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Remembering the Prophetic Vision of Zionism’s Jewish Critics

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Fall 2010

From the earliest days of Zionism, the philosophy which proclaimed that Jews were a distinct nationality, not a religious community, and should return to their ancient “homeland” in Palestine, it represented a minority view among Jews.  
Religious Jews objected because they believed that the creation of a political state was heresy, an intervention that usurped God’s own redemptive plan. Even those Jews who faced prejudice and discrimination in their native countries showed no desire to emigrate to Palestine. Of the 3.5 million Jews fleeing Russia between 1880 and 1922, only 85,000 went to Palestine.  
In an article about the role of the American Council for Judaism in opposing Jewish nationalism and maintaining the view that Judaism is a religion of universal values, and that American Jews are Americans by nationality and Jews by religion, in precisely the same manner as other Americans are Baptists, Catholics or Muslims, New York Times (June 26, 2010) religion columnist Samuel Freedman declares that events in recent years have made the Council “look significant, even prophetic.”  
Prophesies Come True  
Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis University historian and author of the book American Judaism, states: “Everything they (the American Council for Judaism) prophesied — dual loyalty, nationalism being evil — has come to pass.”  
It is instructive to review the response to Theodor Herzl’s plea for a Jewish state, enunciated at the First Zionist Congress held in Basel, Switzerland in August 1897.  
The chief rabbi of Vienna, Moritz Gudemann, denounced the mirage of Jewish nationalism. Belief in One God was the unifying factor for Jews, he declared, and Zionism was incompatible with Judaism’s teachings. The Jewish Chronicle of London judged that the Zionist scheme’s lack of religious perspective rendered it “cold and comparatively uninviting.” The executive of the association of German rabbis denounced the “efforts of the so-called Zionists to create a Jewish National State in Palestine” as contrary to the “prophetic message of Judaism and the duty of every Jew to belong without reservation to the fatherland in which he lives.”  
Jewish Liberalism  
Adolf Jellinek, who became known as the greatest Jewish preacher of his age and a standard bearer of Jewish liberalism from his position as rabbi at the Leopoldstadt Temple in Vienna, deplored the creation of what he called a “small state like Serbia or Romania outside Europe, which would most likely become the plaything of one Great Power against another, and whose future would be very uncertain.”  
This, however, was not the real basis for his opposition. He argued that it threatened the position of Jews in Western countries and that “almost all Jews in Europe would vote against the scheme if they were given the opportunity.” He stated: “We are at home in Europe and feel ourselves to be children of the lands in which we were born, raised and educated, whose languages we speak and whose cultures constitute our intellectual substance. We are Germans, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Hungarians, Italians, etc. with every fibre of our being. We long ago ceased to be genuine full-blooded Semites in the sense of a Hebrew nationality that has long since been lost.”  
For Reform Jews, the idea of Zionism contradicted almost completely their belief in a universal Judaism. The first Reform prayer book eliminated references to Jews being in exile and to a Messiah who would miraculously restore Jews throughout the world to the historic land of Israel and who would rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem. The prayerbook eliminated all prayers for a return to Zion.  
Reform Platform  
In November 1885, a group of Reform rabbis met in Pittsburgh and wrote an eight-point platform that one participant called “the most succinct expression of the theology of the Reform movement that had ever been published in the world.” The platform emphasized that Reform Judaism denied Jewish peoplehood and nationalism in any variety. It stated: “We recognize in the era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching realization of Israel’s great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice and peace among all men. We consider ourselves no longer a nation but a religious community, and therefore expect 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 overwhelming majority of faculty and students at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati believed that Zionism was antithetical to the beliefs of Reform Judaism. Professor Louis Grossman in 1899 expressed the dominant sentiment when he said that, “… A sober student of Jewish history and a genuine lover of his co-religionists sees that the Zionistic agitation contradicts everything that is typical of Jews and Judaism.” In Hebrew Union College’s opening exercises on October 14, 1916, President Kaufmann Kohler stated that “ignorance and irreligion are at the bottom of the whole movement of political Zionism.”  
In 1897, the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted a resolution disapproving of any attempt to establish a Jewish state. The resolution stated: “Zion was a precious possession of the past…as such it is a holy memory, but it is not our hope of the future. America is our Zion.” In 1904, The American Israelite, edited by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the leader of American Reform Judaism in the 19th century, noted: “There is not one solitary prominent native Jewish-American who is an advocate of Zionism.”  
