Sukkot 1933. Kibbutz Na’an was 3 years old, and in honor of the holiday, composer David Zehavi set Pinchas Lender’s short poem “Malu Asameinu Bar” (“Fill Our Stores”) to music. Life in this country was hard, very hard, and the optimistic song, which exuded hope and faith in the future, became hugely popular throughout the Yishuv, the Jewish community in pre-state Israel. It was practically the anthem of Sukkot. Its high point, the line “What else will you ask of us, homeland?” thrills anyone who sings it, even today.
In those days, when the skies of Europe were beginning to darken, the British had closed the gates to immigration and the Arabs were attacking in ambushes, the Yishuv experienced much bereavement and failure. But the near total belief that, as another song said, “Here in the land of our forefathers, all our hopes will be realized,” propelled the community on, “despite all the obstacles … to build, to create, to toil.”
Even then, the builders, creators and toilers had to contend with the “little foxes that spoil the vineyards,” as it says in the Song of Songs. Like those who urged a return to Egypt during the Israelites’ journey in the wilderness, they too warned of all kinds of terrible scenarios and urged the people of the Yishuv to flee the Land of Israel for the socialist paradise of the Soviet Union.
Many who heeded this call were ultimately executed during Stalin’s purges. Others, whose despair here caused them to flee to Poland or Lithuania, suffered the same fate as most of European Jewry. Of those who would not heed the false prophets, it may be said, to borrow from Deuteronomy: “But ye that did cleave unto the Land of Israel, to the Jewish people and to Zionism are alive every one of you this day.”
Today as well, when Israel is a thriving country, the same kind of negative voices are heard. It pains them that we’re living – despite an existential struggle and threats on countless fronts – in an independent, developed and productive country, and that the vision of the gathering together of “the scattered of Judah from the four corners of the earth” continues to be realized. The number of Jews living in Israel is approaching 7 million.
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A majority of the world’s Jews are now concentrated in the homeland. Despite the constant denunciations on every screen and printed page, nearly 90 percent of them are satisfied, or very satisfied, with their lives in Israel. Per capita income is still below the OECD average, but this isn’t hindering them from identifying as Israelis who take pride in their country and as Jews who identify with their fellow Jews in the Diaspora: They rejoice in their joys, worry about the assimilation that’s happening to them, are concerned about the surging anti-Semitism they’re experiencing – and long for the day when they will make aliyah and unite with us in Zion.
To the grumblers, this is dangerous ethnocentrism. It also derives, they warn, from the high birth rate among Jewish women. In the developed countries, so goes their lament, women’s greater education and income correlates with a lower birth rate.
But here in crowded and sweaty Israel, even highly educated secular women, top earners from the upper classes, are defying nature. With no regard for the spirit of progress and the developed world’s conventional wisdom, they’re having nearly twice as many children as the average woman in the advanced OECD countries. In the future, wail these Judophobes, the “demographic demon” will rise up to destroy us ecologically and as a nation.
Israel’s problems are certainly “as numerous as the seeds of the pomegranate,” to borrow from the Talmud. And in most political camps there are people of thought and action who are asking themselves, as in that earlier time, “What else will you ask of us, homeland?” – and are trying to propose solutions with a caring and positive approach. But their voices, the voices of the absolute majority, are swallowed up, and even silenced, in the ruckus by those who can’t see even a single point of light. Let’s not cast our lot with them.