Photo Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90
Israeli flag at the Kotel

Legend has it that Napoleon Bonaparte once passed by a synagogue in Paris and observed that men, women, and children were sitting on the ground and crying. He was curious as to what catastrophe had befallen them and how he could help. He was surprised to learn that they were mourning the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the banishment of the Jewish people from their homeland.

He was even more astonished when he realized they were mourning an event that had occurred nearly two thousand years ago. He is said to have remarked 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?

I will tell you who they were. Napoleon had 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? Achad Ha’am, Pinsker, Lilienblum? No. Herzl, Nordau, 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 say 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. Herzlism, therefore, is not true Zionism.

* * * * *

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.

Do you or did you ever watch your mother light the Sabbath candles? Please watch her closely, and if she is not nearby or has passed from this world, picture her in your mind. She stands with her hands over her eyes and whispers softly with emotion, and sometimes with a tear, “Let the will of God be that the holy Temple be rebuilt in our days…”

Yes, your mother is or was a true Zionist.

I will tell you another thing, and it is a very important thing: Every Jew who prays three times a day, clamoring for the redemption and uttering the words “Let our eyes see Your [God’s] return to Zion with compassion” is a true Zionist.

And let it be stated emphatically that every Jew who proclaims to God three times a day with great emotion and trepidation “and to Jerusalem Your city You shall return with tenderness” is a true Zionist.

Generations of Jews yearned to have the merit to see Jerusalem, to touch its stones and to feel its holiness. Moshe Rabbeinu pleaded with Hashem to grant him entry to the Holy Land but did not succeed.

Yehuda Halevy, the poet and author of the Kuzari, lamented: “My heart is in the East [Jerusalem] and my body is in the end of the West [Spain].”

But we have the merit in our generation to be in Jerusalem with our heart and our body. What a glorious feeling. What a breathtaking privilege.

In (approximately) the year 1140, Yehuda Halevy arrived in Jerusalem after a dangerous journey from Egypt. When he arrived at the gates of the city and saw the desolation, he tore his clothes, and with tremendous feeling composed the famous poem “Tzion Halo Tishali” (Oh Zion, will you not inquire about the welfare of your imprisoned?).

As he was on his knees in tears, kissing the sacred ground, an Arab horseman, jealous and resentful of Jewish attachment to Jerusalem, crushed him to death with the hooves of his horse. Yes, Rabbi Yehuda Halevy paid the ultimate price for true Zionism. May his death be avenged.

The Ramban (1194-1270), the pious Alshich (in the 1500s), the saintly Shalo (1565-1630) and the virtuous Ohr Hachaim (1698-1743) made aliyah when there were no modern modes of transportation (to put it mildly). Their journeys were marked by danger, but they were drawn by the heavenly magnetism, the mysterious force, of the Holy Land.

When they arrived in Eretz Yisrael, they were not given special privileges as an oleh chadash (new immigrant). They were not welcomed by a friendly government and given free shelter and a stipend. They lived in poverty and in misery but were kept alive by their love for the Holy Land.

They were all true Zionists.

In the year 1777, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk and other disciples of the Baal Shem Tov set out on a journey to the Holy Land in order to settle there. Despite of the enormous difficulties they encountered in the land, they decided to stick it out and stay.

In the first decade of the 1800s, followers of the Vilna Gaon also decided to make aliyah. They left everything behind except their spirit, and set out on a journey, beset with danger, in order to reach their goal.

About a thousand years ago, a large group of Yemenite Jews decided to leave the diaspora. One cannot imagine the hardships these pioneers encountered. They traveled mostly by foot, sometimes by camel, through the Arabian Desert. By day they were exposed to the hot desert sun, and at night to freezing temperatures.

In addition, they were attacked by marauding Arab bandits who took most of their belongings. Many died on the way, but the group endured and arrived in Jerusalem.

Do you know why the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, the disciples of the Vilna Gaon, and this very determined group of Yemenites decide to leave their relatives, their rabbis, and depart for the unknown?

Again, these groups were not greeted upon their arrival with a band playing “Heiveinu Shalom Aleichem” or “Hava Nagila.” Nor were they given new immigrant status. Why, then, did they leave the comforts of their homes, and risk their lives to travel to a desolate, forsaken land?

The answer lies in that aforementioned heavenly magnetism between the Jewish people and the land of Israel.

