Recently, while traveling through the US, I’ve met a man on the train. We started to talk and when he heard that I’m Israeli, he asked me a question. “What are you Jews doing there?” This is an answer to that man.
It all began when my grandfather lost a war. He fought for independence, for the right to live his life freely on the land of his forefathers. He knew that chances are small; he knew that the enemy is strong and merciless; he knew the meaning of defeat. And yet he stood and fought, because sometimes you have to make a stand and that was such a time.
It was two thousand years ago, in a land named Judea. We rose to bring down the Roman tyranny, to crush the rule of the emperors over our hills. We did our best, but we’ve lost. Twice. First in the Great Revolt of the first century, when Jerusalem was ruined, and then in the Second Revolt of the second century, when the Romans torched the land and left nothing alive behind them. The Empire was too strong for us. And when they came, they destroyed everything. They burnt cities and villages, they slaughtered entire communities, they made us slaves. The people of Judea, my people, went to exile and only Hadrian’s legions walked through the empty land.
It was then, on the ruins of Judea, when they decided to erase the very memory of our existence. So they changed the land’s name, bringing forward an ancient word. It was the name of another place, of another people, long forgotten even in 135 AD, when they celebrated the death of Judea. They called it “Palestina”.
And my family, my tribe, had to find its way through the centuries. My ancestors, my tribesmen, scattered all over the world. We lived in Gaul and in China, in Morocco and on both sides of the Caucasus ridge. We walked on the plains of India and built homes in Russia’s frozen forests. We established communities in Argentina and taught our children Hebrew in Yemen. We fought in different armies for different rulers and their different agendas. We ploughed fields and wrote books. We were hated and we were admired. We were slaughtered in Mainz and we rebelled in Warsaw. We sailed the seas and crossed deserts. We saw history passing by.
And we never forgot. Never. We named children after our ancient heroes, prophets and kings. We celebrated the year cycle of our distant land. We prayed in the language of the Hebrew people, our people. We pointed the direction of Jerusalem to the little ones, knowing that they will point it to their own children one day. We knew that we are one tribe, one family, that Syrian Jews and Belgian Jews are the same, and only by chance one lives in Brussels and the other in Haleb. We never forgot and we waited to return to our hills.
And now we are back. And my home stands on a hill in Jerusalem, maybe the same one that my grandfather came from, two thousand years ago. I walk through the cradle of my nation, surrounded by ancient stories and songs. And around me there are many people, many faces, many languages. Some came from NY, some from Bagdad. Someone’s parents came from Poland and someone’s grandparents from Honduras. One came from New Delhi and the other, like me, from Kiev. But we are all one, one tribe, coming back to his holy ground, gathering together one more time in Jerusalem, in Israel, in the Middle East. And it seems as if finally we defeated the Roman Empire.
It was a long walk, but it led us home.
And that is why we are here.