Balfour Declaration  
In 1912, when Zionists pressed for the promulgation of the Balfour Declaration, it was a Jewish opponent who spoke out against the concept of an exclusively Jewish state within the British Cabinet. Edwin S. Montagu, Secretary of State for India in Lloyd George’s World War I Cabinet, declared that he had “striven all his life to escape the ghetto,” to which he now faced possible relegation as a result of the proposed policy paper. He resented the Zionist effort to convince Jews that they were an “ethnic-racial” rather than a religious group. He believed, as well, that there was an injustice involved in turning over control of a land to those who constituted only 7 percent of the population.  
What would a “national home for the Jewish people” really mean? “I do not know what this in-volves,” wrote Montagu, “but I assume that it means that Mohammedans and Christians are to make way for the Jews, and that the Jews would be put in all positions of preference and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the same way that England is with the English or France with the French, that Turks and other Mohammedans in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners … I assert that there is not a Jewish nation … It is no more to say that a Jewish Englishman and a Jewish Moor are of the same nation than it is to say that a Christian Englishman and a Christian Frenchman are of the same nation.”  
Placing the question of Palestine in a larger perspective, Montagu states: “I deny that Palestine is today associated with the Jews. It is quite true that Palestine plays a large part in Jewish history, but so it does in modern Mohammedan history, and, after the time of the Jews, surely it plays a larger part than any other country in Christian history. The Temple may have been in Palestine, but so was the Sermon on the Mount and the Crucifixion. I would not deny to Jews in Palestine equal rights to colonization with those who profess other religions, but a religious test of citizenship seems to me to be only admitted by those who take a bigoted and narrow view of one particular epoch of the history of Palestine, and claim for the Jews a position to which they are not entitled.”  
Jews Not a Nation  
In a speech to the Menorah Society Dinner in New York City in December 1917, Chief Judge of the New York State Supreme Court Irving Lehman, brother of Governor Herbert Lehman of New York, stated: “I cannot recognize that the Jews as such constitute a nation in any sense in which the word is recognized in political science, or that a national basis is a possible concept for modern Judaism. We Jews in America, bound to the Jews of other lands by our common faith, constituting our common inheritance cannot as American citizens feel any bond to them as members of a nation, for nationally we are Americans and Americans only, and in political and civic matters we cannot recognize any other ties. We must therefore look for the maintenance of Judaism to those spiritual concepts which constitute Judaism.”  
In 1919, a petition was presented to President Woodrow Wilson entitled “A Statement to the Peace Conference.” It reflected the then dominant Reform position on Zionism and Palestine. The petition asserted that the opinions expressed therein represented those of the vast majority of American Jews. Those signing included Rep. Julius Kahn of California; Henry Morganthau, Sr., ex-Ambassador to Turkey; Simon W. Rosendale, former Attorney General of New York; Mayor L.H. Kempner of Galveston, Texas; E.M. Baker, president of the New York Stock Exchange; R.H. Macy’s Jesse L. Straus; New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs; Judge M.C. Sloss of San Francisco, and professors Edwin H. Seligman of Columbia University and Morris Jastrow of the University of Pennsylvania. President Wilson brought the petition with him to the peace conference.  
The petition criticized Zionist efforts to segregate Jews “as a political unit … in Palestine or else-where” and underlined the principle of equal rights for all citizens of any state “irrespective of creed or ethnic descent.” It rejected Jewish nationalism as a general concept and held against the founding of any state upon the basis of religion and/or race. The petition asserted that the “overwhelming bulk of the Jews of America, England, France, Italy, Holland, Switzerland and the other lands of freedom have no thought whatever of surrendering their citizenship in those lands in order to resort to a ‘Jewish homeland in Palestine.’”  
Rejection of Nationalism  
The rejection of Jewish nationalism is reiterated in the petition. Point 5 makes this clear: “We object to the political segregation of the Jews because it is an error to assume that the bond uniting them is of a national character. They are bound by two factors: First, the bond of common religious beliefs and aspirations and, secondly, the bonds of common traditions, customs and experiences largely, alas, of common trials and sufferings. Nothing in their status suggests that they form in any real sense a separate nationalistic unit.”  
With regard to the future of Palestine, the petitioners state: “It is our fervent hope that what was once a ‘promised land’ for the Jews may become ‘a land of promise’ for all races and creeds, safeguarded by the League of Nations which, it is expected, will be one of the fruits of the Peace Conference…We ask that Palestine be constituted as a free and independent state to be governed under a democratic form of government recognizing no distinction of creed or race or ethnic descent, and with adequate power to protect the country against oppression of any kind. We do not wish to see Palestine, either now or at any time in the future, organized as a Jewish state.”  
