To Liberate a People

On Passover, Jews around the world celebrate a story — the liberation from Egypt — that embodies at once the sense of peoplehood and the notion that a people merits a homeland of its own. The story of liberation from bondage is woven into the Jewish fabric. Whether symbolic or real, it communicates the Jewish people’s longing and their common destiny. Part of that destiny is recapturing our national identity.

It is basically an impossible task to find a time when Judaism was only a religion, when the Jews were not a people with a culture, history — and for a time — a national homeland of their own. As a people, Jews go back thousands of years, so it was very much as a people that Jews in the Zionist movement sought their liberation through a return to their national homeland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As Jewish history evolved and Jewish culture was enriched over centuries, beliefs, religious practices, group experience, and collective memory bound the Jews more intricately together. Pride in cultural achievement was mixed with physical isolation in ghettos and the trauma of being cast out of countries and subjected to mass violence. Assimilation was an answer for some, but for others it proved impossible. All this solidified the sense of peoplehood and made the Zionist movement persuasive.

With the resurgence of anti-Semitism in many parts of the world, the rebirth of far right political groups, and continued propagandizing by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, all of it devoted in part to demonizing Israel and its Zionist inspiration, we need to remind ourselves of Jewish peoplehood and to remind everyone that Zionism was born as a national liberation movement. That foundational history was not erased once its primary goal of creating a Jewish homeland was achieved. Nor is it erased because a Jewish state capable of defending itself now exists. The long arc of that history and the need it expressed still culminate in the gift a homeland gives to Jews worldwide today.

The call of that homeland — and its capacity to liberate Jews worldwide — still resonates. It is deeply embedded in the psychology of what it now means to be Jewish. No diaspora Jew lives only in one place or one country. There is another place, a Jewish state, that gives all Jews a unique, dynamic two-part geographical identity. We each have another self who lives there as well as here. Israel is thus a part of who we are; it is part of our identity.

As a grandchild of immigrants, I am aware of a family history that includes other countries, but that in no way compares to the living relationship with a peoples’ homeland. And that relationship is itself dual, because Israel is a contemporary society saturated with an ancient past. You walk through fields and among hills in Israel, and you feel that ancient past beneath your feet.

Across the world, Jews in some countries still need a compensatory confidence that they can emigrate, that there is a homeland they can return to if need arises. In many places Jews cannot feel liberated where they are without Israel as both a source of pride and a practical option. Even if you never exercise the option of emigrating, the fact that the option exists can make a difference. Therefore, the concept of Zionism as a national liberation movement is not only natural and very much alive, but also necessary.