Perspective: Zionism – Peoplehood, Not Religion

Humanistic Judaism, Summer, Volume 10, No. 2, 1982

There are many Jewish roots of Jewish humanism.

As a non-establishment Jewish tradition, humanism has been embraced by many Jews throughout Jewish history. But not until the age of science and the secular state did Jewish humanists feel free to announce themselves publicly. In the last two centuries, humanism has become an open viable alternative in Jewish life.

The most successful movement of the twentieth century was a humanistic one. We call it the Zionist Movement.

In the narrow sense, Zionism is about the establishment of an independent Jewish state and the return of the Jews to Hebrew speaking Israel. But, in the broader sense, Zionism is a new way of affirming Jewish existence in the Diaspora as well.

Against the Reformers who claimed that the Jews were only a religious denomination, against the Orthodox who maintained that Jewish identity was inseparable from piety, The Zionist pioneers proclaimed loudly and clearly that the Jews were a secular people- a nation without territory, but nevertheless a nation.

Zionism is the boldest attempt in modern times to take the definition of Jewishness away from the religious establishment and to create a new sense of Jewish self-awareness. The socialist Yiddishist movement in Eastern Europe was less successful and was ultimately destroyed in the trauma of the Holocaust.

There are two kinds of Zionism. The first is ‘theoretical’ Zionism. It found no value in the Diaspora and hoped for its disappearance. The second is ‘pragmatic’ Zionism. It’s drove for the Jewish state. But it accepted the reality that most Jews, even though they valued the Israel connection, would choose to live outside of Israel. For the pragmatist of the test of Zionism is not merely aliyah but also the affirmation of Jewish nationhood and Jewish peoplehood.

A people is a disbursed nation. A nation is a community of individuals, Families, clans and tribes who share a sense of common ancestry and who feel unique because of the unique language or culture. Most nations have a territorial base which they call their homeland. Most independent states are attached to a nation. But some states, like Belgium, Canada and the Soviet Union, are collections of nations. And others, like the United States, feature ethnic loyalties in addition to the dominant Anglosaxon culture.

For a long while we Jews had no independent territorial homeland. We had no secular rulers. We gave a little attention to secular culture. The Zionist pioneers created the revolution that altered this reality. They gave us an independent territorial homeland. They trained secular rulers. They produced a secular Hebrew culture.

In order to understand that our humanistic Jewish roots we have to understand the history of Zionism, its problems, it’s achievements in its failures.

NATIONALISM

We Jews have always experienced ourselves as a nation. The authors of the Bible in the Talmud saw us that way.Our friends and enemies never doubted our ethnicity. Even our religious leaders taught us to pray for a national restoration. No force in Jewish or Gentile life before the emergence of the reform movement ever viewed the Jews as merely a religious phenomenon.

Jewish nationhood was continuous. Even when our ancestors departed the land of his real, they did not lose their sense of national identity. Their dispersed communities were ethnic enclaves. Their religious leaders were also national leaders.

Modern Zionism was the expression of the liberation and renewal of the Ashkenazic Jewish nation in Central and Eastern Europe. This Yiddish speaking people lived with Germans, Poles, Russians and Ukrainians. They shared governments with their neighbors. But they saw themselves as distinct and separate.

In the nineteenth century, in the age of the Enlightenment and secular Emancipation, the nations of Central and Eastern Europe substituted territorial nationalism for religion as their reigning passion. The Germans, Hungarians and Russians unified their peoples. The Romanians liberated part of their nation. And the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Ukrainians and Lithuanians strove to expel foreign oppressors.

The Jews were also cut up in this nationalistic fervor. But they suffered a major deficiency. All the territory they inhabited was claimed by other nations. And their smaller numbers and dispersion prevented them from claiming their share of land. Had Ashkenazic Jewry been able to establish an independent European territorial center, the Zionist Movement, as we know it, would never have emerged.

But Jewish nationalism was assaulted by many hostile forces. Racial antisemitism was the worst. Unlike religious hatred it’s focused on the ethnicity of the Jew. Birth, not belief, became the criterion for identifying the enemy. The Jews became ethnic intruders who were threatening the racial integrity of their host nation by their mere presence. Antisemitism became a convenient nationalistic tool for mobilizing the masses to display the patriotic fervor.

When Theodore Herzl published The Jewish State in 1986, a territorial haven for Jews, Away from Europe, had become a necessity. Palestine was the obvious alternative.

The land needed to be found. The state needed to be created. But the nation, the Jewish nation, already existed.

ROMANTICISM

Modern humanism divided early into two camps. In the first camp were the Rationalists. They valued human reason and envisioned a new social order dominated by science, emotional moderation and cosmopolitan taste. Voltaire, Paine and Comte were their heroes. In the second camp were the Romantics. They valued human will and imagined a New World of personal freedom and passionate autonomy in which creativity would replace tradition as the guide to living. Goethe and Nietzsche were their heroes.

Both Rationalists and Romantics were opposed to the old religious order. But they disliked it for different reasons. For the Rationalists it was superstitious. For the Romantics it was authoritarian.

