Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

A Rabbi’s Critical Look at 100 Years of Jewish Nationalism

Allan C. Brownfeld
Fall 1997

As the world commemorates the 100th anniversary of Zionism and reflects upon its accomplishments and shortcomings, it is appropriate that this study of Zionist thought by a distinguished British rabbi appear and serve as a basis for a critical look at that history.  

This intellectual history usually begins with Moses Hess, author of Rome and Jerusalem (1862), a seminal work in Zionist literature, and Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, who envisaged a state in Palestine that would be an amalgam of the best of European culture. Others combined Zionism with a commitment to religious orthodoxy, socialism, communism or the redemptive effects of agricultural labor. At the same time, the vast majority of Jews, particularly in Western countries, rejected the entire notion of Jewish nationalism. All of these strains of thought are explored in depth as are the personalities of such important figures as David Ben Gurion and Vladimir Jabotinsky.  

The author is Senior Rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London and is a leading spokesman for Progressive Judaism in the United Kingdom and Europe. He worked for a year on a kibbutz between school and university and was a volunteer in the Six Day War of 1967. During the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, he spent three days in and around besieged Beirut. Increasingly involved with the "peace camp," Goldberg was one of the small band of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora who nurtured relations with Palestinians and their Arab supporters, even when contact with the P.L.O. was officially prohibited under Israeli law. These efforts eventually helped to pave the way for the Oslo Accords. With his former colleague, Rabbi John D. Rayner (a frequent contributor to Issues) he co-authored The Jewish People: Their History And Their Religion, also published by Penguin.  

19th Century Europe  

The basic philosophy of Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, is based as much, if not more, upon events in 19th century Europe as anything to be found in ancient Jewish history. "The spread of nationalism in Europe throughout the 19th century," writes Goldberg, "was a result of, or a response to, the ideals of the French Revolution. The spread of 19th century Jewish nationalism — Zionism — was a result of, or a response to, a perceived failure to fulfill those revolutionary ideals . . . Emancipation presented the Jew with options, from conversion to assimilation to neo-traditionalism, from radical socialism to entrepreneurial capitalism. Jewish religious and social history since 1759 has been a response to modernity and to the opportunities, challenges and dilemmas of confronting society beyond the ghetto walls."  

One of the earliest advocates of the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine was Rabbi Judah Alkali (1798-1878), who spent his youth in Jerusalem, and was appointed leader of the Jewish community in Semlin, the capital of Serbia, in 1825. "There," notes Goldberg, "he witnessed the efforts of Balkan minorities to throw off Ottoman domination; neighboring Greece had recently won her independence, and dreams of freedom and national restoration abounded . . . The Jewish redemption he yearned for depended upon divine, not human agency . . . To presume to hasten the work of redemption was impious interference in the unfolding divine master-plan, which would be fully revealed only at the end of days . . . The notorious 1840 Damascus Affair, when the Jewish community were accused of the blood libel that Gentile blood had been used in the preparation of Passover unleavened bread, convinced Alkali that the Jewish people would find freedom and security only in their ancestral homeland."  

Part of the interest in Jewish nationalism in these early days, Goldberg argues, rested on a fear of the freedom and equality that was being offered in Western countries. A more influential rabbinic contemporary of Alkali’s was Tzevi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874): "He too was born and lived in a strategically sensitive region: the buffer province in Posen in western Poland, which Prussia acquired in the second partition of that country in 1793. Nationalism was an issue that the large Jewish population of the region could not avoid . . . Posen was in the border between the east European Jewish way of life, based on strict observance of ghetto conformity, and the new, disturbing milieu of Western Europe, where Jews were avidly shedding their past to join the mainstream of society. It was as much to preserve the integrity of traditional Judaism from the lure of Reform and assimilation as to alleviate the poverty of the east European Jews that Kalischer became interested in the idea of resettling the Holy land."  

