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Zionism and Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism Journal, Spring_Summer 1979, Vol. VII, Number II

The state of Israel. 

No expression of Judaism can be complete unless it deals with this reality and with the political movement that spawned it. 

Zionism is the most successful and the most dramatic Jewish movement of the twentieth century. It is also the most universal. Theology and ritual divide Jews. But loyalty to the state of Israel unites them. The religious and the secular can be comfortable with Zionism. Although anti-Zionism was, at one time, powerful, it now condemns its devotees to the role of the peripheral and the pariah. 

Zionism, as a political movement, seeks to establish and to maintain a Jewish state in Israel. Zionism, as a cultural movement, strives to promote Hebrew speaking culture among Jews. 

The roots of Zionism are both ancient and contemporary. Throughout Jewish history the Bible, the Talmud, the Siddur and the folk literature preserved the memory of a Jewish territorial nation. Jews living in lands other than Israel believed that they were residing in Exile. They believed that, in the future, they would be rescued by the Messiah and would be returned to their homeland.  

The modern source of Zionism was a sense of nationhood which Western Ashkenazic Jews experienced in Central and Eastern Europe. United by folk memories and the Yiddish language, the Russian and Polish Jew saw himself as neither Russian nor Polish. He viewed himself as a national Jew, with a language and culture all his own. This ethnic self-awareness was reinforced by the rising power of nationalism in Europe. Germans, Hungarians, Ukrainians and Romanians were beginning to feel more German, Hungarian, Ukrainian and Romanian. One of the devices they used to create greater internal solidarity was to invent an external enemy. Antisemitism turned the Jews into the national enemy, excluded them, and made them, ironically, feel more Jewish. 

If the Jews were indeed a distinct nation, they required a territory of their own, like every other nation. Since the Europeans were not prepared to surrender a piece of their own national territories, the Jews would have to look elsewhere. Nostalgia and the desire for territorial roots offered no alternative but Palestine. Uganda was a possibility that no one ever took seriously. 

Since Zionism is a political ideology, it comes in many varieties. Bourgeois or General Zionism wants Israel to be a free enterprise capitalist state. Labor Zionism prefers a socialist Israel where the workers control. Revisionist Zionism, the choice of Menahem Began, advocates a Jewish nation that is well-trained in military virtue. Religious Zionism wants a Jewish state where God rules and where the constitution is the Torah. 

But, regardless of the differences, all Zionists agree on ten principles. 

1. The Jews are a nation. more than a religious group, more than a theological fraternity, more than a cultural entity. Jews are Jewish the same way that Frenchman are French. 

2.  Every nation, including the Jewish nation, needs a territory all its own. A unique territory allows the nation to cultivate its own language, promote its own customs, and be the master of its own destiny. 

3. For the past two thousand years Jews have been abnormal. Until 1948 they were a nation without a territory. They will only be normal again when the majority of the Jews of the world return to their homeland. 

4. Israel is the only feasible Jewish homeland. The personality of a nation cannot be separated from its memories, and from the territory where it evolved. 

5. Hebrew is the national language of the Jewish people. English is too universal. Jewish Yiddish is too parochial. A unique language becomes the cultural bond of both secular and religious Jews. 

6. immigrating to Israel is more virtuous than staying in the Diaspora. If Jews refuse to move to Israel, there will be no viable Jewish state. Jewish life in a Jewish state is qualitatively better than Jewish life in the midst of a Gentile nation. 

7. The establishment of a Jewish state will reduce antisemitism. If Gentiles can see Jews as members of a normal nation, they will no longer fear them. If Jews leave the countries where they arouse hostility, antisemites will have to find other scapegoats for their envy and hatred.  

8. Jews who remain in the Diaspora will ultimately assimilate to the majority culture of their host nations. Since modern urban industrial culture is essentially secular, assimilation involves no formal conversion. It is the gradual assumption of a new patriotism. Jews can only remain Jews where they can be Jewishly patriotic. 

9. Israel is the viable solution to the problem of Jewish survival. In an age when ritual segregation is rejected by most Jews, territorial segregation is the only feasible means to insure group Integrity. 

10. For every Jew, his primary identity is his Jewish identity. He must be prepared to do first what is necessary to insure Jewish community survival. Aliya (moving to Israel) is a primary mitsvah. 

How does Humanistic Judaism relate to these ten principles? 

The Humanistic Jew accepts the fact that the Jews are a nation. Like the Zionist, he makes a distinvtion between citizenship and nationality. It is quite reasonable to describe oneself as an American citizen of Jewish nationality. Because of the Jewish fear that such a statement may be construed by modern governments as an act of dual loyalty, the word ‘people’ is usually substituted for the word ‘nation’. But, in essence, it means the same thing.  

The Humanistic jew accepts the fact that, in the past, a nation needed a specific territory in order to remain a nation. But, in the age of industrial technology, this requirement no longer applies. Today the time it takes to fly from New York to Tel Aviv is far less than the time a traveller took to donkey from Jaffa to Jerusalem a century ago. In former times, isolation from a nation’s territory meant isolation and ultimate assimilation to the host culture. In modern times, both literacy and advanced communication and transportation make it possible for a dispersed nation to preserve its sense of community. The Greeks, the Armenjians and the Irish know that, as well as Jews. 

