Thirty-seven years ago today on the Hebrew calendar, on the 22nd of Tevet, an Israeli prime minister took part in an important ceremony amid the sand dunes of Gaza.
It was on that day that Nezer Hazani, the first Gazan Jewish village in modern times, was formally established when a military outpost was transformed into a civilian community.
“This is a great day for the State of Israel and Jewish settlement,” the premier said, adding that, “It is a day that symbolizes the fortification of our presence in this area, which since the Six Day War has become an integral part of the state and its security.”
At the culmination of the celebration, the prime minister himself took a mezuzah and personally affixed it on the doorpost of one of the homes, underlining Israel’s commitment to the reestablishment of ancient Jewish life in Gaza.
Believe it or not, but that premier was none other than Yitzhak Rabin, the slain saint of Israel’s peace movement.
And, no less ironic, it was the hawkish Ariel Sharon who oversaw the bulldozing of Nezer Hazani just 28 years later during the August 2005 ‘disengagement’ from Gush Katif.
The memory of the disengagement, and the pain that it brought to thousands of Jews who were forced out of their homes, is still very real, as real as the heavy price that Israel continues to pay for abandoning the Gaza Strip to our enemies.
Fortunately, these critical events in the history of the modern State of Israel will be commemorated in hundreds of schools throughout the country today in a remarkable initiative known as Gush Katif Education Day.
Launched by the Gush Katif Committee and the Gush Katif and Northern Samaria Heritage Center in 2007, this important event aims “to remind students of the past 35 years of Gush Katif’s existence and not just focus on its destruction.” It is a voluntary program which has the approval of Israel’s Education Ministry, and has come to encompass both secular and religious institutions.
This says a lot about how remarkable the Jews who formerly lived in Gush Katif are. Despite their bitter experience, despite being torn away from their homes by their fellow Jews, they have chosen to respond neither in anger nor in vindictiveness.
Instead, they are focusing on spreading a positive educational message, one that “celebrates religious faith, Zionism, settlements and the Israeli state.”
This is a day on which to reflect on the heroism of Jewish pioneers, who strove to make the desert of Gaza bloom, both agriculturally and spiritually.
And it is also an appropriate time to recall Gaza’s rich and vivid Jewish history, which stretches back to the beginnings of our people.
Indeed, two of Israel’s founding fathers, Abraham and Isaac, sojourned in Gaza. In the book of Genesis (20:1), the Torah says that Abraham “lived in Gerar,” a city located in Gaza.
Later, when there was a famine in the land and Isaac thought of leaving for Egypt, God stopped him in Gerar, and told him explicitly: “Dwell in this land, and I will be with you, and I will bless you; for unto you and unto thy seed will I give all these lands” (Genesis 26:3).
Isaac remained in Gaza, and it is precisely there – in Gaza, of all places! – that God saw fit to reaffirm His promise regarding the Jewish people’s right to the entire Land of Israel.
After the Exodus from Egypt, when the Jews reached the Promised Land, Gaza was given to the Tribe of Judah (see Joshua 15:47) as a share of its eternal inheritance, and according to the Book of Judges (1:18), “Judah captured Gaza and its border.”
During the Talmudic era, Gaza was home to a large Jewish population. In the fourth century CE, some 1,600 years before the establishment of the PLO, Gaza served as the primary port of commerce for the Jews of the Holy Land.
Later, in the Middle Ages, Gaza was home to prominent rabbis, including Rabbi Yisrael Najara, author of the popular Sabbath hymn “Kah Ribon Olam,” and the great Kabbalist Rabbi Avraham Azoulai.
Indeed, Rabbi Yaakov Emden ruled that, “Gaza and its environs are absolutely considered part of the Land of Israel, without a doubt.”
“There is no doubt,” he added, “that it is a mitzvah to live there, as in any part of the Land of Israel.”
Even though Jews have been expelled from Gaza seven times over the past 2,000 years, they have nonetheless returned to resettle it with increased fortitude and vigor. In 61 CE, the Romans evicted the Jews from Gaza, as did the Crusaders, Napoleon, the Ottoman Turks, the British army in 1929 and the Egyptians in 1948.
And then, in 2005, Israel’s own government joined the ignominious list of those who sought to bring about an end to the Jewish presence in Gaza.
But as this brief historical outline makes clear, the idea of Jews living in Gaza is nothing new, and it reaches back into the earliest part of our history as a people. Hence, it is only natural that Jews would continue to dream of living there, even now, however fanciful or far-fetched that might seem to some.
In longing to return to Gaza, Jews are not driven by dreams of militarism or belligerence, but by the natural and healthy ambition that any self-respecting nation has to put down roots in the same ground where its ancestors lived for millennia.
It is that spirit which Gush Katif once embodied, a spirit that exemplified Jewish history and which is so essential to the fulfillment of our collective destiny.
So on this day, if your children aren’t learning about Jewish Gaza in their schools, do something about it. Call your principal and ask that Gush Katif Education Day be marked annually on the school calendar.
More importantly, take your children aside and sit them down, and tell them all about what once was.
And what will hopefully be yet again.