Little Success  

Men such as Alkali and Kalischer had little success in convincing their fellow Jews that emigration to Palestine was in their long run best interest. "The few Jews committed to the dream could not convince their co-religionists," Goldberg notes, "most of whom were busily taking advantage of emancipation in western Europe, while those in the heartlands of eastern Europe had neither the spirit nor the energy to see beyond the daily grind of existence. The acculturated Jews were skeptical, the pious ones bowed down by poverty and discrimination, for which their only palliative was a resigned trust in divine providence."  

It is with the life and career of Moses Hess that the study of Zionist history usually begins. Initially, Hess believed that the Jewish religion was beyond revival. In 1851 he provided two grim examples of peoples punished by history for clinging to their outworn institutions: the Chinese, "a body without a soul and the Jews, a soul without a body, wandering like a ghost through the centuries."  

Hess was then living in Paris and moving in the circle of fellow German political emigres and socialists such as Ferdinand Lassalle. Slowly, his views began to change. He started to advance the idea that "homelessness" was the heart of the Jewish problem and argued that Jews needed to lead a "normal national existence." His thesis was that Jewish identity is essentially national and that anti-Semitism would always resist Jewish integration into European society. There was, he believed, only one possible solution: a return to the land of Palestine.  

Recognizing that Western Jews, eager to extend their hard-won civil rights, would not emigrate to a remote and barren country, Hess believed that it was the Jews of Eastern Europe who would respond to the challenge. In reviewing his book Rome And Jerusalem, which advanced this thesis, Abraham Geiger, a leader of the Reform movement, referred to Hess as "an almost complete outsider, who, after bankruptcy as a socialist, and all kinds of swindles, wants to make a hit with nationalism . . . and along with the question of restoring Czech, Montenegrin and Szekler nationality . . . wants to revive that of the Jews."  

Toward Jewish Nationalism  

In Russia. as a result of the pogroms of 1881, a number of Jewish thinkers turned away from their belief in socialism and toward Jewish nationalism. Leo Pinsker left his native Odessa to seek sympathy and understanding in Western Europe for his new found revelation that only a homeland of their own could provide Jews with security. He was faced with widespread skepticism. In Vienna, the city’s foremost rabbi, Adolf Jellinek, told him that Jews had invested too much, intellectually and morally, in the struggle for emancipation and acceptance to discard it for the artificial revival of Hebrew patriotism. He counseled Pinsker to take a rest cure in Italy, where ancient ruins would remind him that the Jews had survived Titus and Vespasian and would survive Russian anti-Semitism. The response everywhere was similar. In London, Arthur Cohen, MP and President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, diverted Pinsker by saying his ideas were not without merit and he should put them down in writing for clarification. That is precisely what Pinsker did. In his book Auto Emancipation, he argued that anti-Semitism is an hereditary, incurable disease and there is no indtvidual salvation for the Jew, only a collective one, because "a people without a territory is like a man without a shadow; something unnatural, spectral."  

"Predictably," writes Goldberg, "Auto-Emancipation, addressed to the Jews of Western Europe, received a muted response. Compassion for the plight of Russian Jewry could not be allowed to deflect communal organizations and opinion-formers from their determination to extend the gains of emancipation. The Jewish newspapers of Mainz and Bonn deplored current events in Russia, but regretted the anonymous author’s failure to understand the thrust of eighteen centuries of Jewish history or the special nature of Judaism’s universal mission by positing a non-existent ‘national consciousness,’ as if the conditions of the Jews were comparable with that of Romanians, Serbs, and Bulgars. It was, they thought, dangerously reactionary — evidently the influence of pernicious Russian nihilism — to elevate Jewish nationalism above the goal of civic integration, which would eventually come even in Russia, despite present distressing events."  

