Why I am a Zionist

I am a Zionist.

I wasn’t always sure about that. I am not quite as old as the State of Israel, and during the first part of my life, before I was a Jew, I watched from a distance, detached, as Israel struggled for survival. There was no reason to feel invested: I was not yet a Jew. Some things I thought inspiring, some disturbing.

Then I became a Jew. That meant I could not be neutral on this subject; I am invested. So I studied.

In the year 136 of the common era, the Romans put down the Bar Kokhba Revolt in Judea. The Roman Emperor Hadrian decided to make an example of the Jews, lest any other subject nation get the idea of revolution. The majority of the population of Judea was killed, exiled, or sold into slavery. Torah law and the Hebrew calendar were prohibited. Torah scholars were executed in droves. In an attempt to obliterate the memory of the Jews, the Roman province was renamed Syria Palaestina. Jerusalem was destroyed, and the new Roman city of Aelia Capitolina was built on its ashes. Jews were forbidden even to enter the city except on Tisha B’Av, the Jewish day of mourning for the lost Temple. 

So the Jews were scattered across the world: some to Europe, some to Asia, some to Africa, a stateless people clinging to a memory of home. Periodically individual Jews and small groups would decide to go home to join the small, stubborn remnant that persisted in the land, the Old Yishuv. Some Diaspora Jews sent their bodies home for burial. Particularly after a disaster, like the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, there would be movements to return in larger numbers.

History took a vicious turn in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even the most enlightened and scientific societies of Europe had an ugly and growing tendency to Jew hatred. In the rest of the world, there was enough of this hatred that doors began slamming. Theodore Herzl, a journalist, read the writing on the wall in the Dreyfus Affair. By the time the Jews of Germany realized what the Nazi regime would bring, there was nowhere for Jews to go, because nowhere in Europe or America or South America or Asia or Australia was their home.

I don’t need to tell you the rest of that story.

Zionism is the belief that there needs to be somewhere on the face of the earth where Jews are in charge of their own destiny. Through the actions of Jews, and through the agreements of the nations of the world, as well as through history, that place has been the small plot of land at the far east end of the Mediterranean, bounded on the north by Mt. Hermon, and at the southeast by Egypt.

There were other people, Muslims and Christians, with homes there when the Jews went home. There were nations with interests in seeing to it that they and the Jews did not live peacefully together. There have been great wrongs done on all sides. But there have also been moments of promise, moments when we could glimpse the possibility of what could be.

I am left, at the end, with the conviction that there needs to be an Israel. I believe that the 7 million Jews living there, many of them born there, have a right to be there. And I believe, as well, that the Palestinian people have a right to live in peace. I believe that as impossible as it seems to find peace, after all the years of war and bitterness, that there is nothing to do but keep trying and keep living.

This week we are observing Yom HaZikaron – the day that we remember the 23,169 who have died defending Israel and in acts of terror. Then, when the sun goes down, we observe Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day. This is the week for remember that nothing can be taken for granted, least of all freedom and dignity.

This week we pray for the strength of spirit to do those things which need to be done. We pray for leaders on both sides who can see past their own self-interests. And most of all, we pray for hearts that can transcend cynicism and despair to lead us all the rest of the way home.

 

This article was slightly amended for clarification. See comments for details. Thank you to my readers for helping me express myself clearly!

 

 

What are “the Yoms?”

Declaration of State of Israel 1948
David ben Gurion reads the Declaration of the State of Israel, 1948

Every spring, after Passover, the Jewish calendar marks four days to commemorate events in modern Jewish history:

Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day  usually on 27 Nisan (click on the link for more info on Yom HaShoah)

Yom HaZikaron – Israeli Memorial Day usually on 5 Iyar (yom ha-ZEEK-a-rohn)

Yom HaAtzma’oot – Israeli Independence Day the day immediately after Yom HaZikaron, usually 6 Iyar (yom ha-atz-ma-OOT)

Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day, marking the day in 1967 when the city was reunited, on 28 Iyar (yom Yair-oo-shah-LIE- eem)

Israeli Memorial Day and Israeli Independence Day are always paired. In Israel’s short history (less than 70 years, at this writing) the price of independence has been the deaths of too many of its citizens. Unlike Memorial Day in the United States, which is seen as many as “the first day of summer vacation,” Yom HaZikaron is a true day of mourning in Israel, because nearly every citizen spends the day remembering one or more loved ones who have died in defense of their country.

The mourning of Memorial Day turns to exuberance at sundown, when Yom HaAtzma’oot, Independence Day begins. Israelis and Jews worldwide celebrate the birth of the Jewish State with speeches, picnics, fireworks, and general celebration.

Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, also marks a dramatic moment in modern Jewish history. Under the 1947 UN Partition Plan, Jerusalem was to be a “international city” for ten years, after which the citizens of Jerusalem would vote to decide whether they would be part of Israel, or part of a new Arab state. While Jewish leaders agreed to this plan, Arab leaders rejected it. Immediately after the signing of the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948, armies from all its Arab neighbors invaded. By the end of the War of Independence, Jerusalem was a divided city, the western portion in Israeli control and the eastern portion and the “Old City” under occupation by the Jordanian Armed Forces. No Jews were allowed to remain in the Jordanian-controlled areas, the synagogues were demolished and the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives was plundered.

Such was the situation in Jerusalem until 1967, when increasing hostility between Israel and its Arab neighbors boiled over into the Six-Day War. Israel sent word to King Hussein of Jordan that it would not attack Jerusalem or the West Bank  unless provoked. With encouragement from Egypt, the King ordered the Jordanian army to shell civilian locations in Israel; Israel responded by opening a new front against Jordan on June 6. The next day, Israel succeeded in capturing the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, bringing the holy site back under Jewish control for the first time since 70 CE. Yom Yerushalayim marks the reunification of the city.

The four “Yoms” (Days) recall the dramatic course of Jewish history in the 20th century.

Image: Rudi Weissenstein, in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

My Promised Land – A Question

shavitThis week I’ve been reading a book  much more slowly than usual. I’ve been distracted by some conversations about the book that have me running back to reread sections. The book is Avi Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

Ari Shavit is a columnist who serves on the editorial board of Haaretz, the Israeli equivalent of the New York Times. The man can write; sections of the book are almost poetry. He uses anecdotes from his family history as a framework to look at the State of Israel.

I began reading the book on the recommendation of my rabbi. He said that the writing was excellent and that it was a book that would “make everyone talk.” He’s right on both counts.

You can Google the reviews, if you want. What fascinates me is that Shavit seems to have found a “sweet spot” in which he’s bothering everyone. One reviewer will say that he leaves out too much Palestinian wrongdoing; another will say that he’s leaving out too much Israeli wrongdoing.  Often they cite the same chapter, Chapter 5, “Lydda.” Again and again, informal commenters and reviewers seem to insist that he left something out. The problem is almost always what he failed to say, some element that for the reviewer is essential.

It leaves me to wonder how big a book would need to be to satisfy everyone, to truly address the bitterness on both sides. I wonder what would happen if we were to assemble such a book: a book that both the most passionate Palestinian and the most passionate Zionist could read and say, “Yes, everything is there.” No reasons, no excuses, this book would list the bitter facts, lay them all out so that everything is acknowledged.

Would it help, or would it make things worse?  I do not know.

A Reform Rabbi in Israel

Rabbi Stacy Blank is a friend and colleague who writes movingly and sensibly about life in Israel.

RabbiStaceyBlank's Blog

I love living in Israel (have I ever mentioned that before?).

Even now, as terrorists send missiles over half the country, I love living here.

I live in Jerusalem. We’ve had two missiles launched in our direction this week. On two occasions I heard the air raid siren. The first, we were at home preparing for Shabbat – we took our children and went to the basement of our apartment building. My native Israeli husband knew what to do – find the most protected spot and wait ten minutes. The second, I was at work at Hebrew Union College and was near the bomb shelter, joining my son and his kindergarten class there. One teacher asked the kids to explain why we are here. Tears came to my eyes as five-year-olds said matter-of-factly, “There was a missile sent over by people who want to hurt us. But we are in…

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Can We Talk?

Children in Town Under Fire by Rockets from Gaza
Children in Town Under Fire by Rockets from Gaza (Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces)

I walked out of a movie this afternoon (Lincoln, it’s good), flipped my phone back on, and was greeted with a personal message on Twitter:

“All nations regret that they cannot exterminate 15m jews 40 times for killing 600m their nationals in all wars and revolts”

I had to read it a couple of times before I could understand what it said. I run across anti-Semitism all the time on the web, but it is not often addressed personally to me. When I investigated further, I realized it wasn’t personal, not really: the person sending it had sent the same message to dozens of Jews or Jewish-sounding people on Twitter. I reported him and blocked the account. Yuck.

It’s been a rough week. I lived in Israel for a year, ten years ago, and I formed an attachment to the country and its people that will never leave me. I was there at a hard time – the 2nd Intifada – and that cemented my respect for Israelis. They live through times that most of us cannot imagine, and the vast majority of them carry on their lives with grace. I listen to Israeli radio, and was aware of the rockets raining down on Sderot and other communities in the south, and noticed that no one in the media outside of Israel seemed to give a hoot. The BBC never mentioned it, CNN never mentioned it, and it was not mentioned on Al Jazeera, either. Were I not “tuned in” to Israeli sources, I wouldn’t have known about it, because no one else cared to report it.

Then, ten days ago, the Israelis finally retaliated. Had France been shelling Britain for months, we’d have seen some fireworks from the Brits before now. Had Mexico been shelling Texas — well, it’s Texas. Of course they’d shoot back. But when the Israelis finally shoot back they’re the bad guys?

