What Would Herzl Think?

Note:  This Friday night, May 10, we welcome to Oheb Shalom Rabbi David Levy, Director of the New Jersey Regional Office of the American Jewish Committee.  Rabbi Levy will discuss “Building Bridges Between American and Israeli Jews.”  Service at 8:00 PM, Presentation at 8:30 PM.  

It was on a sunny and warm Sunday August evening that a 37-year old man, impeccably dressed in a top hat and tails and a crisply formed white bowtie, stood before some 200 people and spoke these words:

“We shall never tire or slack off at repeating and repeating these words, until we are understood. On this cordial occasion, when Jews from so many lands are assembled together, to hear the clarion call, the ancient call of the people, we must again cordially repeat this our belief…that Zionism is a legal and civilized movement full of love of the masses, with the ancient and coveted goal of our people to live in safety in a land of our own.”

The man in his late 30s was Binyamin Ze’ev Theodore Herzl, and he spoke these words 122 years ago in the city of Basel, Switzerland at the First World Zionist Congress, an auspicious gathering of Jewish leaders from across Europe that Herzl convened to present his plan to create a Jewish State and begin the work necessary to make his dream a reality.

Herzl is a giant of Jewish history, credited with establishing and fostering modern Zionism, a movement that culminated in Israel’s improbable rebirth just a half-century after he convened the first World Zionist Congress in 1897.  He understood the odds against the success of his work and that of Zionists who wanted to establish a haven for the world’s Jews in the land of Judaism’s birth.  The obstacles he faced were enormous.  There was rampant anti-Semitism everywhere, and there was assimilation among Jews in the lands where they lived.  There was the need to reconcile Zionism, a secular nationalist movement, with the rabbinical establishment. The rabbis were not interested in a movement that they viewed as undermining religion and their authority. Over many centuries, Judaism had adapted itself to Diaspora living. Religious authorities saw a return to the land of Israel as an event that would come to pass only upon the coming of the Messiah. Those few rabbis who were Zionists sought to control the new movement and ensure that the new state would be a theocracy, obedient to ancient religious laws. And of course, the secular Zionists who attended the meetings of the World Zionist Congress felt that a modern democratic state could not be built on those principles.

Herzl’s life and work are a story of unfathomable success in the face of enormous odds.  In the decades preceding Israel’s rebirth as a modern nation-state, world Jewry was largely oppressed and living in fear in Eastern Europe, facing assimilation and persecution in Western Europe.  Jews then faced genocide during the dark years of the Shoah.  The land that Zionists sought as a homeland was in the possession of the Ottomans.  The allied powers who would soon be victorious in World War I were split over whether the land should be partitioned among the victors or left in the hands of the Turks to be reshaped by world powers.

But not only did the State of Israel come into being against all odds, 71 years later it is an indisputable brilliant success.  In just seven decades, an undeveloped land with almost no infrastructure, with few roads or schools or hospitals, has become a thriving nation that is among the world’s leaders in science, technology, and agriculture.

So, on this 71st Yom Ha’atsmaut, Israel Independence Day, I wonder what Herzl would think of the modern State of Israel.  Would he be impressed by the remarkable pace at which the land has been developed, at which Jewish culture has taken root, and at which a Jewish army has been able to defend its citizens and Jews around the world?  Would Herzl be satisfied to see Israeli medical teams fly to distant lands to help other states recover from earthquakes or agricultural specialists heading off to Africa to help drought-stricken countries yield more from the land?

Or would he be disillusioned to see that tension and discord still rage between religious and secular Jews, or that there are parts of Israeli society still awaiting social and economic justice?  Would he be disheartened to see the rightward drift of Israeli politics, marked by the legitimization of extremist and racist parties and ideologies in the government?  Would he be disappointed that enmity between Arabs and Israelis has for the most part not abated and that peace has eluded the people who live in the land he worked so hard to establish?  What would he think of an Israel that has done so much, yet still has many problems to solve?  If Herzl could see the Israel that today is celebrating Yom Ha’atsmaut, I imagine that he would see all these things.

I see these things as well.  I see Israel’s brilliant achievements, and I see Israel’s challenges and struggles.  And I love Israel.  The rebirth of the State of Israel is the most exciting, impactful event to happen to the Jewish people in the past 2,000 years.  Herzl’s dream thrives in the land of our people’s birth, and it’s ours to protect and to nurture.  Od lo ovda tikvateynu…Israel remains the hope of the Jewish people in our time and for generations yet to come.

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Marror- Symbol of the Holocaust?

With the setting of the sun on Wednesday evening, we begin the commemoration of another Yom HaShoah.  This day of remembrance and solemn reflection of the cost of absolute evil has been observed since December 1949, when a group of rabbis gathered on the 10th of Tevet, already an established fast day on the Jewish calendar, to bury the bones and ashes of thousands of Jews that had been brought to a cemetery in Jerusalem from the Flossenberg concentration camp.  In 1951, after lengthy and difficult negotiations between the ultra-Orthodox, who did not want Yom Ha-Shoah to fall in the month of Nissan and intrude on the joy of Passover, and ghetto fighters, who wanted to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which began on Passover, the Israeli Knesset passed a law establishing the 27th of Nissan as “Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah.”  The name was meant to convey that we should remember not only destruction and suffering but also heroism, resolve, courage and determination.

The name “Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah” suggests that the meaning of the Holocaust is about both suffering and heroism.  There is no end to tragic stories of pain and suffering from that dark period of our history.  And there are also stories of heroic resistance and defiance.  The intense debate among religious leaders and ghetto fighters that led to setting the date of Yom HaShoah on 27 Nissan was about preserving the religious integrity of Pesach, but it was also about the tension between the Holocaust as a story of victimhood or a story of heroism.

A familiar Passover symbol- Marror, or the bitter herb- also reflects this tension.  We are commanded to eat Marror at the Seder in order to vicariously taste the bitterness of slavery and oppression.  Experiencing bitterness can make someone bitter, suspicious of others and unable to see goodness in the world.  Experiencing bitterness can also sensitize us to the trauma of suffering and can make someone empathetic and understanding.  Perhaps we are told to eat Marror precisely so we can consider how to respond to the despair and suffering we encounter in the course of our lives.

Nobody should dare tell a Holocaust survivor how they should respond to the suffering they endured.  There are survivors who could not shake the bitterness of their suffering and who lived their years with a cynical attitude and untrusting of others.  There are also survivors whose experience of bitterness led them to be empathetic, sensitive and understanding.  One such person was Helen Paktor, who witnessed the murder of her father and brother, survived the hell of Auschwitz, and went on to raise a family and build a productive and positive life.  Helen taught others about how a human being should behave and what a virtuous life entails.

Helen passed away this week at the age of 93, and she is on my mind and in my heart as we commemorate another Yom HaShoah.  Yehi Zichra L’veracha…her memory will indeed endure as a blessing.