One of my greatest loves is old books. Over the years, I have collected a nice amount of old books on various Jewish topics, though I haven’t had a chance to read all of them yet. Last week I came across one which, upon picking it up, realized was waiting for the events of this past week to occasion itself upon me. It has profoundly affected my perspective on the events we are living through these days.
In 1925, Leonard Stein – of London England – felt the need to write “an objective account of the Zionist Movement”. The book, simply named “Zionism”, includes 7 chapters covering topics such as “The Origins of Zionism”, “The Jews in Palestine 1880-1914” and “The Balfour Declaration”. It is a short but fascinating read, as it provides a portrait of Zionism in its infancy – before world world 2, before the Holocaust and before the establishment of The State of Israel.
In reading through the book I found 2 of his themes extremely relevant and important for gaining perspective on what is unfolding in Israel these past few weeks. I’d like to share them with you, as I feel that both points are sorely missing from the general conversation, especially outside Israel.
Point 1 – What is at the center of it?
Already in the Balfour Declaration, immediately after stating that “His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object”, it goes on to state “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non Jewish communities in Palestine”.
Similarly, as early as in May 1917, Dr. Chaim Weizmann made the following statements:
“One of the important problems to be considered… is the delicate question of the Holy Places… We trust to the fairness and justice of the nations… that they will see to it that the arrangements made are fair and satisfactory to everyone”
On a different occasion he stated: “(The Jews) wished to interfere in no way with the Holy Places to which the hearts of Muslims and Christians turned with reverence”. In 1922, when the British mandate was to be approved by The League of Nations, the declaration included:
“The Secretary of State believes that a policy upon these lines, coupled with the maintenance of the fullest religious liberty in Palestine and with scrupulous regard for the rights of each community with reference too its Holy Places… and that upon this basis may be built up the spirit of co-operation upon which the future progree and prosperity of the Holy Land must largely depend”
The body of the original mandate expounds on this point:
“All responsibility in connection with the Holy places and religious buildings… including securing free access to the Holy Places, religious buildings and sites and the free exercise of worship… is assumed by the mandatory… and provided also that nothing in this mandate shall be construed as conferring upon the Mandatory authority to interfere with the fabric or the management of purely Muslim sacred shrines, the immunities of which are guaranteed”. A special commission shall be appointed… to define and determine the rights and claims relating to the different religious communities in Palestine”
In a statement submitted to The League of nations, it is stated that
“(the Jews) have from the outset recognized the Christian and Muslim Holy Places as sacrosanct and inviolable. They indignantly repudiate the injurious and wholly unfounded suggestion that they desire to trespass upon them or to claim any voice in questions relating to their maintenance or their custody”.
These are just a few examples, among many others, that demonstrate the degree to which the questions of the Holy Sites was at the center of attention – and contention – from the very beginning of Zionism. It seems that the deepest fear – nationally and internationally – had to do with the status of the Holy Places.
It would seem that it has always been, to some degree, about the Holy Places and what they symbolize – the right to both the land of God and possibly even the right to God himself. We seem to be witnessing the boiling over of an issue which, for many, many years, we skirted under the rug. It began to resurface following the six day war but has become an increasingly hot issue in the past 10 years. It seems we can no longer hide from taking a stand on what Har HaBayit means to us, not only as a futuristic concept, but what it means to us here and now. We are just now realizing that, at least for the Arabs, it has been at the heart of the conflict this entire time and the dots are now being connected between the Temple Mount to every other area of the country. The longer we wait to take our own stance on what Har HaBayit means to our national identity and to Modern Zionism, the more ground we will lose and the greater the price we may be forced to pay, as we seem to – finally – have reached the heart of the problem. I can’t say I have the answer to the question I am posing – “What does, or should, Har HaBayit mean to The State of Israel?” but am just identifying that we find ourselves now forced to form an answer. Evidently, Hashem feels we are ready for it.