They wanted to reside in a land that is the holiest of all the lands in the world.

They wanted to reside in a land God watches over at all times.

They wanted to reside in a land where they could be proud to be Jewish.

They wanted to reside in the Palace of the King.

They wanted to be in a land where every step a person takes earns him a mitzvah.

They were true Zionists.

* * * * *

It happened right after World War II. Three of the Vizhnitzer Rebbeim who survived the Holocaust decided to make aliyah. America, England, Canada, and other galut domiciles that were beckoning to them didn’t even enter their minds.

Despite the far better conditions offered to them by Vizhnitz chassidim in New York, they decided to go to the land of their ancestors to build up Torah and chassidus, which they did with great success.

Is this true Zionism? Of course it is.

If you are a non-religious Jew or a non-Jew who has ever visited a religious family that just finished building a new house, you possibly noticed an unpainted square foot of wall staring you in the face as you entered. Did you ever wonder why? Here is the answer: Our sages (Orech Chaim 560, 1) wanted us not to forget for one moment our attachment to Jerusalem. They wanted us to be constantly aware that our homeland was destroyed and that we are in the diaspora.

Is this nationalism? Is this extremism? No, this is true Zionism.

Visit any Vizhnitz shtiebel on weekdays and pay attention when the chazzan recites “V’l’Yerushalyim Ircha b’rachamim tashuv” (And to Jerusalem your city You shall return with compassion). One can feel the deep emotion emanating from every syllable and every word.

Is this just chassidus? No, this is true Zionism.

Rabbi Moshe Blau, one of the leaders of the Agudah in Israel, writes in his memoirs that he once was walking with Reb Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld in an Israeli city and came upon a parade. There were hundreds of youths marching with Israeli flags and probably not clad in accordance with Jewish law.

It should be noted that Reb Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld was considered to be one of the most ardent anti-Zionists of his time. Rabbi Blau relates that as the procession passed he overheard, to his great surprise, Reb Yosef Chaim whispering the passage in Deuteronomy, “May God multiply you a thousand-fold and bless you.”

An amazing story, isn’t it? Reb Yosef Chaim was a true Zionist.

Tikkun Chatzos is a set of prayers specifically designed by our sages to be recited by the devout every midnight in supplication and entreaty for the return to Zion. Prostrated, with ashes on their heads, they mourn the destruction of Jerusalem, and with tears rolling down their faces, they recite: “If I forget thee, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither. Let my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not remember you…”

That is true Zionism.

There are observant Jews who have the custom of removing knives from the table (or hiding them) before saying Birkat HaMazon (grace after meals). The practice was instituted by our sages, who anticipated that a true Zionist might try to end his life out of extreme devotion when the words “Jerusalem, the holy city” are mentioned.

No, this is not voodoo. This is true Zionism.

Was Rashi – the most revered commentator on all of Torah, whose name is engraved in the mind of every Torah-observant man, woman, and child; whose name previous generations recalled with loving reverence – a true Zionist? Let the following speak for itself.

Reb Yeruchem Halevy Levovitz, the famed mashgiach of the prewar Mir Yeshiva, explains why Rashi started his commentary on the Torah with a seemingly irrelevant statement about Eretz Yisrael belonging to the Jews. Here is what Reb Yeruchem says (Daas Torah, Bereishis 1,1):

It is extremely important to know that although the Torah is multi-faceted, there is only one ultimate objective that embodies all of Torah. And that objective is Eretz Yisrael. The soul of all Torah is the conquest of Eretz Yisrael so as to make a dwelling place for the Shechinah [the Divine presence]. All of the chapters in the Torah about our forefathers, the slavery in Egypt, the redemption, and the Ten Commandments are all incidental. The end product is the conquest of the land.

That, says Reb Yeruchem, “is what Rashi is telling us. The grandiose purpose of all of Torah is Eretz Yisrael. Immediately, at the very beginning, the Torah set the tone for all of Torah.”

In other words, the centrality of Eretz Yisrael in the Torah is set forth in the very first sentence in Bereishis.

If that is not true Zionism, what is?


This essay was translated from Yiddish by Blanche Fixler.


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Bezalel Fixler, a survivor of the Transnistria death camp and a musmach of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, is a writer whose work has appeared in publications including Dos Yiddishe Vort, The Algemeiner Journal, and The Jewish Press.