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The Paradoxes of Zionism and Its Growing Irrelevance

Allan C. Brownfeld
Fall 1996

Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, was intended to answer the so-called "Jewish Question," the dilemma of Jews living in the Diaspora. In this provocative history, the English historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft examines the first hundred years of political Zionism and suggests that, for the majority of Jews who live outside of Israel, Zionism and the Jewish state may have raised as many questions as they have answered. As it becomes clear that American Jews and those in other Western countries consider themselves full members of their own societies, and have no intention of emigrating to Israel, he argues that Zionism may now have become irrelevant to their identity and religious life.  

Beyond this, Wheatcroft, former literary editor of The Spectator and author of The Randlords: The Exploits and Exploitation of South Africa’s Mining Magnates, shows that Zionism was a uniquely 19th century nationalist enterprise which was opposed from the start by the vast majority of Jews, particularly those in the West. He shows, as well, the similarities of its worldview and that of anti-Semites and the manner in which anti-Semites were attracted to its goal of removing Jews from Europe. He describes, in addition, the indifference of Zionist leaders to the fate of the indigenous non-Jewish population of Palestine.  

As the emancipation of Jews in Western Europe proceeded, may questions were raised about the nature of the Jewish community. In 1806, Napoleon gathered an Assembly of Jewish Notables and the next year a Sanhedrin, supposedly a revival of the supreme court of the ancient Hebrew commonwealth. The Sanhedrin declared that Jewish teaching was purely religious and the French Jews’ political allegiance was purely to the Emperor. "The Jews no longer form a nation within a nation," said Abraham Furtado, a financier who had been head of the earlier assembly. "France is our country."  

Parting of the Ways  

"The Revolutionary and Napoleonic era," writes Wheatcroft, "marked a decisive parting of the ways among European Jewry. Those in the east dug deeper into the burrow of their communal life. Neither emigration or assimilation presented a dilemma for them, since neither was a practical possibility . . . For that tenth of European Jewry living in the western part of the continent, the idea that the Jews were a nation among nations represented a . . . challenge and threat."  

As the Jews of Western Europe proceeded to become members of the societies into which they were born — Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, Italians — those in the east remained isolated. Some Jewish thinkers began to advocate a return to the ancient Jewish homeland, what later became Zionism. Yehudah Alkalai, born in Sarajevo in 1798, published a book Shema Yisrael (Hear, O Israel) in 1834 proposing recolonization of the Holy Land as a precondition for redemption. "Strictly speaking," writes Wheatcroft, "this was an impious suggestion from a rabbi. Pure Torah Judaism had to some extent been clouded by other mystical and cabalistic traditions, and Alkalai seems to have been influenced by these, with vague notions of a forerunner to the Messiah (as John the Baptist is to Christians) who would lead the Jews in the war of Gog and Magog and reconquer the Holy Land."  

In 1862, Moses Hess wrote Rome and Jerusalem in which he called for rebuilding a Jewish homeland in Palestine. He conceded that the bulk of the Jewish people were not likely to migrate to the Holy Land even if the opportunity arose and pointed out that they had not all returned after the Babylonian Exile. He wrote: "When we speak of Jewish settlement in the Orient, we do not mean to imply a total emigration of the western Jews to Palestine. Even after the establishment of a Jewish state, the majority of the Jews who live at present in civilized countries of the west will undoubtedly remain where they are."  

Shocked by the pogroms of 1881 in Russia, Leo Pinsker wrote Self Emancipation: An Appeal To His People By A Russian Jew. Pinsker concluded that "the Jews are not a living nation; they are everywhere aliens; therefore they are despised. The proper and the only remedy would be the creation of a Jewish nationality, of a people living upon its own soil, the self-emancipation of the Jews; their emancipation as a nation among nations by acquisition of a home of their own." Pinsker admitted, however, that the Jews were not really a nation, because they lacked "a distinctive national character, possessed by every other nation, a character that is determined by living together in one country under one rule."  

