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Theodor Herzl’s “Tribal” Vision Contrasted With Isaac Mayer Wise’s “Universalism”

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
May - June 2004

As a prophet, Theodor Herzl, Zionism’s primary architect and founding father, seems to have failed in his understanding of the future and where his philosophy would lead, writes Paul Starobin the National Journal (April 24, 2004). Far better prophets, he argues, were the founding fathers of American Reform Judaism, who rejected Jewish nationalism and looked forward to living as equal citizens in a diverse and open society.  

Herzl, writing in Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), in 1896 declared: “The Jews, once settled in their own State, would probably have no more enemies. We shall live at last as men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes.”  

In his article, “Re-Thinking Zionism,” Starobin asks: “Was Zionism a monumental mistake — for the Jews, that is? One core aim of Zionism — to restore the lost self-respect of the European ghetto Jew — was achieved with the successful establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 ... But the other core purpose — to provide a sanctuary and refuge for Jewish people in the shadow of the Holocaust — looks like a tragic and, to a certain degree, self-inflicted failure. For Israel has turned out to be one of the least safe and most stressful of all places for a Jew to be ... Jews are fleeing Israel in a growing reverse exodus. One destination, somewhat improbably, is Russia, to which an estimated 50,000 Jewish emigres to Israel have returned; another, not so surprisingly, is America, which already houses an Israeli Diaspora numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Meanwhile, the Jewish Diaspora in the United States and elsewhere is helping to keep Israel afloat with its philanthropy; Israel annually receives some $1 billion in private donations from outside sources. The general idea of Zionism was that Israel would support the Diaspora, not the other way around.”  

In Starobin’s view, “Considering this ripe basket of grim ironies, it seems fair to say that the present state of affairs — a Jewish people in Palestine living under siege and forced to be a supplicant to a more secure Jewish community living among the goyim — is nearly the opposite of what Theodor Herzl ... promised ... America tends to miss how overwhelmingly tribal life is for Jews in Israel — perhaps because Americans have been sold a propaganda poster, smartly designed for their particular sensibilities ... America and Israel have very different underlying rationales. Whereas America is a kind of nation of nations, a state for people of diverse ethnic and religious character, Israel is by definition a state for Jews. That’s the whole point ... Of course, other countries, too are home to a particular type of people. What makes the Israel case more complex is that the Jews have also believed that God ordained them to be ‘a light unto the nations.’ Jewish experience has over the millennia swung between these poles — between the outward- focusing spiritual mission and the inward, self-protective dictate of the tribal ethos.”  

Far better prophets — and proponents of a more hopeful future, Starobin believes, were the founders of American Reform Judaism, who rejected Jewish nationalism and saw America as their “Jerusalem.” He contrasts their vision and that of Zionism: “There were ... adamant Jewish opponents of Zionism — including the founder of American Reform Judaism, Isaac Mayer Wise. He viewed Jewish nationalism as a mistaken avenue that, by fostering the separateness of the Jews as a people, would undermine Judaism’s unique spiritual mission as ‘a light unto the nations.’ His view was actually a modern recasting of the perspective of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, who even as he foretold the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C. proclaimed that Judaism could flower in the Diaspora under a new covenant with God.”  

Starobin concludes that while modern Israel is “the story of a heroic and courageous nationalist movement that has survived against all odds and helped renew Jewish culture, including its language, the more distinctive achievement belongs to the U.S. — and for that matter, also its northern neighbor, Canada — both of which have fashioned liberal pluralist societies that, whatever their faults, have transcended tribalism ... The standard Zionist position, embraced these days even by Reform rabbis in America, is that a Jew living outside of Israel — a person such as myself — is in exile ... But America has been a relative paradise for Jews since their first settlement in New Amsterdam 350 years ago ... It turns out that the story of the Jewish community in America is not only one of safety and prosperity. It is also, in its own way, a story of the development of a ‘New Jew’ — not the Warrior Jew that Israel by environmental necessity developed, but nevertheless a self-confident Jew bearing little trace of the stereotypical Meek Jew of the European shtetl ... several centuries of experience have yet to show Isaac Mayer Wise to be misplaced in his faith in America as a blessed place for Jews. Amid the savageries that have attended modern Israel’s determination to carve out a spot for itself in the Middle East, Wise‘s argument that Jewish nationalism would taint the soul of Judaism is not looking so bad, either. My wife and I ... are raising our young children in the Reform Jewish tradition, and I expect that one of these days, I am going to talk to a local rabbi about elevating Isaac Wise to his deserved place in the pantheon of Jewish prophets.”

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