Israel, Gateway of Hope

A day will come when the story of Israel in modern times will speak not just to Jews but to all who believe in the power of the human spirit as it reaches out to God, as an ever-lasting symbol of the victory of life over death, hope over despair.

In 1871, my great-grandfather, Rabbi Arye Leib Frumkin, left his home in Kelme, Lithuania, to go and live in Israel, following his father, who had done so some twenty years earlier. One of his first acts was to begin writing a book, The History of the Sages of Jerusalem, a chronicle of the continuous Jewish presence in Jerusalem since Nachmanides arrived there in 1265 and began reconstructing the community that had been devastated during the Crusades.

In 1881, pogroms broke out in more than a hundred towns in Russia. In 1882, the notorious antisemitic May Laws were enacted, sending millions of Jews into flight to the West. Something happened to him as a result of these experiences. Evidently he realized that aliyah, going to live in Israel, was no longer a matter of a pilgrimage of the few but a vital necessity for the many. He moved to one of the first agricultural settlements in the new Yishuv. It had been settled some three or four years earlier, but the original farmers had contracted malaria and left. Some were now prepared to go back to work the land but not to live there. It was, they believed, simply too much of a hazard to health.

He led the return and built the first house there. When the settlers began to succeed in taming the land, they were attacked by local Arabs, and in 1894 he decided that it was simply too dangerous to stay, and he moved to London. Eventually he returned and was buried there. On his gravestone it records that he had built the first house.

What fascinates me is the name the settlers gave to the village. I do not know why they decided on this particular name, but I have a guess. It was set in the Yarkon Valley, and when they discovered that it was a malarial swamp, it appeared to them as a valley of trouble. But they knew the Hebrew Bible, and they recalled a verse from the prophet Hosea in which God promised to turn the “valley of trouble” into a “gateway of hope” (Hos. 2:15). That is the name they gave the village, today the sixth largest town in Israel: Petach Tikva, the gateway of hope.


It is often said that Israel was created, at the expense of the local population, to make amends for the Holocaust. Europe committed the crime; the Palestinians were forced to pay the price. That is untrue. As my great-grandfather’s story makes clear, the return to Zion was being thought about and acted on long before the Holocaust. The Jewish attachment to Israel goes back before the Balfour Declaration in 1917, ratified in 1922 by the League of Nations; before 1890, when the word Zionism was coined; before 1862, when Moses Hess wrote the first great document of secular Zionism, Rome and Jerusalem.

It goes back to the first recorded syllables of Jewish time, some four thousand years ago, when God told Abraham to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house and travel to “the land which I will show you.” Seven times God promised the land to Abraham, once to Isaac and three times to Jacob. The book of Genesis ends with Joseph telling his brothers, “God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Exodus opens with God summoning Moses to lead the Israelites to the “land flowing with milk and honey.” The whole of the Pentateuch—in a sense the whole of Jewish history—is about the long, arduous journey to Israel, the Promised Land.

The Jewish connection with the land goes back for twice as long as the history of Christianity, three times that of Islam. Jews are the West’s oldest nation, and from the beginning Israel was its birthplace, its homeland, its heritage. Benjamin Disraeli, who despite the fact that he had been baptized as a Christian retained enormous pride in his Jewish ancestry, said in reply to an insult by the Irish Catholic Daniel O’Connell, “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.” Disraeli was in fact a proto-Zionist, and wrote two of the first Zionist novels, Alroy and Tancred.

Jews have lived in almost every country under the sun. In four thousand years, only in Israel have they been a free, self-governing people. Only in Israel are they able, if they so choose, to construct an agriculture, a medical system, an economic infrastructure in the spirit of the Torah and its concern for freedom, justice and the sanctity of life. Only in Israel can Jews today speak the Hebrew of the Bible as the language of everyday speech. Only there can they live Jewish time within a calendar structured according to the rhythms of the Jewish year. Only in Israel can Jews live Judaism in anything other than an edited edition. In Israel, and only there, Jews can walk where the prophets walked, climb the mountains Abraham climbed, lift their eyes to the hills that David saw, and continue the story their ancestors began.

That, not antisemitism, is why my great-grandfather travelled there to be part of the great rebuilding, and why George Eliot saw the return of Jews to Zion as the rebirth of this ancient people who had taught the world so much.


Jews did not return home to deny others a home. That was neither the intent of the early settlers nor the language of the Balfour Declaration or the United Nations resolution. The tragedy is that Israelis can understand the plight of the Palestinians better than any other people on earth. They know what it is to eat the bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of suffering. They know that Jews are commanded to love the stranger.

