then called Palestine. He preferred the German language and thought Hebrew unsuitable for the nascent state. He eventually compromised with other Zionist thinkers, many of whom like Ahad Haam came from Odessa (side note: that city and Ukraine figure prominently in modern Jewish history!).
Even though Herzl was the great organizer, and political strategist, and is still considered the founder of Zionism, people like Ahad Haam better describe what the modern state of Israel looks like and feels like. Of course, it has to be in the land of Israel. This is the land where we became the people of Israel, although one could argue it was Egypt that made us into a people by its oppressive slavery or perhaps the Sinai wilderness that made us so when God revealed the Torah there. Nonetheless, Eretz Yisrael—the land of Israel, is where we first experienced sovereignty under the early kings of Saul, David and Solomon 3,000 years ago.
Of course, we have to speak Hebrew there. This is our language. And so, Ben Yehudah, not the street but the person, went about figuring out how we were going to take a holy language of the prayerbook and Bible and make it into a mundane language where we can buy bread in the market and argue about apartment rents. The funny thing about this transformation is that even when one is saying words such as “I like Susie,” an ear attuned to the Bible’s verses can hear the cadence of Abraham beseeching the angels that he might find favor in their eyes. (Genesis 18). When one walks through the streets of Jerusalem, one rarely loses sight of the fact that here King David ruled or on that mountaintop in the near distance Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac. You can feel it in the streets. You can hear it in the words.
We have returned to this place. It is not like we traveled to some ordinary piece of territory for which Herzl negotiated with the rulers of his day but instead we returned to the very same place and restored there what we always believed, and imagined, was ours. Herzl’s Zionist vision has been transformed. It is no longer about how we best can respond to antisemitism. It is bitter irony that Herzl believed the establishment of the state would end antisemitism. In our own age we have seen antisemitism increase and have witnessed it leveled against the Jewish state, most especially on the college campus. Hatred of Israel has turned against Jewish students who have been ostracized from student organizations or excluded from sexual assault survivor groups or attacked during universities’ “Israel Apartheid Week.” Anti-Zionism has become synonymous with antisemitism. It is as if the State of Israel stands like Captain Dreyfus in that Paris square with antisemitic vitriol being hurled upon it. We remain the target of antisemites’ hatred even as it hides behind the flags of intellectual freedom and progressive values. Israel does not solve antisemitism.
Zionism is instead about a return to history. In the land of Israel, and as the State of Israel, we will write our own history. What happens to us will largely be a result of our own decisions rather than those of a ruler who might look at us kindly or another country who treats us harshly. That is Zionism in a nutshell. History is ours to write in the only place our people ever truly called home. We have returned to history. And we have returned home.
Israel has therefore served as safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution. When the State of Israel was founded, there were approximately 600,000 Jews living within its borders. Today there are nearly seven million. Many of them rebuilt lives there after the near destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust. Far more might have been saved if there was a Medinat Yisrael—the State of Israel—although it is folly to think that anyone in the 1930’s could have foreseen Auschwitz’s gas chambers. Far more fled persecution in Arab countries. Ed, a sweet friend and a member of our congregation who died this past year, left the violence and antisemitism of his native Baghdad, and found rescue in Israel.
Saving others from harm has become a central pillar of Israel’s values. I recall well when Prime Minister Menahem Begin, a Holocaust survivor, insisted in the late 1970’s that Israel welcome Vietnamese refugees who were found floating at sea by an Israeli merchant vessel and who were barred from entering any country. He said, “We never have forgotten the boat with 900 Jews, the St. Louis, having left Germany in the last weeks before the Second World War traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge. They were refused. Therefore, it was natural to give those people a haven in the Land of Israel.” Begin granted these Vietnamese refugees Israeli citizenship. Although perhaps it was only a token number this act served as a fitting reminder of Israel’s lofty dreams for itself. It must rescue Jews from harm. It must alleviate the suffering of those fleeing from persecution.
Where are such leaders today when Israel is confronted with Sudanese refugees trekking through the Sinai desert to cross into the land of Israel? Where are the leaders who understand what Israel truly means and what its founding generation passionately believed?
And here we come to our relationship with Israel and our present estimation of Zionism. Let me state my worry clearly. Israel and Zionism are slipping away from the grasp of American Jews. It is doing so for several reasons. The first is that we spend too much time thinking about Israel, not as a place where nine million people are called citizens. (There are approximately two million Palestinian and Arab citizens of the State of Israel in addition to its seven million Jews.) Instead, we think about it as some dreamy place. Israel is the stuff of myths. Too often we caricature Israel as the perfect antidote to antisemitism where brave soldiers are fighting against genocidal enemies or where paratroopers swoop in to save Jews from harm. And while it should be abundantly clear that Israel’s enemies are menacing and dangerous this does not mean its response is always perfect as it most certainly was in Entebbe. Just because the enemies are potent does not mean that everything we do is right and correct. When Israel is seen as increasingly militaristic—and its understandable security needs for example hold it back from raising moral outrage against Putin’s onslaught in Ukraine—we lose our Zionist ideals. And we lose future commitment.
Furthermore, the nation-state has become a maligned word. This should not be the case. Every nation has tumultuous histories, including our own. They have all done wrongs, including Israel. Even though the founding of Israel is the fulfillment of our millennial hopes and prayers, it does not, it has not, and as well, it cannot, always live up to the dream of acting on the values, as its Declaration of Independence states, “freedom, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel.” By all means it should try. By all means it should discuss past mistakes and seek to make amends. By all means Israel should not say, “We will get closer to the dream only when they stop attacking us.” The fulfillment of our dreams should never be dependent on what others do or do not do. Zionism is about writing our own history! Let’s focus on that! Let’s write it!