For more about Pillar of Defense, better thought out and with great links, take a look at Rebecca Einstein Schorr’s A Few Thoughts About Operation Pillar of Defense.

For ten days now, I’ve been watching Jews argue over this and my heart is breaking. I listen to Jews call one another names, fail to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and read things into each others words. If one says he’s praying for peace, there are half a dozen folks ready to have his head because he wasn’t enthusiastic enough about war. If she speaks up for Israel’s right to defend herself, a different half dozen are ready and waiting to descend with words of flame.  And all I want to do is scream, “STOP IT!”

My fellow Jews: we do not need to be enemies against one another. There are plenty of people in the world that hate us, like the creep who sent me that tweet. He has read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other lies, and he’s ready to exterminate us all. He doesn’t care whether we belong to AIPAC or J Street. He doesn’t care if we love Israel or deplore its existence. He just hates Jews.

If you want to talk about your position, I will listen. I may not agree, but that is not a condition of my listening. If you want to talk about your position, will you listen to me as well? Can we talk about our fears? Can we talk about our hopes?

I love the Jewish People. I really, really, really like Jews. And this is breaking my heart.

Mar Cheshvan, Indeed!

Anat Hoffman

Update is at the bottom of the page.

I just got word via the Women’s Rabbinic Network that Anat Hoffman was arrested again last night at the Kotel, the Western Wall, when she was there with a group from Women of the Wall and another group from Hadassah. Since I can’t find any more information on Ha’aretz to corroborate the details I’m not going to say more than that.  She’s been arrested, again. I wish I were surprised.

Anat Hoffman is executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. She is also the chair of Nashot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall.  She was elected to the Jerusalem City Council and sat on it for fourteen years. She has been tireless in her efforts to seek fairness and justice for all in Israel.

In the recent past, women have been arrested at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh for wearing a too-traditional tallit, for wearing a tallit in a manner too much like a man, and for similar ridiculousness. If this is a place that belongs to the whole Jewish people, why are women not allowed to pray there? Why must women be silent and meek there? Why is only one expression of Judaism acceptable there?

Some will say that this is an unimportant matter.  Who cares what the haredim do at the Kotel? What about Iran? What about security? What about the Situation with the Palestinians? What about the Arab Spring?

But you see, this is not really an issue about women praying at a wall, or women wearing shawls.  This is really a question of the humanity of women. Women’s images are disappearing from public view in Israel, because one group of Jews sees all women’s images, faces, voices, and presence as immodest.  A group of men spat upon a young Orthodox girl, walking home from school, because her (very modest) clothing did not meet their standards of modesty. As with the Civil Rights Movement in the United Statesbuses have become a battleground: do women have to sit in the back? may they ride at all?

So it is not a trivial matter  that a group of women are insisting on their right to pray at the most famous holy site in the Jewish world. This is not about the Wall. It is not about shawls. It is about women’s right to be visible without molestation or repression.

The facts are not all in regarding this latest arrest. I hope that Anat is all right. She is in my prayers tonight. But not just in my prayers: I am joining other members of the Women’s Rabbinic Network in sending a donation to the Women of the Wall in honor of her, and to help cover the legal expenses of this work.

If you would like to join me (please join me!) you can donate funds to either of these organizations.  Just click on the link, and it will take you to the donations page.

Women of the Wall

Israel Religious Action Center

The month of Cheshvan is sometimes called “Mar”Cheshvan, Bitter Cheshvan, because there are no holidays or rejoicing in it. I am sorry to say that Anat’s arrest and the continuing assaults on women’s rights in Israel make this Cheshvan bitter indeed.  Let us hope that the time is coming when women can again stand at the Wall and pray, as we have done for centuries. Let us hope that some future Cheshvan is sweet.

 

Update:  10:58 pm, PST, Oct 16:   The Women of the Wall report on their facebook page that Anat was still detained at this writing, and they show a photo of her being taken away in handcuffs.  At their regular morning prayer time, two other WoW leaders, Director Lesley Sachs and board member Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, were also arrested.  (Now would be a very good time to “like” their page on facebook, if you use facebook.)

Meet Rabbi Blank

I spent the past weekend as a scholar-in-residence, teaching and learning and praying in the woods with the fine folks of Temple Emanuel of Tempe, Arizona.  While I get back to life and to my posting routine here in San Leandro, CA, I thought I’d share with you a wonderful blog post by my friend and classmate, Rabbi Stacey Blank:

Rabbi Blank’s Blog

If you want to learn about Israel, follow Rabbi Blank’s blog.  She’s a Reform rabbi, living and working in Jerusalem. Her blog is thoughtful and reflects the point of view of an American born woman who has made aliyah, and what you will learn about is not the “Disney-fied” Israel or the Israel of dreams or nightmares, but the Israel in which millions of Jews actually live.

Happy reading!