This weekend we sit at our Passover Seder(s) and tell the seminal story of the Jewish nation. The Exodus from Egypt is more than just a moment in Jewish history. This event is so important that Jewish custom mandates recounting the story of the Exodus from Egypt twice a day, mentioning it during Shabbat kiddush, during prayers, and of course, Jews dedicate an entire night to the story on Passover.
The Jewish people learn lessons from their history and apply them to their present and future circumstances. As political Zionists began their internal and external campaign for the right to return the Jewish people to their land, they used lessons from their past, especially the Passover story, to instruct them on how to successfully achieve their goals of creating a Jewish state on their homeland.
When Moses came back to the Jewish people from his 40-year escape to the desert of Midian, he told them he was on his way to Pharaoh to demand their freedom. The Jewish people, accustomed to over 200 years of servitude, were nervous. Their fear proved to be foretelling, as Pharaoh responded to Moses’s boldness with harsher decrees on the Jewish people. Although resented by his people for their extra work, Moses persevered and continued taking a stand for his people’s rights, demanding his people’s freedom. Moses’s determination taught generations of Jews to demand their rights.
Like Moses, early Zionists weren’t disheartened by initial setbacks and rejections. They persisted and used diplomacy, resistance and military attacks to create a Jewish state. When Chaim Weizmann and the Emir Faisal signed an agreement in 1919 for close collaboration between their respective national movements, and the agreement was later repudiated by Arab nationalists, Weizmann and the Zionists kept advocating for a Jewish state.
In 1921, when Arab anti-Jewish riots and outbreaks of violence in Jaffa, Rehovot, Petah Tikva, Hadera and other places left 47 Jews dead and many wounded, the Zionists kept fighting for their freedom.
In 1939, the British White Paper was published, restricting immigration and the sale of land to Jews. The paper could have been the death knell to the hopes of a Jewish state – but it wasn’t; the Zionists continued with illegal immigration to populate Eretz Yisrael.
So too today, Zionists must stand up to Iranian nuclear aspirations, Hamas and Hezbollah rocket fire, Palestinian terror attacks, and international delegitimization and demand Jewish rights, freedom and security like any other sovereign nation in the global community.
The trip to Eretz Yisrael from Egypt should not have taken more than a week. The Jewish people had a scheduled three-day layover at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, and then they were supposed to have a quick trip to their new home. In a tragic development, the people doubted God and believed the spies’ report that the Jewish people could never defeat the Canaanites and settle their land. Their punishment was to stay in the desert for 40 years, and anyone over 20 would not be allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael. If the Jewish people had given up at that point and refused to continue, history would have understood their despondence. Yet, the Jewish people focused on getting to the border, even though they knew they would not be the ones to cross over. They kept going in order to ensure that future generations would enjoy their own land.
Just as the Jewish people of the desert fought hard to ensure future generations were privileged with a free nation on land they themselves would not be able to enjoy, the early Zionists worked hard knowing there was little chance they themselves would see the fruits of their labor.
Theodore Herzl himself said: “At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, l would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in 50 years, everyone will perceive it.”
Herzl would die less than a decade after saying it, and 51 years before he was proven correct. Zionists enjoying their ancestors’ efforts to create the State of Israel must keep the focus on strengthening Israel and always move towards a stronger Israel – even in face of setbacks.
As the Jewish people traveled toward Israel, with Egypt long in their review mirror, a nation from far away, with no previous interaction with the Jewish people, met the Jews in the desert and attacked them. The nation of Amalek, forever to be a Jewish enemy, did not attack the strong leaders at the head of the people, but rather waited for the tired and weak Jews trailing behind. Their cowardly attack would forever teach Jews that antisemites would always attack the Jews without cause, and when they attacked, would do so spinelessly by attacking the weakest members of the nation.
Moses did not take this attack silently; he appointed Joshua to lead the first Jewish army to counterattack and defeat Amalek. The Jewish people quickly learned they would always have enemies and would have to fight to defeat those enemies.
Early Zionists took the lesson of the first Jewish army to heart. The Yishuv, the first Jewish settlements in Palestine, came under attack quickly from local Arabs. The Zionists quickly formed paramilitary groups to defend themselves against Arab attackers. Bar Giora turned into Hashomer, which turned into Hagana, and the Irgun and the Stern Gang worked alongside them against Arab attackers.
The Arab forces did not attack the strong Jews, but like Amalek, they attacked convoys of nurses, farmers, women and children. The early Zionists were ready in 1948 when the IDF was formed and fought their first war – the War of Independence. The Jewish State has successfully remembered its lesson of fighting its enemies, winning war after war against those looking to annihilate it.
Jewish collective national memory is a powerful tool. The early Zionists called upon Jewish memory time and time again to find the courage to stand up for themselves. Moses, Joshua and the Jewish people were not mere historical figures to early Zionists, and they can’t be to today’s Zionists. Zionists must call upon their ancestors’ actions to instruct them to keep standing up for their rights. The most important lesson for the Jewish people is to remember the Divine favor their ancestors enjoyed through their various trials. When the people followed God’s commands they succeeded, when they forgot God’s directives they failed. The Jewish people must never forget their success does not solely come through their own efforts, but with Divine providence.
As Zionists look forward to the 74th anniversary of the State of Israel, it is the lessons of the Jewish past that will be key to their continued success. The Jewish people must stand up for themselves and demand their rights, they must always be on the way to a successful Israel, and they must be prepared to go to war. Most importantly, they must follow the word of God to ensure they merit Divine providence. The dream of thousands of years of Jewish lovers of Zion are coming true today, and it is today’s Jewish people who are responsible to ensure those dreams continue to succeed.
The writer is the senior educator at Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Zionist Education Initiative. He is the author of three books and teaches Torah, Zionism, and Israel studies around the world. He is married with six children and lives in Mitzpe Yericho.