:לְמַ֤עַן צִיּוֹן֙ לֹ֣א אֶחֱשֶׁ֔ה וּלְמַ֥עַן יְרוּשָׁלִַ֖ם לֹ֣א אֶשְׁק֑וֹט עַד־יֵצֵ֤א כַנֹּ֙גַהּ֙ צִדְקָ֔הּ וִישׁוּעָתָ֖הּ כְּלַפִּ֥יד יִבְעָֽר
“For the sake of Zion I will not be silent, For the sake of Jerusalem I will not be still, Till her victory emerge resplendent And her triumph like a flaming torch.” These are the words spoken by none other than the prophet Isaiah who lived nearly 2,500 years ago. They are timeless words that echoed across time, through the trials and sufferings long endured by the Jewish nation, a nation without a nation for nearly two millennia, under the oppressive wrath of antisemitism in virtually every region of the world, it seemed the spirit of Amalek was always around to haunt us, but through it all, our ancestors never let go of their faith and their Tikvah (Hope), that one day their descendants would return to reclaim their ancient homeland and lead the world to an unprecedented era of true peace. That Hope was the dream of generations of Jews through the Crusades, Inquisitions, pogroms, and culminating in the horrors of the Holocaust. One brave generation of Jews proved that you do not have to be the most religious or pious Jew to contribute to the progress and well being of your people. They were the founding fathers of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl, Eliezer Ben Yehudah, Leo Pinsker, Max Nordau, Israel Zangwill, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and countless others who would carry on the flame of our nation in exile until this very day. That same flame has now been passed to you and me, the Hope is in our hands.
On May 14th in the Gregorian calendar, in the year 1948, The Jewish State of Israel was reborn among nations, and at long last, after ages of wandering, the ancient homeland of Judea and Israel was in our hands again, and our fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, grandparents, uncles and cousins would all fight with all of their might to defend their home, because they knew what it meant, as we should know what it means today. We already told you about the birth of Israel and the war of independence in previous posts, so today’s will obviously be a bit different, today will be a personal reflection of what it means to me to be a Jew and a Zionist, because to me you cannot have Judaism without Zionism, it did not begin with Herzl. Zionism has been an age old concept held sacred since the days of King David and the prophet Isaiah who all lovingly referred to Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) as “Tzion” (The Marker, or Chosen Place). Without Zionism, Judaism is not Judaism, it is but an empty shell.
But what does Zionism mean to us today? For me, it is proof that the Tanak (Hebrew Bible) is a living breathing document, not limited to the sacred parchment and ink, but engraved in our genetic memory, whispered in our ears every morning by the Shekhina that reminds us to never forget to recite the Shema Israel, because the very existence of the world began with a spoken word from Hashem, and we continue to create and build this world up to become a habitable home for the spirit of our Creator, a world of truth, justice, and peace. Sadly we are not there yet, and we all have a lot of work to do before we get there. We could either wait for the Mashiach to come and do all the work, or we can help him out by doing some of the heavy lifting ourselves. The modern State of Israel is far from perfect, it is certainly not the messianic kingdom we pray for, yet. But let me tell you what it is from my perspective.
I grew up in a mixed family of Lebanese Muslims and Cuban Catholics, and I had no idea of my mother’s Jewish heritage until I was maybe 12 years old, and I embraced my newly found Jewish identity where I once thought that I had none. Having been bullied in school and treated like an outcast by people on both sides, I felt the story of the Jews was pretty similar to my own, the underdog of society with a powerful comeback. Then there was my Arab family, whom I love to no end, though we obviously disagree on many topics, such as Zionism. When I was a child I remember how their friends would try to convince me of why Jews were just “bad people” and that Israel was the enemy. Of course at that time these individuals didn’t know they were talking to a Cuban Lebanese American Jewish boy! I grew up debating the topic of Israel and Zionism with my father’s family, and I often avoided the subject to avoid uncomfortable situations, but it always came up, in my family the subject of Israel was unavoidable.
In 2002 I traveled with my father to meet our family in Lebanon. Lebanon is part of the Biblical Kingdom of Israel according to the Torah so I felt like I was right at home, but my longing to go south and cross the border was always there, though I knew my family would never let me at the time. I remember visiting Palestinian refugee camps, and villages in the mountains, where I even once witnessed an Israeli flag chalked onto the pavement on the street, when I asked why that was there, a religious woman smiled at me and motioned with her foot to stomp on the image of the flag. My heart broke! But I couldn’t say a word out of fear of where I was, I didn’t understand why they hated us so much! My father told me the stories of the 1982 War in Lebanon and the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, but I noticed that the hate was not based solely on the wars, no, it was something else entirely. The hate was etched into Arab culture and media for years.
My father and his family are devout and respected Sunni Muslims who grew up with Jewish and Christian neighbors at a time when Lebanon was more pluralistic, but the radical culture created by the doctrines of Haj Amin al Husseini and other radical Islamic clerics was already apparent, and embedded into the minds of both Muslim and Christian Arabs all over the Middle East. It’s no wonder why it is so hard for Middle Eastern countries to make peace with Israel, because the indoctrination goes back a long long time. Islam itself is not antisemitic, and infact the Qur’an itself states that Muslims, Christians and Jews all have a share in the world to come and that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews, but radical leaders have poisoned the minds of so many generations including the culture surrounding my own family and I was disgusted. I was disgusted by all the double standards I witnessed, I felt like Israel was being bullied much like I was as a kid, I felt compelled to defend Israel… so I did!
In 2014 I finally fulfilled the moment I had literally seen in my dreams growing up, as I traveled to Israel and visited the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem. I cried like a baby and I knew I was home, like Jerusalem was my grandmother and her walls were her arms embracing me, welcoming me home. I kissed her walls, and gave my word that I would never again let her go. I would one day return and make aliyah and restore my family’s lineage to Judaism by settling down and raising children of my own as proud Jews in Eretz Israel. And this, my friends, is what Zionism means to me, it means an end to the mediocre, an end to being the outcast among nations and coming home to a place where I’m surrounded by my people and allies, it means the restoration of what was once robbed of my ancestors during the Spanish Inquisition.
It also means that our story is not over yet, it tells me that Herzl’s vision has not yet been fully realized, and there is still much work to be done. I remember sitting down in shul one Sukkoth, next to an elderly lady who was a Holocaust survivor, and I’ll never forget her words to me. She looked at me with piercing eyes, and said, “You know, we don’t get many young people here, and often I wonder what will become of our people and culture, but when I see you praying and singing it fills me with so much Hope that we do have a future…” Those words penetrated deep into my soul as I wanted to hug her, because having gone through all that she had gone through, she knew what it all meant, as do I, though my story is nothing compared to hers. It is blazing light passed down from Avraham Avinu to Moshe Rabeinu, to David haMelech, Esther haMalkah, Rashi, Rambam, Ramban, Herzl, Weisman, Ben Gurion, Begin and Golda Meir, it is a flaming light of Hope for both our people and the future of humanity, the Hope that we will resolve the problems facing our generation and see better days soon, b’ezrat Hashem (with the help of God). So now you know what it means to me; I am Israel and Israel is me. What does Israel and Zionism mean to you?