Jewish humanists who were disciples of the Enlightenment and who emphasized the rational and the universal found both religion and nationalism boring. But Jewish humanists who admired Nietzche and his boldness of spirit found nationalism romantic. The task of rescuing oppressed people, taking charge of one’s own destiny against overwhelming odds, and creating a new state was an appealing arrogance and an exciting act of will. Micah Berdichevski, One of the first Zionist writers, articulated this mood when he proposed to reject the passivity of Diaspora history.

Romantic humanism, much more than its Rationalist counterpart, was the parent of the Zionist spirit. Zionism, as Ben Gurion pointed out, was a ‘revolution’ in Jewish attitude and Jewish emotion. It was the  herald of the ‘new Jew’ who abandoned passive piety for boldness, daring and courage and who also rejected rational arguments for caution and practicality. As Herzl implied, “If we want something hard enough, it will be no dream.”

Peoplehood and romanticism have been part of the Jewish experience for a long time. Zionism dramatized them.

PROBLEMS

From the very beginning of the Zionist enterprise Zionists disagreed one with the other. These arguments reflected the difficulty of translating the ideal of romantic peoplehood into a practical project.

If Palestine is not available as a Jewish homeland, will Uganda do? After all, the task is one of rescuing the nation, not a particular piece of sacred territory.

Does the territorial Jewish nation need to be independent? Would a secular Jewish cultural center be more feasible and less cumbersome?

What shall be the language of the Jewish state? Yiddish is the living language of the living people. Hebrew is shared by the Sephardim. But it is only the language of scholars.

What shall be the economic structure of the new state? Is capitalism compatible with humanism?

Can religion be separated from Jewish peoplehood and Jewish nationhood? Is a secular state possible for Jews?

How shall Jews defend themselves against their Arab enemies? Is the development of military virtue consistent with humanistic ideals?

Do the Arabs of Palestine have a right to be a nation in their own land? Is a binational state desirable and possible in Israel?

Should a Jewish state be morally superior to other states, and ethical example to other nations? Or are the Jews entitled to normality?

The conflicting answers to these questions continue to divide the secular Zionist world. And the ultimate acceptance of the Zionist enterprise by religious and Orthodox elements has added even more controversy to the debate.

In the midst of these continuing arguments Zionism has scored some incredible success. It has reconstituted 3 million Jews as a territorial nation. It has established an independent Jewish state capable of defending its own survival. It has revived a ‘dead’ scholarly language and made Hebrew the language of the Israeli masses. It has experimented in new forms of social experimentation and has produced the only free socialist communes in the world. It has brought together the Ashkenazic and Sephardic parts of the Jewish people into a single national effort. It has made Israel the center of Jewish life in the Diaspora and the most compelling Jewish concern of the Jewish world.

But, from the humanistic point of view, it has failed in other areas. It has failed to create a secular Jewish state where religious and non-religious liberty is guaranteed.It has failed to Grant equal rights and equal privileges to the Arabs who reside within its borders. It has failed to provide peace and security for the Jews who chose to be Israelis. Above all, it has failed to define a successful relationship of equality with the Diaspora. Although Israel is the only territorial state in the world created by its own Diaspora, and although its significance derived from its connection with world Jewry, secular Israelis still regard Diaspora life as an inferior Jewish existence.

SIGNIFICANCE

As one of the important roots of a viable Jewish humanism and in the face of all its problems, successes and failures- what is the significance of zionism to a humanistic outlook?

Zionism is the most effective expression, in modern times, that we Jews are more than a religion. We are a people and an ethnic culture.

Zionism is the most dramatic manifestation of the humanist revolution in Jewish life- the refusal of Jews to be the passive victims of fate- and the determination of Jews to take their own destiny into their own hands and to shape it to their needs.

Zionism is the most creative force in Jewish life today for the development of a secular Jewish culture. The revival of a secular Hebrew and the ceremonial life of the secular kibbutz are important alternatives to the religious ritual of establishment tradition.

Zionism is the most powerful present commitment for mobilizing the world Jewish community. Israel has become the cultural center of an international people and is the unifying focus of the Diaspora.

Humanistic Judaism and a pragmatic Zionism go hand-in-hand. Jewish humanists can help to keep Zionism secular. Zionism can help to keep a humanistic Judaism Jewish.

The Rabbi Writes – Zionism

Volume 33, No. 6, January 1997

1997 is an important anniversary for Jews. One hundred years ago-in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland-the Zionist movement was established by Theodore Herzl. Zionism is the most powerful and most successful Jewish movement of the twentieth century. The Jewish state is its incredible achievement. No other Jewish development has embraced so many Jews so passionately as has the Israel connection. If we add the revival of the Hebrew language to the accomplishments of Zionism, it emerges as one of the most significant forces for national liberation in the history of modern nationalism.

