The fourth post on the Roots of Zionism by Professor Yakov Rabkin
Jewish Detractors of Zionism
Most people almost automatically associate Judaism and Zionism. The press routinely calls Israel “the Jewish State.” Israeli politicians often speak “in the name of the Jewish people.” What could be more normal than to see Jewish religion as the foundation of the birth, some would say rebirth, of the State of Israel? Are not the Jews of the Diaspora often seen as aliens, outsiders or perhaps even Israeli citizens taking a long holiday far from “home”?
Comparisons of Jewish Zionists’ attitudes to Israel with the way other diasporas relate to their former countries miss important differences. Unlike Italians in North America whose immediate ancestors came from Italy (or who came from Italy themselves), most American and Canadian Jews came from Europe, not Israel/Palestine. Unlike these Italians who speak or spoke Italian, these Jews and their ancestors spoke Yiddish, not Hebrew, for the simple reason that Hebrew had not been spoken for many centuries. These Jewish immigrants’ eating habits developed in Eastern Europe had nothing to do with Middle Eastern fare, such as falafel, nowadays considered the quintessential Israeli food. Many Jews’ perception of themselves as being somehow a diaspora of today’s Israel is a particularly interesting case of “imagined communities. (Anderson)” Of course the way the nearly one million Israeli expatriates relate to their home country does resemble the attitude of Italian and other diasporas around the world. Ever since the creation of their political movement more than a century ago, Zionists have claimed to be the vanguard of the entire Jewish people. Some of them even assert that any threat to the survival of the State of Israel is a threat to the survival of Jews throughout the world. For them, Israel has become not only the guarantor of Jewish survival but also the standard-bearer of Judaism. Reality, in the event, is far more complex. (90 | MEDITERRANEAN REVIEW | Vol. 5, No. 1 [June 2012])
From the beginning, Zionism, widely understood as a point of rupture in Jewish history, provoked rejection on the part of most Jews. Critics of Zionism among them represent the entire gamut of contemporary Jewish experience. The Zionist movement and the creation of the State of Israel have caused one of the greatest schisms in Jewish continuity. An overwhelming majority of those who defended and interpreted the traditions of Judaism had opposed what was to become a vision for a new society, a new concept of being Jewish, a program of massive immigration to the Holy Land and the use of force to establish political hegemony there. Today, while overt rejection of Zionism has clearly abated among Jews, younger cohorts continue to desert the ranks of Israel’s Jewish supporters (Goldstein 2011). The number of active religious opponents to Zionism has remained relatively small, perhaps no more than a few hundred thousand (Ravitzky 1996: 60). But, argue Ravitzky and other Israeli experts, their influence has spread among the pious to an extent far exceeding their numbers. At the funeral service for Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum (c. 1887-1979), the author of Va-Yoel Moshe, the fundamental text of Judaic anti-Zionism (Teitelbaum 1985), several prominent rabbis, even those who opposed him during his lifetime, declared that the path of the departed was the only true one, and that it was only their weakness that prevented them from following him. This explains the Zionist leaders’ determination to undermine and marginalize religious opposition to Zionism. Important in this sense is the political assassination of Jacob Israel De Haan (1881-1924) by the Zionist militia Haganah. He was the spokesman of the anti-Zionist Agudath Israel, and the Zionists feared that De Haan would be able to set up a rival organization made up of anti-Zionist rabbinical leaders that would develop cooperation with Arab leaders. Such an eventuality struck fear into the Zionists because, in demographic terms, they were then still in the minority in Palestine (Danziger 1983: 443-4). Historically, the antagonism between Zionism and traditional Judaism should be seen in the context of the interplay of different tendencies that characterized the evolution of the Judaic belief.
