Zionism has always had a pure and simple axiom at its very base: the return of an exiled and indigenous people to their ancestral homeland.
While we, living in the 21st century, have the luxury of pontificating about the importance and place of Israel, our ancestors would have sacrificed much just to enjoy one moment living in this time and in this land, with its myriad of challenges.
The return to Zion was simply an occasion unprecedented in the annals of history. No other people had spent as long in a diaspora, suffered as much oppression, while maintaining its distinctiveness and a tribal memory yearning for return.
Zionism was never distinct from Judaism, and was rarely far from the Jewish heart, soul or lips. Even in the relatively more benign exile, Jews rarely ceased to wax lyrical about their aspiration to return, perhaps phrased best by the immortal words of Spanish Jewish poet Judah Halevi, who wrote, “My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west.”
Halevi followed his heart to the Land of Israel, as did countless others over the centuries. However, modern practical Zionism returned the precept of return to the communal restoration of sovereignty and mass settlement. When sovereignty was restored the most natural next phase for Zionism was collective return from the four corners of the earth. Aliya thus became the formative tenet of Zionism.
The concept of the “ingathering of the exiles” is enshrined in the first operational paragraph of Israel’s Declaration of Independence and found its legal expression in arguably the most important law on Israel’s statute books, the Law of Return. This law declares that any Jew has the right to live in Israel, and has brought millions of Jews from over 130 different nations speaking dozens of different languages back to their homeland.
The reestablished nation was formed out of broken bodies and souls fleeing centuries of exile and persecution, and in the immediate wake of unprecedented destruction. Yet, the ethos of aliya has never wavered and continues unabated to this day.
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Nevertheless, while Israel will always remain vigilant and open to Jewish communities in distress, the days of mass aliyot may have ended earlier this year when a government decision was made to bring the final group of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
Many could reasonably suggest that the exiles have been largely ingathered, especially as Israel now has the largest community of Jews in the world and will be composed of the majority of world Jewry in a short period of time.
Nonetheless, over the centuries many of our people were lost to us in the long exile. Some were physically destroyed while others were forcibly separated from Jewish society. In different eras Jews were forcibly converted and separated from their brethren in places like Germany, France, Russia, Iran, Yemen, Ethiopia, Hungary and of course, Spain, on three separate occasions.
Almost every Jew alive today has ancestors or distant relatives who were forcibly converted but were able to return to openly Jewish lives after a period.
However, many were not so fortunate. Perhaps the greatest mass conversions occurred in Medieval Spain and Portugal when hundreds of thousands of Jews were forcibly cut off from their people. Many of their descendants carried the flame of Judaism close to their hearts throughout the intervening centuries through surreptitious prayers, covert customs or a secret tongue. Today, millions of the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities would like to reconnect with the Jewish social fabric.
This can and should be the new challenge of Zionism at the beginning of the 21st century.
A Zionism that sought to unravel history, repeal the dispersion and ingather the exiles should also encompass those whose ancestors were cruelly ripped from the Jewish body but now seek a return and a reconnection.
Zionism does not need to be redefined or amended, it merely has to be restored to its fullest and widest meaning.
At one of the early Zionist Congresses, the father of modern political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, remarked that “Zionism is a homecoming to the Jewish fold even before it is a homecoming to the Jewish land.”
Meaning that Zionism is a communal effort and like the Latin formula nemo resideo (leave no man behind), it is not fulfilled unless we offer its vision also to those we lost or were disconnected from during the 2,000 years of exile.
Herzl saw Zionism as having a transformative effect on Jewish peoplehood, and returning those lost or disconnected from us should also be given a right to reconnect with Israel and the Jewish people, and that is what many of these descendants seek. In turn, this fulfillment of Zionism can draw many benefits and help us meet the many challenges we face ahead.
The history of Zionism serves as a reminder that the Jewish people are indeed the “eternal nation” and we never let historical circumstances prevent us from achieving the seemingly impossible. The next phase of Zionism should include the appreciable task of offering the hand of reconnection to those we lost during the Exile and whose souls also yearn for a return to Zion.
The writer is a former senior government adviser and president of Reconectar, an organization facilitating the reconnection of the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities and the Jewish world. He is also director of the Knesset Caucus for Reconnection.
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