Theodor Herzl, the Viennese journalist and playwright who became political Zionism’s founder, was, Goldberg points out, "a man who in 1894 had never heard of Pinsker and could not have named a single settlement in Palestine, was embarrassingly ignorant of Judaisn and Jewish history, knew next to nothing about east European Jewry except to disdain it and, had the word been uttered in his presence, could not have said what ‘Zionism’ was. The term had been coined early in 1892, to describe the political process of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine, by Nathan Birnbaum, a prolific pamphleteer whose lurchings between socialism and nationalism, Hebrew and Yiddish, atheism and ultra-Orthodoxy, made the career of Moses Hess appear staid."  

Argued For Inter-Marriage  

Herzl responded to the anti-Semitism he observed in Vienna by arguing that inter-marriage was the best means of Jewish integration: "Cross-breeding of the occidental races with the so-called oriental one on the basis of a common state religion, that is the great desirable solution." He also drafted a plan about solving the Jewish Question, at least in Austria, once and for all. He — Herzl — would go to the Pope and offer the free and honorable conversion of the Jews to Christianity. It would take place on Sundays in St. Stephen’s Cathedral with festive processions and the pealing of bells. The leaders of the Jewish community would escort their flock to the church threshold and symbolically hand them over.  

Later, as a result of his experiences covering the Dreyfus trial in Paris, Herzl came to the same conclusion Moses Hess had reached: anti-Semitism was ineradicable and Jews must seek a homeland of their own. "Herzl’s grand design," Goldberg declares, "appealed to Jews and anti-Semites alike . . . It will be to the advantage of Jews and anti-Semites alike to set up a Jewish homeland, even though that will create one more barrier between peoples. But universal brotherhood is an impracticable dream . . . Herzl signals a radical departure from all previously expressed yearnings — religious, nationalist, utopian — for a return to Zion. The Jew would enter the arena of politics to fight for his cause. He would become master of his destiny, like a Nietzschean superman. The will-to-power would inspire him, where previously there had been only the negative urge to survive . . ."  

Among leading Jews in Western countries there was little sympathy for Herzl’s vision. The chief rabbi of Vienna, Mortiz Gudemann, denounced the mirage of Jewish nationalism. Belief in one God was the unifying factor for Jews, he said, and Zionism was incompatible with Judaism’s teaching.  

Adolf Jellinek, perhaps the greatest Jewish preacher of his time and a leading proponent of Jewish liberalism 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 . . . 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."  

Universal Judaism  

For Reform Jews, the idea of Zionism contradicted their belief in a universal Judaism. The first Reform prayerbook 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. The prayerbook eliminated all prayers for a return to Zion. For Orthodox Jews, any restoration of a Jewish state had to be the work of God, not man.  

Herzl, who did not believe in God or in Judaism, envisioned a state far different from the modern Israel. In his book, Altneuland, religion is there for those who want it, but it is excluded from influence on public life. "There is," Goldberg explains, "a rebuilt Temple, with organ, in the style of a Viennese Reform synagogue, but it is a symbol of ethical humanism; an expression of the Almighty’s presence ‘throughout the universe as the will to good.’ The sabbath and festivals are observed as general days of rest, and Hebrew is used for liturgical purposes, but there is a common language and it appears to be German, with Yiddish for the lower orders. The villain of the novel is the rabble-rousing, narrow-minded Orthodox Rabbi Geyer — the personification of every ‘Protest Rabbi’ who had opposed Zionism — who is comprehensively defeated in the presidential election by the forces of liberalism . . . The new society is open, pluralistic and tolerant, it fulfils the Jewish mission to be ‘a light unto the nations.’ . . . Thus, for Herzl, the role of a Jewish state is not to segregate Jews from the rest of the world, but to integrate them into it."  

One of the great shortcomings of the early Zionists and of Herzl in particular, Goldberg points out, was their indifference to the indigenous Arab population of Palestine. Some other Zionists, however, recognized that a potential injustice against those living in Palestine was being perpetrated and warned against it.  

