Saturday, February 12, 2000

Zionism is not Dead

Last week, touring with a couple of Americans, I stopped off at the ancient Ashkenazi cemetery in Hebron. This cemetery was used primarily by the Chabad-Lubuvitchers, who arrived in Hebron beginning in the early 1800s. The most prominent person interred at the cemetery is Menucha Rachel Shneerson Slonim, granddaughter of the Ba'al HaTanya, the founder of the Chabad movement, and daughter of the "Middler Rebbi." The entire cemetery was razed to the ground between 1929 and 1967. However Menucha Rachel's gravesite was restored, due to the generous help of Rabbi Yosef Gutnick. Unfortunately, Arabs in the area constantly desecrate her grave because the Israeli security forces refuse to post guards at the cemetery. They also prevent Jews in Hebron from guarding the site 24 hours a day. However, every afternoon a group of men study Torah in the small courtyard adjacent to the actual cemetery. During those few hours a small contingent of Israeli soldiers are posted there, to protect them from any Arab attacks. While we were there last week one of the soldiers, hearing us speaking English, approached us and asked us where we were from. It turns out that this soldier, named Ari, is from Texas and has been in the army for seven months. We talked for a little while and then continued on our way. This morning, during Shabbat prayers at Ma'arat HaMachpela, I noticed him, asked him where he was eating lunch, and invited him to my home for a Shabbat meal. He agreed and met me at Beit Hadassah an hour later. During lunch he told us that he is not yet an Israeli citizen. Ari is participating in a program called "Machal" which, translated into English, is a program for non-Israelis who wish to voluntarily serve in the army. Ari, 20 years old and a student at Yeshiva University in New York, did four months of basic training and another 2 months of military exercises. He is now in Hebron and will soon be heading off on another assignment. Three months from now he will take off his uniform and study in a Hesder Yeshiva for another 3 months, before wrapping up the program. I asked him why he wanted to serve in the Israeli army, even before he declares citizenship, (which he eventually plans on doing). His answer, in one word, was "Zionism." Here is an American from Texas, sitting next to me in Hebron, wearing an army uniform, 20 years old, telling me that he is willing to put his life on the line because of "Zionism.' In the ensuing discussion he told me that he is aware that many Israelis look for ways to avoid serving. He also expressed disappointment that most of the fellows in his unit serve, not for ideological reasons, but because they have no choice. Even so, Ari is happy that he is here, doing what he is doing. Following his stint in the army, Ari plans to continue his higher education here in Israel. Having already begun in the United States, it would be easier to continue there. This he knows. But he also understands that it is more important for him to be here. He doesn't want to 'get stuck' in the United States. The only way to be sure of being here in Israel is, very simply, to be here. Ari didn't have a lot of time to spend with us. Duty calls. He left us, before we finished the meal, to begin another eight hour tour of duty. Not easy, standing in one spot for eight hours at a stretch. It is just as difficult, perhaps, to patrol for eight hours. But Ari left happily, knowing that he is fulfilling a mission - not only his mission, but the mission of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. Speaking before he left, I told Ari and the others at the table that I feel a spiritual uplifting being in the presence of such people, people who don't speak about what should be done, but actually go out and do it. Ari doesn't talk about ideals, he practices them. He doesn't look for excuses why it is too difficult to implement the ideals. He does what has to be done, easy or hard. Sure, there are disappointments - but they are not impediments to implementation; rather they serve to spur you on, looking forward, figuring out how to do more, how to improve. There are those who say that Zionism is dead and buried - Zionism being the movement of the Jewish people back to the land of Israel. On the face of it, witnessing the opposite of pure Zionism, seeing Jews separate themselves from the Land of Israel piece by peace, that hypothesis seems to be correct. But being with Ari for a couple of hours left me knowing that Zionism is not dead. Maybe Zionism is in a deep slumber, perhaps even hibernating. But as long as there are people like Ari in the world, people who understand a simple truth and live accordingly, not for their own benefit, but for a common good, the common good of the Jewish people in Israel, one must reach a conclusion that Zionism is not dead. Ari is a living example.