Why We Need Israel

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Opening Statement in debate at Central Connecticut State University on 2/10/04.

I am grateful for the opportunity to be here this evening, but on a very real level, the topic before us is not debatable. The concept of Zionism symbolizes the Jews people’s allegiance to and longing for their ancestral home -- Israel. The concept of Zionism -- even though the name is of later derivation -- is as old as the Covenant between God and Abraham that launched the Jewish people. In truth, to debate whether Zionism is good or bad is to debate whether Judaism is good or bad because the Zionist ideal is an inextricable part of our people’s religious history since that history began.

In more modern terms, the Zionist dream, and its realization the state of Israel is for nearly 98% of Jews worldwide a historical necessity. As the late Emil Fackenheim pointed out, Zionism and the State of Israel are the antidote to thousands of years of persecution of the Jews. First, the enemy told us: “You cannot live here as Jews.” So they forced us to convert. Then they told us, “You cannot live here.” And they expelled us from almost every country in which Jews have ever settled. Finally, a generation ago, Hitler simply told us, “You cannot live.” And he murdered two thirds of Europe’s Jews. The realization of the Zionist dream that the State of Israel represents means quite simply: Now there is a place where Jews can live, where we can live as Jews, and we can live in our own place -- no longer subject to the whims or changing priorities of others. No, the legitimacy of Zionism, the Jewish liberation movement that created Israel, is no more negotiable than the right of the United States to establish a society on this continent or the Italians to establish a homeland in Italy.

To think otherwise -- to think that Israel will ever willingly walk off the map of the earth and off the pages of history is folly. If the world truly cares about the plight and future of the Palestinian people let those of good will cease their futile efforts to dismantle the Jewish State of Israel and concentrate on creating the climate of acceptance and cooperation that can lead to a viable two state solution -- one Palestinian Arab, one Israeli and Jewish -- in the Middle East. Peaceful coexistence between Israel and her Arab neighbors would benefit everyone.

The actual term, “Zion” -- as a synonym for the Temple Mount and by extension for Jerusalem -- as a symbol of Jewish Messianic longing begins after the Babylonians capture Jerusalem, destroy the Temple and exile the population in 586 B.C.E. During those years, the Messianic ideal arose which consisted of the end of Jewish persecution and a restoration of the exiles to the Land of Israel. The later prophets encouraged such a return after the Persians conquered the Babylonians in 537 B.C.E., and the returnees rebuilt their land and their Temple from the ground up. That Messianic ideal also gave voice to the immortal hope for a world in which “none shall cause fear” and all shall live in peace and security.

More than 650 years later -- another 650 years of complete Jewish sovereignty in Zion -- after the Romans destroyed the rebuilt Temple in the year 70 C.E., they reduced the Jewish population of Judea, the once and future Israel, to a mere fraction that lived in privation and hardship. Jewish life continued there although its main spiritual and intellectual center shifted to Babylon.

According to the young liberal Christian scholar, Y. M. Wang, the ideal that history would come to call Zionism -- the Land of Israel and the longing for it -- was absolutely central to Jewish life both inside and outside the land.

The Talmud of Babylonia proclaims that in the end of days underground tunnels will bring the souls of exiled Jews back to the Promised Land. The Jerusalem Talmud declares that is better to live on an ash heap in Jerusalem (a graphic reflection of the privations imposed by the conquerors) than to live in a palace anywhere else. The centrality of the Land of Israel in the religious consciousness of both Jewish communities, writes Wang, was as central as the cross to the religious consciousness of Christians.

For many Jews the ideal of Return to Zion had to wait until the Messiah came to set the wrongs of history aright with one decisive stroke. In the 19th century that notion came under challenge from two disparate ends of the Jewish world.

In 1862 the great Orthodox rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer challenged that idea when he wrote D’rishat Tzion, a book that encouraged Jews to think in Covenantal terms and not to wait for God to bring them to the land on wings of eagles but rather to settle it themselves. Kalischer’s clarion call achieved only modest success.

In 1894, though, an event occurred that changed the course of one assimilated Jew’s life and the course of Jewish history as well. Theodor Herzl traveled from Vienna to Paris as a journalist to cover the trial for treason of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the highest-ranking Jewish officer in the French army. The charges were completely trumped up and fueled by virulent anti-Semitism. Herzl concluded that if the Jews were so vulnerable to persecution in a country as enlightened as France, the only solution was for them to have a land of their own, which they could control. Thus was born the beginning of modern political Zionism. Herzl died of exhaustion at the age of 44, his dream of a Jewish State unrealized, but with the seeds carefully sown.