Unlike his fellow Zionists who persisted in fantasizing about "a land without people for the people without a land," Ahad Ha’am, the Russian Jewish writer and philosopher, refused from the very beginning to ignore the presence of Arabs in Palestine. Ahad Ha’am 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 almost 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 lies fallow."  

Jewish Ethics  

Jewish ethics were the heart and soul of Ahad Ha’am’s brand of nationalism, 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 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 his coming."  

Many thoughtful and sensitive Zionists sought a policy of reconciliation with the Arab inhabitants of Palestine. David Goldberg reports in some detail about such efforts. In 1925, under the leadership of Arthur Ruppin, an association called Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace) was established in Palestine and proposed binationalism as the proper solution to the conflict between Zionists and Arabs, two peoples claiming the same land.  

In their credo, issued in Jerusalem in 1927, Brit Shalom said it was intent on creating in Palestine "a binational state, in which the two peoples will enjoy totally equal rights as befits the two elements shaping the country’s destiny, irrespective of which of the two is numerically superior at any given time." Its spokesmen included such respected figures as Robert Weltsch, editor of Judische Rundschau the journal of the German Zionist Movement, Jacob Thon, from the settlement department or the Jewish Agency, Judah Magnes, chancellor and first president of the Hebrew University and such university faculty members as Martin Buber, Hugo Germann, Ernst Simon and Gershon Scholem. For these men, Zionism was a moral crusade or it was nothing.  

Brit Shalom’s leader, Arthur Ruppin, was saddened by the growing disparity between universal moral values and narrow Jewish nationalism. "What continually worries me," he wrote, "is the relationship between Jews and Arabs in Palestine . . . the two peoples have become more estranged in their thinking. Neither has any understanding of the other, and yet I have no doubt that Zionism will end in catastrophe if we do not succeed in finding a common platform."  

No Equal In History  

What Zionists were doing, he argued, "has no equal in history. The aim is to bring Jews as a second nation into a country which already is settled as a nation — and fulfill this through peaceful means. History has seen such penetration, by one nation into a strange land only by conquest, but it has never occurred that a nation will fully agree that another nation should come and demand full equality of rights and national autonomy at its side."  

This humane and liberal Zionism, however, represented a small minority as other, far more harsh approaches to Jewish nationalism attracted far more support. In a chapter entitled "Vladimir Jabotinsky — From Liberalism To Fascism," Goldberg describes the life and thought of the leader of Zionist Revisionism, who was the great influence upon the life of Menachem Begin.  

"The basic tenets of Jabotinsky’s political philosophy," writes Goldberg, "are subservience to the overriding concept of the homeland: loyalty to a charismatic leader, and the subordination of class conflict to national goals. It irked Jabotinsky when, over 20 years later, he was accused of imitating Mussolini and Hitler. His irritation was justified: he had anticipated them . . . Given that for Jabotinsky echoing Garibaldi ‘there is no value in the world higher than the nation and the fatherland,’ it is not altogether surprising that he should have recommended an alliance with an anti-Semitic Ukrainian nationalist. In 1911, in an essay entitled ‘Schevenko’s Jubilee,’ he had praised the xenophobic Ukrainian poet for his nationalist spirit, despite ‘explosions of wild fury against the Poles, the Jews and other neighbors,’ and for proving that the Ukrainian soul had a ‘talent for independent cultural creativity, reaching into the highest and most sublime sphere.’"  

While Herzl and other Zionists appeared to ignore the Arab residents of Palestine and their possible objections to the Zionist enterprise, Jabotinsky understood the Arab position very well and knew that no indigenous population in history had willingly accepted foreign settlers, no matter how large the living space.  

Insult to Arabs  

For Jabotinsky, "It was an insulting evaluation of the Arab character to imagine that they could be fooled by a watered-down version of Zionist objectives," writes Goldberg, "or by the bribe of cultural and economic advantages. Arab antagonism stemmed not from an imperfect understanding of Zionism’s aims, . . . but from understanding aims only too well. Jabotinsky could sympathize with Arab objections, but he would fight to the bitter end for the compelling logic of Jewish national aspirations."  

