October 26, 2000
In The Beginning, There Was Zionism
Parashat Beresheet (Genesis 1:1-6:8)
Zionism. Remember that term? We don't hear it too often anymore. Many Jews seem uncomfortable with the term Zionism, saying it's "too strong" or it "breeds nationalism." Some of Israel's leading historians have gone as far as declaring this current period in Israel's history as the "post-Zionist era" - whatever that means. The virtual silencing of the word Zionism in our educational, religious or political vocabularies make the days when we enthusiastically took to the streets to fervently protest the United Nation's infamous "Zionism is Racism" resolution seem like ancient history.
In light of our current crisis in the place once known as the "Zionist homeland," I would like to revisit the origins and basis of this once central but now almost defunct term. When I say the "origins and basis of Zionism," I am not referring to the 19th century national movement founded by Theodor Herzl. Instead, I suggest that the beginning of Zionism comes "In the beginning," at the starting point of Jewish literature, with Genesis.
In his very first remarks on the Book of Genesis, the great Bible commentator Rashi states that if the Torah is limited to being a legal code of commandments (mitzvot), then the entire Book of Genesis, including the creation story and the patriarchal narratives, is unnecessary to the Torah, since these narratives do not contain legislative portions outlining commandments. Why, then, is the Book of Genesis a part of the Torah, asks Rashi?
His answer, summed up in one word - Zionism: "God created the world and gave [the Land of Israel] to whomever it was right in his eyes."
You may be uncomfortable with this religious Zionism and might not feel that invoking the Jewish people's "God given right" to the Land of Israel is a sophisticated discourse for the modern world.
For whatever it's worth, this religious Zionism served as the central thesis of the Jewish people's aspirations to return to Israel and Jerusalem throughout our nearly 2,000 years in the Diaspora. Sometimes, conveniently, we want to forget that.
But if Rashi's divine claim is too religious for you, then read on in the Book of Genesis and let the power of history serve as your guiding light. You will quickly detect that the narratives of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel not only tell of the family's personal and religious struggles, but their journeys in and out of Canaan serve to draw a map for what eventually became known as Eretz Yisrael. Abraham left his home for this "new land," Isaac was born in this land and never left, and Jacob left the land in his old age with his family inheriting the promise and aspiration to one day return.
If invoking the Bible still seems politically unsophisticated, then turn to a modern political document of 53 years ago: Israel's Declaration of Independence. The opening line of the declaration states: "The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people... here they wrote and gave the Bible to the world."
It is this very Bible, beginning with the Book of Genesis, this week's Torah portion, that serves as the basis for the establishment of a modern Jewish state on this particular piece of land. No matter what political viewpoint you hold, this biblical Zionism is something we all share in common. If not, we might want to reconsider the Uganda option.
Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.