Here, in the US, Zionism must not become synonymous with one political party over another. Everyone loses when support for Israel becomes aligned with only one party. When Republicans become associated with Jewish nationalists and zealots who believe that if it is Jewish land as the Hebrew Bible details then it cannot also be Muslim and who use violence and anti-Muslim hatred to achieve their goals, then all lose. When Democrats do not raise their voices against those who use antisemitic tropes in their criticisms of the Jewish state or who conflate the clear moral difference between the IDF’s use of arms and Islamic Jihad’s use of rockets, everyone loses. Israel loses. And we lose.
Defend Israel. Love Israel. Visit Israel. But for Israel’s sake and ours don’t mythologize Israel. It’s a real place with many strengths and even some weaknesses, like many countries who have to make their way through this fractured world.
I worry that many American Jews, in particular Millennials and Gen Zers, think a nation’s borders, and in this case Israel’s security fences, are only about keeping others out rather than safeguarding, and strengthening, those who live within. That is the first goal and responsibility of having a nation of our own. Within these walls we can better learn, and teach, how to reach out to the world at large. Menahem Begin understood Israel’s higher meaning within his soul. The suffering he endured most certainly made him skeptical about the world’s intentions, but it also attuned his spirit to the world’s pains. This is the Zionist message we must take to heart. This vision is how many Israelis continue to view their state’s mission.
Take but a few examples. When I was in Israel this summer, I had the privilege of visiting the headquarters of the Joint Distribution Committee. The JDC was founded in 1914 to help starving Jews in what was then Ottoman ruled Palestine. It has since become the leading Jewish humanitarian organization and has helped ease suffering in over 70 countries. In some of these countries its work remains hidden from view, or its Jewish affiliation flies below the radar. It focuses on helping other people in need. A significant portion of its funding comes from the State of Israel’s budget.
There at the JDC’s offices we were welcomed into what can only be described as a war room tracking the fighting in Ukraine. Even though it was former soldiers staffing this room with large computer screens displayed all around us and about which we were forbidden to take pictures, it was not tracking troop movements or the alignment of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers, but instead following the steps of Jewish refugees trying to get out. There were cell phone numbers flashing on the screen indicating the last known position of this person or that, lights illuminating which border was more promising for escape, and lighted notes indicating where someone had found temporary housing and so on. Here are Israelis using their know how in fulfillment of their values. They were trying desperately to save lives and bring Jews to safety. In their eyes, being Jewish and being Israeli is synonymous with compassion.
Next, we traveled to Tel Aviv and found our way to the promenade overlooking the city’s fabled beaches. We went to Social Space Tel Aviv. Here is its story. This building used to be called the Pussycat strip club. It took years to shut this club down even after it became widely known that its owners encouraged prostitution and were guilty of human trafficking. Yes, Israel is sometimes too real. At first you might be saying, “I wish the rabbi would not say such things out loud and muddy my dreams. Let my impression of the Jewish state remain neat and tidy.” Let go of the myths. Confront the reality. Renew the dream.
We then learned how this place was transformed. Real estate developers bought the property and now face years working their plans through the approval processes. In the interim they are donating the space rent free to Social Space Tel Aviv which provides a place for various groups to discuss, learn and experience the meaning of social activism. As we were leaving, a group of high school students entered the building to view an exhibit about sexual exploitation. The creators of the exhibit told us, “People used to walk by this place and turn a blind eye to the degradation—and near slavery—that was happening right in front of them. We have taken down the darkened blinds to shed light on this problem.” Imagine that. Look how reality can start to look more like our dreams. Individual Israelis are indeed fashioning a state of our dreams.
While there we met with Yotam. Let me now tell you more about Yotam Polizer. He is the CEO of IsraAID. Yotam had just returned from Ukraine. He showed us pictures of the devastation. He spoke of the massacres in Bucha. Yotam taught us about the philosophy of his organization. Its mission is integrally connected to being Israeli. To be Israeli means to ease the world’s suffering. They rush to conflict zones and natural disasters. There they partner with local communities and provide urgent aid and assist in recovery. They also work to reduce the risk of future disasters. Their staff is comprised not only of Jews but also of Arabs. Yotam told us that most organizations respond quickly to disasters and initially shower communities with leftover clothes and canned food but just as quickly lose interest and allow their commitment to wane. When IsraAID arrives, they make a five-year commitment.
And so, in Ukraine they are focusing on mental health initiatives. Israel’s experience with war and bloodshed has taught its people that mental health is just as important as water, food and shelter. They are training Ukrainians to provide counseling and services to alleviate PTSD. They plan on staying there for the long haul. They imagine their commitment to Ukraine will continue well beyond any cease fire. They have offered similar help to Afghan refugees and were in Japan providing counseling after the devastating tsunami. Along Israel’s borders you may read about torment and suffering, but beyond it, and too often hidden from view, Israelis are figuring out how to bring compassion and healing.
This is what Israel represents. This is what Israel can represent to each and every one of us. Israel is not going to be perfect. It is never going to neatly fit into our prayers. But there are ordinary Israelis who are bringing it closer to the dream. It may not yet be the perfect stuff of dreams. Then again, perfection may not be as far away as we might think. In fact, it may be getting closer than we imagine.
Here is my advice. Reconnect with Israel. Sure, there will be disappointment. People live there and like everywhere else where people are involved there will sometimes, and maybe more often than we would like and hope, be disappointment and even tragedy. But you will also find inspiration there. Israel may not be our physical home, but it is where our spirit lives and where it can be revived.
Love Israel. Why? Because Zionism, and the modern State of Israel, is the fulfillment of our Jewish destiny. It is where a great, and unfolding story, is being written. It is where we will continue to write our own history. Take part in this for your sake as much as Israel’s.