KEEP DREAMING: Guilty as charged

How is it that some have come to equate an imperfect Israel with the Zionist vision, and then proceed to reject the latter because of disappointment with the former?

Zionist rally in Jerusalem 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Zionist rally in Jerusalem 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
‘Was this really necessary?” she asked angrily, accosting me with a page of newsprint as soon as Shabbat morning services had ended.
“Was what necessary?” I asked, bewildered by the interrogation. The piece of paper with which she’d confronted me was nothing more than an announcement of the World Zionist Organization’s reproduction of 21 authentic posters from prestate Israel and its early years of independence. In an accompanying sidebar, I’d written that the set gave “expression to the ideals on which the Zionist movement was founded, the challenges it has had to contend with since its outset, and the remarkable achievements characterizing its first decades.”
“What are you upset about?” I inquired, genuinely puzzled.
“It’s ultra-nationalistic, that’s what,” she barked at me in a loud enough voice to draw the attention of the other congregants milling about. Her face was red with rage. “Israel is oppressing the Palestinians, and you’re publishing Zionist posters!” To say I was dumbfounded would be an understatement. Not to mention amused.
Regular readers of this column will surely find it as unimaginable as I that I could ever be reviled as ultra-nationalistic. And all for the insidious crime of preaching Zionism.
“The posters aren’t promoting roadblocks or advocating the expansion of settlements,” I explained patiently. “What they are is a call for a return to the fundamental values that drew us here in the first place.”
She wouldn’t be placated. I wouldn’t budge.
She accused me of moral turpitude. I told her I was proud of the publication. Then it was time for kiddush.
But I couldn’t get the exchange out of my head. On the way home from shul, befuddlement morphed into distress.
How was it that intelligent, educated and caring citizens of our country, involved in community life, had come to equate an imperfect Israel with the Zionist vision, and then proceed to reject the latter because of disappointment with the former? Halfway home I began entertaining the thought that perhaps the problem was mine.
If love is blind, then maybe 40-plus years of infatuation with an ideal of which I’d become enamored as a teenager had left me unable to discern the undesirable in the Jewish people’s drive for self-determination. I decided to revisit with fresh eyes the placards I had carefully selected to reprint.
One, produced in 1941, pictures an impressive multitude of working women, some of them carrying babies, others marching arm-in-arm, with a banner above their heads announcing an upcoming convention dedicated to discussing matters of concern to them. The accompanying text reads: “Women workers and working mothers. Your taking part in the elections will strengthen the movement of women workers and the entire labor union. Women to the voting booth!” Another, also from the World War II period, pictures a woman in uniform and calls on others to don “the clothes of your glory” and join the British forces in resisting Nazi Germany.
If celebrating the empowerment of women and recognizing that they have always been integral to the realization of the Zionist pursuit of freedom and security makes me an ultra-nationalist, I plead guilty as charged. But perhaps the person upset by the posters was objecting to what she might have interpreted as a certain militarism reflected in some of them. Maybe she was put off by the one featuring a proud soldier bearing the caption, “Defend your homeland. Enlist.”
Given that it was produced while we were waging a war for our very survival, I hardly find that objectionable, and the “aggressive” nature of the message was in any case tempered by upbeat depictions of farming and industry in the background. Though our reality has been very different from Herzl’s vision of a Jewish state that would require no army, the Zionist ethos demanded that the building and planting that have always characterized the movement be portrayed, even in the midst of battle.
An additional poster calling on the populace to provide the struggling nation with a war loan notes that it is “for the sake of peace,” and features a graphic of a dove with an olive branch in its mouth hovering above a battle helmet. If applauding the fact that the unremitting need to fight for our existence has not deterred our people from yearning for peace makes me an ultra-nationalist, I plead guilty as charged.
Or maybe it was the posters urging a return to the soil that troubled my interlocutor. One depicts a plow with a driver bearing a rifle slung over his shoulder under the biblical verse, “With one hand he does his work, in the other he holds his weapon.” A second is an illustration of a tractor plowing a field, much to the delight of a small child waving it on alongside a simple text: “Land. My land.”
If upholding the Zionist ethos of settling that land, even in the face of adversity, marks me as an ultranationalist along with the ilk of Ber Borochov and A.
D. Gordon, then yes, again, guilty as charged.
One of the posters is of a bridge connecting what appears to be a displaced persons camp to a village in Israel along with the words, “Hebrew. The bridge to Israel.” Another shows what I assume to be an immigrant father and his young daughter under the heading, “One language, one people. For your sake, and the sake of your children.” Both urge their audiences to enroll in evening Hebrew classes. Hard to imagine anything offensive here.
Nor in the call to those already home to open their arms to those just arriving. “Together for the sake of aliya and absorption,” reads one of the posters, while another, in support of an aliya loan, declares that “Our future is in aliya – assist in its absorption.”
If promoting Hebrew as being fundamental to our sense of peoplehood and if reminding those who are here that they have a responsibility to all who would yet come makes me an ultra-nationalist, then yes, again and again and again, guilty as charged.
But of course, I find nothing pejorative in any of these values, all of them basic to the Zionist idea. Nor, in embracing them, do I feel that I am whitewashing an Israel that has yet to live up to the high hopes of its founders or, for that matter, to our own expectations. On the contrary. By calling on a new generation to attach itself to the ideals of a bygone era, I am also calling on them to contribute to making of this society all that its pioneers wished it would become.
More than comprising a delightful and engaging historical record of yesteryear, then, more than providing a fascinating and intimate insight into the atmosphere and spirit of the times, this vintage collection of Zionist memorabilia should also serve as a source of inspiration to all of us to keep dreaming, and to continue working for the fulfillment of the Zionist vision.
Maybe I will even suggest to my synagogue president that we hang a set in our hallways, a reminder to all the congregants as to why we are here and what we wish to become. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every Jewish institution around the world agreed to be as ultranationalistic as that! ■
The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of The Jewish Agency Executive.
He blogs at
The full set of posters mentioned in this column may be viewed at