Fifty-one years before the establishment of the State of Israel, Binyamin Ze’ev (Theodor) Herzl (1860-1904) declared, “If I were to summarize the Basel Congress in one statement – which for reasons of caution I will not publicly state – it is this: in Basel I established the Jewish state. Were I to say this publicly today, the response would be laughter from all sides. Perhaps in five, maximum 50, years, everyone will acknowledge it.”
In 1937, at the Zionist Congress in Zurich, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed, “Our right to the Land of Israel – the entire Land of Israel – is in effect and stands forever. Until the implementation of the complete and total redemption, we will not move from our historic right.”
“I love my people and the Land of Israel; that is my credo, that is my life’s work, and I have no need for anything else in the world,” said Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940).
These, and 30 more citations of statements of Zionist leaders throughout the years, are prominently displayed in Hebrew and English on artistic wooden signs along the newly-inaugurated Zionist Boulevard, located in the midst of a picturesque pine forest in the Oz Ve’Gaon Nature Preserve in Gush Etzion. There are also nine wooden benches, enabling one to sit quietly, breathe in the crisp mountain air and contemplate the pastoral surroundings, with the option of scanning a bar code with one’s phone to access Zionist songs and audio recordings.
Zionist Boulevard was inaugurated as part of the events marking the third anniversary of the establishment of Oz Ve’Gaon, the fiftieth anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, the liberation of Gush Etzion and the heart- land of Israel, and the 120th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. A joint venture of the World Zionist Organization, the Zionist Council of Israel, the Jewish National Fund, the Gush Etzion Council and Women in Green, the event was attended by hundreds of people from all parts of the country, and culminated in a panel discussion addressing the challenges confronting Zionism in the coming decade.
Oz Ve’Gaon was established on the night of July 1, 2014, when it became known that the three boys who were abducted by Hamas terrorists 18 days earlier had been murdered. “ Gaon ” is a Hebrew acrostic of their names – Gil-ad, Eyal and Naftali.
Nadia Matar and Yehudit Katsover, co-heads of the Women in Green movement, with the encouragement of the Gush Etzion council, decided to create a Jewish presence in the forest near the Gush Etzion junction, as an immediate and appropriate Zionist response to this brutal act of terrorism. Driven by the sense of the fulfillment of a Zionist mission, they have worked tirelessly during the past three years to develop the site into the bustling, vibrant, impressive center of education, culture and tourism that it has become today.
More than 35,000 energetic and motivated youth, from both secular and religious schools, youth groups and pre-military academies have flocked to the site, getting their hands dirty while clearing away thorns and rocks, planting and building. Today, there are beautiful play - grounds, outdoor study niches, picnic tables, a camping site and large tents which can house up to 100 people in Oz Ve’Gaon. Activities include weekly lectures, brit milas, bar and bat mitzvas and sheva brachot celebrations, special holiday events, graduation ceremonies, barbecues, concerts, family gatherings, and much more.
“We want to offer a Zionist experience in Oz Ve’Gaon – not just a chance to plant trees – but an active spiritual and educational experience, so that the person who leaves here is not the same person who came,” say Yehudit Katsover and Nadia Matar. “We want to provide the opportunity for individuals and groups from Israel and overseas, to come and work the land and connect to the land, while enriching their knowledge about Zionism, past, present and future.”
The families of the three boys have been partners in the activities of Oz Ve’Gaon from the beginning. “We are grateful to you for your involvement and help,” said Yehudit Katsover at the inauguration of Zionist Boulevard. “We thank you for the lofty spirit that you instilled in the nation during the search for the boys, when the heart of each and every one of us beat together in a common rhythm, uniting us as one people.”
“There has never been a period for the Jewish People, since it left its land, when unity is as crucial for it as it is today. It is incumbent upon us to perform a significant and substantial action today, one that is not dependent on the spirit of an individual rather on the spirit of the entire people... No language other than the language of their ancestors will provide them with this unity. Only the Hebrew language will revitalize the Jewish People in its land.”
Those words, emphasizing the need for unity among the nation, were spoken by Eliezer ben Yehuda (1858- 1922), and were echoed by the speakers at the third-anniversary event at Oz Ve’Gaon.
“It is my hope that not only in hours of crisis will we remember to unite as a people,” said Yaakov Hagoel, vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization. “Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl dreamed of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. He dreamed and we are realizing this dream, here in Oz Ve’Gaon as well... Oz Ve’Gaon is a symbol of the unity of the Jewish People, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, and we must safeguard this united nation forever.”
Racheli Fraenkel, mother of Naftali, described the scenes of unity that she witnessed during the period of the search for the boys as miraculous.
“None of the elders of the community could remember anything comparable since the Six Day War,” she said, recalling a visit to the US when she saw how all the streams in Judaism gathered in one place to pray and demonstrate together.
Bat-Galim Shaer, mother of Gil-Ad, speaking at the inauguration of Zionist Boulevard, said, “Those before me have already mentioned Herzl who dreamed... to dream and to envision generates tremendous strength and power and is vital for a nation like ours... I dream of unity and a different, respectful kind of dialogue, not only during times of crisis and trouble, but as the dialogue conducted daily. One of the challenges of our generation is to do everything we can to fortify the connection between the Jews in Israel and the Jews in the Diaspora – we will all benefit and grow stronger from this connection.”
Uri Yifrach, father of Eyal, added, “The story began not far from here. Searching. Searching for ourselves. Searching perhaps to begin to discover why we are here – what is the meaning of this nation – here in this land.”
He read from something that Eyal had written on Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Remembrance Day:
“Go outside. Try. Breathe the air. Overcome. Fall. Get up. Fall again. A thousand times. If you fell a thousand times, it shows that you have the strength to get up... Yom Hazikaron. The question is asked: Why? Why do we need all this sadness? The answer is found in the question itself. One should not ask why [lama
] but for what [le ma
]. For what purpose? For the nation, for Am Yisrael, for the life that we create and sustain.”
“Yes, exactly three years ago, I think we all asked ourselves not why but for what, for what purpose,” Uri continued. “Yehudit and Nadia are teaching us the best lesson and we are very grateful for all the extensive activity taking place here in Oz VeGaon. We are all more united because of it.”
“I believe that there is no better way to sense the connection to the Land of Israel than to walk its length and breadth, to cross its valleys, ascend its mountain peaks, and meander on its paths,” said Zionist leader Zev Vilnay (1900-1988).
Summer 2017. Come take a stroll down Zionist Boulevard. At Oz VeGaon, the spirit of Zionism is alive and strong. Reconnect with your Zionist roots. Learn about the past and become a part of the future. Each and every one of us is a link in the chain. Be moved. Be inspired. Be transformed. “If you will it, it is no dream.”