Jews in Western Europe  

While such views were being expressed in the east, Jews in Western Europe developed quite an opposite philosophy. Consider Adolf Jellinek, who was called to Vienna as rabbi of the Leopoldstadt Temple in 1856 and became known as the greatest Jewish preacher of his age and a standard-bearer for Jewish liberalism. He said that the plan for an independent territorial home for the Jews was absurd and impossible. "He deplored the creation of what he called with prescient acuity ‘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 uncertain,’" writes Wheatcroft. "But this was not the nub of his opposition. The real objection to a Jewish territorial home would be that it threatens the position of western Jews, and should be rejected by Jews."  

Jellinek argued that "almost all Jews in Europe" would vote against the scheme if they were given the opportunity. This was because they are not, as both Pinsker and the anti-Semites seemed to think, transient vagrants in the country where they lived. "We are at home in Europe," stated Jellinek, "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."  

As the 19th century came to an end, the figure of Theodore Herzl emerged as the founder of the modern Zionist movement. His worldview, Wheatcroft shows, was shaped by the anti-Semitism he observed around him and, in many ways, he accepted the anti-Semites’ view of Jews.  

By the time he had entered his Gymnasium or high school in 1875, a branch of the new anti-Semitism, one based on nationalism more than on traditional religious questions, had emerged in Budapest, Herzl’s boyhood home. Cyozo von Istóczy made a violent speech in the Hungarian Parliament denouncing the Jews in terms which combined the old and the new: the Jews were an exclusive tribe who had defied absorption into the outside world for thousands of years, and who aimed at economic conquest of their gentile neighbors under cover of "liberalism." Three years later, in 1878, the year of the Congress of Berlin, Istóczy made a still more remarkable speech. He supposed that "in no other land in Europe does the Jewish Question necessitate a more urgently radical solution than in our monarchy and especially in Hungary," and went on to propose such a radical solution: the restoration of a state for the Jews in the Holy Land. Thus, the man who organized the first self-styled anti-Semitic movement in modern Europe urged Jewish emigration to Palestine. This, Wheatcroft declares, "was the first time that a connection appeared between anti-Semitism and Zionism."  

Shaken by Dreyfus Case  

Herzl, who once called for the mass baptism of Western Jews into Christianity as a way to ease assimilation and end anti-Semitism, was shaken by the Dreyfus case in France and other manifestations of hostility to Jews which he observed. He came to believe that anti-Semitism was now an insoluble problem and he wrote in his diary that, "I have the solution to the Jewish Question. I know it sounds mad; and at the beginning I shall be called mad more than once — until the truth of what I am saying is recognized in all its shattering force." The solution was presented to the public in February 1896 as Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State). He urged the creation of a state for the Jews.  

A man without any religious belief in God or Judaism, Herzl was not concerned with the location of such a state. It might be Palestine or it might be Argentina or Uganda. Once established in a land of their own, he wrote, "a wondrous breed of Jews will spring up from the earth. The Maccabees will rise again."  

Herzl recognized that most Jews, particularly those in free Western countries, would not uproot themselves to live in this Jewish state. He denied, as well, that Zionism was an admission of defeat and was simply the other side of the coin of anti-Semitism. Yet, Wheatcroft believes that, "Herzl came close to admitting this himself. Why else did he say that anti-Semites ‘will be our most reliable friends, the anti-Semitic countries our allies?’"  

Zionism, Wheatcroft shows, was not an outgrowth of ancient Jewish tradition but was an imitation of emerging 19th century European nationalism, particularly that of Germany. Sixty years after The Jewish State appeared, historian Hans Kohn observed that the book and the philosophy it contained was an outgrowth of the very European nationalism which had brought such sorrow to the Jews, and that the whole tenor of this nationalism not only "had nothing to do with Jewish traditions; it was in many ways opposed to them."  

Not merely nationalism in general, but one nationalism in particular inspired Herzl. As Hannah Arendt put it, Herzl’s thought in terms of nationalism was inspired by German sources. In the German theory, people of a common descent or speaking a common language formed a nation and ought to form a state. As Kohn said, this was an idea which ran counter to the Western political ideal that a country should consist of peoples of various and even unknown ethnic origin who owed a common allegiance, an ideal exemplified, Kohn pointed out, by the United States above all.  

