As long as Jewish spirit
Yearns deep in the heart,
With eyes turned East,
Looking towards Zion.
Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two millennia,
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.
These words were written in 1886 by Naphtali Herz Imber, and were adopted, with controversy, as the anthem of the Zionist movement and then of the state of Israel. Controversy? As they say, two Jews, three opinions: it was too religious, it wasn’t religious enough, the melody came from a non-Jewish source, and is it the appropriate song for a country in which more than 20% of the population isn’t Jewish? Nevertheless, these words, and the haunting melody, have become, not only the song of a state, but the song of a people.
HaTikvah – the hope. The hope of two millennia. It had been two thousand years since Jews had a sovereign state. Two thousand years since Rome burned Jerusalem and exiled our people as slaves throughout the Roman empire across Europe, North Africa, and Asia. Two thousand years since Jews had the ability to structure our own society and live under our own laws and leadership.
And what is The Hope?
Lihiyot Am Hofshi B’Artzenu – To Be A People, Free In Our Land.
Taken on its own, “To Be A People, Free In Our Land” is a universal aspiration, by no means unique to the Jews.
The Kurds aspire to exist as a Kurdish People, Free in the land of Kurdistan. The Scottish People seriously considered becoming Free in Scotland. Catalonians, Tibetans, and Palestinians – all aspire to be Peoples free in their lands. Zionism is the Jewish version of this universal aspiration: To be the People of Israel, Free in the Land of Israel.
As written in the Israeli Declaration of Independence:
This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.
This might sound uncomplicated, but nothing is simple. What does it mean to be a People, Free In Our Land?
Let’s look at these four words:
Lihiyot – to be
Am – a people
Hofshi – free
B’Artzenu – In Our Land.
· Lihiyot: To Be
In the 1930’s, graffiti was seen throughout Europe: Jews go home, Jews out. Once again, 70 years later, graffiti against Jews has reappeared: Jews out of Palestine. Suggesting that, for some, the problem is our existence anywhere.
Jewish survival has always been in question – but, after 3000 years of what historian Simon Rawidowicz called: the ever-dying people, we are still here, nearly 15 million of us in the world.
But the question isn’t about survival as individuals, but as a people.
· An Am.
What does it mean to be a part of the Jewish people? What binds us together?
For some, it is our origin story in the Torah. God promises the people in Egypt: I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm … I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. … I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the LORD.”
Over a century ago, the Reform movement in America stated:
The Jews are not a nation but a religious community…The mission of Judaism is spiritual. Not political. Its aim is not to establish a State, but to spread the truths of religion and humanity throughout the world.
But I think they would not say the same today.
A couple of months ago, we partnered with Cinema Arts to screen a film, the Hidden Jews of Ethiopia. While we were worrying about whether we would have any turnout, Cinema Arts was selling tickets like hotcakes. The film was sold out. Because we know that Ethiopian Jews – who do not look like most of us who are European Jews, who do not practice like us, who may have little in common with us as regards to lifestyle – are our family. Are a part of our people.
28 years ago, I helped to organize the conference of the world conference of Gay and Lesbian Jewish Organizations (now called: The World Congress: Keshet Gaavah) in San Francisco. After Shabbat, the consul general of Israel spoke to us. He said, as I stand before you, Israel is in the process of airlifting Ethiopian Jews out of Addis Ababa to Israel.
It was an extraordinary, emotional, moment. In 36 hours, over 14,000 Ethiopians were rescued from the civil war in Ethiopia and brought to safety in Israel. And they were greeted at the airport by thousands of joyful Israelis.
We are a people.
· Hofshi – What does it mean to be a free people?
In no small part, it’s the ability to carry out our commitments. The philosopher Martin Buber wrote: “We have learned … that in a life of dispersion not determined by ourselves, we cannot realize Judaism. We can pray here in the Diaspora, but not act; bear witness to God with patience, but not with creativity; praise the jubilee year, but not usher it in…”
And once we have the opportunity, we have responsibility. Viktor E. Frankl wrote:
Freedom is not the last word, freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. The positive aspect of freedom is responsibleness… I recommend that the Statue of Liberty be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West coast.
Israel is an opportunity for Jewish responsibility. For the first time in 2000 years, have we been able to take responsibility for ourselves and our communities – from the sublime to the mundane.
