Originally published in the IsraTimes and online at Jewneric - August 2008
The despondency that marks the two year anniversary of the recent war in Lebanon is, for me, mitigated by the happy anniversary of my Aliyah, which coincides with it. Packing to move to Israel as rockets rained down on the North and the IDF was being tested by Hizbullah was a strange experience indeed. So bizarre a lifestyle change was I apparently making, that at least two major newspapers interviewed me, asking why I would wish to immigrate to a war zone. Though neither I nor my wife questioned our decision, there was a collective sigh of relief amongst our family when the war came to a conclusion as we boarded the plane.
"Zionism is dead", a friend had told me before my Aliyah. "It's a dirty word". He went on to describe how those bent on Israel's destruction had hijacked the word and that the Israel organization he worked for was contemplating removing it from their materials. This was far from being the only downhearted comment that I heard in the Summer of 2006, right up until we stepped off the plane into Ben Gurion Airport and the officer at Passport Control greeted me with the question, "Why you come?"
Zionism isn't dead: My friend was dead wrong. I had moved to Israel to work for StandWithUs, the Israel education organization. One of my first assignments was to travel the country and interview hundreds of Israeli students who had applied for our nationwide Fellowship Program. We were on the lookout for personable, educated and globally-minded young Israelis who we could help train to be better representatives of their country.
And that's when it happened. One by one they entered the room, Israelis in their mid-twenties from every part of the country and from every background imaginable: Sabras, Russian-born, Ethiopian immigrants, Bedouins, Anglo Kibbutznikim, Moroccans, Israeli-Arabs and so on. They were as diverse a microcosm of the country as they could be; they came from across the political and religious spectrum, but one thing linked them together: their love of Israel. Zionism wasn't a dirty word, it was a positive symbol, an aspiration and the touchstone which most of the students referred to. And in those interviews, conducted a short time after the war had ended and many of these students had returned home from the front line, they spoke of that experience, many of them weeping. They articulated, better than any spokesman I have heard, an Israel relentless in its desire for peace and resolute in its need for security.
In the years since, I have had the pleasure of seeing and interacting with hundreds of young Israelis. Sure, there is a deep pessimism with the Israeli political system and a healthy skepticism of some of our less-than honest public servants. Yet at the same time, there is a will and desire to stand up and be counted and to step up to the challenge of representing their country. Israel and her supporters should learn from these young Zionists of today, devoted to their cause and pioneering in their spirit, over 100 years since the First Zionist Congress. These up-and-coming young Israelis now form a Fellowship which is empowering them to be informed, active, articulate and globally-minded leaders. This is one of many signs that we can be confident in the next generation of Zionists.
Israelis and Israel's supporters have changed. So have the challenges they face. Arguably, Israel is as under attack as ever, not just from the very real enemies from within and without, but by a creeping delegitimization campaign being fought daily in the press and on the Web. For too long, we have allowed ourselves to be defined by those who mean Israel harm. Israel does need to be re-branded and in a way my friend was right, but rather than abandon Zionism – the legitimate right of Jews to self-determination in their historic homeland – we need to embrace it. These young Israelis, many of them war-weary, wear their Zionism on their sleeves. If only more of us would do the same.