Break With Jewish Tradition  

In Wheatcroft’s view, Zionism "was an almost conscious mirror-image of European nationalism based on a belief in the failure of assimilation and liberalism. At the same time, it was a radical break with Jewish tradition. It was from the beginning consciously secular — and was to become steadily more so, until the day would come when Zionist zealots picnicked off ham sandwiches on Yom Kippur. Herzl . . . dreamed of a Jewish state which was both secular and unmilitaristic: ‘We shall know how to keep the rabbis in their synagogues and the generals in their barracks,’ not as it turned out part of his prophesy which would come true. Nor did he see how Zionism . . . like so many doctrines might develop."  

Jewish opposition to the Zionist idea in the West was overwhelming. "On the one hand," Wheatcroft notes, "were the devoutly religious. Reform as well as Orthodox Jews thought that Zionists attacked and degraded Judaism and the Jews as a religious community, quite apart from impiously anticipating Messianic Redemption and the restoration of God’s People by the Messiah, in God’s time. Orthodox and Reform Judaism had been strongly hostile to one another, and the precise flavor of their anti-Zionism differed. For the Orthodox, Zionism blasphemed Torah Judaism; for the Reform synagogue it represented, as Robert Wistrich puts it, ‘a parochial retreat from the universalist Jewish mission of Weltburgertum (citizenship of the world) to an anachronistic mode of tribal nationalism.’ Such people bitterly resented being lectured by Zionists about what it meant to be a Jew; they did not relish having their faith impugned or their patriotism."  

In America, with its growing Jewish community, Zionism made little impact. Its message seemed not to relate to the reality of life in the free and open American society. An early Zionist, Joseph Zeff, insisted that even in America Jews must not "fool yourselves that you are Americans. You are not counted as Americans and never will be." Others might be assimilated, he declared, "but not the Jews. The Jew will always be alone. Against his own wishes, he will remain loyal to his race and his past."  

Few American Jews accepted this pessimistic assessment. Even when a number of prominent American Jews joined the Zionist enterprise, they redefined it as something which was, in fact, quite the opposite. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, for example, told Americans that they could be good Zionists without actually leaving the U.S. He said that being a Zionist actually made a Jew a "better American." Wheatcroft writes that, "To some rigorous Zionists, this was nonsense. Zionism must mean a commitment not to live in Vilna, Vienna — or New York. It was in this light as absurd to say that you could be a good Zionist without making aliyah as to say that you could be a good Catholic without ever going to Mass. The logical Zionist agreed objectively with assimilationists: you were one of the other, you either stayed in the Galut and rejected Zionism, or left it and rejected assimilation. But Brandeis’s argument was of immense importance for the future: fifty years later his principle would underlie the development of American Jewry into Israel’s lifeline and mainstay."  

Zionism Widely Rejected  

Among American Jews, Zionism was widely rejected. In the case of Reform Judaism, Wheatcroft writes, they "had anyway put aside the ancient and profound belief that the Jews were a people with a Messianic mission, or even a ‘people’ at all. Moses Hess insisted that the Jews were a race. Reformism insisted not. The Jews, it said, were not a racial or ethnic group but a religious faith, scarcely different from Roman Catholics or Episcopalians or Unitarians. They were no more than ‘Americans of the Mosaic faith.’"  

After the first Zionist Congress, "The American Hebrew" said that "the entire Jewish press of the world, with less than half-a-dozen exceptions, has been opposed to the Congress." The "Menorah Monthly" reminded Jews that the Holy Land was holy to Christians and Muslims as well as Jews. The banker and philanthropist Jacob J. Schiff said, "Speaking as an American, I cannot for one moment concede that one can at the same time be a true American and an honest adherent to the Zionist movement." Henry Morganthau, Sr., stated that, "We Jews of America have found America to be our Zion. Therefore I refuse to allow myself to be called a Zionist. I am an American."  

