We continue with the article by Prof Yakov Rabkin on the roots of Zionism.
Zionist Uses of Religion
The core set of values and principles known as Rabbinic Judaism has defined Jewish life for nearly two millennia, even though most Jews today no longer follow its ritual precepts. Rabbinic Judaism is largely based on the Oral Torah, usually considered to consist of Midrash, Mishna, Talmud and Responsa, redacted since the second century CE. The legitimacy of the Oral Torah for pious Jews reflects the belief that it was given on Mount Sinai at the same time as the Written Torah. In jurisprudence the Oral Torah clearly takes precedence, interpreting biblical passages in what may be considered a very broad manner. For example, the biblical prohibition of work on the Sabbath has come to mean 39 types of labor, which are originally mentioned in a rather different context but in adjacent verses. The Oral Torah has invariably interpreted the injunction “eye for an eye” to mean monetary compensation, rather than extracting an eye of the offender. This anti-literalist approach to Scripture distinguishes Rabbinic Judaism from the Karaites, now almost extinct, and from Protestant Zionist denominations gaining momentum nowadays.
The interpretation by the Oral Torah of the annihilation of Jerusalem by the forces of Rome has, ever since, defined the usual normative Jewish attitude toward force, resistance and the Land of Israel within the context of Jewish continuity. Traditional Judaism views the fate of the Jews as contingent on their own actions in the framework of the Covenant between God and His people. The tragedies suffered by the Jews, particularly the exile from the Promised Land, can thus be seen as punishment meant to expiate their sins. To 84 | MEDITERRANEAN REVIEW | Vol. 5, No. 1 [June 2012]bring about relief the Jew must repent, rather than rely on military or political action, which would only defy divine providence.
Rabbinic Judaism, developed over two millennia, abhors wars and specifically forbids fomenting conflict with non-Jews (Rabkin 2006: 93-134). Jewish tradition for the last two millennia has been rather pacifist, interpreting the destruction of the Temple and the exile that followed as divine punishment for transgressions committed by the Jews. Therefore the Oral Torah is laconic on the details of the military activities that accompanied the Roman siege of Jerusalem in the first century. But it clearly emphasizes the principal lesson: the Temple was destroyed because of the sins of the Jews, and primarily because of gratuitous hatred among the Jews themselves (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate “Yoma”, p. 9b). Tradition also condemns the advocates of armed struggle and praises those who set themselves apart from the defenders of the city. The Talmud and several classical exegetes reproached those who favoured armed struggle in particularly severe terms. Bearing in mind the central position of the Temple in Judaism, the accusation is a serious one, and has stood for centuries as a warning against any temptation to use force. At the same time, there remain enough ambiguities to allow variant readings of the tradition in recent years (Eisen 2011).
However, the founding fathers of Zionism, for whom “the authority of history replaced the authority of God” (Piterberg 2008: 96), deemed the tradition, in whatever reading, irrelevant since, in their view, Jewish history in the last two millennia was reduced to a series of persecutions of a weak minority that led to –and justified– the Zionist settlement in Palestine. Judaic ritual is replete with entreaties for God to return Jews to the Land. Yet few would argue that the conflict in the Holy Land was caused by religious imperatives. Shlomo Avineri, the author of an authoritative intellectual history of Zionism remarks: Jews did not relate to the vision of the Return in a more active way than most Christians viewed the Second Coming. As a symbol of belief, integration, and group identity it was a powerful component of the value system; but as an activating element of historical praxis and changing reality through history, it was wholly quietistic. (Avineri 1981: 4) Religious Roots of a Political Ideology: | Yakov M. Rabkin | Judaism and Christianity at the Cradle of Zionism | 85) Avineri acknowledges that it would be, to use his own words, “banal, conformist and apologetic” to link Zionism to the Jewish tradition’s “close ties with the Land of Israel”. As will be explained further on, the proud “return to history” that has enthused many an ideologist of Zionism is at variance with Jewish tradition that sees Jews as impacting history through pious deeds and prayer.
