In this post we continue with Professor Rabkin’s article on the origins of Zionism.

From Theory to Practice

 Zionism was a bold attempt at forced modernization; most of its ideological factions aimed at bringing modernity to a country they considered backward and longing for redemption by European settlers. The State of Israel still stands as the challenge of European-style modernization in the Middle East. In order to grasp the complexity pervading any discussion of Zionism, it is necessary to understand Haskalah, a movement to bring about enlightenment and modernization by means of secularization, that is, by full-scale liberation from the “yoke of the Torah and of its commandments.” Haskalah has affected most Jews in the last two centuries. To speak of the Jews before the nineteenth century is to refer to a normative concept: a Jew is someone whose behavior must by definition embody a certain number of principles and rituals of Judaism, the common denominator for all the Jews. Such a Jew may transgress the Torah but does not reject its validity. “You shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6) remains a commandment, a vocation and an aspiration. In line with the tradition of non-literal (78 | MEDITERRANEAN REVIEW | Vol. 5, No. 1 [June 2012]) interpretation proper to Rabbinic Judaism, this appeal is understood as an obligation to strive for ritual, moral and spiritual self-improvement. Secularization has largely eliminated this sense of obligation and facilitated cultural assimilation of Jews into the ambient society.

A few, mainly assimilated Jews of Central Europe became interested in Jewish nationalism in the last decades of the nineteenth century. In the wake of their formal emancipation, some of them aspired to high society but felt excluded and rejected from such company. They, and often their parents, no longer obeyed the Commandments of the Torah and knew next to nothing of the normative aspects of Judaism. However, their attempts at assimilation had failed to produce the anticipated social and psychological benefits, and to bring them the satisfaction of total acceptance. In other words, “Zionism was an invention of intellectuals and assimilated Jews… who turned their back on the rabbis and aspired to modernity, seeking desperately for a remedy for their existential anxiety” (Barnavi 2000: 218).

Yet, individual frustrations alone, no matter how powerful, were not enough to give birth to a successful political movement. Such a movement could only have gathered sufficient strength where social and political conditions were thoroughly unfavourable to the Jews as a group. The true potential of practical Zionism was not in Central but in Eastern Europe, particularly in the confines of Imperial Russia. The tsarist regime maintained most Jews in the Pale of Settlement, at a distance from the centres of Russian culture and their undeniable attractions. This is why secularization did not bring about the widespread assimilation of Russia’s Jews. While giving up their loyalty to the Torah, these secular Jews developed a “proto-national character and a national outlook” (Leibowitz 1995: 132) that had made many of them particularly susceptible to Zionist ideas. The Jews of Russia possessed at least two of the attributes of a “normal” nation: a common territory (the Pale of Settlement) and a common language (Yiddish).

While several other national movements –e.g. Polish, Lithuanian and Finnish– were gathering momentum, Zionism gained dominance mainly as a reaction to the murderous anti-Semitism that afflicted Europe during the first half of the twentieth century. These circumstances exemplify Isaiah Berlin’s “bent twig” theory of the birth of modern nationalisms (Berlin 1972). Even though only one percent of turn-of-the-century Russian Jewish (Religious Roots of a Political Ideology: | Yakov M. Rabkin | Judaism and Christianity at the Cradle of Zionism | 79) emigrants were eventually to make their way to Palestine (the majority chose North America), Russian nationals formed the hard core of Zionist activism.

Zionism in Russia drew its impetus from among the Maskilim, followers of the Haskalah, Jews educated in the yeshivas who had acquired some notions of European culture, usually without formal education. Zionism rode on the wave of secularization to foster the nationalist sentiments. With respect to Jews in Eastern Europe, Zionists followed in the footsteps of their European predecessors, who also benefited from secularization to “construct nationhoods.” (Hastings 1997). The Zionist idea was something entirely new, a break with millennia of Jewish tradition –which explains the reluctance of most Jews at the time to accept it. Most secular Jews, like most religious Jews, in the world were not Zionists at the turn of the twentieth century. Even in the Russian Empire the acceptance of Zionism was anything but natural. It required a deep shift in the collective consciousness of the Jews. The Zionists had to resort to “mass education,” convinced that they were spreading the truth to bring this shift about.

