As I walked into the large room, I was overcome with emotion. All around me stood, sat and crawled a mess of humanity, organized into lines, waiting areas and makeshift stations. It took a minute to realize I wasn’t hearing noise. For a room full of Ukrainian refugees going through the bureaucracy of aliyah, I’d have expected screaming, crying and yelling.
There was the occasional baby wailing, toddler whining and adult questioning having to wait longer, the room and people were relatively quiet. The Israeli government officials processing the newly arrived refugees were efficient, kind and caring to the overwhelmed people sitting before them.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recently told the Ministerial Committee on Aliyah and Integration, “The State of Israel is a refuge for Jews in distress; this is our mission. We will meet this sacred mission this time, as well. We must make sure that those Jews who flee from places of danger are received here in the State of Israel in the best possible way: That when they feel there is an open door and a warm home for them,” he said. “The State of Israel has done this many times in its history and we will meet this sacred task this time, as well.”
As I entered the makeshift processing center in Jerusalem that morning, I’ve never been prouder and happier seeing government in action. The facility had recently been partly taken over by Israeli government ministries and immigration officials. These workers, all Russian and Ukrainian speaking, were there to process Ukrainian refugees. These newcomers had escaped the war raging in their cities to come home to Israel. Every half hour or so, a staff member from the facility visited the newest Israelis with snacks, games or Israeli flags for the kids.
I couldn’t help taking frequent runs into the room and the waiting area outside, darting between the people looking for little children. These smallest of refugees were bored, sad and confused, and when I handed them a brand-new flag they’d break out into a smile. Each time their parents would explain to them what their new flag represented. The only word I could make out was Israel, but each time I heard it I broke out into a smile. It was during those split seconds I realized these new Israelis from Ukraine were providing the people of Israel more than the people of Israel were providing them.
Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon said, “Aliyah is the central goal of the State of Israel.” Early Zionists saw the European countries where Jews lived as their peoples’ past and the land of Israel as its future. When the founders of Bilu began their movement they stated, “Your state in the West is hopeless: the star of your future is gleaming in the East. Deeply conscious of all the foregoing and inspired by the true teaching of our great master, Hillel, ‘If I do not help myself, who will help me?’ We propose to form a society for national ends.”
The connection between a national Jewish move back to Eretz Yisrael and the rebirth of our nation was a frequent theme of early Zionist thinkers. Nahman Syrkin wrote, “The Jews were historically the nation which caused division and strife, it will now become the most revolutionary of all nations. From the humblest and most oppressed of all peoples, it will be transformed to the proudest and greatest. The Jews will derive their moral stature from their travel and out of their pain of their existence will come a pattern of noble living. The Jew is small, ugly and servile, and debased when he forgets and denies his character. He becomes distinguished and beautiful in the moral and social realms when he returns to his true nature.”
AS WAR between Ukraine and Russia broke out and it became clear that thousands of Ukrainian Jews would be seeking refuge in Israel, Israelis debated whether to open our borders wide for the Ukrainian masses looking for shelter and a new home. Naysayers wondered where all these people would live, how Israel could absorb so many people so quickly and whether it was safe to allow so many unknown people into the country.
The naysayers quickly lost their debate and the Jewish state was created to shelter fleeing Jews. Israel as a place of refuge for fleeing Jews was written in Israel’s declaration of independence, its laws and the very character of the state. More importantly, opening its borders for fleeing Jews was a fundamental value of Zionism.
Israel is more than a refuge for the Jewish people of the Diaspora, it has become a refuge for the values of the Jewish people. It is more than a collection of people that stem from the same ancestors or location, they are a people with a shared ethos. Abraham, the first Zionist, taught his followers and descendants, our ancestors, the values of ethical monotheism and they are still our values today. The Jewish people are a kind and generous people. Maimonides famously wrote that a Jewish community has never existed that didn’t have a charity fund, a statement that holds just as true today as when he wrote it over 800 years ago.
As time progresses and circumstances change, it is only natural for a nation’s values to transition to meet the new situation. Values that were once considered sacred are seen as ancient and irrelevant. New values are needed and quickly adapted. Over the past four thousand years the Jewish people’s values have not changed.
Varying institutions have ensured the Jewish people’s loyalty to their fundamental ethos. In our times, Israel has become the vehicle for the Jewish people to express their values, especially of mercy and kindness. Israel has become the open vault that keeps the Jewish people’s values safe.
Our ancestors didn’t just dream of a return to their land, they dreamed of a land living according to the values they learned from their parents. When I spend time with our newest Israeli citizens, I am not only happy to see Jews coming home to Israel, the admirable efficiency of Israel’s officials or how Israel is fulfilling its mission of opening its borders and arms to Jews seeking shelter, but I’m happy and proud to see Zionist values revealing themselves in our country.
It’s been 73 years since our founders declared our independence and we’re still loyal to our values. Israelis have much to be proud of, but we should be most proud that we’re committed to the same values our ancestors held dear and passed down from generation to generation.
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.