The Jewish Humanist 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.