At the end of his magisterial law code, Moses Maimonides wrote about the messianic age: “The sages and the prophets did not long for the days of the Messiah so that Israel might exercise dominion over the world, or rule over others, or be exalted by the nations.” All they sought was to live at peace, to find a place where they could worship the free God in freedom and be a blessing to the families of the earth. That Israel has been forced, in self-defense, into acts and attitudes no Jew would have wished for is part of the tragedy.

The broad shape of a solution to the problem of Israel and the Palestinians has never been in doubt. It was implicit in the Balfour Declaration in 1917, explicit in the 1947 United Nations resolution on partition, and set out in detail in all peace proposals since: two states for two peoples, a political solution to a political problem. As Shimon Peres said when someone asked him whether he could see light at the end of the tunnel: “I can see the light. The problem is, there is no tunnel.” The solution is clear. The question has always been how to get from here to there.

The words that echo in the mind go back to the dawn of Jewish history, when there was a quarrel between Abraham and his nephew Lot: “Please let there be no strife between you and me and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen; for we are brethren. Is not the whole land before you? Please separate from me. If you take the left, then I will go to the right; or, if you go to the right, then I will go to the left” (Gen. 13:8–9). Abraham was willing to make concessions for the sake of peace. So must Israel, and so most of its population still believe.

A fundamental falsehood permeates almost every discussion of the Israel–Palestine conflict, namely that it is a zero-sum game in which one side loses and the other side wins. That is precisely what it is not. From peace both sides gain. From violence both sides suffer. That is why not only Israelis but also those who genuinely care for the Palestinians and for their children’s right to a future must give their support to peace.


Israel has done extraordinary things. It has absorbed immigrants from 103 countries, speaking 82 languages. It has turned a desolate landscape into a place of forests and fields. It has developed cutting-edge agricultural and medical techniques and created one of the world’s most advanced high-tech economies. It has produced great poets and novelists, artists and sculptors, symphony orchestras, universities and research institutes. It has presided over the rebirth of the great Talmudic academies destroyed in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust. Wherever in the world there is a humanitarian disaster, Israel, if permitted, is one of the first to send aid. It has shared its technologies with other developing countries. Under immense strain, it has sustained democracy, a free press and an independent—some say too independent—judiciary. Had my great-grandfather, or, for that matter, George Eliot, been able to see what it has achieved, they would hardly believe it. In truth, I hardly believe it when I read Jewish history and begin to understand what Jewish life was like when there was no Israel. For me, more than anything else, Israel is living testimony to the power of Moses’ command, “Choose life.”

Twenty-six centuries ago, in exile in Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel had the most haunting of all prophetic visions. He saw a valley of dry bones, a heap of skeletons. God asked him, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Ezekiel replied, “God, you alone know.” Then the bones came together, and grew flesh and skin, and began to breathe and live again. Then God said, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost [Avdah tikvatenu].” Therefore prophesy and say to them: “This is what the Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel” (Ezek. 37:1–14).

It was this passage that Naftali Herz Imber was alluding to in 1877 when he wrote, in the song that became Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva, the phrase od lo avdah tikvatenu, “our hope is not yet lost.” Little could he have known that seventy years later, one-third of the Jewish people would have become, in Auschwitz and Treblinka, a valley of dry bones. Who could have been blamed for saying, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost?”

Yet a mere three years after standing face-to-face with the angel of death, the Jewish people, by proclaiming the state of Israel, made a momentous affirmation of life, as if it had heard across the centuries the echo of God’s words to Ezekiel: “I will bring you back to the land of Israel.”

And a day will come when the story of Israel in modern times will speak not just to Jews but to all who believe in the power of the human spirit as it reaches out to God, as an ever-lasting symbol of the victory of life over death, hope over despair. Israel has taken a barren land and made it bloom again. It has taken an ancient language, the Hebrew of the Bible, and made it speak again. It has taken the West’s oldest faith and made it young again. It has taken a shattered nation and made it live again.

More than a century ago, a young Jew from Lithuania, my great-grandfather, built a house on land never before cultivated, and the settlers gave it a name from a verse in the book of Hosea in which God said, “I will turn the valley of trouble into a gateway of hope.” That remains the Jewish dream. Israel is the gateway of hope.

From Future Tense, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, copyright © 2009 by Jonathan Sacks.  Reprinted by permission of Schocken Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.