By Leo Rennert
1st part of 2
The date was June 4, 2009. The place:
In pushing for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the President gives equal weight to the national aspirations of both parties. Here's how he defines
Obama couldn't have been more wrong.
The roots of Jewish aspirations for a state -- what we call Zionism -- run much deeper in the cycle of history. The quest for Jewish statehood did not germinate in European persecution -- not in the Holocaust, not in the Spanish Inquisition, not in the systematic slaughter of Jews during the Crusades.
To trace Zionist roots, one must rewind the historical tape to a non-European setting some four thousand years ago. The genesis of Zionism starts with the Book of Genesis.
There, in Chapter 12, is the first flicker of Zionism:
Now the Lord said unto Abram: "Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the LAND that I will show thee. And I will make of thee a great NATION, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and BE THOU A BLESSING."
And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all the substance they had gathered, and the souls they had gotten in Haran, and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan, and into the land of Canaan they came. And the Lord appeared unto Abram and said: ‘Unto thy seed will I give this land.
These few words already encompass the three main ingredients of Zionism -- the quest for a specific, well-identified piece of land, the quest for nationhood in that special land, and the quest to create an exemplary society -- "Be thou a blessing," in other words, "a light unto the nations."
Abraham, the first Jew, was also the first Zionist.
There are two other points in this Biblical text worth noting.
Far from fleeing from persecution, Abraham does not depart on his journey to the Promised Land for his personal safety. He has no need for a refuge. Far from it, he appears to be an important, very affluent figure in
The second noteworthy point is that the quest for Jewish nationhood will be confined to a relatively small piece of land --
Notably, the biblical Covenant gets renewed with Abraham's son, Isaac, and with Isaac's son, Jacob. In fact, the entire Torah -- the five Books of Moses -- depict a steady journey, with keen attention to geographic details, toward the Promised Land.
If Zionism were to be turned into an opera, the Torah would be its grand overture. And the overture, in turn, would end with a rousing crescendo in Deuteronomy, Chapter 34:
And Moses went up from the plains of
And the Lord said unto him: "This is the land which I swore unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying: I will give it unto thy seed; I have caused thee to see it with thine own eyes; but thou shalt not go over thither." So Moses died there, in the
And there we have the most telling of several instances in the Jewish Bible that provides the geographic contours of the Promised Land. Moses' observation point is
One month before President Obama's trip to Cairo, Pope Benedict XVI began his Mideast tour with a pilgrimage to Mount Nebo, where he proclaimed "the inseparable bond between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people" and his "profound appreciation of the unity of the two Testaments" -- the Old and the New. The pope demonstrated a better grasp of history at
Whether in today's secular world we take these biblical events at face value or not really doesn't matter. They are deeply embedded in the DNA of the Jewish people -- religiously, culturally, historically, politically.
And once the Israelites settle in the land and establish sovereign roots spanning a thousand years, biblical narratives are reinforced by archeological discoveries. A Jewish monarchy takes hold in the 12th Century BCE under King Saul, who is succeeded by a less flawed and more dashing King David. After his anointment in
This First Jewish Commonwealth, with Jerusalem as its capital, lasts for about half a millennium, until the Babylonians conquer Judah and destroy the Temple in 586 BCE, driving its Jewish residents into exile in Babylon -- a relatively brief interlude, because about fifty years later, the Persians under King Cyrus defeat the Babylonians and Cyrus opens the way for a Jewish return to the land and to Jerusalem.
It was during these thousand years of only briefly interrupted Jewish rule that some of the richest biblical texts emerge -- Psalms that touch deep religious and nationalist chords, plus the ringing exhortations of
It's in those days that
And during that span of time, there were no fewer than 45 Jewish monarchs -- more than the number of
Subsequently, even the Roman conquest failed to cut off Jews from the Promised Land. After the destruction of the
Yes, most remaining Jews are dispersed and exiled. But what is not widely known is the fact that there remains a continuous Jewish presence in the
After the destruction of the
In the 6th Century, there are 43 Jewish communities scattered across the Promised Land -- a dozen towns along the coast, in the Negev, and even east of the Jordan, plus 31 villages in Galilee and the
The 7th Century ushers in 450 years of Muslim rule, with varying degrees of tolerance and oppression. Muslim rulers never make
A couple of centuries later, Crusaders arrive and massacre Jewish residents. Yet Jews also are among the most vigorous defenders of
In the year 1070 -- exactly one thousand years after the Roman conquest of
Jews survive through subsequent Mamluk and Mongol invasions. In 1267, the noted Jewish scholar Nachmanides settles in
With the start of Turkish Ottoman rule in the 16th century, Safed, a hilltop town in northern
By the end of the 16th century, the Jewish population of Safed totals about 30,000.
Periods of oppression follow in the next two centuries, but Jewish communities continue to dot the landscape of the Holy Land -- in
This is followed by a period of Jewish growth in the 19th century as Jews move out of the Old City of Jerusalem and begin to develop what is now western
With the advent of modern Zionism, the spotlight shifts to Europe where its founder, Theodore Herzl, convenes the First Zionist Congress in
When murderous pogroms break out in Eastern Europe, Herzl flirts for a brief time with accepting a Jewish state as a refuge for persecuted Jews in
Schemes like the
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