The Humanistic jew recognizes that many people regarded the Jew as peculiar and abnormal because he had no territorial base. But what was Jewishly abnormal is now rapidly becoming humanly normal. In the age of labor mobility an inaternation nation is no longer bizarre. It is avant gard (sic). Territorial nations are becoming territorial states. A territorial state is a political entity where people of different nationalities discover that they must share the same piece of land. The connections among the inhabitants are geographic and economic rather than ethnic. America is no longer an Anglo-saxon nation. And Israel is one-third Arab. 

The Humanistic Jew recognizes that Israel is the Jewish homeland. As the mother country of the Jewish nation it is the appropriate headquarters and center of that international corporation. Memories cannot be manufactured. Like nations, they develop their power over long periods of time. New Yrok may have more Jews than Jerusalem. But Jerusalem includes the armies of the faithful dead, not just the living. 

The Humanistic Jew values the Hebrew language. It is the unique Jewish alternative to traditional ritual. Every viable ethnic community that is not racially distinct cultivates its own language. The greatest of all the Zionist achievements was the revival of the Hebrew language as the spoken tongue of the masses. Since Hebrew is not a world language like English, it requires for its survival a special territory where a majority of the inhabitants use it for their daily speech. One of the major reasons for the preservation of the state of Israel is the maintenance of Hebrew speaking culture. With Israel as the Hebrew center, the language becomes available to the world Jewish community as a resource for community expression. 

The Humanistic Jew understands that Israel cannot accommodate the majority of the Jewish people. The reason is not only that Israel is too small, it is also that Israel cannot suitably employ the members of a nation, the overwhelming majority of whom now belong to the managerial class. The Jews of both America and Russia would have to lower their professional sights if they immigrated to Israel en masse. Israel does not need more lawyers, accountants and psychiatrists. She needs farmers, porters and construction workers. The only people willing to do this work are Oriental Jews (none of whom is available any more in the Diaspora) and Arabs. The continuing migration of Ashkenazic Jews from Israel is a continuing testimony to this reality. Immigrating to Israel is a virtue if the immigrant’s talents will be fully utilized in that environment. To waste managerial potential is a waste not only for the world Jewish community but also for the human community. 

The Humanistic Jew does not believe naively that the creation of the state of Israel will reduce antisemitism. In the Middle East, Zionism has increased anti-Jewish feeling. In Europe and America loyalty to Israel reminds many people of the multiple attachments that they suspect that all Jews have. Above all, Zionism does not strike at the heart of modern antisemitism. The very reason why most Jews cannot be accommodated by Israel is the very source of Anti-Jewish feeling. Jews are hated because they are conspicuously successful in an urban industrial society-out of proportion to their numbers. If all Jews would abandon the managerial and professional class and consent to become skilled peasants, Israel could provide for their needs and antisemitism would fade away. A small Jewish state ironically depends for survival on the power of Jewish success in the Diaspora. Israel needs the very power out of which antisemitism grows. 

The Humanistic Jew does not believe that living in the Diaspora means ultimate assimilation. Since Jewish communities are no longer isolated from each other and can maintain effective contact with the Israeli center, Jewish self-awareness has increased, not declined. Moreover, it is quite clear that all nations, even large territorial ones, are assimilating to a new culture. That culture is the world culture of science and technology, which has secularized most of our planet and created a world of shared work styles, shared products and shared values. In the past twenty years the Oriental Jew in Israel has experienced more assimilation than the Jew of New York. In future years, the differences among all nations will be reduced because of this shared culture. From the humanistic point of view, this shared cultural bond with all people is something good. 

The Humanistic Jew is well aware of the fact that no small territorial state is the master of its own destiny. Even large states, like America, are no longer independent because of their heavy dependence on external resources. The fate of the Jews in Israel is not separable from the fate of the Jews in America since Israel depends on America for its survival. The key to Jewish continuity remains what it was, even before Zionism. The Jews should be as widely dispersed as possible, so that the destruction of our community will not result in the destruction of all. 

The Humanistic Jew affirms the value of his Jewish identity and he works to express it within the setting of the Jewish community. But he chooses his human identity as his primary identity. A healthy Jewish community can only be realized if it sees itself as part of a larger community which has its own needs and demands. Without this transcendent ideal, Zionism becomes a cynical chauvinism. Jews and Arabs can learn to share the same territory if they have the vision to go beyond their national identity and to celebrate their shared human identity. Every intelligent person recognizes that he has more than one identity. 

Humanistic Judaism and historic Zionism share many convictions. The values of Jewish nationhood and of Hebrew culture are two common principles. 

But Humanistic Judaism finds value in the reality of the Jews as a world people and as an international nation. 

Israel as the be-all and end-all of Jewish existence is too much.Israel as the cultural homeland of a planetary people is just fine. 

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Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
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