This November was bookended by two significant anniversaries in Zionist history.
November 2nd marked the centennial of the Balfour Declaration. Issued by the British government in 1917, that declaration was the first time in modern history a nation publicly endorsed the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in the land of Israel.
November 29th marked the 70th anniversary of United Nations Resolution 181 also known as the “U. N. Partition Plan for Palestine.” In so doing, 30 years after the Balfour Declaration, the international community endorsed the creation of a Jewish state alongside an Arab state in the land of Israel. Footage from that day shows Jews listening to the radio broadcast of that vote and subsequently dancing in the street, when the Resolution passed. These endorsements were major milestones in advance of the declaration of Israel’s independence on May 14, 1948.
On November 8, I was honored to represent our Federation and its Jewish Community Relations Committee at the Israel Embassy in Washington, D.C. The evening, Aliyah to Israel: From Exodus to Operation Moses, was hosted by Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer. The event was part of a month-long celebration of Zionism and featured an interview of Chairman of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky by filmmaker Avishai Mekonen, director and producer of, “400 Miles to Freedom” and “Heroes.” Sharansky commented, “The stories of the Prisoners of Zion in the USSR and the Ethiopian Jews are closely related." Based on the theme of a month celebrating Zionism, the evening was splendid and sensational.
Mekonen’s films document the exodus of Jews in Ethiopia. He shared some of his story – of traveling hundreds of miles through Africa, on foot, to meet up with Israeli planes that brought him to Israel.
Dermer introduced Sharansky. He shared that in addition to being an internationally renowned human rights activist, a former Israeli politician and government minister, and a Soviet refusenik who spent nine years in Soviet prisons, he was the fourth non-American to be awarded both the Congressional Gold Medal (1986) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2006). (The Ambassador noted the three preceding non-Americans to receive both awards were: Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II.)
In an evening filled with fascinating and at times humorous anecdotes, Zionism was addressed from various perspectives; and some sobering observations were shared. Mekonen told the audience of when he was 10 years old. Walking through Africa, surround by murderous thirst and extreme malnourishment, where the local populations, “poisoned our food and kidnapped our young,” and we prayed to not be discovered as Falasha, as outsiders (read: Jews). He shared, “My mother told me … I am special, I am Jewish and I must never give up my identity or the dream of Zion." He eventually made it to Israel. The dream of Zion is alive within him today.
Sharansky, a person this author venerates, told us having visited over 100 campuses internationally, that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) is no economic threat to Israel. What it is, he emphasized, is a threat to Jewish identity. He explained that movement’s success in demoralizing Jews from their faith and their Zionism is nothing shy of dangerous to our people. Sharansky was thanked by audience members for his work in defining the “Three Ds” of BDS and his efforts to thwart it. (See the side bar for more this.) Sharansky said, “As head of The Jewish Agency, I have visited nearly every Jewish community. I can say, there are only two bulwarks to assimilation, faith and Zionism.”
I am proud that our Federation fosters both faith and Zionism in a myriad of ways: philanthropy, volunteerism and through community planning and programming. In honor of Zionism month, let us all rededicate ourselves to proudly engaging in our faith and Zionism in our personal and communal lives.
Daniel “Doni” Fogel, is the director of Jewish community relations and Israel and overseas programming for the JCFR. Reach him at DFogel@JewishRichmond.org or (804) 545-8626.