In the first years of Israel’s existence the small country of Israel welcomed more immigrants than the number of citizens absorbing them. In its first years the state welcomed 685,000 immigrants. It was to say the least a remarkable achievement. Ari Shavit, in his remarkable book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, points out that this would be equivalent to 21st century America absorbing 350 million immigrants. Not only was this the fulfillment of the age-old Jewish dream of gathering the Jewish exiles from the four corners of the world, but it was as well the embodiment of the Declaration of Independence’s words:
The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people – the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe – was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of the Jews' homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz Yisrael [the land of Israel] the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the community of nations.Israel is first and foremost about building a home for the Jewish people. Zionism is about ending statelessness. It is about correcting Jewish homelessness. Ari Shavit writes about one immigrant’s arrival in 1951. It is the story of Zeev Sternhell:
[A]s we disembarked, a few children knelt and kissed the ground. I didn’t kneel or kiss the ground, but I felt I had arrived. This was the last station— no more wandering, no more transformations, no more false identities. No more fraud and forgery. No more not being myself. For subterfuge and deceit were not needed here. Something artificial and scary fell away from me. Something that had to do with the perpetual need I felt to justify myself. But in the State of Israel I no longer had to justify or explain. It was a great relief. I didn’t speak Hebrew yet, I didn’t know what the future held. I was alone, without possessions or protection. But I was filled with the amazing feeling that the long, excruciating journey had come to an end.Zionism means no more wandering, no more longing to return. It means we have returned. The State of Israel represents the shift from an imaginary home that is the stuff of dreams to a real home of the land and earth. For centuries the far-flung dream of “Next year in Jerusalem” sustained us. Now it is real.
And yet questions remain. How do we continue to sustain our ideals? It is far easier to be idealistic, to speak about lofty dreams, when one is a homeless wanderer. In the diaspora we only had dreams and ideals. And yet with centuries of idealism came thousands of years of victimization. Zionists were, and remain, brutal realists. Home was transitory. It was impermanent. Zionism corrected this—forever.
Ari Shavit again:
Without a Jewish state, secular Jews like himself would stand naked in the world. They would have no home, no collective self, and no future. Therefore, Sternhell embraced his new identity completely. Only in Israel did he not have to justify himself or hide himself. Only as an Israeli could he turn from being an object of history to being a subject of history. Only as an Israeli could he be the master of his own fate.We are now masters of our own history. We are not dependent on world powers but instead on Jewish power. Still we continue to ask: how do we wield sovereign power with ethics and justice? How do we transform our thinking now that we are home? How do we shift our age-old beliefs now that we have Jewish sovereignty? How do we exile thousands of years of diaspora thinking no more seeing ourselves as objects but instead as subjects?
We wander no more. Still our thoughts continue to search for a home. Our ideals wander.
We built a state because of our dreams. We survived for the sake of our dreams. Now we are home. And dreams must continue to sustain our souls.
We sing about a better tomorrow.
“May the One who brings peace to the high heavens make peace for us…”