Article | Zionism – Reclaiming an Inspiring Word

April 18th, 2024
Article by Rabbi Alan Silverstein, Ph.D. MERCAZ Olami, President

Soon we will sit together at our Pesach Seder. Our Jewish narrative shapes our present and our future.

Words do matter. Groups either can preserve sacred terminology or allow their heritage to be demeaned.

In the mid-1960s, the word “Black’ [Black People] had come to be derided by detractors. The “Black is Beautiful” Movement reclaimed: Black” in the process of elevating African-American self-esteem.

Throughout most of the 19th century, the words “Jew” or “Jewish” had negative connotations. The first national organization of synagogues had to be called the Union of American HEBREW Congregations (1873), including its HEBREW Union College (1875).  A “Jewish is Beautiful” movement took hold, preparing the groundwork for naming the JEWISH Theological Seminary (1886), the American JEWISH Committee (1906) and so forth.

It is the time to reclaim today’s all-too-often denigrated term, “ZIONISM.“

Israel’s detractors cunningly have redefined ZIONISM into a narrow space of assenting to hawkish views about the Israel-Arab dispute. They claim that if someone disagrees with the Netanyahu government, they are no longer Zionists. Following this ill-intended line of thinking to its extreme such a “non-Zionist” no longer supports Israel or its right to exist.

This is false reasoning based upon a false premise! We know that citizens can and do disapprove of policies of a particular Prime Minister or a President and still remain proud of their land and its sovereignty, be they Americans, Frenchmen, British or Israelis! Pro-Israel folks [Zionists] within World Jewry’s spectrum encompass Left, Center and Right whether in Israel’s Knesset or in Diaspora groups such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Collectively, irrespective of our views regarding the “conflict,” as Zionists we affirm Israel’s right to exist.

Furthermore, the term “Zionism” is much richer to Jewry than politics alone! Journalist Yossi Klein HaLevi has commented that “The assault on Zionism is an assault upon our story, our Jewish historical narrative. …. And going forward there is no Jewish people, no Judaism, without the Jewish story.” We need to reclaim the word “Zionism” from its detractors, enumerating ways in which Zionism is beautiful. The following are but a few examples.

Zionism is a religious aspiration. It offers spiritual fulfillment by connecting with Medinat Yisrael. Israel is the venue in which the sacred events of the Hebrew Bible took place, and in which great rabbinic Sages taught Torah. It is the source of the global Jewish calendar, the direction in which we pray, plus provides a dominant theme within our liturgy. When Abraham Joshua. Heschel for the 1st time arrived at the liberated Kotel in June 1967, he reflected, “I did not enter on my own the city of Jerusalem/Zion. streams of endless craving, clinging, dreaming, flowing night and day, midnights, years, decades, centuries, millennia, streams of tears, pledging, waiting – from all over the world, from all corners of the earth – carried us of this generation to the Wall… “

Zionism helps us to moves our focus from a natural inclination toward self-centeredness into becoming part of something larger, of Jewish peoplehood.  Early Zionist luminary and social justice activist Moses Hess observed [1862] that: “Modern life [eroding traditional shtetlach and kehillot] is being blighted by… the dust of atomism… [an extreme focus upon the self]”.  As a remedy, Zionism restored the glue that binds Jewish people together.  For example, in the Soviet prison, Natan Sharansky “discovered that only by embracing who I am – by going back to the shtetl, by connecting [via  Zionism”] to my own people, – could I stand with other [victims of human rights abuses too].” Zionism brings together Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Secular Jews as well as Right, Center and Left in a manner not otherwise possible.

Zionism affirms the remarkable power of the human spirit. Zionism’s “1st commandment” is the Herzl motto:  “if you will it, it is no dream.” The Jewish State embodies being “A Start-Up Nation” with a “Can Do” spirit. The Zionism dream has prevailed against all odds. With pride, Ambassador Michael Oren observed that “Zionism revived the [ancient] Hebrew language, which is now spoken by more widely than Danish and Finnish and will soon surpass Swedish. Zionist organizations have planted hundreds of forests, enabling the land of Israel uniquely to enter into the 21st century with more trees than it had at the end of the 19th.” Zionism effectively has absorbed immigrants from more than 100 countries as the Jewish destination for inspiration and/or for refuge.

Zionism means that Jews have re-entered the stage of history, reclaiming the right to determine our own destiny. Israel is the only place on earth where we have formed a majority. The Jewish State is a society uniquely measured by Jewish concerns. In Israel alone, does a Jewish army [the IDF] defend Jews in peril. Only in Israel, does a Jew speak the Jewish language, see a Jewish landscape, and continue the story our ancestors began. Only in Israel can a State embody Jewish values, launching emergency rescue missions throughout the world, providing advanced technology to underdeveloped nations, and imparting medical/pharmaceutical and psycho-social therapies to the ailing and bereaved.

Zionism means Jewish culture Is being reborn. Israeli craft items dominate the inventory of Jewish gift shops. Synagogue Hebrew is now spoken with Sephardic intonation rather than Ashkenazic style. The style of our tallitot and kippot reflect Israeli cultural norms. Israeli songs and dances are ever-present in our festivals and our life cycle celebrations. Israeli films, novels, and poems abound. Israeli on-line news predominates Jewish communal life. Biographies of Israeli heroes, accounts of Israeli societal exploits fill our book shelves. A new generation of Torah scholarship is rapidly appearing. Israeli art yields prized possessions.

As we soon celebrate Israel’s 76th Independence Day, let us rejoice in the multi-fold blessings of “Zionism.” It is a word which we must reclaim. It must embrace all of us who support Israel’s continued existence. As Zionists, we cannot surrender the inspiring meanings of “Zionism” to assaults by Israel’s opponents. The State of Israel is real and by definition imperfect like all states. Yet it also is a miracle. It has enabled Jewry to re-envision our spirituality, our identity, our culture, our sovereignty, and our values via concrete action.

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