At its birth no attempt was made to clothe Zionism in religious garb. Its activists were almost exclusively atheists and agnostics. Even two rabbis usually enlisted by those intent on rooting their Zionism in Judaism –Zvi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874) and Yehuda Salomon Hai Alkalai (1798-1878)– proved to be more inspired by the heady atmosphere of nineteenth-century European nationalism than by the Jewish tradition. They often referred to honor and pride, which makes them remote from the discourse of Jewish tradition: Why do the people of Italy and of other countries sacrifice their lives for the land of their fathers, while we, like men bereft of strength and courage, do nothing? Are we inferior to all other peoples, who have no regard for life and fortune as compared with the love of their land and nation? Let us take to heart the examples of the Italians, Poles, and Hungarians, who laid down their lives and possessions in the struggles for national independence, while we, the children of Israel, who have the most glorious and holiest of lands as our inheritance, are spiritless and silent. Should we not be ashamed of ourselves? (Avineri 1998: 4)
Indeed, the actual hostilities of 1947-1949 (Milhemet ha-shihrur, War of Liberation in the Israeli-Zionist vocabulary, and Nakba, catastrophe, in the Palestinian one) were not waged under religious banners and did not pursue religious goals. For the Zionists, it was a war for territory, where they would constitute a majority and thereby control it. While the expulsions and dispossessions of Christian and Muslim Palestinians in 1948 may appear to have followed religious identity markers (Muslim and Christian Palestinians were targeted while Jewish Palestinians, even the most anti-Zionist among them, were spared), these measures were neither conceived, nor articulated in Judaic terms but, rather, in line with the European-styled ethnic nationalism of the founding 86 | MEDITERRANEAN REVIEW | Vol. 5, No. 1 [June 2012] fathers of Zionism. Those who object to the application of the word “ethnic” to this conflict argue that the concept of “the Jewish people” was invented by and for the Zionists (Sand 2009). But even accepting Sand’s argument, one would still not define the origins of the Israel/Palestine conflict as “religious,” albeit Judaism has certainly been used to firm up the Zionists’ claim on Palestine. At the same time, Judaism has served as a fallback identity marker and a refuge for a few prominent Zionists disappointed with their ideology and its practical realizations. Nathan Birnbaum, the inventor of the term “Zionism” and an ally of Herzl, and, a century later, Avrum Burg, a former speaker of the Israeli parliament, both chaired the World Zionist Organisation before publicly rejecting Zionism and affirming Jewish values as the basis of their personal identity (Burg 2007; Fishman 1987).
Two concomitant processes have been at work from the very inception of Zionism: sacralisation of the secular and the secularization of the sacred, i.e. “assigning religious meanings to secular ideas, thereby treating them as sacred”, and redefinition of religious terms to “accommodate secular ideas” (Tepe 2008: 55). These processes are embodied in National Judaism (dati leumi), which sprang from the Mizrahi movement established in the early twentieth century in Eastern Europe. It was originally rejected by most Jews, particularly those identifying with Rabbinic Judaism (Rabkin 2006: 66). These initially marginal streams of Judaic interpretation embraced Zionism and the idea of armed struggle. This doctrine draws its inspiration from the mystical thought of Rabbi Kook, seen as “radical and revolutionary” even by Zionist historians (Avineri 1981: 188). The development of this movement has been momentous since the 1967 war when Israel overtly assumed the role of a colonial and imperial state (Penslar 2007: 111).
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), born in Imperial Russia, was appointed as the Chief Rabbi of the Asheknazi community in Palestine by the British. Fascinated by the idealism and self-sacrifice of the Zionist pioneers, Rabbi Kook looked forward to “an ideal state, upon whose being sublime ideals would be engraved,” a state that would become “the pedestal of God’s throne in this world.” For him, the state would be the earthly expression of a messianic “Kingdom of Israel,” a Jacob’s ladder uniting earth with heaven Religious Roots of a Political Ideology: | Yakov M. Rabkin | Judaism and Christianity at the Cradle of Zionism | 87 (Ravitzky 1996: 131-37). The great majority of rabbis (and, needless to say, secular Israelis) rejected Rabbi Kook’s efforts to portray the Zionists as the “white ass” who will carry the Messiah into Jerusalem. Inspired by the romantic nationalism in Russia, he anticipated that love of the land would have a mystical influence on the intrepid pioneers and bring the new secular Hebrew back to tradition. He believed that the upsurge of secularism was a “passing illness” that the return to the Land of Israel should rapidly cure. This belief became essential to those rabbis who sought a rationale for their collaboration with the Zionists. While a century later such hopes have yet to come true, some adepts of National Judaism continue to believe that “the subjective reality of modern world politics will finally become revealed as an objective halakhic fact” (Berkowitz 1994: 40).
Zionists of almost all streams agree that the Jews had to become strong and return to their biblical pre-exilic history, by overcoming the entire two thousand years experience of exile. Their return to the Promised Land would return them to normalcy, and make them “like all the nations”, a concept clearly disapproved of in the Bible (1 Samuel 8: 20). This Zionist emphasis on return is not only at variance with the Jewish tradition but “can, and should, be located at the intersection of Protestantism and anti-Semitism” (Piterberg 2008: 257). It reflects established Christian conceptions of the Jews, who are seen as excluded from history until and unless they recognize Jesus as the Messiah. The Jews have lost their raison d’être, they can at best survive but not thrive, and their ultimate fate is to disappear from the face of the earth or to embrace Christianity.