It was not only those Jews who rejected the entire notion of a Jewish state who emerged as critics of the Zionist enterprise. Many who were sympathetic to the creation of one form or another of a Jewish “homeland” were concerned about the rights of the present inhabitants of Palestine, rights which they saw as either being ignored or violated.  
Arab Presence in Palestine  
Unlike most of his fellow Zionists who persisted in fantasizing about “a land without people for the people without a land,” Ahad Ha’am, for example, from the very beginning refused to ignore the presence of Arabs in Palestine. This Russian Jewish writer and philosopher paid his first visit to the new Jewish settlements in Palestine in 1891. In his essay, “The Truth from the Land of Israel,” he says that it is an illusion to think of Palestine as an empty country: “We tend to believe abroad that Palestine is nowadays completely deserted, a non-cultivated wilderness, and anyone can come there and buy as much land as his heart desires. But in reality this is not the case. It is difficult to find anywhere in the country Arab land which is fallow.”  
The behaviour of Jewish settlers toward the Arabs disturbed him. They had not learned from experience as a minority within a wider population, but reacted with the cruelty of slaves who had suddenly become kings, treating their neighbors with contempt. The Arabs, he wrote, understood very well what Zionist intentions were in the country and “if the time should come when the lives of our people in Palestine should develop to the extent that, to a similar or greater degree they usurp the place of the local population, the latter will not yield easily … We have to treat the local population with love and respect, justly and rightly. And what do our brethren in the land of Israel do? Exactly the opposite. Slaves they were in the country of exile, and suddenly they find themselves in a boundless and anarchic freedom, as is always the case with a slave that has become a king; and they behave toward the Arabs with hostility and cruelty.”  
Jewish ethics were the heart and soul of Ahad Ha’am’s brand of cultural Zionism, and to the end of his life he denounced any compromise with political expediency. In 1913, protesting against a Jewish boycott of Arab labor, he wrote to a friend: “… I can’t put up with the idea that our brethren are morally capable of behaving in such a way to humans of another people, and unwittingly the thought comes to my mind: If this is so now, what will our relations to the others be like if at the end of time, we shall really achieve power in Eretz Israel? And if this be the Messiah, I do not wish to see him coming.”  
Relations with Arabs  
Ahad Ha’am was hardly alone in voicing such misgivings about the emerging Zionist enterprise. In an article published in Ha-Shiloah in 1907, Yitzhak Epstein, a Russian-born teacher who had settled in Palestine in l886, voiced an anxiety that was brushed aside by Zionist contemporaries but came back to haunt. He wrote: “Among the grave questions raised by the concept of our people’s renaissance on its own soil, there is one which is more weighty than all the others put together. This is the question of our relations with the Arabs. This question, on the correct solution of which our own national aspirations depend, has not been forgotten, but rather has remained completely hidden from the Zionists, and its true form found almost no mention in the literature of our movement.”  
Epstein wrote that, “While we harbor fierce sentiments towards the land of our fathers, we forget that the nation now living there is also endowed with a sensitive heart and a loving soul. The Arab, like all other men, is strongly attached to his homeland.”  
Yosef Luria, a Romanian-born journalist and teacher who settled in Palestine in 1907, wrote in Ha-Olem in 1911: “During all the years of our labor in Palestine we completely forgot that there were Arabs in the country. The Arabs have been ‘discovered’ only during the past few years. We regarded all European nations as opponents of our settlement, but failed to pay heed to one people — the people residing in this country, and attached to it.”  
ACJ Is Created  
As Reform Judaism embraced the Zionist idea, the American Council for Judaism (ACJ) was created in 1942 to maintain the older idea of a universal, prophetic Judaism shorn of nationalism. In his keynote address to the June 1942 meeting in Atlantic City, Rabbi David Philipson declared that Reform Judaism and Zionism were incompatible: “Reform Judaism is spiritual, Zionism is political. The outlook of Reform Judaism is the world. The outlook of Zionism is a corner of eastern Asia.”  