As a result, Jabotinsky wrote, "We cannot promise any reward either to the Arabs of Palestine or to Arabs abroad. A voluntary agreement is unattainable, and thus those who regard an accord with the Arabs as a condition sine qua non of Zionism must admit to themselves today that this condition cannot be attained and hence we must eschew Zionism. We must either suspend our settlement efforts or continue them without paying attention to the mood of the natives. Settlement can develop under the protection of a force which is not dependent on the local population, behind an iron wall which they will be powerless to break down."  

This moral conflict between the goals of political Zionism and the rights of the native inhabitants of Palestine was clearly understood by many, but was never properly confronted. David Goldberg notes that, "The moral problem did not lie in the need for an ‘iron wall’ but in the very concept of Zionist settlement in Palestine: those who wished to retain their moral purity should, logically speaking, renounce the Zionist dream. But not even the most altruistic ‘seekers after peace’ would abandon their hope of a national territory."  

In this sense, Jabotinsky expressed the larger Zionist view that the world "does not belong only those who have too much land, but also to those who have none. Requisition of an area of land from a nation with large stretches of territory in order to make a home for a wandering people, is an act of justice, and if the land-owning nation does not wish to cede it (and this is completely natural) it must be compelled. A sacred truth, for whose realization the use of force is essential, does not cease thereby to be a sacred truth."  

Recognizing Arab Hostility  

In the end, Goldberg writes, "At least Jabotinsky makes no bones about Arab hostility or its validity, and proposes a solution in accord with those Roman virtues he admired: military strength, resolution, magnanimity to the vanquished."  

In his discussion of David Ben Gurion, Goldberg declares that, "No single aspect of his political strategy reveals more clearly than his dealings with the Arabs his ruthless suppression of moral niceties and ideological theory for the imperative of state building."  

Ben Gurion understood the Arab objection to the creation a Zionist state very well. He warned the Mapai Central Committee that Arab protest demonstrations in 1933 showed clear features of a national movement: "This time there are truly national heroes and it is this that inspires a movement, and particularly the young generation. This time we are witnessing a political movement that must arouse respect." Goldberg reports that "It was because he took the Arabs seriously, recognized the plausibility of their complaints and was haunted all his political life by the spectre of a tiny and isolated Jewish entity adrift in an Arab sea that he delibetately promoted the concept of pan-Arabism in an effort to vitiate the threat of Palestinian nationalism."  

When partition of Palestine was on the agenda, Goldberg writes, Ben Gurion "was hopeful that the Arabs who chose to remain within the future Jewish state as ‘a small fragment of the great Arab nation’ would serve as bridge-builders to the Arab world . . . More clearly than most of his colleagues, because less ideologically hidebound, he recognized the justice of Arab opposition and its fundamental intransigence to Zionism. He never lapsed into the pious rhetoric of Weizmann and European-based members of the Zionist executive whose expressions of good faith sounded like echoes of Manchester Guardian liberalism."  

After the creation of Israel, Zionist leaders told Jews in the Western world that not going to live in Israel was a dereliction of Jewish duty. What they were doing, Goldberg declares, was failing to recognize the fact that, "despite pride in, and popular support for, reborn Israel . . . Zionism was still, as it had always been, a minority option among Jews with the freedom to choose."  

Zionist Myths  

"To promote Jewish nationalism," he points out, "meant the propagation of myths which became enshrined in Zionist ideology, some successfully, others to its detriment. The first myth was that the Jews were one nation, in von Herder’s definition of an identifiable group sharing language, culture and historical memories. The Jews were not, and are not. They were, and are, several Jewries, widely diversified culturally and geographically, but bound in a strong sense of k’lal Yisrael (the community of Israel), because they share religious identity in common. It was fidelity to the teachings and practices of their religion, Judaism, in however devoted or attenuated a manner, that enabled a Sephardi Jew of Spanish origin to find common ground with the Ashkenazi Jew of Russian ancestry . . . They shared a theology and religious traditions stretching back to the first patriarch, Abraham, and incorporating the Exodus from Egypt, the Giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, the Promised Land and prophetical teachings of brotherhood and social justice, the destruction of two Temples, exile and the promise of messianic redemption.  