When World War I ended, the Ottoman Empire’s control of the Middle East ceased. Out of that erstwhile empire, 22 Islamic and/or Arabic nation states have emerged. In those states Jews have few or no rights, and in many of them, Jews cannot even set foot.

Jews also lived in the Ottoman Empire. Why, I ask, is it permissible for there to be 22 Arab States where Jews have no rights, but it is not permissible for there to be one tiny Jewish State where Jews have some preference? Scholars differ about the details of the history of the Promised Land since the end of World War I. What is essential though, is this:

Had the Arab world accepted partition of the land, both at the time of the Peel Commission recommendation in 1937 or when the United Nations voted to create a Jewish State of Israel and an Arab State of Palestine, there would be peace today.

Had the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini, not openly declared his allegiance to Hitler and his desire to aid in the “final solution of the Jewish problem” by exterminating all the Jews in the Middle East, there would be peace today.

Had the Arab world not launched an invasion to wipe the State of Israel off the map in 1947, there would be peace today.

Had the Arab world settled its Palestinian refugees in a manner similar to the way Israel absorbed an equal number of refugees from Morocco, Yemen, Algeria, Tunisia, Iraq, Iran and many other Arab countries from which they fled to Israel with barely the shirts on their backs in many cases, there would be peace today.

Had the Arab world not mobilized once again to eliminate Israel, by blockading the straits of Tiran in 1967 and ordering UN troops out of the Sinai, there could be peace today.

Had the Arab world accepted or even sat and negotiated Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s unprecedented offer to return almost all of the West Bank -- land conquered by Israel after Jordan attacked her in 1967 -- there could be peace today.

What do the Arabs gain through their ongoing terror? Only more bloodshed. Indeed Golda Meir was correct when she said, “We shall have peace only when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.”

Many have touted the “one state solution” as if this suggestion alone will usher in peace and harmony. One cannot rationally speak of establishing a “secular Democracy where all religions traditions would live in peace and harmony” in light of history. We Jews already know --all too well-- what it means to live as a sometimes tolerated and sometimes not tolerated minority under the rule of Muslims and Christian. Our long experience under such conditions includes -- but is not limited to the following:

Arab Massacres of Jews:
Fez, Morocco, 6,000 murdered in 1033
Libya, Ali Burzi Pasha murdered hundreds of Jews in 1785
Damascus Blood libel of 1840
Tetuan, Morocco 1790
Algiers, 1805, 1815, 1830
Mashdad, Persia 1839
Barfurush, Persia, 1867
Baghdad, Iraq, 1828, 1941
Fez, Morocco, 1465
Fez, Morocco, 1912 (Jewish Quarter destroyed)
Yemen passed a law that Jewish orphans under age 12 to be forcibly converted to Islam 1922.

These examples make clear why Zionism and its realization -- our own State in our ancestral home to which we have had unbroken ties since we emerged as a particular people -- is our only hope. Surrounding nations have much to gain from the friendship we offer. If they prefer, though, let them leave us alone. The one state solution, however, is nothing but a code phrase for the destruction of Israel and to such a proposal the Jews of the world -- save a tiny minority -- respond in unison and resolve: Never again!

When the United Nations voted on November 29, 1947 to create two states an Arab Palestinian State and a Jewish State that would carry the ancient name Israel, the reactions in the Arab world and in the fledgling Jewish State could not have been more different.
The Secretary-General of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha proclaimed that the destruction of Israel “will be a war like the Mongolian massacres, like the crusades.” He promised that the rivers would flow with Jewish blood.

At the same time, in contrast to those cries, Israel’s Declaration of Independence issued this invitation. “In this hour we turn to the Arab Citizens of the Jewish state and our Arab neighbors. We offer peace and friendship. We desire to build our State in common with the Arabs as equal citizens. Our freedom is their freedom. Their future and ours rest on common endeavor.”

Oh, how Arab terror has frustrated that dream, but I say tonight. In spite of everything that hand of friendship can still be extended. All the Arab world in general and the Palestinians in particular need do is grasp it, acknowledge unequivocally, as U.N. Resolution 242 provides, that Israel has the right to exist as a free and sovereign state, and there is no doubt in my mind that the future of the Middle East could be as bright as the present is bleak.

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs serves Congregation Beth Israel of West Hartford, Connecticut.