The vast majority of American Jews, Wheatcroft declares, "instinctively sympathized" with the views expressed by Schiff and Morganthau. "They rejected Herzl’s solution to the ‘Jewish Question.’ Why should they need it? They had made their decision, that heroic generation, voted with their feet, two million of them, in crossing the Atlantic to a land founded on the very principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They had no need of any other way to pursue it. They had found in America much prejudice and hardship, but they had also found something unknown to them before: a land where a poor Jew could live freely without fear, and a rich Jew could live openly without evasion. They had solved their own Jewish Question by becoming Americans. From the bottom of their hearts, they spoke the same words: ‘America is our Zion.’"  

Even within Zionist ranks there was much criticism of the path the movement was taking, particularly its indifference to the position of the Arab inhabitants of the Holy Land. In 1891, not long before Herzl wrote The Jewish State, the Russian Jewish writer Ahad Ha’am had visited the Holy Land for the first time, and his description of his visit, Truth From The Land of Israel, is far-seeing. Max Nordau, a prominent Zionist had supposedly discovered the "Arab question." and told Herzl they were committing an injustice. "But it is not true that the early Zionists had been ignorant of the existence of an Arab population in Palestine," writes Wheatcroft. "They had merely, in one way or another, wished it away . . . Herzl had vaguely hoped that the Arabs would welcome a Jewish state for the material benefits it would bring. Not only were these Zionist Europeans of the age of imperialism that supposed, without formulating the thought, that the Arabs were malleable and quite without national consciousness. And this was indeed the case at the time. In the 1890s, and for some time after, most of those living in Palestine were less conscious of their identity than those French or Sicilian peasants earlier in the century."  

Palestine Not Deserted  

Ahad Ha’am pointed out that this would not always be the case. "We tend to believe that Palestine is nowadays almost completely deserted," he wrote, "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 int he country Arab land which lies fallow."  

The German Jewish philosopher Martin Buber also expressed concern. He believed passionately that the Jews had an historic role but that their role was not mere assertive nationalism. He stayed in Frankfurt even after Hitler came to power, bravely helping to organize the Jewish community in the face of persecution. In 1938 he left for Palestine where with the same courage he advocated cooperation with the Arabs and a binational state.  

What became clear as Zionism proceeded was the fact that anti-Semites embraced it while most Jews rejected it. In an essay entitled "The Perils of Zion," the British Jewish leader Claude Montefiore harped on the theme that "those who have no love for the Jews, and those who are pronounced anti-Semites, all seem to welcome the Zionist proposals and aspirations. Why should this be, unless Zionism fits in with anti-Semitic presumptions and with anti-Semitic aims?" Writing in The New York Times, Henry Moskowitz, in an article entitled Zionism Is No Remedy, described the curse of nationalism which hung over the world as World War I raged, "in which the idea of domination has given certain nations a form of megalomania" and he had no wish for the Jews to join this game. The whole nature of Jewish nationalism was reactionary and an unsatisfactory philosophy of life, he argued. What the Jews needed rather was a revival of the Hebraic spirit which gave birth to Israel’s vision, to David’s psalms, to Spinoza’s God.  

Wheatcroft describes in detail the machinations which led to the adoption of the Balfour Declaration and the objection by leading British Jews to the entire concept of a Jewish "national home," and the manner in which the Declaration was revised to assure the rights of Jews in other countries as well as the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine.  

Events in Palestine itself continued to disturb many even within Zionist ranks. In 1922, young Jewish zealots killed an Arab boy. This brought a cry of rage from Ahad Ha’am. "Jews and blood — are there two greater opposites than these?" he asked in a letter to the Hebrew paper Ha’Aretz." "Is this the goal for which our ancestors longed and for which they suffered all those tribulations? Is this the dream of the return to Zion which our people dreamt of for thousands of years; that we should come to Zion and pollute its soil with the spilling of innocent blood?"  

Zionist Revisionism  

During these years an even more militant form of Zionism was emerging, that of Revisionism. Its leader, Vladimir Jabotinsky, embraced the negative view of Jews he imbibed from anti-Semites. In his autobiography, he describes how he first came into contact with the Zionist movement, when he was studying in Bern. He announced on the spot his adherence to the cause: "I am a Zionist because the Jewish People are a very nasty people, and its neighbors hate it, and they are right; its end in the Dispersion will be a general Bartholomew’s Night, and the only rescue is general immigration to Palestine."  

