Over the past 70 years Zionism has evolved asking itself important questions about its purpose in a world where there is a strong Jewish state with 60% of Jews already living there. What is Zionism's fundamental purpose in the 21st century?
However after the Islamic terror attacks in Paris last week, coming after several years of growing antisemitism from French Muslims, Zionism has found itself returning to its historic core purpose: the in-gathering of the Jewish people in our ancient homeland.
Over a century ago, Zionism’s founders and leaders saw the clouds of hatred gathering, and anticipated a need to create a new future for the Jews of Europe – a future where they would not be dependent on the good will of fickle governments or on a notion of “tolerance” – after all who wants to be tolerated? They saw the desperate need for an independent, strong Jewish state – a place where Jews could truly take their future into their own hands, contributing and building their lives on their own terms – they dreamed of what we have today: Israel.
Over the past weekend the leaders of today’s Zionism, in the form of the chairman of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky and the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, made emotional statements that would not have seemed that out of place if said in the 1930s by David Ben Gurion – predecessor of both Sharansky and Netanayahu:
Netanyahu said yesterday “To the Jews of France I say - Israel is more than just a place you direct your prayers – Israel is your home.”, and he went on to state “Any Jew who wishes to emigrate to Israel will be received wholeheartedly and with open arms.”
Chairman Sharansky - who personally suffered the USSR's repression of Jews before escaping to become a leader in Israel - said that he anticipates more than 10,000 French Jews will make aliyah (emigrate to Israel) this year. “We’re not building our aliyah strategy on tragic events. We’re building it on the fact that there is this place in the world called Europe, where Jews are feeling increasingly uncomfortable,” he said.
There are strong parallels between the situation facing the Jews of Europe in 2015 and in 1915:
Jews went from being virtually excluded from the march of history to being propelled to the very front line of European life. Secularization and liberalism allowed Jews to operate as equals. It was this revolution that propelled the Jews from their marginal status to the central of world affairs and by the end of the 19th century, Jews were leading the way in political thinking, philosophical debate, finance, medicine, the arts and law. Jews felt they could finally build reasonable futures for their children.
The earliest Zionist thinkers – people such as Leo Pinsker, Max Nordau and even Theodore Herzl himself – did not start out believing that Jews needed to have a state of their own. These founders of modem Zionism were all products of the new secular liberal, yet nationalist European thinking, instilled with the current ideas that were sweeping across the continent, and they saw a future of Judaism in Eastern and Western Europe.
The problem stemmed from the tensions between how they perceived themselves as Europeans and Jews, and how others perceived them. Despite their involvement and indeed assimilation into the societies they lived in, they were rejected – pogroms in Russia; Dreyfus and other injustices in France; and a dark, festering antisemitism in Germany.
Things had seemingly never been better for Europe or Europe’s Jews and yet at the same time, the leaders of Zionism came to see that their existence was a fragile safety based on the mood of whatever government was in power. They saw no future in Europe and history would tragically prove them right.
Jump forward to January 2015, to a Western Europe that has not seen war in 70 years. The nations are far more multicultural and are joined in economic union. They place the highest value on individual rights and freedom of expression. Once again things have never been better for Europe and yet Europe’s Jews are again questioning whether any future for them exists in those countries:
|Antisemitic graffiti regular appears in Jewish neighborhoods of London|
Leave aside this past week’s horrors, the situation was already disturbing: In the UK, for Jewish children to attend faith schools involves a level of security that would not be out of place at the home of Israel’s President in Jerusalem; across Europe synagogues have to have security when services are taking place. Rabbi’s in Denmark, Finland, Germany and France have all, in recent years, warned Jews not to walk in the streets wearing kippot (skull caps); Graveyards desecrated, swastikas daubed on homes & synagogues, and several incidents of terrorism such as occurred in Toulouse and other cities aimed specifically at Jews. On a personal note, on several occasions prior to my own move to Israel in 2008, I experienced antisemitic abuse shouted from passing cars as I walked along streets in London.
Security services have admitted that what we have seen in Paris could easily happen in any major city in Europe and while the target of Islamists is western freedoms, which Israel shares, their particular hatred for Jews is rabid. The writing is on the wall, and the Jews of France, and no doubt all of Europe, face similar fears to the Jews of those places 100 years ago.
The difference between then and now is simple – Israel was a dream at the start of the 20th century – today it is a reality. The Jews of France have a place to go and it is ready and waiting to welcome them home.