Tradition Today: The promise of Zionism

We are now between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Independence Day, where we move from catastrophe to great joy.

London rally for Israel 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
London rally for Israel 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
We are now in the period of time between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Independence Day, where we move from commemorating the worst catastrophe in the annals of Jewish history to celebrating the most joyous event to have happened to the Jews in the last 2,000 years. Not only are these days in close proximity, but the events they recall also followed one another swiftly.
It is almost as though this were a fulfillment of the rabbinic injunction concerning the Passover Haggada in which we are told to begin with the telling of our degradation (slavery) and conclude with praise for our salvation (the Exodus).
Nevertheless we should be careful how we view this connection and this relationship, lest we fall into the facile error of seeing the two events as cause and effect. I have heard some religious leaders go so far as to say that the Shoah was needed in order to bring about the creation of the state, as if this had been God’s plan – Heaven forbid! Others have said that without the Holocaust there would have been no Israel or that Israel is the “compensation” for the Shoah. It should be stated clearly that there cannot be any compensation for that terrible event. The most we can say is that without the creation of the State of Israel it is difficult to see how the Jewish people could ever have recovered from the Holocaust. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Israel enables us to bear the agony of Auschwitz without radical despair, to sense a ray of God’s radiance in the jungles of history.”
ALL TOO often, we hear the enemies of Israel say that Israel was created because of the Shoah and that it is unfair to make the Arabs suffer for what the Europeans did to the Jews. Unfortunately, our own politicians frequently play into this by invoking the Holocaust as the rationale for Israel’s existence. In both instances what is forgotten is that the Zionist ideal did not begin with the Shoah. It began with the story of Abraham and continued throughout our history. Anti-Semitism was only part of the impetus for the return to Zion. Many Zionist ideologues saw it as the way to revive Judaism both as a religion and as a civilization, and religious Zionists certainly perceived it as the fulfillment of Jewish belief. Furthermore, some historians argue that the state would have come into existence even more quickly had there not been a Holocaust, since the communities that were destroyed were those from whom the ranks of the early Zionist pioneers had come and that stream was cut off when those communities were destroyed and their populations decimated.
Our celebration of Independence Day should focus on the central purpose of the creation of the State of Israel – to provide not only a haven but a place where Jews can live freely as a majority, where Judaism and the vast culture of the Jewish people can provide the basis of everyday life and where that culture can flourish once again. That ideal is best expressed in the ancient words of the prophet Zechariah, “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit, said the Lord of Hosts” (4:6). Those words were uttered at the time of the first return to Zion after the Babylonian exile and are equally applicable to this second return. We need might and power because of those who would destroy us, but it is the spirit – the great ethical and religious insights of our tradition – that we seek and that must emerge from the Zionist enterprise if its promise is to be fulfilled.