Wheatcroft describes Jabotinsky’s affinity for European fascism and how he was ready to form a tactical alliance with groups such as the murderously anti-Semitic Ukrainian nationalist Petliura after the Great War. Later, Jabotinsky’s spirit lived on as young Revisionists like Menachem Begin, Abraham Stern and Yitzhak Shamir fought against the British during World War II. Wheatcroft writes: "In his struggle for a Greater Israel stretching as far as the Euphrates, Stern led a violent group called Lehi in terrorist acts against the British; he met a representative of Mussolini; going further than Jabotinsky, he sent an agent called Naftalli Lubentschik to Beirut — at the time part of French Syria controlled by the Vichy regime — to talk to a representative of the Third Reich, Otto von Hentig of the Berlin Foreign Office. Stern’s emissary expressed his sympathy with the National Socialists, whose goal of removing the Jews from Europe he understood, spoke of the ‘good will of the German Reich Government and its authorities toward Zionist activity inside Germany and towards Zionist emigration plans,’ and proposed the ‘establishment of the historical Jewish state on a national and totalitarian basis, and bound by treaty with the German Reich,’ concluding with a formal offer to take part in the war on the German side. The Germans declined the offer."  

In the end, support for a Jewish state in Palestine came about not because the majority of Jews in the West supported the philosophy but, Wheatcroft argues, "by events." In the aftermath of Hitler, "a Jewish state was born, and survived . . . It attracted, and depended on, the support of those Jews — and they were much the larger part of the surviving Jewish population of the world — who chose to continue living outside its borders."  

Wheatcroft devotes attention to the creation of the American Council for Judaism, which he describes as "one of the last outposts of Jewish opposition to political Zionism" and expresses the view that "Jewish anti-Zionism was now a lost cause, overwhelmed by the force of history."  

Dissent Is Stifled  

In his discussion of the years since Israel emerged as a state, he shows how the organized Jewish community, particularly in the U.S., worked to stifle dissent in behalf of the new state: "A deal had been silently struck. The Jewish state had been created, Jewish opposition to Zionism, which had such a long history, and often a morally and intellectually honorable one, was almost extinguished. It became practically impossible for any Jew to oppose Israel, or even publicly criticize her. At the same time, only a small minority of Jews actively wished to live in this Jewish state. Most of the Israeli population was composed of people, or of the descendants of people, who had gone there because they had no choice: of refugees fleeing Polish anti-Semitism and Hitler’s mad persecution between the wars, of the remnants of mass murder after 1945 who were offered refuge nowhere else, of the Jews of Araby who were now driven out of their native lands and likewise had nowhere else to go. The increasingly assimilated and increasingly prosperous Jews of the West, above all of the U.S., became sentimental Zionists in the sense that they admired Israel from afar, but did not intend to become practical Zionists in the sense of making aliyah. They thus felt that they not only should support Israel, but support it uncritically; that they had no right to tell Israel how to order its affairs . . . And yet the bargain was not reciprocal. Israeli politicians believed, it soon became clear, that Western Jewry owed them everything, but that Israel owed Western Jewry nothing but its very existence."  

Being sentimental enthusiasts of Israel is far different from embracing the Zionists worldview, Wheatcroft shows. In reality, he writes, "The Jews of America have . . . more practically endorsed Henry Morganthau’s words: they have found America to be their Zion."  

It is Wheatcroft’s view that Zionism has raised more questions than it has answered: "Up to and especially in this century the Jews have been the greatest of all victims of racism and nationalism. Zionism reacted by proposing a nationalism of its own, purer than the European nationalisms on which it was modeled, because even more exclusive. In the consequence, this has been made more troublous by what might be called Hitler’s revenge. His own mad and murderous career discredited not only Jew-hatred but all theories of racial superiority, or at least of European racial superiority; and Israel is inescapably both a European colony on Asian soil, and an extreme demonstration of the principles of 19th century European nationalism."  

