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July 21, 2016 2:58 am

Thanks to Zionism…

avatar by Bob Feferman

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Pope Francis, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres, at the grave of Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. Photo: Screenshot.

Pope Francis, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres, at the grave of Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. Photo: Screenshot.

Over the past several years, we have witnessed a growing and dangerous trend — especially on many college campuses — delegitimizing Israel and questioning its right to exist. This is a new, concerted effort to equate Zionism with racism. That’s why I would like to share some experiences from a recent trip to Israel, as a reminder of the accomplishments of the Zionist movement that brought about the creation of Israel.

While visiting a museum near Tel Aviv, I sat in a coffee shop and began a conversation with a young security guard. Danny is 22 years old and recently completed his mandatory military service in the IDF. Danny grew up in London. When my wife and I asked what brought him to Israel, he told us how he was severely beaten at age 16 when a gang of thugs targeted him for wearing a kippah.

Following that experience, Danny knew that he had two choices: either assimilate or emigrate. Thanks to Zionism, Danny now has a place where he can openly show his Jewishness with pride. And he is not alone.

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Last year, 800 Jews left the UK for Israel. In France, things are much worse. In 2015, nearly 8,000 French Jews fled antisemitism to come to Israel. And that brings me to a second story.

During our trip, we also attended a gathering of my wife’s family. As I sat looking at her siblings, and their children and grandchildren, I thought, “What would have become of them if it were not for Israel?”

My wife’s family fled Iraq in 1951 along with 120,000 other Jews of the ancient Iraqi Jewish community.  Had they remained, they would now be a target of ISIS and other extremists. And they were not alone.

Since the founding of Israel in 1948, more than 850,000 Jews have fled persecution in the Arab world. Most of them came to Israel. Thanks to Zionism, they have a safe haven and a place to call home. That is why author Ari Shavit rightly calls Israel, “the home for the homeless people.”

And there is another aspect of life in Israel that is not often reported in the media.

During our trip, we had to take a member of our tour group to Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center for emergency surgery. While waiting in the ER, I witnessed a group of doctors and nurses rushing an unconscious Arab boy with a severe head wound down the hall to a CT scan. Actually, there was nothing unusual about this scene.

At Shaare Zedek, as in all Israeli hospitals, Jewish doctors and nurses work daily alongside Arab doctors and nurses to heal the sick and wounded of all backgrounds, including Israel’s 1.7 million Arab citizens.

On a trip to an Israeli army base on the Golan Heights, we learned about another story that is not well publicized.  Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war that has cost the lives of nearly half a million civilians, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has provided emergency medical aid to thousands of wounded Syrians. In fact, the IDF has transported some 2,000 severely wounded Syrians to Israeli hospitals for life-saving surgery.

Why is this important to know?

These daily scenes of peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews are rarely shared by the American media. Therefore, when Israel is criticized in the media, most Americans have very little context for understanding the reality of life in Israel. In order to truly understand Israel, context is everything.

No doubt the critics of Israel will say that all these accomplishments are very nice, but celebrating them is just a cynical attempt to “whitewash” the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Therefore, a few facts are in order.

Israel’s presence in the West Bank is a result of a war of self-defense — the June war of 1967– a war that Israel did not want. Ever since, Israel has shown its willingness to exchange land for peace. Specifically, Israel has made concrete and generous offers for a two-state solution in both 2000 and 2008. Both offers were rejected by the Palestinians whose leaders continue to refuse to return to direct negotiations.

It should be clear that the goal of Zionism is to provide normalcy for the Jewish people, not endless conflict with Israel’s neighbors.

When Theodor Herzl inaugurated the Zionist movement in 1897, the immediate focus was to provide a safe haven for the persecuted Jews of Czarist Russia. Little did he realize that his dream would also provide a safe haven for the Jews of the Middle East. And who could have predicted that antisemitism would be alive and well in Europe in the 21st century?

Thanks to Zionism, the Israel of 2016 continues to serve as a refuge for the Jewish people and a shining example of peaceful co-existence for peoples of different religions in a very troubled region.

Bob Feferman is Community Relations Director for the Jewish Federation of St. Joseph Valley in South Bend, Indiana. 

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