Anti-Zionism is Antisemitism

(Scroll down to see earlier posts in this series, beginning January 14th.)

This will be my most personal posting, since its wellspring is my childhood experience. Although I supply citations, I could have written this from memory. One example: during the years I was praying regularly (age 8-17), I said these words every day: V’tekhazena eyneynu b’shuvkha l’Tzion b’rakhamim—May our eyes behold Thy return to Zion in mercy. In fact, observant Jews said it three times every day for twenty centuries, as part of the Amidah,[1] the holiest prayer after the Shema (Hear O Israel). Along with God’s Unity and the primacy of Torah—the first five books of the Bible—the longing for Zion is intrinsic to the Jewish faith.

Let’s go back to, not the beginning of Judaism, but early enough: the composition of Psalm 137, roughly 2,500 years old, describing the exile of Jews in Babylon. Some may recall the 1970s Rastafari song that echoed the Psalm:

By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down,

And there we wept, when we remembered Zion…

For the Jamaican singers, Zion stood for Africa, but, as with other African diaspora songs, they adopted the ancient Jewish narrative as a symbol for their suffering. But for the Jews in Babylon it was no metaphor. It was brutal exile and a desperate longing for home. The psalm begins as the song does, but in lines 5-6,

If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning…

Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Push the clock back another 600 years, and we find the first mention of this people on a Pharoah’s monument: Israel lies devastated, bereft of its seed. Really? While many (per Egyptian records) were enslaved in Egypt, many stayed, and archeology shows that the Israelite religion arose gradually among the indigenous villages. By around 2,900 years ago we have a Hebrew inscription in Northern Israel: Bet David—House of David. Two centuries after that, a silver amulet with the Hebrew words of the Priestly Blessing, said in synagogues and in homes on Friday evenings. You don’t have to believe the Bible to know that Jews and Judaism were intrinsic to what is now Israel—incidentally, with respect, at least 15 centuries before Islam.

Babylon became a model. There were many other exiles, other diasporas, but in every one, the Jews longed for Zion. Even after the Romans crushed two Jewish rebellions, thousands of Jews remained there ever since. Jewish travelers made pilgrimages there and they and others reported on Israel’s Jews over the centuries.[2]

Their goal was to touch, pray, and weep at the wall of the Temple Mount. Judah Halevi, a physician-poet born in Toledo in 1075, during the “Golden Age” of Spanish Jewry, captured the yearning felt by many even in that welcoming (by the way, Muslim) safe haven.

My heart is in the East

But I dwell in the West.

I eat without taste,

Live without joy or rest.

How easy in my eyes to leave

This Spanish life of mine,

Just to see with those same eyes

The dust of the ruined Shrine.[3]

Old and frail, he attempted the trip, to pray and die in Jerusalem, but did not survive. Many others did make their way to the Western Wall before and since. Hundreds of Rabbis from France and Germany moved there in the 13th century.

Doña Gracia, the doyenne of 16th-century European Jewry, saved many from the Inquisition’s tortures (after the “Golden Age,” when the Christians returned) and built some of the first Hebrew presses. She also funded a colony of scholars in Tiberias, to expand Torah study in Israel.

Sir Moses Montefiore, a businessman and Sheriff of London, knelt before Queen Victoria in 1837—the first Jew so honored. She wrote in her diary, “I knighted…Mr. Montefiore, an excellent man…” He and his wife Judith, who, though childless, had an indelible bond for 60 years, made seven dangerous trips to Israel. Judith motivated them. After the first, they had etched on the headboard of their marriage bed in Hebrew lines 5-6 from Psalm 137 quoted above.

Judith wrote “There is no city in the world which can bear comparison…with Jerusalem–fallen, desolate, and abject… it would still be the city toward which every religious and meditative mind would turn with the deepest longing.”[4] On their second trip, when the Jewish population of Israel was 7,000, her husband wrote: “By degree I hope to induce the return of thousands of our brethren to the Land of Israel. I am sure they would be happy in the enjoyment of the observance of our holy religion, in a manner… impossible in Europe.”

And at the end of that century, when the secular Theodor Herzl wrote The Jewish State, he forged an alliance with religious Jews worldwide who had longed for Zion much longer than he had. For them, it was not political, it was sacred. The poster shown here has, across the top, “The Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel, 1901,” and across the bottom, the prayer I opened with, “May our eyes see Thy return to Zion in mercy.”

Zionism has four other mentions in the three-times daily Amidah prayer, including, “Sound the great shofar for our freedom; raise a banner to gather our exiles, and bring us together from the four corners of the earth into our land” and “Return in mercy to Jerusalem Your city and dwell therein as You have promised; speedily establish therein the throne of David Your servant, and rebuild it, soon in our days, as an everlasting edifice.”

For me the peak moment of the Saturday morning service was always bringing the Torah out of the Ark. A congregant holds it and all rise and sing, “Behold, the Ark was brought out, and Moses said, For out of Zion went The Torah, and the word of God from Jerusalem.”

Thus the Biblical description of the first Holy Ark, containing the Ten Commandments, is evoked in every synagogue in the world, joining three pillars of Jewish faith: God, Torah, and Zion. Congregations in Brooklyn face east and in India face west, always toward Jerusalem. Individuals pray that way and synagogues are designed that way. Tell Jews that they can’t have a state in Zion? As well tell Muslims they can’t be in Mecca, or tell Christians they can’t display the Cross on their churches.

Jews a colonial power in the land where they arose? I don’t think tenth-century Portuguese prayed to return to Brazil, nor did Shakespeare’s countrymen yearn for Australia. There were colonial powers in Israel, to be sure: Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Rome, Turkey, and of course Britain. But the Jews were not among them.

And for all the violence Israel has been forced to endure and commit, its national anthem is not about rockets and bombs, like America’s, or taking up arms and soaking the soil with blood, like France’s, or braving the enemy’s fire, like China’s. It’s about hope, the hope of two thousand years, to be a free people in our land, the Land of Zion, Jerusalem.

Judaism includes Zionism. Hate things that Israel does, but if you hate the Jewish state itself or deny its right to exist—even if you claim to be Jewish yourself, then you hate Judaism and Jews.

[1] Hertz, Rabbi Joseph H., Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, The Authorized Daily Prayer Book, Revised Edition (New York, Bloch Publishing, 1975, p. 187.

[2] Michael Harsgor and Maurice Stroun, Israel/Palestine: L’Histoire au-dela des Mythes (Paris, Metropolis) 1996.

[3] Carmi, T., ed., The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, (New York, Viking Press), p. 291. Author’s translation.

[4] Judith Lady Montefiore, “From Her Private Journal of a Visit to Egypt and Palestine,” in Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality: A Sourcebook, ed. Ellen M. Umansky and Dianne Ashton (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), p. 76.

2 thoughts on “Anti-Zionism is Antisemitism

  1. This is as heartfelt – and absolutely accurate- a description of the essence of our people, our tribe. Only a deep thinker with a vast sense of history, can express the crux of our existence. Alas the world has once again shown its true colors and the hatred of Zion and Jews is again a terrible reality.

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