The victories of Zionism were won against overwhelming odds. A dispersed people were turned into a territorial nation within fifty years. Money was solicited-land was acquired-immigrants were recruited-communities were established-enemies were defeated-and a modern urban industrial state emerged from the desert. Even the agricultural sector was so successful that it became the producing ground of Israel’s military leaders.

From the beginning Zionism was essentially a secular enterprise. While the attachment to Palestine was reinforced by the Messianic fantasies of Orthodoxy, the determination to defy the “fates” and to establish a Jewish state through human effort came from the secular resistance to tradition. The overwhelming majority of the intellectuals, leaders, pioneers and activists of Zionism came out of the secular world. Antisemitism had driven many of them from assimilation to a militant nationalism. The Jewish state they envisioned had nothing to do with Torah Judaism. It was to be governed by the ideas and ideals of a secular nationalism. The Zionism of Herzl Nordau, Ben Gurion- and even Jabotinsky-promoted a secular Jewish state in which Jewish national identity was separated from religion, a state which granted equal status and equal freedom to the atheist and to the “believer?” It pioneered a secular Jewish culture in which the primary intention of Jewish identity was not Halakdic observance but was the use of the Hebrew language. In fact, the Jewish state would produce the “new Jew” who would be radically different from the pious Jew of the East European ghetto.

The Zionist founders imagined that the new Jewish homeland would become a role model for the development of an open democratic state in which non-Jews and national minorities would be accorded equal treatment to that of the “natives?” It would also put an end to antisemitism by terminating the Diaspora, normalizing the Jewish condition and removing the provocation of a “ghost people”.

But the founder’s vision ran into problems. While the early years of the Jewish settlement and the Jewish state were fairly secular the later years have been much less so. The later immigration was different from the early immigrants. The first pioneers were secular idealists who chose Palestine because they wanted to be a part of an important social experiment. They were willing to endure privation and suffering in order to realize their “dream.” In some ways they were secular “monks and nuns” whose ascetic lifestyle added to their moral purity and nobility. The later immigration was very different from the first. Most of the arrivals came because they had to, not because they wanted to. Many of them were religious. Many of them came from Oriental countries where the experience of a secular democracy was unknown. Many of them felt no ideological restraints on their prejudices and their hatreds. All of them came after the terrible Holocaust which crushed much of their naïve idealism of the past. All of them had to confront a never-ending war with the Arab world.

In time Israelis by birth replaced Israelis by choice. The native-born discovered that they were Israeli in the same way that they were native. Greeks discover that they are Greek. Israel was simply home-not a social experiment, not a utopian dream, not a role model to the world. Emigration began to match immigration. Materialism began to win out over self-imposed sacrifice. The consumer culture, with all its abrasiveness, took over the streets. It was the compensation for the annoying war that refused to end.

After the Six Day War new “idealists” arrived. They were ultra-Orthodox Jews who saw in the victorious Jewish state the hand of God. As the secularists became more clinical they became more passionate. Only this time the secular vision was replaced by a militant religious vision, a combination of the old Messianism and the new nationalism. The “idealistic” shoe moved to the foot of the old opposition. The new “ideal” was a Torah state run by Orthodox Rabbis and hostile to secularists and Arabs.

Today in Israel there is no secular state. The orthodox rabbinate governs Jewish marriage, divorce, and death and determines Jewish identity. Every Israeli is assigned to a religious group-Jewish, Muslim, Catholic etc- and to the control of an officially recognized clergy for each group. There is no civil marriage. There are no non-religious cemeteries.  There is no secular path to divorce. There is no universal Israeli identity. The only way to become a Jew in a state committed to the nationhood of the Jewish people is to be converted by an Orthodox rabbi.

Today in Israel the original secular culture is being compromised. The state schools are under the control of an Orthodox minister of education. Ever since the Likud assumption of power in 1977 the teaching of the Bible in the schools has fallen into the hands of traditional people. Religious values and Israeli patriotism are becoming inseparable. Increasingly in Israel, being secular simply means not being Orthodox.

Today in Israel the grandchildren of the pioneers have joined the consumer culture. The old idealism has been replaced by a quite normal and quite pervasive ambition to live more comfortable. The ironic twist is that the people non-willingly to make “sacrifices” for their ideals are the Orthodox.

Today in Israel there are both ethnic bigotry and antisemitism. The conflict with the Arabs has produced a level of mutual hatred and suspicion unmatched in many other countries. This war has also turned the Muslim world into a hotbed of fanatic Jew hatred. The Zionist dream of eliminating antisemitism has failed. It may be the case that the peace process will inevitably win out, simply because it is unavoidable and because external pressures will be overwhelming. But the gradual, yet dramatic, reversal of Zionist culture will continue. Both the orthodox birth rate and secular emigrating will reinforce that development. As Israel approaches its 50th birthday anniversary, the new Israel, is vastly different from that of the Zionist pioneers. The secular forces are no longer in charge. They are on the defensive and they will need the help of secular North America to defend themselves in the cultural war that is looming. Zionism pioneered a new secular way to be Jewish. We must do whatever we can to support the beleaguered heirs of that vision.