Past Perfect: Jews and the Land of Israel

Jews never forfeited the hope of returning to their homeland no matter how improbable that hope seemed to be of actualization.

israel flag 88 (photo credit: )
israel flag 88
(photo credit: )
The relationship of the Jewish people to their homeland in the Land of Israel has always been a delicate one - firm in faith but fragile in application. We find that Moses sends his trusted lieutenants on a fact- finding mission to assess the situation in the Land of Israel. He fully expects a positive report from them and is shocked when the majority report in essence says, "It is a great place to visit but we could never live there." Eventually the desert will consume that entire generation, but its reaction to the Land of Israel has left a deep and abiding impression among Jews for all generations. Jews have maintained a constant presence in the Land of Israel - sometimes a large and dominant and independent presence and many times a smaller, subservient presence - for more than three millennia. Jews prayed thrice daily for their return to Zion and Jerusalem. Over the centuries individual Jews, many of them the spiritual leaders of their times, risked everything to reach and settle in the Land of Israel. Jews never forfeited the hope of returning to their homeland no matter how improbable that hope seemed to be of actualization. Yet in the late 19th century and early 20th century when the great emigration of Eastern European Jews took place, barely 5 percent of them chose to settle in the Land of Israel. Most Jews then opted for North America and Western Europe as their new home. In the main, these were the same Jews who continued to pray daily for their return to Zion and Jerusalem. History contains many ironies. The Zionist movement and its predecessor, the Lovers of Zion, attracted greater Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel, but the vast majority of Jews still did not come. When the gates of the Soviet Union and later Germany and finally all of Europe shut and trapped the Jews, 6 million of them were doomed to destruction. After World War II there was a determined effort by hundreds of thousands of survivors to reach the Land of Israel. With the creation of the State of Israel these Jews were absorbed into the Jewish state as were soon afterward almost 600,000 Jews who were expelled from their homes in Muslim and Arab countries where they had lived for centuries. The early leaders of the state, David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann and others, fully expected a large wave of immigration from Western countries, especially the US. They were surprised and shocked when this did not materialize. In effect, for most Jews in the world the Land of Israel was a nice place to visit (though most of them did not even visit) but they preferred to live elsewhere. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed, a great wave of Russian Jews came to live in Israel. But over the decades hundreds of thousands of Jews left the Land of Israel to live elsewhere, some of them even former high ranking legislators and officials in the government. I do not write any of this in criticism of anyone, but these are merely the facts. And there continue to be millions of Jews who pray every day for their return to Zion while living comfortably or uncomfortably on foreign shores. The ultimate test for the State of Israel is not so much what our enemies or even our erstwhile friends think about our wonderful little country but what the Jews of the world think about it. How deep is their real affection for Zion and Jerusalem? Does it enter into their future plans to settle here and help build the Jewish state physically, financially and spiritually? How do we explain to the world that our affection and longing for Zion and Jewish independence is not solely a Holocaust related cause and effect situation? The original words of "Hatikva" had it more correct than the new improved version. In the old version we sang about David's city, where he lived and ruled millennia ago. That is our claim to the Land of Israel and to Jerusalem. The current version speaks of independence and freedom but those are not exclusively Jewish values - everyone in the world wants to live in independence and freedom - and do nothing to buttress our more than legitimate claim to our land and our capital city. If we are not for ourselves than who will be for us? The saga of Moses and his fact-finders lingers on. The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.