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Author Describes Strong Opposition to Jewish Nationalism by Both Secular and Religious Jews

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
September - October

The long tradition of opposition Jewish nationalism on the part of both secular and religious Jews is described in an article, “The Anti-Zionists,” in Moment (August 2005).  

Author Liel Liebovitz reports that, “My great-grandfather, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, had been a fervent anti-Zionist. The leader of the Orthodox community in pre-state Israel, he had gone to great lengths to persuade the Arabs that the Zionist settlers did not represent the Jewish community at large. In 1924, he had even met with Jordan’s King Hussein. True Jews, he told the King, and anybody else who would listen, realized that a Jewish state in the biblical land of Israel could be rebuilt only by God. My great-grandfather was far from an anomaly; Orthodox leaders the world over once shared his views. Even today, some Hasidic groups, especially the powerful Satmar sect, vehemently oppose the state of Israel. The tiny but vocal Neturei Karta, descended from HungarIan Jews who settled in Jerusalem during the 19th century, go so far as to collaborate with Israel’s avowed enemies.”  

Beyond this, writes Leibovitz, “To complicate matters, there are Jews on the opposite end of the religious spectrum who oppose Zionism for entirely different reasons. Under banners such as Marxism, humanism or post-colonialism, they advocate stripping the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River of specific Jewish characteristics. Later, when I finished out my army service and moved to New York, I would encounter this alternative universe of Jews who believed a Jewish state was a mistake, including Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein and other high-profile Jewish academics ...”  

Many Jews in both the U.S. and Israel, Leibovitz reports, “are unaware that they exist and assume all anti-Zionists are not Jews. Others dismiss them as fringe characters with bit parts in the story of the Jewish people ... I realized that sweeping them under the carpet was no longer an option ...”  

From the beginning, the idea of Jewish nationalism met strong Jewish resistance: “An opposition movement emerged, led by stringently Orthodox rabbis ... they held that a nation-state in Eretz Israel could be restored only by divine providence, and only after all Jews were living in strict accordance with halachic law. Samson Raphael Hirsch, a prominent 19th century German rabbi, warned his flock that Jewish autonomy had always led to disaster. He cited the Bar-Kochba revolt, a failed second century Jewish uprising against the Romans, as a ‘disastrous error,’ an all-time reminder that ‘Israel must never again attempt to restore its national independence by its own power.’”  

Liebovitz also notes the strong opposition to the creation of a Jewish state on the part of leading Jews in England:  

“In November, 1917, Sir Edwin Montagu, a member of England’s Liberal Democrat party and the only Jew in Lloyd George’s cabinet, sent a remarkably sharp message to his fellow ministers, ‘Zionism has always seemed to me to he a mischievous political creed,’ he wrote, ‘untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom. If a Jewish Englishman sets his eyes on the Mount of Olives and longs for the day when he will shake British soil from his shoes and go hack to agricultural pursuits in Palestine, he has always seemed to me to have acknowledged aims inconsistent with British citizenship and to have admitted that he is unfit for a share in public life in Great Britain, or to be treated as an Englishman.’ This public missive followed a few days after Lord Lionel Rothschild, a leading British Zionist, received the brief dispatch that would become known as the Balfour Declaration ... Together with other prominent members of Britain‘s Jewish community, including journalist Lucien Wolf and philanthropist Claude Montefiore, Montagu had campaigned vigorously to annul, or at least curb, the Balfour Declaration. ... As liberals ... they drew a comparison between Zionists and anti-Semites: both groups denied that Jews and non-Jews could co-exist.”  

In the U.S., Liebovitz writes, “The Reform movement opposed Zionism in its founding document, the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, which declared that Reform Jews were ‘no longer a nation, but a religious community’ and that they expected ‘neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.’”  

The role of the American Council for Judaism and its early president, Lessing J. Rosenwald, is cited, as is the article written by Alfred E. Lilienthal in Readers Digest in 1949 entitled “Israel’s Flag Is Not Mine.” In that article, Lilienthal wrote: “I am proud of my belief in the age-old Judaic concept of one God in Heaven and one Humanity here below. But my faith does not pull me into a feeling of narrowly tribal kinship with all others who worship God in this way. Whenever I read of Americans singing the Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, or see youth groups raising Israel’s flag beside the Stars and Stripes, I am outraged. For Israel’s flag and anthem are symbols of a foreign state; they are not mine.”  

In israel, as well, writes Liebovitz, there are many who challenge the state’s Zionist orthodoxy. He reports about Uri Avnery and his Gush Shalom movement, who prefer to call themselves “post-Zionists.” In a 1971 book entitled Israel Without Zionism, Avnery proposed establishing a “Semitic Union” between Jews and Arabs that would end the “Zionist chapter” in history.  

Liel Liebovitz, who was wounded in battle as a member of the Israeli army in Lebanon, and now resides in New York, does not share the views of the Jewish critics of Zionism, but he believes that they merit a hearing. And he concludes: “I can’t help but wonder what my great-grandfather would make of all the current state of Zionist affairs. Had he lived to see the birth of Israel, would he have marched with Neturei Karta in Trafalgar Square ... or would he have grudgingly joined forces with the Jewish state? And what would Rabbi Sonnenfeld make of me? Would he have disapproved of my love of Israel and my commitment to Zionism? Or would he have felt an unforeseen spark of pride at seeing his great-grandson don the uniform of the first Jewish army in two thousand years?”

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