He was even more astonished when he realized that they were crying about an event that had occurred nearly two thousand years ago. He then made the now famous remark that a people whose loss of their homeland is engraved in their memory for almost two thousand years is a people destined to return to it.
Who were these nameless Jews in an obscure Parisian synagogue sitting on the ground, shoeless, unshaven, bent over candlelight, crying and praying for the return to Zion? Who were they? I will tell you. Napoleon made a great discovery that day. He discovered the existence of true Zionists.
For that matter, who do you think were the first Zionists, the very first ones? Do you think it was Achad Ha’am, Pinsker and Lilienblum? No! Was it Herzl, Nordau and Jabotinsky? No! The first Zionists emerged in the first year after the destruction of Jerusalem. On Tisha B’Av of that year, they were sitting on the ground, shoeless at candlelight, crying and praying for the return to Zion. They were the first Zionists.
I am saying this because Zionism without a religious component is not real Zionism. It is Herzlism. Herzlism can be defined as Jewish nationalism devoid of any vestige of holiness or attachment to millennia of Jewish heritage. Nationalism without spiritual bonds to Torah and Israel is insufficient to capture the essence of the Jewish people.
Theodor Herzl had a noble and practical dream of how to save the Jews from the ravages of anti-Semitism. Give him Uganda, and he would take it. Thousands of years of Jewish history, creativity and thought were foreign to him. The indescribable yearnings of the Jewish people to return to Zion were ignored by him. Therefore Herzlism is not true Zionism, and his followers are not true Zionists.
Now that we’ve established who the first Zionists were, let’s find out who the real Zionists are in our time. I suggest that, just like Napoleon did, you take a walk on any Tisha B’Av night and take a peek through the windows of any synagogue. What do you think you will see? You will see the same thing Napoleon saw: men, women and children sitting shoeless on the ground, praying at candlelight for the return to Zion. What you will be looking at are the true Zionists of our time.
If you are still not convinced, come with me to Kennedy or Newark airport at the beginning of the Hebrew school year. Take a good look and you will see yeshiva boys and seminary girls flocking to attend schools in Israel. In spite of the Intifada, in spite of the suicide bombers, they keep coming as their mothers hold back tears while they board the airplanes. These young sons and daughters of Israel are the true Zionists. May G-d bless them and protect them.
Who do you think patronized the hotels in Israel last Sukkot? It was an amazing phenomenon. Empty hotels suddenly filled to the rafters. Who filled them? Orthodox and chassidic Jews, in an expression of solidarity with a suffering Israel, decided to spend the holidays in the Holy Land. They did not go to Florida. They did not go to the Caribbean. They went to Israel. They are true Zionists.