Zionism at work

by Steve Kramer

Zionism is the political philosophy which calls for the “ingathering of the exiles”. In other words, it is the movement to gather Diaspora Jews to their homeland in Eretz Israel [the land of Israel]. Originally, there was a strong cultural-religious component to Zionism.

While there were always Jews living in Eretz Israel [see Homeland by Jerome Verlin – available at Amazon.com], even after the Roman conquest in the 1st century CE, most Jews lived in the Diaspora. Nevertheless, Jews longed to return to Israel, even if it was mostly a hypothetical longing. Jewish prayers and religious texts attest to that, as does the emigration of Jews from their adopted countries to Israel over the centuries, even though the number of immigrants was never great and their efforts in Israel rarely flourished.

In the wake of the 19th century enlightenment in Europe, after the French Revolution and Napoleon’s emancipation of the Jews, the desire of some religious Jews to return to Zion [Eretz Israel] was fired up. The First Aliyah (1882) was a religiously motivated emigration of Jews, mostly from Eastern Europe, to what was then called Palestine, still under the rule of the Ottoman Turks. These early settlers joined the Jews who had been living in Eretz Israel for centuries, but the new emphasis was on creating self-sustaining communities, rather than relying on charity. Chief among the benefactors of the BILU movement (an acronym for “House of Jacob let us go”) and the “Lovers of Zion” was Baron Edmund de Rothschild, a scion of the famous Rothschild banking dynasty.

Later, socialist and agrarian motives overtook the religious stream of Zionism, resulting in a large number of immigrants [olim: literally, those who have ascended to Zion] who eventually formed the backbone of the Yishuv [pre-state Israel]. This stream of Zionism accelerated in the first years of the 20th century in reaction to pogroms in Russia, when thousands of Jews left the Czarist-controlled areas to make the journey to Palestine, while many other Jews left for North and South America. It was these secular Zionists who were most responsible for the founding of the modern state of Israel. Under Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and the socialist party that he founded (Mapai, later to become the Labor party), Israel was established as a socialist-type economy, dependent on a strong central government which owned most of the country’s assets.

In the early 20th century, the American Jewish philanthropist, Nathan Strauss, and his brother Isidore and their wives, decided to visit Eretz Israel while they were touring Europe. The brothers had grown rich by their acquisition of the R.H. Macy Department Store in New York City. Isidore and his wife soon grew tired of the relatively primitive conditions in Palestine. On their return voyage to America, they perished in the Titanic disaster. Nathan subsequently redoubled his philanthropic efforts in Israel in gratitude for what he felt was the divine sparing of his own life. Because of his efforts to promote aliyah [immigration], the city of Netanya (sometimes spelled Nathanya) was named in his honor in 1927.

Netanya is a city of nearly 200,000 which stretches along nine miles of the Mediterranean coastline. Chief among Netanya’s attractions is the magnificent promenade at the top of the cliffs overlooking the sea. The resort was always a popular destination for French Jews, and now it is home to English-speaking residents in addition to many immigrants from the FSU [former Soviet Union]. But there are tens of thousands of Ethiopian immigrants in the city as well. Along with other organizations, the FPF (Forgotten People Fund) has been an important factor in helping the new immigrants cope with their new lives in the modern state of Israel, so different from the Ethiopians’ rural and relatively primitive villages in Africa. While the Zionist undertaking to “ingather” the Ethiopians, whose Jewish ancestry dates back to the time of King Solomon, was praiseworthy, the hardest part of the job is helping the newcomers to flourish in their new home.

Last year I wrote about the wonderful bar-mitzvah celebration that FPF funded for 14 Ethiopian boys from Netanya. After that stellar event, the question came up, “What about the girls?” The answer was the lovely and lively bat-mitzvah ceremony that Michal and I recently attended in one of the city’s celebration halls. Thirty-six girls participated in the event, almost all of whom were Ethiopians. They were students from the Rashi School, a religious school which has about 360 students, from kindergarten through junior high.

The girls were all dressed in white dresses with orange sashes. The hall, though not fancy, was nicely decorated and the food met the usual tasty standards. There was a disc jockey providing a mix of music, which after the ceremonies became more and more Ethiopian. The crowd attending this celebration included parents and siblings of the bat-mitzvah girls, plus volunteers from FPF who had become very close to the girls.

The most outstanding feature of the evening was the sky-high energy and infectious enthusiasm of the girls themselves. It’s impossible to convey exactly what we felt when we were surrounded by 36 irrepressible young ladies. But to sum it up, I can tell you that what we enjoyed that evening was true Zionism at work. It was a combination of the Ethiopians’ age-old religious longing to return to Zion, plus the modern, secular Zionistic urge to include the newcomers in Israeli society.

However, the work is nowhere near a successful conclusion. Most of the Ethiopians are living in apartments largely paid for by the government, with small mortgages which are nevertheless financially daunting for the families. There are typically many children in the household and many of the fathers have been unable to find work, or work for minimal wages. Almost inevitably, the status of the fathers has been eroded by poverty while their wives have been empowered by an easier adjustment to the more egalitarian life in Israel. Consequently, a breakdown of many families has occurred.

Nevertheless, the future for the youngsters being raised in Israel shows promise. Many of them are benefiting from the work of FPF and other organizations, while the Israel Defense Forces and the schools, colleges, and universities are acculturating and educating many of them. The parents, who made the decision to come to Israel, are reaping few of the benefits, but there is hope that the majority of youngsters will grow up to become everyday Israelis. This was the dream of the first Zionists: In Eretz Israel, Diaspora Jews would be free to live in a Jewish country. By helping FPF with money and/or time and effort, the dream can be made real.

See www.fpf.org.il to learn more about FPF.

April 8, 2007 | 1 Comment »

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1 Comment / 1 Comment

  1. This is the sort of Zionism I love.

    Forgotten Families Fund is a great cause so please make a working hypertext link to it like this one.

    However I could not resist this note of levity.

    Kramer wrote:

    Zionism is the political philosophy which calls for the “ingathering of the exiles”.

    Actually that applies to the Palestinian Al-Awda movement too. 😉 I think Kramer wanted to write “ingathering of the Jewish exiles.”

    Click here for more definitions of Zionism

    Happy Holidays,

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