by David Breakstone
A beautiful summer day in Budapest by a tranquil park on the Danube. An incongruous backdrop to the harrowing account we are listening to of events that transpired here on a freezing winter day 67 years ago. In an excerpt from Yair Lapid’s biography of his father, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, the 13-year-old future Knesset member is being marched out of the ghetto with his mother and hundreds of other Jews to the edge of the frozen river. He knew what was to happen next. The Hungarian Nazi guards would line them up on the embankment, tie them to one another, and then shoot just enough of them to cause the rest to plunge through the holes that had been hacked in the ice, there to drown in the frigid water below.
Suddenly a Soviet plane flew overhead and in the ensuing havoc Tommy’s mother managed to smuggle him into the public toilet that stood just a few feet from where we were. There they remained when the others resumed walking. “Half an hour later, not a single person from the march was left alive,” Lapid writes, and recalls his father telling him years later that “it was at this place that I became a Zionist. It is the whole Zionist idea, in fact,” he went on, explaining the reason for Israel’s creation: “so that every Jewish child will always have a place to go.”
A few hours later I had an opportunity to debrief the group of 47 Israeli counselors from the Habonim Dror and Hechalutz Lamerchav youth movements that I was leading on a journey in Herzl’s footsteps. “What do you make of Tommy Lapid’s Zionism?” I asked them. “It’s a Zionism with no future,” they answered.
What they meant, and why I was glad to hear it, was accentuated when we returned home a few days later as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was inspecting the five-meter-high, 240-kilometer-long barrier going up along our border with Egypt. Add to that the security wall separating Jerusalem from the West Bank, the Good Fence in the North and the barbed wire around Gaza and it is difficult to keep from wondering if Herzl’s Zionism has resolved “the Jewish question” after all, or merely moved it to a new venue.
The enclosures we are erecting aren’t just keeping our enemies out; they’re keeping us in. And, as in the days of old, venturing beyond the compound has become fraught with danger, including the very real possibility of detention in foreign airports and arrest for crimes against humanity. Surely ours is not “The New Ghetto” Herzl had in mind when he wrote a play by that name more than a century ago, but it does underscore the fact that we are still living with a strain of the insecurity experienced by the Jews he was writing of in anti- Semitic fin-de-siècle Vienna. Despite all of their – and our – efforts to shed any vestiges of abnormality, we are still facing virulent accusations of being responsible for the woes of others.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The founder of modern Zionism had promised us that by establishing a state of our own, by becoming a nation like any other, we would bring about an end to Judeo-phobia and be allowed to live out our lives in peace and security.
Even the local Arabs would welcome us with open arms, Herzl postulated in an exaggerated expression of naiveté, imagining a Jewish state that would have no need for an army. How differently things have turned out.
To be sure, no comparison can be made between our ability to defend ourselves now and then, and no countenance to be shown to any expression of doubt about the absolute necessity of having a place in which every Jew might find refuge. Indeed, none of the youth leaders I was with argued otherwise. They did, however, insist that a safe place in which to dwell never was, and must never become, the end-all of the Jewish people’s quest for self-determination. “A haven that is not also a foundation for a fairer and more moral society does not reflect the totality of Zionism,” they argued, substantiating their claim by invoking the chants of this summer’s massive protest movement: “The nation demands social justice.”
They were not alone in linking the demonstrations that convulsed Israeli society these past several months to Zionist ideology. Those leading the rallies and those participating in them were not concerned only about having a roof over their heads and putting food on their tables but also about creating a society rooted in the value of looking out for one another, a value repeatedly articulated as being rooted in Jewish sources and the Zionist vision. This was a summer not about “me” but about “us.” For the first time in a long time, the focus was not on the individual but the on collective.
A summer during which a generation notorious for its cynicism opted instead for old-time Zionism.
On the eve of the Palestinian bid for statehood, this embrace of Zionism is especially important. As many have argued over the past few weeks, the unsettling events unfolding in our region have little to do with anything we have done, or might have done and didn’t. Nothing in our actions or nonactions explains or justifies the murderous attack against the Israeli embassy in Cairo, the cooling of our relations with Jordan, the ferocity of the Turkish onslaught against us or the barrage of rockets fired from Gaza.
Still – and this has been all but ignored in treatments of the subject – there is a huge difference between being right and being self-righteous. Our “innocence” and their “guilt” are neither excuse nor reason to act obtusely or with recalcitrance in regard to the peace process and the urgings of those who genuinely have our best interests at heart. What we do may have no impact on our avowed enemies, but it still has influence over our friends – and there is no sense in chauvinistically denying that we have them, sometimes even where and when we need them.
No less importantly, doing the right thing is integral to the Zionism that surfaced this summer, the sort that does have a future. A Zionism that not only offers a place to hide, but that also exudes tolerance, cares for the stranger, celebrates the universal, strives for a higher purpose and takes risks in the passionate pursuit of peace.
The less control we have over what is happening beyond our borders, the more important our inner strength – a strength that is dependent on our social fabric no less than on our military prowess. If we do not create a society capable of inspiring the next generation, no one will remain to bear arms in its defense.
It is against this background that my journey with the leaders of these youth movements was so inspiring – and the need for strengthening them so apparent.
They didn’t need to be told to keep dreaming. It was a trait they had imbibed from their counselors and would pass on to their charges – along with a commitment to discourse, idealism, volunteerism and mutual accountability.
On the eve of Rosh Hashana such a realization was reassuring. During this season more than any other we stand as a single congregation, taking responsibility for each others’ actions even in the privacy of our individual prayers. A return to celebration of the collective might be called “retro” in the short history of the Zionist enterprise. In the long history of the Jewish people it is called tradition.
David Breakstone is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive; the opinions expressed are his own. Published courtesy of the author.