Zionists were very consistent in grafting nationalism onto these secular identities. It has been argued that “the revamped [i.e. Zionist] definition of the Jewish identity was not built upon the secularization of Judaism but on the secularization of Christianity”, i.e. on the recent history of Christians and Christian countries (Piterberg 2008: 247). The national identity of the Jew was not only “invented” (Sand 2009); it was molded to conform to the European Christian prototype. The invention of Jewish nationalism significantly differed from similar initiatives elsewhere in Europe (Anderson 1991), where, e.g. in Poland, Catholicism was the linchpin of the national sentiment. Conversely, Zionism had to overcome almost unanimous resistance from religious authorities ranging from the Orthodox to the Reform (Rabkin 2006).

“Ingathering the Seed of Abraham”

 There exists abundant scholarly and polemical literature on the historical roots of Christian Zionism (Tuchman 1956, Sharif 1983, and Sizer 2007). Christian support for Jewish “Restoration” to Palestine, on biblical, theological or (80 | MEDITERRANEAN REVIEW | Vol. 5, No. 1 [June 2012]) political grounds preceded secular Jewish Zionism by nearly four centuries and paved the way for the latter’s rise in the late nineteenth century” (Masalha 2007: 85). This history explains the immense emotional support that the State of Israel has enjoyed among many Protestant Christians. Similarities between Zionism and Protestantism are rooted in literalism, i.e. non-figurative and non-traditional interpretations of the Bible. One mayrecall that the return to the Old Testament (sola scriptura), which de-emphasizes the role of sacred tradition, is the foundational principle of the Protestant  Reformation. According to the Israeli historian Anita Shapira, “there is a parallel between Protestantism’s approach to sacred texts and the Jewish [i.e. Zionists’] attitude to biblical literalism” (Shapira 2004: 33). In the wake of the European Reformation, the universalist concept of the Church as “the New Israel” was nationalized to identify several, sometimes competing, groups of Christian colonizers bent on bringing the Bible to the heathens around the world, from the Americas to Oceania. At the same time, the Jews in Protestant Europe came to be seen not only as foreigners, but rather as Palestinians who should be in due time brought back to Palestine. The earliest book to propose a Restoration of the Jews to Palestine was published by an Anglican priest in 1585 (Masalha 2007: 89). It posited the centrality of creating a Jewish state as a means of fulfilling biblical prophecies. Christian motives –the ingathering of Jews in the Holy Land as a means to hasten the Second Coming– seem to be more prominent in the Zionist project than Judaic ones. An independent return of “the Jewish nation” to the Holy Land is alien to Rabbinic Judaism but remains essential to Christian theology. As early as the seventeenth century, one can find Protestant references to the “restoration of the national Israel”, “national restitution of Israel” and “the return of Israel to their own land” (Vereté 1972: 17). These references ignore the historical reality, namely the fact that most Jews exiled from Spain in the late fifteenth century, during the Christian Reconquest of the peninsula, dispersed throughout the Ottoman Empire while only a minute number of them settled in the Land of Israel. Yet Palestine was then part of the Ottoman Empire, which welcomed them generously within its borders. Millenarian beliefs spread rapidly in the seventeenth century and gained popularity in spite of persecutions on the part of mainstream churches. A century later, Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), renowned scientist and theologian, Religious Roots of a Political Ideology:| Yakov M. Rabkin | Judaism and Christianity at the Cradle of Zionism | 81 attempted to convince British rabbis to organise a transfer of Jews to Palestine.

The rabbis demurred, citing Jeremiah’s call on the Israelites to work for the welfare of their countries of residence (Sharif 1983: 39). In spite of the total lack of interest on the part of the Jews, Protestant belief in the Restoration of the Seed of Abraham to the Promised Land became firmly implanted in the English-speaking lands on both sides of the Atlantic. At the same time, prominent members of the British and American elites, for example Lloyd George (1863-1945), convinced of the historical veracity of the Bible, admitted that they knew biblical history and the geography of Palestine better than they knew the history and geography of their own countries.