Another "harmful myth fostered to justify the Zionist enterprise," Goldberg relates, was "that the return to the barren and sparsely populated Jewish homeland was being undertaken by enlightened bearers of Western culture to the backward Orient. Zionists never recovered from the shock of finding in Palestine a large Arab population that had lived on the land for centuries and was indifferent to the benefits of colonization. Zionism had to adjust its rationale: it was Palestine by ‘historic right’ (whatever that might mean, and a strange proof of divine sanction to be advanced by secular nationalists); it was morally justified as an answer to pressing Jewish needs; Zionists came not as colonizers but as co-partners in building the country."  

Unsatisfactory Vindications  

In the end, Goldberg concludes, "None of these vindications is satisfactory or has withstood the evidence of events. ‘Historic right’ might reasonably be thought to have lapsed after 2000 years, even if remembered daily in the prayer book. An unbroken Jewish presence in Palestine over centuries, however contingent, was a stronger but still flimsy justification for return, the incoming pioneers having little in common with the pious Jewish mendicants of Jerusalem, Tiberias and Safed . . . Surveying the course of the Zionist-Arab conflict, the most forbearing moral judgment one can pass on it is that here was a tragic dilemma of Jewish need against Palestinian rights; a just solution being impossible, only the most generous restitution to the dispossessed could begin to compensate for the injustice done to them. That did not happen, for reasons which reflect little credit on Israel and less on neighboring Arab countries, which kept the Palestinian refugees in squalor and misery as a handy casus belli for decades to come. Finally, the pretext of co-partnership did not survive the doctrinaire insistence of Second Aliyah pioneers on performing all their own tasks . . ."  

At the present time there are many in the Jewish community who advance the view that Judaism and Zionism are virtually interchangeable concepts and that Israel is "central" to Judaism and to Jewish life. This concept, David Goldberg shows, has no basis in either Jewish history or in current reality.  

He writes: "In the four thousand year saga of Jewish history, Zionism is but one, and the newest, manifestation of Jewish resilience and adaptability. Born of the Emancipation, it was a radical response to the prevalence of anti-Semitism beyond the ghetto, and the problems for the East European masses within the ghetto. Only time will tell whether state-building was Zionism’s correct and far-sighted adjustment to modernity. The striking figure about contemporary Jewish demography is that few people today live where their grandparents did a century ago. Will the existence of a Jewish state provide the stability that previous generations lacked, or is it Jewish destiny to be forever supranationalist, a cosmopolitan and universal people, the leaven in other nations wise enough to recognize their talents and energies."  

Debatable Claims  

As Zionism celebrates its 100th anniversary, it is important to remember that some of its most strongly held beliefs rested on highly debatable claims, as David Goldberg has explained. These include the idea that the Jews are essentially a single nation, that Jewish history since the fall of Jerusalem has been uniformly tragic, and that Zionist immigrants would be welcomed for bringing the benefits of Western culture to a barren, sparsely populated land. This book is, however, not only critical but is balanced with an understanding of Zionism’s achievement in forging the modern state of Israel as an essential haven for the shattered survivors of the Holocaust. It lays bare both the paradoxes and achievements of a movement that has changed the course of Jewish history but remains a subject of continuing contention among Jews throughout the world.  

To place Zionism in a proper perspective, David Goldberg provides an important road map. He tells the story of how and why it emerged and shows how it was at its beginning and remains today a minority view among Jews. The book’s appearance at the time of Zionism’s centennial celebration is timely indeed.

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.