Point 2 – Historical Perspective and Optimism
In his final chapter, titled “Zionist Aims and Prospects”, Stein attempts to lay out future directions for the Zionist Movement:
At the census of October 1922 there were only 83,794 Jews in Palestine as compared with 673,388 non-Jews, of whom the overwhelming majority may be classified as Arabs… nor do the immigration returns of the past few years point to the early or even the eventual establishment of a Jewish majority… from the facts at present available there is only one inference to be drawn. Palestine will find room in course of time for some hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants; it will become a country in which the Jews form a much larger percentage of the population than in any other part of the world but there is little likelihood of its absorbing them in such numbers as will make them an actual majority…
…Nevertheless, Palestine stands out as the one country in the world in which Jewish immigrants have in principle an assured right of entry under an international guarantee. But this is not all. Palestine is much more than one among other conceivable places of refuge. Palestine is not merely a country: it is an idea. The Jews… see in Palestine the symbol for their will to live. It is in Palestine that the Jews see their opportunity of making their distinctive contribution to the common stock. Here is a derelict country in which everything remains to be done. Let the Jews rebuild it; let them reclaim its wastes; let them develop its neglected resources; let them make it a model of a healthy and well ordered society; let them give it a place of its own in the world of thought and learning. Then, indeed, they will have triumphantly vindicated themselves as a constructive force.
Thus what the Jews are doing in Palestine is to translate spiritual values into terms of economic reconstruction. And in another profound sense the Jews, in redeeming Palestine, are redeeming themselves. Palestine stands, in their eyes, not only for self respect, but for self expression. It is not merely a derelict country waiting to be restored: it has a magic of its own. In Palestine, just because it is Palestine, Jewish life has a distinctive quality and is keyed too a higher pitch.
During the past 30 years, the devoted labors and the lavish expenditure of the Jewish Colonization Association have enabled about 30,000 Jews to settle on the land in Argentina and Brazil. So far as it goes, this is a valuable piece of work. But the 30,000 colonists have created nothing beyond their farms. They have not made the smallest impression upon the Jewish world at large; nor has anyone ever suggested that “from Mauricio shall go forth the Law the Word of the Lord from Entre-Rios”.
Very different, as has been seen, are the results and the prospects of Jewish colonization in Palestine. The contrast is illuminating. The Zionists are under no illusion in believing that in Palestine, and in Palestine alone, it is possible to build up a many sided and self relient Jewish society which shall be a true reflection of the Jewish genius and a living embodiment of Jewish ideals”.
O, how wrong he was about his first prediction and how correct he was about the second one! How wrong he was that “there is little likelihood of… making them an actual majority”. From a marginal minority in the land we have become not only the decisive majority but the also the full sovereign. And how right he was that “in redeeming Palestine we are redeeming ourselves” and that we have “translated spiritual values into terms of economic reconstruction” and “made a distinctive contribution to the common stock”! These words of inspiration form 90 years ago, serve as a reminder of everything that has been achieved in the past 90 years; how far we have come and to what degree the dreams of our forefathers are being realized in front of our eyes.
I share these words not only as a way of staying optimistic in the trying times we are in but in order to put into perspective the lives and deaths of the murdered. All of the hopes reflected in the above passages, which have been realized in the past century did so through people like Rabbi Eitam and Na’ama Henkin, Rabbi Nechemia Lavi and Aharon Benita. Rabbi Eitam and Na’ama Henkin were murdered as representatives of the continued Jewish efforts of settling the Land of Israel. Rabbi Nechemia Lavi was murdered as a representative of renewing Torah study – Torat Eretz Yisrael – in the wellspring of Jewish inspiration. Aharon Benita was murdered as a representative of protecting the land and people of Israel. Many others have been injured – as representatives – for reinforcing our connection to the old city through Tfila, or as our representatives for going to the the store or mall, all of which strengthen the connection of Am Yisrael to the land, people and destiny of Israel. And they were not just representatives, they were our representatives. They were representing us when they were doing all these great deeds and they were representing us when they were murdered.
We mourn the loss of the individuals. We mourn the lives cut short. We mourn for the widowed and orphaned. We mourn for our own great loss. But, we must not mourn them as victims of random acts of hate and antisemitism. We must mourn them as soldiers on the field of battle; the great battle of the return to our homeland, the return to ourselves as Hashem’s people. Just as we mourn the horrific death Rabbi Akiva but, at the same time, allowed it to instill within us perseverance, faith and even inspiration – so too we should do in our current mourning.
They were all soldiers in the great awakening of the Spirit of Israel which has already achieved so much and cannot be stopped כי ה’ דבר, because God has spoken!