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Understanding Zionism through personal loss

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Daily Collegian File Photo)

(Daily Collegian File Photo)

This past semester I had the great privilege to study abroad in Barcelona, which allowed me to travel all over Europe. Although I was away, my heart remained in the United States, where two elderly relatives who informed my outlook on life passed away. The two never met and were on different sides of my family, but both powerful women inspired my Jewish identity that I am proud of today.

Religion played a big part in my upbringing, from attending high-holiday services, lighting Hanukkah candles, helping to run my synagogue’s homeless shelter in middle school – where preparing pastrami and turkey sandwiches became an almost daily task – or being encouraged to travel to Israel on summer trips. I was constantly given the opportunity to have new, shared experiences. And whether it was going to public school or attending Hebrew school, I was constantly surrounded by other Jews who shared my steadfast commitment to Judaism and social justice.

In the summer time my family goes on an annual road trip across the Midwest, where we make stops along the way until we reach the north woods of Minnesota. Our first stop would always be my cousin, Martha, who lived in Indiana. Martha was an immigrant from Austria who came to this country in 1938 right before Nazi Germany annexed the country. Shortly after Martha’s parents put her on the train headed for Western Europe, they were sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where they were gassed to death at the hands of the Nazis. It is easy for a Jew who lost half of his ancestors to grow up in the mentality of victimhood, but luckily, due to the movement of Zionism, a movement that is guided by principles of empowerment, perseverance and social justice, I’ve had a different experience due in part to Martha.

Raising a family in Indiana posed challenges for Martha. She experienced instances of deep anti-Semitism and was surrounded by non-Jews for most of her life. Her empowering commitment to a home for the Jewish people motivated her every move. Unfortunately, though, her Jewish identity was largely based around Jewish persecution because she was not afforded the luxury that many of us New York Jews have: a community. She very clearly understood that as a Jew in the diaspora, she was always the “other.”

By the 1940s, Martha’s devotion to Zionism, debatably one of the most successful and influential movements in history, was very clear. She lead a strong local effort to raise money for a Jewish state in the British Mandate of Palestine, or as Jews have referred to it for 3,800 years, Israel, the birthplace of Jewish civilization. It is in fact a great point of pride of the Zionist movement that Israel was born out of indigenous liberation; a broken people finally allowed to come home. And it became clear that this goal, and the pride Martha took in her Jewish activism, was not striving for some abstract concept; it was real.

Martha Gelb passed away in March. She was 102 years old. On the other side of my family, her vision was shared by my grandmother, Rosalie Berger, a first generation Jewish-American born in Saint Louis. Rosalie understood the trials and tribulations that came with living in Missouri. Although Missouri had a strong Jewish community, with kosher butchers and bakeshops, anti-Semitism was not far away. A combination of elements from the Jim Crow-era south created tension for her while growing up. Although she thankfully always felt safe, being Jewish wasn’t always respected by other members of her community. Her parents helped raise money for a Jewish state, and their strong religious background combined with their shared values allowed them the act of fulfilling Tikkun Olam, or repair of the world.

Rosalie may have been light-skinned, but she never really felt white. In fact, considering her grandparents were killed by white supremacist Nazis, she would most likely have been extremely offended by this superimposed identity. Thanks to Rosalie, I now know that my ancestors were Jews indigenous to the Middle East, a Semitic people who were uprooted from their home by the Romans thousands of years earlier, and sold into slavery. The apparent success or “wealth” of American Jews was not earned through privilege, or lack of persecution and hardships. It was achieved through dedication, hard work and once again the tremendous empowerment provided by Zionism. Rosalie’s dream of a safe haven for Jews along with Martha’s vision came true in 1948. Like Moses and Herzl, Rosalie’s parents did not get to see the promise land she worked so hard to secure.

Sadly, my beloved grandmother was taken from me this past June. In light of these recent passings it seems only fitting that I continue to carry on the work they helped start. Despite centuries of religious oppression along with forceful attempts to exterminate the Jews, we somehow survived and maintained our identity. Today, as American Jews, our identity is scattered between religion, culture, ethnicity and race. But it was really a national identity, Am Yisrael, or the Nation of Israel, that has kept us together as a people in the Diaspora.

Zionism gave expression to this realization of Jewish development, of returning to one’s roots and de-colonizing our identity, as well as our land from foreign British rule. Zionism has come to stand directly in the face of the oppression brought upon by the Russian pogroms in the 1880s, the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s and the Arabs in the 1950s and 1960s. The unstoppable hatred against the Jews forced us out of our complacency and allowed us to declare our freedom, and strive for the return of our authentic Hebrew roots. Although people’s lives expire, such as Martha’s and Rosalie’s did, the values they stood for do not. They live on in me and in other Jews all over the world. This spirit, the plight of the Jewish people, is something that will never die.

Isaac Simon is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

2 Comments

2 Responses to “Understanding Zionism through personal loss”

  1. UMass Alumni parent on September 8th, 2016 2:56 pm

    An insightful and intelligent column! You speak the truth. Kol HaKavod! All the honor to you. Very proud that you have the moral courage to stand up and be counted.

  2. Arafat on September 15th, 2016 6:39 pm

    I concur with the previous comment. It’s heartening to read an article like this in the college world where most articles convey the opposite slanderous false memes.

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