America’s Different Principles  

In the case of American Jews, he argues, "their own country is inspired by entirely contrary principles to the Jewish state’s. For all its intermittent history of slavery, nativism, racism . . . the American republic was non-ethnic, in theory and sometimes in practice. It rejected European nationalism just at the time when that nationalism was emerging fully-fledged, and in the most practical ways . . . Admiring the Israeli achievement as they do, Western and especially American Jews have not asked themselves whether they would care to live in a country where only Christians could own much of the country’s land."  

Those in Israel who speak of "separation" between Jew and Arab, Wheatcroft writes, are embracing a view that "is barely a shade of difference between ‘separation’ and ‘segregation;’ or ‘apartness,’ which is translated into Afrikaans as ‘apartheid.’ This is bitter for many liberal Jews in the West, and it has made some of them think about what Zionism has done . . . to the old Jewish humanitarian tradition. In the case of American Jews especially, they must know that it is the very absence of the kind of ethnic nationalism and cultural homogeneity exemplified by Israel which has made possible their own triumphant story."  

What Jews outside of Israel have come to recognize very clearly, Wheatcroft states, "is not only that Israel . . . is not their home, but that the Israelis, however much they admire them, are no longer their people." He points out that, "Jabotinsky had said that Jews had become ‘Yids’ and that they should become Hebrews again; and this has happened to four million Israelis, to the extent that they are like nothing quite seen before in Jewish history, maybe even the ‘Hebrew-speaking gentiles’ of Georges Friedmann’s phrase. There are also millions more Jews in the world who have ceased to be ‘Yids," but who did not want to become Hebrews either. Their motives are not ignoble . . .They might understand what Hans Kohn meant when he quoted Goethe’s saying that the Jews had been dispersed through the world ‘in order to fully develop all that is good in them to the benefit of mankind’ . . . The final paradox might be that Zionism has succeeded in everything but its ostensible purpose: to resolve the Jewish Question by normalizing the Jewish people and ending their chosenness . . . And yet the Jews remain in some manner chosen . . ."  

Tensions With Israel  

Now, with the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of The Jewish State, Wheatcroft points out, "the tensions between Israel and the Dispersion have become sharper . . .Zionism was meant to make the Jews free men, in charge of their own destiny. Although Israel has often behaved as if this were literally true, she has in practice depended on American goodwill and generosity . . . Herzl’s first purpose has been to find ‘the solution to the Jewish Question.’ A hundred years on, the achievement of that goal has been much more ambiguous . . ."  

The one hundredth anniversary of The Jewish State, declares Wheatcroft, "finds a Jewish State, but also finds two Jews representing the great trading blocs, U.S. and European Union, in trade negotiations; and two others as British Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary . . . Is all of that so much less of a Jewish achievement than Israel? . . . Western culture is permeated by Jewishness . . . What is certain is that Hebrew Israel and the Jewish Dispersion are different . . . The original goals of resolving the Jewish Question and normalizing the Jewish People were perhaps always unattainable, or perhaps the pioneers of Zionism did not understand the law of unintended consequences . . . On the face of things, Zionism got what it wanted . . . Succeeding in so many ways, it failed to understand the true tragic nature of history; it failed to end the Jewish drama by winding it up as a sub-plot of the stage of history. Extraordinary though it has been, Zionism has surely been but one episode in a much greater story."  

Geoffrey Wheatcroft has written an engrossing account of a complex subject and has identified the many competing schools of thought which have been involved in addressing it. If anyone thought that Judaism and Zionism were, in any sense, the same, or that there has been any consensus of support for the Zionist idea on the part of Jews, he has made it abundantly clear that this is not the case. He asks a final question which he does not answer: "Today there is a Jewish state which is a source of healing pride for millions of Jews, but also a source of anxiety. Should they defend the religious zealots and right-wing settlers who play an ever larger part in Israeli life? Or is Israel increasingly irrelevant to the fabulous success story of the Jews of America?"

The Controversy of Zion by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. 396 Pages $25.00

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