This has not deterred Zionist leaders from mobilizing Christian support based on the belief that the restoration of the Jews in the Holy Land is a prelude to the Second Coming (Vereté 1972; Sharif 1976). This reliance on Christian motives in the Zionist project was proved uniquely effective with the issuing of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, whose author not only worked to limit the immigration of Jews to England but also shared these Latter Day prophecies.
This resort to Christian values should not be seen as cynical manipulation but, rather, as a meeting of the minds. Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) exemplifies this affinity in his approach to Scripture. He disdained the rabbinic tradition, affirming the right to interpret the written Torah directly through the 88 | MEDITERRANEAN REVIEW | Vol. 5, No. 1 [June 2012] experience of Zionist settlement (Ben-Gurion 1972: 85-87). At times, he and Israeli politicians make symbolic use of the Bible to gain international, usually Christian, support (Masalha 2007). The overtly agnostic Ben-Gurion would point to a copy of the Pentateuch in order to justify the Zionist claim to the Land in front of a British commission of inquiry. The language of redemption is omnipresent in most versions of Zionist ideology, and Judaic concepts and texts (such as the Book of Joshua) have been harnessed to reach nationalist objectives. The founding fathers of Zionism combined this political use of Judaism with explicit disdain for Judaic practice, continuity and tradition.
Ben-Gurion’s Laborites made a particularly coherent use of redemptive imagery, using, for example, the expression geulat haaretz (redemption of the land), to signify the purchase of Arab land by Jews. This transubstantiation of the language of redemption, of religious values into secular concepts, infused the Zionist pioneers, who saw themselves as the vanguard of the Jewish people, fashioning history with their own hands. Moreover, the use of Judaic terms familiar to the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe facilitated the propagation of Zionist ideology, which, though radical, retained some traditional forms in order to appease widespread apprehension and opposition. The Israeli political scientist Zeev Sternhell calls the Zionist uses of Judaism “a religion without God” which has preserved only its outward symbols (Sternhell 1998: 56). While political applications of Protestant principles can be found in the Constitution of the United States, the Founding Fathers mostly remained practicing Christians. However, according to the Israeli historian Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, the Zionists were atheists who claimed: “God does not exist, and he promised us this land.” Political usage of spiritual terms by otherwise atheist leaders is a contemporary phenomenon. This kind of use was condemned by Pope Pius XI who warned in 1937 in his encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (With burning anxiety): “You will need to watch carefully, Venerable Brethren, that religious fundamental concepts be not emptied of their content and distorted to profane use” (Vatican 1937). The active political mobilization of Judaic concepts to justify indefinite occupation of the territories conquered in 1967 has provoked bitter criticism in Israel from both religious (Leibowitz 1995) and secular (Rubinstein 1984) intellectuals, who otherwise approve of the Zionist project on political and social grounds. Surprisingly, Jewish detractors of Zionism,( Religious Roots of a Political Ideology: | Yakov M. Rabkin | Judaism and Christianity at the Cradle of Zionism | 89) who insist on the alleged divergence of Judaic and Zionist worldviews, have largely ignored the apparently non-Jewish origins of Jewish nationalism, which would have offered them a potent argument, at least among those Jews who view Christianity with suspicion.
About Professor Yakov M. Rabkin
Professor Rabkin has taught Jewish and Russian history, and the history of science at the University of Montreal since 1973. He is the author of Science between the Superpowers, a study of Soviet-American relations in science and technology (Priority Press, 1988), co-editor of The Interaction of Scientific and Jewish Cultures in Modern Times (The Edwin Mellen Press, 1995) and editor of Diffusion of New Technologies in Post-Communist Europe (Kluwer, 1997). His book A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Fernwood/Zedbooks) has been translated into twelve languages. It was nominated for Canada’s Governor-General Award and for the Hecht Prize for studies in Zionism in Israel. The Asahi Shimbun in Japan listed it among three Best Non-Fiction Books of the Year in 2010. His most recent book is What is Israel? published in Tokyo (Heibonsha) in June 2012. His list of professional publications consists of over two hundred titles. It includes studies of science in Russian and Soviet cultures, studies of non-western research cultures, of relations between science, cultures and traditions as well as contemporary Jewish history and relations between Zionism and religion. He received over twenty research awards, scholarships and fellowships.
His comments on the Middle East and international relations frequently appear on major TV and radio networks, including BBC, NHK, Radio-Canada and Radio-France as well as in printed media, including International Herald Tribune, Baltimore Sun, El Milenio, Newsweek, La Presse, and Jerusalem Post. He has been an expert witness for the Standing Committee on External Affairs and International Trade of the Parliament of Canada and has consulted for various international organizations, including the World Bank and NATO. He has also served as expert witness at legal proceedings in Britain, Canada and Israel.