"We Jews are not a race, religion or culture - we are a people," the author writes [Getty Images]
Al Jazeera Correspondent

My Zionist dream, my Zionist reality

Rabbi Ari Hart explains why he is a Zionist.

“A Song of Ascents. When God returns us to Zion, we were like dreamers. Then our mouths will be filled with laughter, our tongues with joyous song.” Psalm 126, verse 1-2.

I sing these verses, marking the first exile of the Jewish people from Israel by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE, every week at my Sabbath table – just like millions of Jews all over the world before me and millions more who will do so in the future. They form the spiritual blueprint for why, and how, I am a Zionist.

The Psalmist says it best: Zionism and the return to Israel is like a dream. It is an ancient dream, thousands of years older than the Holocaust, European anti-semitism and colonialism. It is a three-part dream of returning to the home from which we were exiled, living out our destiny as a people, and bringing righteousness and justice into the world. It is a dream we carried with us from Algeria to Azerbaijan, New York to New Dehli for 2,000 years.

For millennia, the dream lay embedded in Jewish yearning, scripture and prayer, but with only the faintest hope of it being realised. The consistent attempts by Jews to live and flourish in the land of Israel, long before the existence of Zionism as a political ideology, were an expression of that dream. The more recent emergence of political Zionism and the founding of the state of Israel have marked the beginning of that dream coming true.

The modern state of Israel

The state of Israel is the single best expression of the dreams of the Jewish people to have been realised in thousands of years. Since it was founded in 1948, it has meant that thousands of persecuted and displaced Jews from Ethiopia and Arab countries have been able to find safety and that millions of oppressed Russian Jews have been able to freely practice their faith. It has resulted in an explosion of Jewish culture and life unlike anything we have witnessed in millennia and led to a flourishing of the Jewish faith, with more people studying the Torah than at any other point in Jewish history.

And it has not only been positive for the Jewish people: the state of Israel has produced scientific, literary, medical, agricultural, and academic advances that have benefitted billions of people across the planet.

I am always confounded by my Jewish brothers and sisters who do not recognise that the state of Israel has represented the realisation of a dream for our people, and how vital its health and security is to our continued flourishing.

A racist dream?

We Jews are not a race, religion or culture – we are a people. We live in a world of peoples, and I believe that the Jewish people have a right to self-determination and self-defence like any other people.

I yearn for a day when the boundaries between religions, ethnicities and people fall away, when borders and armies are considered relics of a broken past, when humanity recognises the unity of all things through God. But we are not there yet.

The Zionist dream of self-determination is no more racist than Swedes determining their destiny in Sweden, or Egyptians in Egypt.

Are there racists in Israel? Absolutely, and their hateful ideas must be confronted and stopped, just as we must confront the racists in the Palestinian territories, in Japan, Peru and everywhere else.

A dream for some, a nightmare for others?

The challenge of my Zionism is to recognise two things at the same time: how positive Zionism and the state of Israel have been for the Jewish people and the world, and that a beautiful dream does not always mean a perfect reality.

I used to make the mistake of believing that there had not been a people living in the land before we returned, or that all Palestinians were terrorists who wanted to harm me. I have learned much since then.

When I was in the sixth grade of my Jewish day school, I wrote a report on the Six Day War. I still remember the pride I felt as I learnt about Israel’s seemingly miraculous victory over so many hostile neighbours who wished to drive it into the sea. That, more than 40 years on, Jews live and pray in Jerusalem, the city towards which millions of Jews across the world turn their hearts in prayer, is the fulfillment of a dream.

Of course, I later learned that that war marked the beginning of Israel’s military rule over millions of Palestinians who, unlike their Arab-Israeli brothers and sisters, could not become citizens of the state. What I call a dream, I recognise that they call a nightmare.

I have witnessed a little of this reality. I have waited, and waited, at Israeli checkpoints and been yelled at by Israeli soldiers who hadn’t yet seen my American passport. I have seen life on the other side of the wall, and spoken with those whose livelihoods have been ruined, whose families have been separated and whose lands have been lost.

I believe that our now long-term military rule over another people has had profoundly negative moral and spiritual consequences for my people. I believe it poses a threat to the longevity of the Zionist dream, and as a Zionist, I seek its end.

This is not the only threat facing Zionism, however. The use of terrorism, anti-Semitism and delegitimisation by Palestinians is just as dangerous. The dream is fragile and under assault from all sides.

The future

As a Zionist, a believer in a people’s right to self-determination in their homeland, I dream of Palestinian self-determination in a Palestinian state. The Palestinians I have had the fortune of getting to know are good people; most want the same things I would want for my family and my people: freedom, security and opportunity.

I dream of Zion, a holy city where all its inhabitants no matter what their religion, race or gender, can most fully reflect the divine image within. I dream of a Jerusalem, a Yerushalayim, an al-Quds that, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, will be a “house of prayer for all peoples”.

I do not hope or ask that you join my Zionist dream. What I do hope is that we find a way to dream a new dream together.

Perhaps I sound naive, perhaps this dream is impossible to achieve. But if being a Zionist has taught me anything, it is that – like a Jewish state in the land of Israel after 2,000 years of exile – even the craziest idea is possible, if one wills it and works for it.

The alternative, to stop dreaming, to continue with tit for tat, argument for argument, bullet for bullet, is failure. For the sake of my Jewish, Israeli, Arab, Palestinian, secular, religious, gay, straight, brothers and sisters, for the sake of all of us, let us have the courage to dream, yes, even to dream together, so that one day “our mouths will be filled with laughter, our tongues with joyous song”.

Rabbi Ari Hart is an orthodox rabbi based in New York. A founder of Uri L’Tzedek: Awaken to Justice, and the Jewish Muslim Volunteer Alliance. he currently serves as a rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. A frequent contributor to the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz magazine, Huffington Post, the Forward, and others, he was recently selected by the Jewish Week as one of the 36 “forward-thinking young people who are helping to remake the Jewish community”.

Follow Rabbi Hart on twitter at @arihart

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.