The Dream of Zionism: Yesterday and Today
Working as an educator at Hebrew University High School for the past three years, I’ve had the privilege to teach the next generation of Jerusalem youth. Like any other job, there are good days and bad days, but occasionally there are also rewarding days. It is that rare day when you’ve imparted a lesson beyond the grammar rule in the English textbook that makes teaching a profession worth the minimal paychecks and sometimes obnoxious students.
I was fortunate to have experienced such a day about two weeks ago, when I took my class of 33 eighth grade students to Israel’s national airport.
To clarify, I wasn’t getting rid of the students and flying them out of the country.
The visit to the airport came in light of a class project about aliyah, the Hebrew term for the immigration of Jewish people to Israel, a phenomena that has spanned for centuries since the Babylonian and Roman exile of the Jewish people from the land over 2000 years ago. On that particular Tuesday, a group of 45 North American newcomers (olim) had arrived with the US organization Nefesh B’Nefesh on a free charter flight to begin their new lives in the Holy Land.
The return to Israel has always been a fundamental Jewish aspiration and a central theme in Jewish holidays, prayers and traditions, documented in the Psalms, biblical texts and liturgy by celebrated Jewish poets such as Rabbi Yehuda Halevi of Spain who wrote about the return to Zion in works dating back to the 11th century.
In the 13th and 19th centuries, the number of Jews returning to the land of Israel rose due to religious persecution across Europe, and partly because of expulsions from England in 1290, France in 1306, Spain in 1492, and Portugal in 1498. In the early 13th century, a group of 300 rabbis from England and France led their people to Israel because of religious beliefs and persecution. At the time of the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of the land of Israel in 1517, Jews lived in Jerusalem, Nablus, Hebron, Safed and the Galilee. The Ottoman Turks allowed Jews fleeing from Spain to seek haven in Israel, with many making their homes in Safed and the Galilee.
The Jewish community in Israel continued to grow as pious Hasidic Jews in the late 18th century arrived in groups of thousands from across Eastern Europe as well as Jews from North Africa and Central Asia, settling in four main cities: Hebron, Jerusalem, Tiberias and Safed. Jerusalem developed most quickly and by 1844 the Jews made up the largest community in the city.
With the emergence of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century, which derived its name from the word “Zion” the traditional synonym for Jerusalem and the Land of Israel, larger organized Jewish immigration began. The first wave in 1882 brought 35,000 Jews, who sought to escape the pogroms in Russia, as well as Yemenite Jews, most of whom settled in Jerusalem.
The Jewish communities continued to subsist even after the British defeated the Ottoman Turks in 1917 during WWI, after 400 years of Ottoman Turkish rule. However, by 1939, the British severely restricted Jewish immigration with the White Paper, which limited Jewish immigration to Israel to 75,000 people in a five year period, against the backdrop of unbridled Nazi power and the Holocaust which was in the process of exterminating six million Jews in Europe. More than 100,000 Jews attempted to illegally enter Palestine by ship from 1937 to 1944, and almost all the ships were intercepted by the British. Half of these European Jews were arrested and held by the British in detention camps on the island of Cyprus. Subsequently, on July 15, 1945, when survivors from the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald arrived to Haifa, they were arrested by the British. This form of illegal immigration, known as Aliyah Bet continued until the founding of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948, after which the immigration of Jews to the Jewish state became officially legal.
Flash forward 64 years later and I watch my students wait excitedly for the new North American arrivals to come out to the reception area. They’ve prepared welcome signs both in English and Hebrew and are holding chocolates (some of which have been eaten) while waving Israeli flags.
The first couple to make their way out of the terminal happens to be the oldest couple to ever make aliyah in the history of Israel. Phillip and Dorothy Grossman, ages 95 and 93 respectively, smile and wave their mini-Israeli flags as they are wheeled out to be welcomed by their great-grandchildren, grandchildren and 33 Jerusalem students, singing and dancing.
The Grossmans, who have been married for 71 years and made aliyah from Baltimore, Maryland, have three children; one already living in Israel, five grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. Many members of the family including three great-grandchildren came to the airport to welcome the couple who will make their new home in Jerusalem.
Following the Grossmans, 43 other North Americans also received the same warm welcome from my Jerusalem students including an airplane pilot and random tourists coming through.
For my students, this was an important day. The arrival of these new immigrants highlighted many important things, including the fact that Jews around the world continue to want to make their home in Israel– no matter what their age or situation. The return to the Jewish homeland has always been a dream that has inspired the Jewish people for thousands of years. It is a dream that many continue to seek to make a reality, and for those that it is a reality, like the young generation of Israel today, it must never be taken for granted.
Anav Silverman is a writer and educator at Hebrew University High School in Jerusalem. She made aliyah from Maine 2004.