Israeli Flag By zeevveez | cc: flickr
What is Zionism in our days? Rabbi Idit Lev goes back to the past in order to put independence in a framework of social and moral responsibility.
In 1936, my Grandfather Peretz and Grandmother Rita made aliyah from Vienna to Israel. Grandfather Peretz was a counselor in a Zionist youth movement, and my grandmother was a member there. They both came from religious homes. Grandfather learned in the Hebrew Gymnasium in Vienna and came to Israel already knowing Hebrew. They made aliyah together to build Eretz Yisrael (The Land of Israel), as part of a group from Vienna. They in fact built Kiryat Bialik, a city in northern Israel. When I was a child, my grandfather used to tell me where the sand and the swamps had once been, and about his nights on guard duty.
My father’s father, Grandfather Aaron came from Czechoslovakia, where he grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family. An extremely gifted student, he studied at the yeshiva of the Rabbi of Munkacs (Rabbi Haim Elazar Shapira), where he was ordained as a rabbi. However, at the age of twenty, he abandoned ultra-Orthdoxy in favor of Zionism. He left the yeshiva and joined a “hakshara” program that would train him to be a farmer in the Eretz Yisrael. He made aliyah in 1933. In Israel he met my grandmother Esther, who was born in Tiberias and moved to Tel Aviv when she was eight. She grew up as a Zionist, and took part in the first group of the Israeli youth movement, Hanoar Haoved V’Halomed.
Their Zionism – My Zionism
Unfortunately, I never asked my grandparents what Zionism meant to them. Nevertheless, I do think that they had a clear vision of the state in which they wanted to live. They made an enormous effort in to create an independent Jewish State. Each, in his or her own way, broke away from their parents’ traditions and ways of thinking and chose a new path. . They lived to see the creation of the State of Israel, to participate in the struggle for independence, and to raise children and grandchildren. They loved this Land and the State. These are some of the values I inherited from my parents and grandparents.
Now it is Independence Day, 5772 (2012). The State of Israel is already 64 years old. It is not a child any more, and neither am I. I also chose a different path from those who came before me. Sometimes I wonder what they would have thought about their granddaughter being ordained as a Masorti (Conservative) rabbi.
Despite our differences, I have this in common with my grandparents: We are all Zionists.
It is now my privilege and responsibility to carry the Zionist dream to the next stage. Before the establishment of the state, this is how David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, described Zionism
“We see Zionism as a permanent and systematic national effort intending to change the destiny of the Jewish People in three matters that are actually one, a change from dispersal to living together, from Diaspora to homeland, from dependence to independence.” (David Ben Gurion, The Time Factor in Zionism, 1944).
For Ben Gurion, the final words of this statement are the most important: “from dependence to independence.” Achieving independence was a crucial milestone, but our independence as a state has created challenges unknown to us during 2000 years of exile. All of a sudden, it is our responsibility to operate educational, welfare and health systems for both the Jewish and non Jewish citizens of the State of Israel, as well as for all others who live among us. As of 1967, we have control over a people who do not wish to be ruled by us, and over territories whose public/legal/cultural status is becoming more and more complicated every minute.
Zionism and Welfare
Our responsibility demands of us ideological and moral decisions – How much money goes to education, welfare and health? How is this money used? How do we behave toward the minorities living among us? What is our responsibility to the people in the territories under our control? We can not act as minorities living under non-Jewish governments, and take pride in our untarnished Jewish values. Now, these values face the real-life test that comes with the acquisition of power. The challenge in this stage of Zionism is whether our state can actualize the commitment in our Declaration of Independence to ensure equality for all, and to live up to the prophetic values of “Freedom, Justice and Peace” and equality.
As a rabbinic student, I chose to join Rabbis for Human Rights—first as a volunteer, and then as a staff member—because I believe that RHR is upholding the best of Jewish and Zionist values. For more than twenty years, this organization has challenged the state to live up to our declared values of equality for minorities and defense of the weak.
Changing the Choice
RHR mobilizes rabbis and lay people to change policies and practices that contradict our Jewish morals. We defend the rights of Palestinian farmers to hold on to and work their lands ; We champion low-income Jews and minorities inside Israeli proper who don’t earn a living wage, who can’t afford decent housing, and who struggle to support themselves and their families. We are concerned with Israeli Bedouin in danger of expulsion from their homes and African refugees seeking asylum. Through our educational programs, we teach the next generation of Israelis about the human rights values inherent in Judaism. Together, we are crafting a Zionism in which Jewish human rights values are primary.
Last summer, I joined hundreds of thousands of other Israelis in the streets for three months of social protests. We demanded social justice for everyone – living wages, affordable housing, and a better quality of life. But even more than this, we were asking Israel to live up to the best of Jewish values, as envisioned by the founders of the State.
Shabbat in a Tent
Many RHR rabbis, among others, led Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday evening) services in the many encampments around the country.. The very fact that the young people participating in the protest wanted to pray together, and to be led in prayer by rabbis of all denominations, demonstrated a desire to connect with the best of our Jewish tradition. The Judaism embraced by these young people is inclusive, diverse, and inherently tied with social justice and human rights.
Is there a link between my work and the vision of my grandparents? They rebelled in order to fulfill the Zionist dream. I am forging my own way, but I believe that I am continuing in the Jewish path both of my grandparents and those who came before them. As the prophet Micah teaches us: “It has been told you, O human, what is good, and what Adonai requires of you: Only to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8). And, I am hopeful for the future. I believe that in the coming year, the 64th year of the independent State of Israel, the movement that started last summer will continue and even strengthen in influence. Together we will realize the dream of my grandparents and other early Zionists: to create an independent state that reflects the best of our Jewish traditions and values.
Rabbi Lev is the director of RHR’s Economic and Social Justice Department. She was ordained as a rabbi at Mechon Schechter, the Israeli Masorti (Conservative) Rabbinical Seminary.