Many of us will proudly proclaim our faith or tribe affiliation. “I am Jewish” or “I am a Jew” is professed with a confidence born out of the knowledge that you are affiliated with a people steeped in culture and learning for over 4,000 years. But in polite circles, there is something we dare not speak aloud: so I'll say it softly at first and see how it goes – I am a passionate Zionist.
You see, the term has been perverted or used to excoriate us by those who seek to delegitimize Israel or question the loyalty of Jewish Americans. We reflexively cringe at the term’s very mention.
I'll let you in on a secret: you need not live in Israel nor abandon your loyalty or love of America to be a Zionist. In fact, no less a patriot than Senator John McCain reinforced that notion when he proclaimed “it’s no contradiction to be a loyal American and a supporter of the Zionist mission."
We at Jewish National Fund are perhaps a bit more comfortable with the ideology and identity than many of our co-religionists. After all, the father of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl, is our founder. He, like no other, in the wake of the Dreyfus trial understood the need to return to Zion – to our ancient, current and future National Home.
There are those that bristle at the notion of a formal declaration of Israel as a Jewish state – as the Jewish state – and for very good reasons such as concerns for minority rights or world opinion.
And mind you, let's not even get into the broader issue of Palestinian statehood, which, for the record, I support. But within Israel's borders, non-Jews have equal rights and receive consideration that Jews living in European States or Muslim lands could only dream of prior to the creation of the modern state of Israel.
For me, Zionism is the exquisitely incongruous product of our collective ancestral pain coupled with a yearning to return from exile to the land of our forefathers and foremothers. It is a land with Jewish farmers, scientists, fireman and soldiers serving under the Star of David in a Jewish army. For Herzl, who I like to call our prophet for a new Millennium, it is a return to our source, to our sanctuary, to our destiny.
We, as a people, are unique in that it is difficult to separate the Jewish faith from the Jewish people, and make no mistake, we are a people, a nation, a community, whether we live in Timbuktu or Tel Aviv. But yearning and faith in and of itself does not create a nation. And it was left to Jewish National Fund to energize the Diaspora, raise the funds to buy the land and make the desert bloom again.
How many times have you heard that phrase, “Israel made the desert bloom?” It sounds a bit cliché, but more pointedly, it was and is Jewish National Fund and the Jewish people or nation wherever they reside, who pulled together as a global community to grow a modern state – the Jewish state.
Our legacy as an organization speaks to our Hebrew name, Keren Keyemet L'Yisrael – it translates as the “Eternal Fund” for it belongs to the Jewish people and our non-Jewish supporters throughout the world. Its purpose is crystal clear – to support and sustain the Jewish state forever more.
So we planted 250 million trees and built hundreds of reservoirs and security roads and infrastructure from Metula to the Negev. And when the Palestinian Authority was planning to build its first major city in the West Bank since the middle of the Ottoman Empire’s reign, they turned to JNF to help plan and plant it – and we did.
And when a medical clinic is needed in the Negev, JNF is there. When security roads are critical in the North to shield school children from Hezbollah guns and rockets, JNF is there. When the children of Sderot need sanctuary from a hailstorm of missiles from Gaza, JNF is there building an indoor playground and bomb shelter, a community center that makes life livable for all who reside there.
We at JNF are the ubiquitous symbol of environmental sciences, nature and infrastructure that in large part makes Israel—Israel. JNF's connection to the land of Israel is spiritual and sustainable. Our efforts bridge the space between that which nourishes our souls and the soil.
In English, the only difference between soul and soil are the letters “U” and “I,” and it is you and I in the larger sense that engenders hope or tikvah to a land and its people.
My wife Lisa and I and all of us on the JNF-Chicago Board are grateful to be part of this amazing organization. We are active participants in building a nation; we are building the Jewish nation.
Am Yisrael Chai.