Standing on the top of the hill, I looked out at the beautiful land stretched before me.
Suddenly I felt my body vibrating. Looking up, I saw the guardians of Israel thundering across the sky. IAF fighter jets. It was Holocaust Memorial Day and they were practicing for the Independence Day aerial show.
How suitable. How awe-inspiring.
Could those Jews, those downtrodden, dehumanized, beaten, starving and tortured Jews imagine their grandchildren cutting through the heavens, with enough might at their fingertips to make any enemy shake in their boots and grovel for mercy?
And then I remembered a story I once heard from a Holocaust survivor. He had been a small boy when his family was forced on a death march. As a grandfather, living in Israel, on every Holocaust Memorial Day he walks through the streets of Jerusalem and, at the end of his march he eats two portions of steaming hot, golden falafel. Because, he explained, on that March, his mother, desperate to distract her hungry child, told him that in Zion food grows on trees, hot, crispy golden dumplings that anyone can take, whenever they want.
Cold and starving, marching towards death, they were dreaming of Zion…
It is in her honor that this man marches, as he pleases, free in the land of Zion and eats, not one but TWO portions of golden falafel.
In the ghettos, killing fields and concentration camps it may have seemed an impossibility and yet, even there, even then, Jews dreamt of life in Zion.
I stood on the hill, overlooking the Jezreel Valley, next to the statue of a different Jew, one who also dreamt of freedom in our ancestral homeland: Alexander Zaid, Guardian of Israel.
Statues of people are rare in Israel. Statues tend to remind us of the Greeks or the Romans, foreign conquerors who lived in our land but did not belong here. There’s something about the commandment against “graven images” that is deeply entrenched in the Jewish psyche, so much so that is rare to find busts of leaders, even in government buildings and statues in parks are often abstract. Even those that are realistic in nature tend to be representations, not of a specific person but symbolic of a group/type of people rather than a specific historical figure.
This “man and horse” statue is unique in the Zionist-Nationalist landscape. Interestingly it was created in 1941, before the re-establishment of the Jewish State of Israel.
Alexander Zaid made Aliyah to Palestine Eretz-Yisrael in 1904 at the age of 17. He was one of the founders of the Bar-Giora organization which later became Hashomer, a Jewish defense organization, to safeguard the Jewish agricultural settlements of Palestine (and of which my grandmother was a member).
Alexander Zaid was the epitome of the new Jew, the free Jew, more alive because he was connected to the land of his ancestors. The Hebrew language conveys the profound bond between blood, land, and man – all three words have the same linguistic root. There is power in this connection, one that the enemies of the Jewish people have always been afraid of…
Zaid helped found Tel-Adashim, Kfar Giladi, and Tel Hai. In 1926 he and his wife and children moved to what was at the time called Sheikh Abreik in the Valley of Jezreel. There he worked as a watchman, overseeing the lands of the JNF.
The area was known to have archaeological importance but had never been excavated. In 1936, Zaid reported that he had found a breach in the wall of one of the known caves which led to another cave decorated with ancient Hebrew inscriptions. This led to the excavation of the site and its identification as Beit She’arim.
Beit She’arim was founded at the end of the 1st century BCE, during the reign of King Herod. The Roman Jewish historian Josephus Flavius referred to the city in Greek as Besara, the administrative center of the estates of Queen Berenice in the Jezreel Valley.
Pottery shards discovered at the site indicate that a first settlement there dates back to the Iron Age
Zaid had restored Jewish life to the area after 1800 years.
Zaid survived two assassination attempts by local Arabs who objected to the return of Jews to the land. On July 10th, 1938 he was ambushed by an Arab gang. Four years later the Palmach captured and executed his murderer, Qassem Tabash. Unlike in the Galut, where Jews were at the mercy of the “civilized,” in Zion Jewish blood is of value and when stolen, a price is exacted.
Zaïd was survived by his wife and four children and the legacy that waited for the survivors of the death marches and concentration camps to pick up and continue where he left off – creating new Jews, more powerful and alive. Jews whose hearts no longer yearned but now beat as one with the land that gave them their history, where they could create a promise of an independent future for Jewish generations to come – free in our own land, Land of Zion and Jerusalem.