An early leader of the Council, Rabbi Morris Lazaron, who served from 1915 to 1946 as rabbi of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, was originally a supporter of cultural Zionism, but later altered his views. Slowly, he discovered that Zionist nationalism was not different from other forms of national-ism: “The Jewish nationalist philosophy of separateness as a people who would always and inevitably be rejected because they were Jews, boldly asserted itself. The idea seems to have been to break down the self-confidence and opposition to Jewish political nationalism…Behind the mask of Jewish sentiment, one can see the specter of the foul thing which moves Germany and Italy. Behind the camouflage of its unquestioned appeal to Jewish feeling, one can hear a chorus of ‘Heil.’ This is not for Jews — Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.”  
Speaking at the January 1937 annual convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in New Orleans, Lazaron declared: “Judaism cannot accept as the instrument of its salvation the very philosophy of nationalism which is leading the world to destruction. Shall we condemn it as Italian or German, but accept it as Jewish?”  
Maintaining Reform Tradition  
In his history of the early years of the American Council for Judaism, “Jews Against Zionism” (Temple University Press), Professor Thomas A. Kolsky pointed to the fact that the Council was maintaining the tradition of Reform Judaism’s founders. He points to “the most articulate spokesman for the German Reform movement … the distinguished rabbi and scholar Abraham Geiger (1810-1874). According to him, Judaism developed through an evolutionary process that had begun with God’s revelation to the Hebrew prophets. That revelation was progressive; new truth became available to every generation. The underlying and unchangeable essence of Judaism was its morality. The core of Judaism … was ethical monotheism…The Jewish people were a religious community, destined to carry on the mission to ‘serve as a light to the nations,’ to bear witness to God and his moral law. The dispersion of the Jews was not a punishment for their sins, but a part of God’s plan whereby they were to disseminate the universal message of ethical monotheism. Geiger deleted all prayers about a return to Zion in a Reform prayerbook he edited in 1854.”  
The warnings which the ACJ expressed during its early years, Professor Kolsky concluded, have been prophetic: “… many of its predictions about the consequences of the establishment of a Jewish state did come true. As the ACJ had foreseen, the birth of the state created numerous problems — problems the Zionists had minimized. For example, Israel became highly, if not unusually, dependent on support from American Jews. Moreover, the creation of the state directly contributed to undermin-ing Jewish communities in Arab countries and to precipitating a protracted conflict between Israel and the Arabs. Indeed, as the Council had often warned and contrary to Zionist expectations, Israel did not become a truly normal state. Nor did it become a light to the nations. Ironically, created presumably to free Jews from anti-Semitism and ghetto-like existence as well as to provide them with abiding peace, Israel became, in effect, a garrison state, a nation resembling a large territorial ghetto besieged by hostile neighbors.. The ominous predictions of the ACJ are still haunting the Zionists.”  
Corrupted and Politicized  
Beyond this, Judaism as a religion has become increasingly corrupted and politicized. Jewish religious bodies, ranging from Orthodox to the Conservative to the Reform, have embraced the notion that the State of Israel — not God — is, somehow, central to Judaism. In its l999 Statement of Principles, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) went so far as to declare that, “We affirm the unique qualities of living in the land of Israel and we encourage aliyah (immigration to Israel).”  
From Israeli flags in synagogues to “Birthright Israel” trips sending young people on free visits to Israel to a host of Jewish organizations focusing on influencing U.S. Middle East policy — the center of attention within the organized American Jewish community has not been the traditional Jewish commitment to God but something far different. It should be no surprise that more and more American Jews, particularly young people, are increasingly alienated from this enterprise.  
More and more thoughtful Jewish voices — in Israel, in the United States and around the world — are increasingly using the term “idolatry” to describe the elevation of the State of Israel to the “central” position in Judaism.  
Prophetic Jewish Voices  
It is time for a serious consideration of the many prophetic Jewish voices who warned against Zionism from the very beginning of this movement. In his prophetic critique of Zionism published in 1929, Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamaret writes that, “Judaism at root is not some religious concentration which can be localized or situated in a single territory … Neither is Judaism a matter of ‘nationality’ in the sense of modern nationalism, fit to be woven into the famous three-fold mesh of ‘homeland, army, and heroic songs.’ No, Judaism is Torah, ethics and exaltation of spirit. If Judaism is truly Torah, then it cannot be reduced to the confines of any particular territory. For as Scripture said of Torah: ‘Its measure is greater than the earth …’” (Job 11:9).  
It is this vision of a universal faith of ethical values for men and women of every background which the Prophets preached and in which generations of Jews believed. Zionism, as its critics proclaimed, was a rejection of that tradition and would have serious negative consequences. History has proven them correct.  

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