Zionism is as old as Judaism.
It began when God first spoke to Abraham and told him to leave his homeland for a land that God would show him. That same land would be promised to his great grandchildren, the children of Jacob, renamed Israel, for having struggled with the Lord.
Just as all Jews remain family, albeit grown into a nation, so too Israel remains our family, as well as our national, homeland. There is something in each of our deepest souls that is drawn to Israel like iron is attracted to a magnet. It takes a certain level of awareness, of one’s self, of one’s Jewish identity, to be able to express, as the great poet Yehuda HaLevi did, that almost subliminal yearning: “My heart is in the East but I am in the West.” However, when we get to Israel, for the first or twenty-first time, we find we feel as we feel no where else. We feel we are home on a level we may not be able to understand or explain.
That is one aspect, the spiritual aspect if you will, of what Zionism is and historically has been throughout the ages. The other has been the political aspiration of a people for its homeland as a place of security, freedom, and self-expression, the values our American forefathers expressed as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is an ancient aspiration, going back thousands of years as the Babylonian exiles sat by the banks of the rivers there and remembered Zion (Psalm 137).
The political and spiritual are intertwined, of course. The Maccabees successfully fought for, and gained, independence from the Seleucids in the second century BCE for the freedom to observe Jewish tradition. In their victory was a sense of God’s miraculous hand. According to the historian Elias Bickerman, without the Maccabees’ victory, Judaism and its monotheistic message (and with it the future of Christianity and Islam) would have been lost to the world.
As the centuries passed, an independent Jewish nation of Israel at peace with its neighbors has become one of the essential Jewish tests of messianic days. That is why, in 1967, with the liberation of the ancient Jewish Quarter from Jordanian occupation during the Six Day War, then-Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren penned the prayer for the State of Israel to include the messianic phrase that we are in the beginning of the time of our ultimate redemption. It is a redemption that does not deny other peoples the right to their own national identity, security, freedom and or self-realization. However, Zionism does demand those rights for Jews as a people among the other peoples of the world who demand, or enjoy, such rights for themselves.
Some, like Israel’s (largely ceremonial) President Moshe Katsav, want to limit full participation in the Zionist dream only to those he agrees with. Thankfully, others like Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in including the Conservative movement in his World Zionist Organization coalition, show the value of including everyone in the family around the table.
We here in the West would be foolish to think that we can survive as Jews without the lode stone of our ancestral home calling to us, inspiring us, grounding us. It is not only a question of how much more secure we Jews are, here and around the world, now that we again have a powerful state willing to protect Jews everywhere. It is a question of who we are and how we define and discover our true selves as we engage the opportunities and threats of the 21st century.