Danube Holocaust memorial 521.
(photo credit: Courtesy: Habonim Dror)
Abeautiful summer day in Budapest by a tranquil park on the Danube. An
incongruous backdrop to the harrowing account we are listening to of events that
transpired here on a freezing winter day 67 years ago. In an excerpt from Yair
Lapid’s biography of his father, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, the 13-year-old future
Knesset member is being marched out of the ghetto with his mother and hundreds
of other Jews to the edge of the frozen river. He knew what was to happen next.
The Hungarian Nazi guards would line them up on the embankment, tie them to one
another, and then shoot just enough of them to cause the rest to plunge through
the holes that had been hacked in the ice, there to drown in the frigid water
Suddenly a Soviet plane flew overhead and in the ensuing havoc
Tommy’s mother managed to smuggle him into the public toilet that stood just a
few feet from where we were. There they remained when the others resumed
walking. “Half an hour later, not a single person from the march was left
alive,” Lapid writes, and recalls his father telling him years later that “it
was at this place that I became a Zionist. It is the whole Zionist idea, in
fact,” he went on, explaining the reason for Israel’s creation: “so that every
Jewish child will always have a place to go.”
A few hours later I had an
opportunity to debrief the group of 47 Israeli counselors from the Habonim Dror
and Hechalutz Lamerchav youth movements that I was leading on a journey in
Herzl’s footsteps. “What do you make of Tommy Lapid’s Zionism?” I asked them.
“It’s a Zionism with no future,” they answered.
What they meant, and why
I was glad to hear it, was accentuated when we returned home a few days later as
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was inspecting the five-meter-high,
240-kilometer-long barrier going up along our border with Egypt. Add to that the
security wall separating Jerusalem from the West Bank, the Good Fence in the
North and the barbed wire around Gaza and it is difficult to keep from wondering
if Herzl’s Zionism has resolved “the Jewish question” after all, or merely moved
it to a new venue.
The enclosures we are erecting aren’t just keeping our
enemies out; they’re keeping us in. And, as in the days of old, venturing beyond
the compound has become fraught with danger, including the very real possibility
of detention in foreign airports and arrest for crimes against humanity. Surely
ours is not “The New Ghetto” Herzl had in mind when he wrote a play by that name
more than a century ago, but it does underscore the fact that we are still
living with a strain of the insecurity experienced by the Jews he was writing of
in anti- Semitic fin-de-siècle Vienna. Despite all of their – and our – efforts
to shed any vestiges of abnormality, we are still facing virulent accusations of
being responsible for the woes of others.
It wasn’t supposed to be like
this. The founder of modern Zionism had promised us that by establishing a state
of our own, by becoming a nation like any other, we would bring about an end to
Judeo-phobia and be allowed to live out our lives in peace and
Even the local Arabs would welcome us with open arms, Herzl
postulated in an exaggerated expression of naiveté, imagining a Jewish state
that would have no need for an army. How differently things have turned
To be sure, no comparison can be made between our ability to defend
ourselves now and then, and no countenance to be shown to any expression of
doubt about the absolute necessity of having a place in which every Jew might
find refuge. Indeed, none of the youth leaders I was with argued otherwise. They
did, however, insist that a safe place in which to dwell never was, and must
never become, the end-all of the Jewish people’s quest for self-determination.
“A haven that is not also a foundation for a fairer and more moral society does
not reflect the totality of Zionism,” they argued, substantiating their claim by
invoking the chants of this summer’s massive protest movement: “The nation
demands social justice.”
They were not alone in linking the
demonstrations that convulsed Israeli society these past several months to
Zionist ideology. Those leading the rallies and those participating in them were
not concerned only about having a roof over their heads and putting food on
their tables but also about creating a society rooted in the value of looking
out for one another, a value repeatedly articulated as being rooted in Jewish
sources and the Zionist vision. This was a summer not about “me” but about “us.”
For the first time in a long time, the focus was not on the individual but the
A summer during which a generation notorious for its
cynicism opted instead for old-time Zionism.
On the eve of the
Palestinian bid for statehood, this embrace of Zionism is especially important.
As many have argued on these pages over the past few weeks, the unsettling
events unfolding in our region have little to do with anything we have done, or
might have done and didn’t. Nothing in our actions or nonactions explains or
justifies the murderous attack against the Israeli embassy in Cairo, the cooling
of our relations with Jordan, the ferocity of the Turkish onslaught against us
or the barrage of rockets fired from Gaza.
Still – and this has been all
but ignored in treatments of the subject – there is a huge difference between
being right and being self-righteous. Our “innocence” and their “guilt” are
neither excuse nor reason to act obtusely or with recalcitrance in regard to the
peace process and the urgings of those who genuinely have our best interests at
heart. What we do may have no impact on our avowed enemies, but it still has
influence over our friends – and there is no sense in chauvinistically denying
that we have them, sometimes even where and when we need them.
importantly, doing the right thing is integral to the Zionism that surfaced this
summer, the sort that does have a future. A Zionism that not only offers a place
to hide, but that also exudes tolerance, cares for the stranger, celebrates the
universal, strives for a higher purpose and takes risks in the passionate
pursuit of peace.
The less control we have over what is happening beyond
our borders, the more important our inner strength – a strength that is
dependent on our social fabric no less than on our military prowess. If we do
not create a society capable of inspiring the next generation, no one will
remain to bear arms in its defense.
It is against this background that my
journey with the leaders of these youth movements was so inspiring – and the
need for strengthening them so apparent.
They didn’t need to be told to
keep dreaming. It was a trait they had imbibed from their counselors and would
pass on to their charges – along with a commitment to discourse, idealism,
volunteerism and mutual accountability.
On the eve of Rosh Hashana such a
realization was reassuring. During this season more than any other we stand as a
single congregation, taking responsibility for each others’ actions even in the
privacy of our individual prayers. A return to celebration of the collective
might be called “retro” in the short history of the Zionist enterprise. In the
long history of the Jewish people it is called tradition.
The writer is
vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish
Agency Executive. The opinions expressed herein are his own.