This kind of religious opposition refuses to vanish in spite of the impressive achievements of Zionism and of the state that embodies it. One of the reasons for this persistence is something both Zionist intellectuals and the rabbis who oppose Religious Roots of a Political Ideology: | Yakov M. Rabkin | Judaism and Christianity at the Cradle of Zionism | 91them often agree on: Zionism is a negation of Jewish heritage and tradition (Rabkin 2006). Yosef Salmon, an Israeli authority on the history of Zionism, writes about the reactions to the emergence of the new political movement: It was the Zionist threat that offered the gravest danger, for it sought to rob the traditional community of its very birthright, both in the Diaspora and in Eretz Israel [the Land of Israel], the object of its messianic hopes. Zionism challenged all the aspects of traditional Judaism: in its proposal of a modern, national Jewish identity; in the subordination of traditional society to new life-styles; and in its attitude to the religious concepts of Diaspora and redemption. The Zionist threat reached every Jewish community. It was unrelenting and comprehensive, and therefore it met with uncompromising opposition. (Salmon 1998: 25)
Virulent opposition to Zionism and to the State of Israel has been the hallmark of several Orthodox Jewish movements. They consider Zionism to be a heresy, a denial of fundamental messianic beliefs and a violation of the promise made to God not to acquire the Holy Land by human effort. At the core of their opposition lies the centrality of exile, a universalist religious concept indifferent to geographic location. The alliance of anti-Zionist forces produced, within a few years of the first Zionist congress, several anthologies drawn from a broad range of rabbinical authorities in Eastern Europe (Landau 1900; Steinberg 1902). Among other things, they objected to the evacuation of all normative content from the Jewish identity, and its reduction to a replica of the secular European identity.
Orthodox Jews in Germany were no less determined to reject Zionism than their brethren in Eastern Europe whom they used to call Ostjuden and often treated with condescension. Indeed, German Jews pressured their government not to allow the first Zionist congress to be held in their country and it was therefore finally transferred to Basel, Switzerland. Rejection of Jewish nationalism drew its inspiration from influential Judaic authorities. German Rabbi Isaac Breuer (1883-1946), fulminated in the wake of World War I: “Zionism is the most terrible enemy that has ever arisen to the Jewish Nation. The anti-nationalistic Reform engages [the Jewish nation] at least in (92 | MEDITERRANEAN REVIEW | Vol. 5, No. 1 [June 2012]) an open fight, but Zionism kills the nation and then elevates the corpse to the throne” (Zur 1998: 111). Reform Jews have also formulated Judaic critiques of Zionism, drawing on their own interpretation of the Torah. Like virtually all the currents of Judaism in the early twentieth century, the Reform movement was firmly opposed to Zionism, which strove to create a new national identity. Prior to the rise of political Zionism in Europe, the program of Reform Judaism adopted in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1885, rejected all forms of Jewish nationalism (Mezvinsky 1989: 315). Reform Jews were thus prepared to refute Herzl’s Zionist theory, which postulated the absolute existence of anti-Semitism that would justify a state for the Jews. An early critic of Zionism, the Reform Jewish scholar Morris Jastrow (1861-1921) affirmed that “Judaism and Zionism are mutually exclusive”, emphasising that political Zionism was inspired by the anachronistic return to the tribal stage of Judaism (Jastrow 1919: 33). “Reform Judaism is spiritual, Zionism is political. The outlook of Reform Judaism is the world. The outlook of Zionism is a corner of western Asia,” declared Rabbi David Philipson in 1942 (Brownfeld 1997: 9). Not only did the vast majority of Jews initially reject Zionism, but the founder of the movement felt quite uneasy about his own Jewishness: “the moment which is considered the beginning of Herzl’s “conversion” to Zionism is also the moment in which he most strongly wanted to occlude the fact that he was Jewish” (Piterberg 2008: 2). This unease of several Zionist leaders could also be seen in the belief of Arthur Ruppin, the father of the Zionist settlement in Palestine, who believed that “the Ashkenazi Jew was closer to the Indo-Germanic races than the Semitic ones” (Piterberg 2008: 84).
Ben-Gurion saw Judaism as “the historical misfortune of the Jewish people” (Leibowitz 1995: 144). Hatred of religious Jews, particularly of the haredim, the so-called “ultra-Orthodox”, in Israeli society has reached levels unimaginable elsewhere in the world, and it has been suggested that anti-Semitic prejudice is alive and well in the only state that calls itself Jewish (Efron 1991: 15-22; 88-90). As the battles for territory were being waged in Palestine in 1948, the prominent German Jewish scholar Martin Buber (1878-1965), who settled in Palestine in the late 1930s, was bitterly disappointed with the path Zionism had taken before his eyes. On this occasion he wrote: “This sort of Zionism (Religious Roots of a Political Ideology: | Yakov M. Rabkin | Judaism and Christianity at the Cradle of Zionism | 93) blasphemes the name of Zion; it is nothing more than one of the crude forms of nationalism” (Buber 1948). Jewish intellectuals remain divided in their attitudes to Israel’s policies and practices as well as to its founding ideology, Zionism.
