The Zionist essence: Not political, not religious, just a path home

Zionism is a path toward home. Zionism has no political adherence. It is neither a calling for expansion nor a religious movement.

 YAEL ROZENMAN-ISMAEL (speaking at Jerusalem’s Begin Center): Zionism is a path toward home. (photo credit: AVIGAIL TRESGALLO)
YAEL ROZENMAN-ISMAEL (speaking at Jerusalem’s Begin Center): Zionism is a path toward home.
(photo credit: AVIGAIL TRESGALLO)

For most of my life, the only box I have allowed myself to be placed in is that of a citizen of the world.

By geography, I am a Latina; by citizenship, I grew up Bolivian; by genealogy, “complicated” is an understatement. I am half-Palestinian, half-Muslim, three-fourths Arab, one-fourth Sephardic, and somewhere in the mix, Catholic and Polish Ashkenazi.

My three siblings and I are the product of a Bolivian Palestinian mom and a Bolivian Jewish dad. Our grandparents came from Lifta, Bethlehem, Syria and Poland. My kitchen was an explosion of cultures and flavors – and gefilte fish.

And what about religion?

Our parents gave us the gift to freely choose our religion. And so, at the age of 12, I chose Judaism and underwent conversion, taking all the steps necessary to do so: study, beit din, mikveh, etc. This was a process that I repeated years later in an Orthodox manner. A process that was not culinarily easy; I had to replace my Syrian grandma’s kibbeh and my Palestinian mom’s maqluba with cholent.

 CHANGED CULINARY traditions: Cholent being consumed in Mea She’arim (Illustrative).  (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90) CHANGED CULINARY traditions: Cholent being consumed in Mea She’arim (Illustrative). (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)

And yet, it has always been obvious that even if I had chosen to become Catholic as my mother desired, I never would have escaped my Judaism. My mother named me Yael, not Maria Teresa, which quite frankly would have sounded a bit weird with my very Ashkenazi last name: Rozenman.

A pattern accompanied my life: In spite of my conversions, I was not Jewish enough for most other Jews, while at the same time, I was very Jewish to non-Jews. To some non-Jews I was not only Jewish, I was also Israeli, and this is in spite of the fact that I was not an Israeli citizen nor had I spent much time in Israel.

Three years ago, this anomaly got a twist, as I made aliyah. In doing so, I have completed a cycle that adheres to the definition of myself employed by those outside Judaism.

So where does Zionism come into this?

Zionism is a path toward home. Zionism has no political adherence. It is neither a calling for expansion nor a religious movement. It is a guaranteed parcel of land within what was once known as the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Somewhere Jews can have a secure place to escape to, live in or feel what in Spanish we call arraigo, which roughly translates to “a sense of belonging because of one’s roots.” It is home and the basic identity of a people.

Within it and by Israeli law, Zionism identifies Jews as a people, not as a religion. Zionism, as Gol Kalev claims, is now the anchor of Judaism and embodies the unity of Jewish identity. Therefore, while things are far from perfect, thanks to Zionism I feel a stronger cohesion to Judaism.

LESS THAN 100 years after my family moved, I am back in Israel. It feels like home because I am a product of this land and a hilarious biblical union. 

The Rozenman-Ismael family comes from Yitzhak and Ishmael. Isaac Attie, my Syrian Jewish great-grandfather, founded the Arab Club of Tarija in Bolivia and also became one of that town’s most revered mayors. He and his brothers moved to South America in the 1920s, while his sisters moved to what is now Israel.

Ishmael Aquila, known in Bolivia as Haj Ismael, my polyglot Palestinian great-grandfather, was an avid and very educated businessman. He imported and distributed European high-end consumer goods, professional tools and textiles. His brother, Ali Akilah, moved to Jordan and founded the Akilah Hospital, where many prominent figures in Jordan were born.

My Arab side (Jewish, Muslim, Christian) comes from centuries of traditions of education, food and trade. I am not divided at heart. I am the product of profound love and cultural similarities. For me, the Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions of the Arab side of the family are one and the same. Except for the religious aspects, separating one from the other would be impossible. Yet the outside world sometimes is blind to this.

Before the 1970s, it was not strange for Jews and Arabs (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) to be part of a close-knit community. My mother and her brother were part of Cochabamba, Bolivia’s Maccabi basketball team. My parents met when they were four and began dating at 15 because, at that point, the friction was not as high as exists today. They were not brought up as enemies.

Zionism, as a home for the Jewish people, cannot and should not mean creating a segregated society. By no means is it an apartheid state, but as a state it has failed to form a cohesive multicultural society. The sense of “the other” is palpable among Jews and Arabs, and all their variations.

There are four different school systems ascribing to differing cultural identities, with no commonality in curricula. Other than when doing business, there are rare circumstances that actively promote regular interaction of Christian, Muslims, Druze, Bedouin and the entire array of Jews. Empathy, compassion and fraternal bonds are created through common intersection and awareness, preferably from childhood. The lack of integration within our borders is a ticking bomb of social problems, and it’s starting to show.

Zionism is the acceptance that we belong to this side of the world – a recognition of our Abrahamic origins, which we share with our neighbors. Zionism is a guaranteed parcel of land where Jews celebrate their Semitic origin. It is the right time to have this conversation, and I am glad to be part of it. We must protect our heritage and also respect that of our family.

My story might be one of the most extreme, but it is the story of most Jews as defined by non-Jews. Most of these Jews arrived in Israel because of arraigo/essence, not for money or in search of opportunity. They arrived due to their ancestors, and this was their undeniable home. 

The source of their soul – and their neighbors know this.

The writer is an entrepreneur and corporate strategist, who has served as CEO of a number of companies in Latin America and Israel.