STUART V. PAVILACK
(MAY 13, 2023 / PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE) Just a month ago we celebrated the Jewish holiday of Passover, the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and the price of freedom. During the Passover Seder we are charged to help rebuild the land of Israel and to restore the City of Jerusalem. We end each Passover gathering by saying, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Tomorrow will be the 75th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. On May 14, 1948, the head of the Jewish agency, David ben Gurion, proclaimed the creation of the nation, which was quickly recognized by President Harry Truman. It answered 2,000 years of hope and desires. Imagine how many lives could have been saved if the British would have allowed more immigration to Israel in the 20’s, 30’s, and early 40’s.
What is Zionism? Zion is a biblical name for Israel and Zionism is the movement dedicated to rebuilding it. Those who believe the Jewish people have the right to live in their ancestral homeland in peace are Zionists.
Theodore Herzl is said to be the father of modern Zionism. He first encountered antisemitism in 1882 while studying at the University of Vienna. He began to think about the culture around him and the hatred he saw and concluded the problem was national, not individual.
Herzl proposed that Jews around the world contribute funds to be used to build the state and to help the Jews who would live there. In his 1896 book “The Jewish State,” he wrote of his observations and his ideas for a National Jewish homeland. In his 1902 novel, “Old New Land,” he described the nation he envisioned as a “light unto the nations.”
Zionism had its first international gathering when the first Jewish Congress met in Basel, Switzerland, in August 1897, with roughly 200 people attending. Exact numbers unknown as some did not want their names listed because they didn’t want the Russian secret police to know.
The Congress was somewhat disorganized, and Herzl seemed to be the only one who had a sense of direction. One thing was clear, 90% of the Jewish population was starving and fighting for their existence.
Herzl focused on 4 points: encouragement of Jews to settle in their ancestral homeland; the unification of all Jews into local groups in accordance with the laws of their respective countries; strengthening of Jewish self-awareness and nation consciousness; and the steps to obtain the consent of various governments necessary for the fulfillment of the aims of Zionism. The Congress agreed and he was elected President, a position he held until his death in 1904.
Pittsburgh has had a role to play in American Zionism. The city, which had a rapidly growing Jewish population, had been chosen to hold the sixth convention of the American Federation of Zionists in 1897. In 1897, the Pittsburgh Jewish population was around 10,000. By 1903 it had increased to 15,000.
The news made clear the need for Zionism. Several months prior to the convention, a pogrom in Kishinev, Russia, killed 49 Jews and injured 500. 600 businesses looted, 700 homes were looted and destroyed, and 2,000 families left homeless.
Herzl sent a telegram to the convention. “The situation of our Russian brethren is very serious and calls for our most earnest attention. A great emigration movement from Russia is to be expected.” That emigration would be to America and other countries, but the Zionist movement hoped it would eventually be to the land of Israel.
The Pittsburgh Press reported: “The outrages committed upon scores of persons have already evoked the indignation and resentment of the entire civilized world. Every sense of justice and humanity revolts at the thought of persecution for religion’s sake in this enlightened and liberty-loving twentieth century, when grey hair and innocent childhood have been ruthlessly carried to the grave, when fathers have been tortured or slain, their families murdered, abused or disgraced, and their property pillaged or destroyed.”
The Bijou Theater in Pittsburgh had been leased for a mass meeting. Although it had 3,500 seats, people had to be turned away. People were willing to pay any price to get in and were seen to be waving ten and twenty dollar bills, trying to buy tickets. (The convention also included a picnic at Kennywood Park and a tour of the Heinz plant.)
When the convention was next held in Pittsburgh in 1918, there was great joy over the Balfour Declaration the British government had issued in November 1917 declaring its support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. A parade of over 10,000 preceded the convention.
The convention adopted the “Pittsburgh Program” for the establishment of a Jewish national homeland. The first of its seven points was perhaps the most important and still holds to this day: “Political and civil equality, irrespective of race, sex, or faith for all inhabitants of the land.”
After the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel found the old city of Jerusalem in bad shape. Almost all of the synagogues had been destroyed; churches and mosques fared only a little better. Those buildings were in terrible condition. Israel paid for church and mosque repairs and put clergy of all faiths on stipends so they wouldn’t starve.
In Israel all people have the same rights, and all must be paid the same basic wages. The nation has become a hub of innovation and ingenuity. Even in the United States, a day doesn’t go by without each of us using Israeli technology, whether it be computers, cellphones, medication, medical testing equipment and more. Herzl would be proud of a country that is truly “a light unto the nations.”
Stuart V. Pavilack is executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Zionist Organization of America.
This op-ed was originally published by in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and can be viewed here.