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.