Colonial interests reinforced biblical sensitivities. The idea of a Jewish state under a British protectorate began circulating in Europe well before this idea attracted any significant group of Jews. The first British Consulate was inaugurated in Jerusalem in 1838. Two years later, the influential Lord Shaftsbury (1801-1885) published a memorandum to the Protestant monarchs of Europe, which transformed a theological project into a political one. Lord Palmerston (1784-1865) personally approached Queen Victoria with a plan to colonize the Holy Land with Jews while deporting the locals to create living space for Jewish settlers. Restoration of the Jews had also inflamed literary creativity, and novels such as Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (1819-1880) and The Land of Gilead by Laurence Oliphant (1829-1888) made the idea popular among the reading public in the British Empire and the United States.

The anti-Semitic belief that Jews do not belong to Europe but, rather, to Palestine was not limited to the English-speaking realm. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) referred to the Jews as “Palestinians living among us” while Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) suggested conquering the Holy Land in order to send all the Jews there (Sharif 1983: 56-9). During the Egyptian campaign, Napoleon called on the Jews to settle in Palestine under the protection of French troops. It was William Hechler, the Anglican chaplain of the British Embassy in Vienna, who greatly inspired Theodor Herzl, more conversant with Christian than Judaic concepts, to embark on the ingathering of Jews in Palestine (Duvernoy 1996). (There seems to be little substance to the oft-repeated claim that Herzl’s Zionism was aroused by the Dreyfus trial. (Kornberg 1980)) Hechler’s Christian influence apparently played a significant role in the (82 | MEDITERRANEAN REVIEW | Vol. 5, No. 1 [June 2012]) Zionist awakening of the rather de-Judaized Herzl. A book published in Israel analyzes this role in great detail. In his preface to the book, André Chouraqui, former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem and a life-long Zionist activist, recalls that Herzl initially wanted to convert the Jews of Vienna to Catholicism and only later sought the ingathering of the Jews, firmly guided by Hechler, who urged him not to abandon his mission (Duvernoy 1996: 3-4). Pleas for the Restoration of the Jews were often accompanied with expressions of anti-Jewish sentiments. In the nineteenth century, when anti-Semitism was established as a popular movement, its adepts could be found among the most enthusiastic supporters of the Zionist project. Herzl, who finally spread the gospel of Restoration to the Jews, considered anti-Semites his movement’s best “friends and allies” (Segev 2000: 47), and  throughout his short diplomatic career he consistently sought to attract to his cause prominent anti-Semites (such as Konstantin Pobedonostsev (1827-1907), a close adviser to tsars Alexander III and Nicolas II). Significantly, Lord Balfour (1848-1930), the author of the Balfour Declaration, had imposed limitations on immigration of Jews to Britain a few years before declaring his country’s support for the Zionist project. In fact, Balfour’s support for Zionism was bitterly criticized by prominent Jews in Britain, who plainly called it anti-Semitic (Montagu 1917). Anti-Semitism and Zionism, far from being mutually exclusive, actually reinforce one another. This is certainly the case of the adepts of Dispensationalism, an Evangelical group that took root in Britain in the late nineteenth century, and constitutes the most active Christian Zionist movement nowadays, claiming to have over 50 million supporters in the United States. Founded by the disgruntled Anglican clergyman John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), this movement proclaimed that the Church, which he considered irredeemably corrupt, would be replaced by a reinvigorated nation of Israel, the initial recipient of Divine revelation. This theology emphasizes bloody apocalyptic battles to take place in Israel, resulting in the ultimate victory of Good over Evil. As part of this scenario, a few thousand Jews would bow down before Jesus and be saved while the rest of the Jews, whose ingathering in the Promised Land would be indispensable for the Second Coming to occur, would simply perish.

Christian advocates of Israel argue that radical Islam, rather than the “facts (Religious Roots of a Political Ideology: | Yakov M. Rabkin | Judaism and Christianity at the Cradle of Zionism | 83) on the ground” created by the Zionist movement and, later, by the Israeli government, is at the core of the conflict in the Middle East. This has become the main message of the Israel lobbies around the world who rely more and more on Christian evangelical groups for political support of Israel (Gorenberg 2002; Sizer 2004). However, just as in the case of other religious denominations, including Jews, Christians are deeply divided on the issue of Israel and Palestine, with leaders such as Bishop Desmond Tutu taking a critical view of Israel’s behaviour.

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.