The Menorah and the Olive Branch: Parashat Beha’alotecha
Friday June 9, 2023 – כ׳ סִיוָן תשפ”ג
By Rabbi Josh Weinberg
וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי מָה אַתָּה רֹאֶה[וָאֹמַר] רָאִיתִי וְהִנֵּה מְנוֹרַת זָהָב כֻּלָּהּ וְגֻלָּהּ עַל־רֹאשָׁהּ וְשִׁבְעָה נֵרֹתֶיהָ עָלֶיהָ שִׁבְעָה וְשִׁבְעָה מוּצָקוֹת לַנֵּרוֹת אֲשֶׁר עַל־רֹאשָׁהּ׃ וּשְׁנַיִם זֵיתִים עָלֶיהָ אֶחָד מִימִין הַגֻּלָּה וְאֶחָד עַל־שְׂמֹאלָהּ׃ (זכריה ד:ב-ג)
He said to me, “What do you see?” And I answered, “I see a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl above it. The lamps on it are seven in number, and the lamps above it have seven pipes;and by it are two olive trees, one on the right of the bowl and one on its left.”
(Zechariah 4:2-3 – from the Haftarah of Shabbat Parashat Beha’alotecha read on July 10th / כ״א סִיוָן )
Symbols are important. They represent us. They are often the forward facing image that permeates the subconscious towards a lasting image. Images grab attention, make a strong first impression, and represent one’s identity. They are memorable and serve to distinguish a particular group from others.
It’s easy to understand why the emerging Jewish State adopted the Menorah as its national emblem. The menorah has been a central Jewish symbol since antiquity. In addition to its role in the Mishkan, the Beit HaMikdash, and the Chanukah story, images of the menorah have been found in synagogues, cemeteries, mosaics, and seals throughout Jewish history.
The official symbol of the State of Israel is a menorah flanked on each side by an olive branch. This well-known image was designed by Gabriel and Maxim Shamir, two brothers from Latvia who studied graphics and design in Berlin prior to making Aliyah and were responsible for creating a number of emblems, medals, stamps, and currency for the fledgling State. Their menorah was adopted as the official emblem by the Provisional Council of the State of Israel on February 10, 1949. The decision to surround the menorah with olive branches is based on the prophet Zechariah’s vision of a menorah flanked by olive branches (Zechariah 4:3) which is read as part of this week’s Haftarah (in the Diaspora).
The purpose of a symbol (like a logo or a brand) is to communicate and tell the story of who we are.
The Menorah, as the Symbol of the State of Israel, does this beautifully. It associates the modern State of Israel as
a direct continuation of the Biblical kingdom and the rabbinic period during the Second Temple period. The olive branches, while also mentioned in the biblical verse, represent our aspirations as a people. The symbol says that we are firmly rooted in our past, but also look to the future as we aspire for peace in this land with all of the multi-layered complications that arise with olive trees and branches.
But the menorah depicted on Israel’s national emblem is also the same menorah that appears on the Arch of Titus in Rome, the one that the Romans historically carried out of Jerusalem after its destruction. Thus the menorah serves as a symbol also of our frailty and as a warning not to let what happened to us in ancient times repeat itself.
This is a warning for today. The ruling coalition is making clear that its definition of Zionism is what Avraham Burg described in a recent op-ed:
“… as a movement that went through changes from the revival movement to the politics that defines the racists of 2023. Zionism in Israel has become the main tool of discrimination and exclusion. This is the tool used by the neo-Zionist Eli Yishai to persecute migrant workers and asylum seekers (“Is the State of Israel ready to open its doors and become a state of immigration and lose the Zionist enterprise?”). This is the spoken language of ‘Smotrichism’ from the delivery room of his children to the state budget. Their Zionist pride is their racism.”
Burg, a self-described former Zionist (as one who believes that once the State of Israel was declared, the goal of Zionism was fulfilled and was no longer necessary or relevant), has given up on the concept of Zionism and expresses his identity as an Israeli citizen. For many Diaspora Zionist Jews who are not Israeli citizens, what does Zionism now mean?
It means exactly what we did this week. We showed up in Manhattan to march in the Israel parade because we are Zionists. We Zionists love Israel, and Israel is central to our Jewish identity.
After the march, I ran to mid-town to speak at a protest against the delegation of members of the current ruling coalition visiting NYC. To clarify, we were not protesting Israel. We are protesting what we have said on these pages many times, that the coalition is pushing an anti-Zionist agenda. The coalition is all menorah with no Olive Branches. Theirs is a Zionism of chauvinism and supremacy, as Professor Shaul Magid commented to me, an “admixture of ethnic domination and statism whereby one ethic group rules over another by dint of ideology and law.”
Ours is the menorah embraced by the olive branches, the symbol to remind us that our Zionism must be not about domination as a political project. Our Zionism must aspire to a real promise of equality for “all its citizens,” beyond a mere respectability to its non-Jewish populace, but dignity and a sense of belonging.
To give up on Zionism because of Ben Gvir and Smotrich, Rothman and Levin, and even PM Netanyahu, would be a tragic acquiescence to their distortion of Zionism and failure on our part to demonstrate our commitment to this core tenet of Jewish life.
Let me be clear. Universalism is NOT the opposite nor the enemy of particularism. Particularism is the shape of one’s particular identity, while universalism is an adherence to an ideology. One can be both particularistic and universalist at the same time, and one’s universalism – loosely defined as the philosophical and theological concept that some ideas have universal applicability – should be seen as a fulfillment of one’s particularism. Is it a threat to our Jewishness to say that we believe that all humans should be treated equally because they are created in the divine image? Or to even say that as Zionists we are also Palestinian nationalists? We not only believe in their right to have a viable State, but also can have a feasible nationalist identity even as citizens of Israel.
So as liberal Zionists we proudly embrace the symbol of Israel, connect to and see the menorah as representing our particularistic identity and the olive branches as representing our values and aspirations. I suggest that each of us take this symbol with us to the next protest –in Tel Aviv, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Boston – and with it reclaim our Zionism.