Rabbi Hanan Schlessinger grew up in Deer Park, in a Reform family. By the end of High School he became interested in observant Judaism and is now an Orthodox rabbi, teacher, and passionate Zionist settler. He lives in Alon Shvut, in the West Bank. We are both fellows in Clal’s Rabbis without Borders program, and I have heard his story. He said: When I drive on the roads of Judea, when I walk in the fields, I see the return of the Jewish people to our ancient homeland after 2,000 years of exile. I can look out my back door and see where Abraham walked.
Our connection to the land of Israel goes back to Abraham, when God tells him in the Torah: Take yourself and go – to the land that I will show you. That land, where Abraham settled, where Moses and Joshua led the Israelites out of slavery to freedom, where David and Solomon reigned and built Temples, and other nations conquered and to which we returned again and again – this land, that we longed for all these intervening years and were permitted to settle by other nations who controlled it – solely due to our persecution in the diaspora.
And the State of Israel was born – with hopes and aspirations. The Israeli Declaration of Independence states that:
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
Does it do all of these things all of the time? No.
Let’s take a moment to recall the most famous sentence in the US Declaration:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
These self-evident truths weren’t even seen as self-evident for the signers – the people with full rights were white, land-owning men. Women, the poor, people of color, natives – none of these were entitled to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. And some might say we still have not achieved this vision.
David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of the State of Israel, said: “We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew.”
Israel is, in so many ways, a normal country, with the opportunities and challenges of real life. Many of the issues it faces are similar to those we struggle with here in the US:
Those Jews rescued from Ethiopia (which only a sovereign state could have achieved) now face racism in Israel, including concerns about police brutality.
In the 2015 Israeli elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu warned that “Arabs are heading to the polling stations in droves.” In the elections of this past spring, Israelis concerned about voter suppression have organized to drive people to the polls. For example, there are no polling places set up in unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev. More than 1,400 Israelis collectively donated tens of thousands of shekels to help bring
Israel’s Bedouin citizens to the polls. The organization hired fifty minibuses that then shuttled citizens to the polls.
A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says that the US and Israel have the worst inequality in the developed world. In the U.S., the richest 10% of the population earn 16.5 times the income of the poorest 10%. In Israel, the richest 10% earn 15 times that of the poorest.
Israel is currently host to more than 33,000 asylum seekers, the majority of whom are from Sudan and Eritrea. Many of the African asylum seekers entered Israel through the Sinai after a life-threatening journey at the hands of human traffickers. Their ability to exercise basic human rights, access asylum, and live in dignity and safety in Israel has been an ongoing challenge for over a decade. Government policies and legislation are mostly focused on deterring migrants from entering the country and encouraging those who are seeking asylum to leave the country. Detention and deportation are a constant threat. Although some refugees have been in the country for several years and speak Hebrew fluently, they still have no prospects of local integration and lack stable immigration status and access to basic rights.
The extremely low recognition rates of the Israeli asylum system (less than 1%) make it nearly impossible to be recognized as a refugee and granted the rights that refugee status entails. To date, only seven Eritreans and two Sudanese have been granted refugee status. By comparison, the global recognition rate of Eritreans is over 80% and that of Sudanese is over 60%.
HIAS is working in Israel to help refugees, just as they do here in the US, and have helped so many of our families.
Israel has become, in so many ways, a normal country. This is not how it tends to be perceived in the world. And it’s not how we always want to see it. For some on the right: Israel can do no evil, and any criticism is racism. For some on the left: Israel is the root of all evil, and any defense of it is oppression.
But it’s a country, with success and failures. With aspirations that it has achieved and which lie beyond it. Just like the US.
I’d like to invite you to come and see for yourself. To explore the land – to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors and to see the cities that are being built today. To hear the voices of those on the breadth of the political spectrum – Jews and Palestinians. To explore contemporary Israeli culture and to eat some of the best food in the world.
Kehillath Shalom is planning a trip next Winter, 2020-21.
Come meet the people who live there, walk on the land, see the history, explore the issues and connect with those working to achieve the vision set out in the Declaration of Independence: “the redemption of Israel.”
I hope you will join us. And we will make true the wish we will sing tonight: Next Year in Jerusalem.