While the Jewish tradition repeatedly cautions Jews against personal or collective pride, it was precisely in these traits that the Zionists sought the kind of respect that they defined in terms of the classic Western criteria for success. Heroic romanticism, in a clean break with Rabbinic Judaism, put down roots in these new Jewish circles in the 1920s-30s, exhibiting traits of the then widely admired fascism. This is why Jewish socialists and communists have denounced Zionism as a betrayal of internationalism and a crass attempt to camouflage ethnic nationalism and promote fascist attitudes. The socialist founders of the State of Israel have come under criticism for using socialist forms of social organization as a temporary expedient to reach their nationalist goals (Sternhell 1998). This would explain the attraction Israel currently exercises on ethnic nationalists, often with a recent anti-Semitic past, in Europe. Now that old socialist forms have been largely abandoned, this admiration keeps growing, involving a broad range of anti-Islam and anti-immigrant groups. It would be wrong to view Zionism as only a vestige of nineteenth century nationalism and colonialism: Israel appears as a trendsetter for a number of European politicians espousing ethnic nationalism and convinced of the imminent “clash of civilizations”.
For many Jews, and for most Jewish organizations, loyalty to Israel has replaced allegiance to Judaism. A veteran of Jewish organisations who has taken a critical distance from his institutional past and from “Jewish community McCarthyism” has stated that for many Jewish organisations, “if you do not support the government of Israel, then your Jewishness, and not your political judgment, will be called into question” (Hedges 2002). The veteran Israeli statesman Abba Eban (1915-2002) used to point out that the main task of Israeli propaganda (he would call it hasbara, or explanation/public diplomacy) is to make it clear to the world that there is no difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Consequently, prosecution of critics of Israel as anti-Semites has been attempted in France and other countries. These measures to silence opponents of Zionism seem to bear fruit at the time of writing, as pro-Israel groups propose to outlaw boycotting and (94 | MEDITERRANEAN REVIEW | Vol. 5, No. 1 [June 2012]) other non-violent forms of protest against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians (Keefer 2010).
Most non-Arab Israelis are reluctant to admit the injustices done to the indigenous population of Palestine in the course of Zionist colonization of Palestine; they would not attribute the enduring enmity of the displaced Palestinians to grievances about their deportation and dispossession. In spite of consistent efforts by Israeli dissidents (http://zochrot.org/en) to inform their compatriots of the expulsions and dispossessions of Palestinians, legislative initiatives threatened to outlaw commemoration of the Nakba and therefore further obliterate this tragedy from the Israelis’ collective memory. Rather, “the Arabs” and “the Muslims” are portrayed as irrational haters, religious fanatics or even modern-day Nazis. The current centre among Zionist parties in Israel has moved significantly to the right of the Revisionist movement, which used to be condemned as militarist and fascist. Soon after the unilateral declaration of the State of Israel in May 1948, prominent secular Jewish intellectuals, including Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein, qualified the party currently representing Israel’s mainstream (Likud, the heir to Herut) as a fascist party practicing terrorism (New Palestine Party … 1948). Since then, Likud has shifted to a more exclusive and uncompromising nationalism than that espoused by its founders Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940) and Menahem Begin (1913-1992).
The disappearance of meaningful distinctions between left and right and a shift from a socialist egalitarian economic ethos to a neo-liberal one has been facilitated in Israel by a steady growth of what Israeli observers term as exclusive nationalism (Okon 2010; Burston 2007). “The Arab threat”, which has taken the rhetorical shape of “the Muslim threat” in the last two decades, has helped successive Israeli governments to apply these neo-liberal reforms with relative ease. The mass demonstrations in Israel in the summer of 2011 only proved this point by focusing on issues of social justice to the exclusion of “the Arab question”. Western reactions to the events of September 11, 2001 embraced Israel’s official narrative about the Muslims’ irrational hatred of progress and freedom and hostility to “Judeo-Christian” values. In the meantime, Israel had become a privileged source of expertise and equipment in “the war on terror” conducted by Western nations. Religious Roots of a Political Ideology: | Yakov M. Rabkin | Judaism and Christianity at the Cradle of Zionism | 95
About Professor 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.