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I'm a Non-Zionist Jew Who Supports Israel

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In response to a recent report of pollster Frank Luntz warning that the word “Zionism” no longer plays well in the American media and public opinion, David Hornik has written a spirited defense of the concept of Jewish nationalism. I take little issue with what he has written (though I have a few quibbles), but he certainly has not told the entire story, and I see a need to fill in some of the gaps.

First off, for more than three millennia, before the word “Zionism” was coined, there was something called “Judaism”; Hornik appears to conflate one with the other.

Hornik writes that a deep attachment to the Holy Land, Eretz Yisra’él, thrice-promised to the Patriarchs, is not part of the Jewish DNA, but actually is the Jewish DNA. Certainly in this he is not wrong, for pious Jews pray three times a day for the restoration of Jerusalem and the Temple, the re-establishment of the Davidic monarchy and the re-establishment of the Sanhedrin. All religious Jews pray for these things, including the religious Zionists, because it’s understood that whether or not they have the great merit to reside in the Holy Land, they are still in exile.

Mr. Hornik speaks of the modern “return to Zion” beginning in the 1880s, but that isn’t even close to accurate; he himself alludes to this by acknowledging, in an off-hand way, that a “pre-existing Jewish population had been there.” Well, yes, and it was that “pre-existing population” who made up the vast majority of the 400,000 Jews he proudly notes lived in mandatory Palestine in 1939, and most of them wanted nothing to do with Zionism. It is in fact true that from the time the Persian King Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to the Holy Land, there was never a time when there was no Jewish presence in the country. Even in the darkest days of the Crusades, when the Christian warriors from Europe sought actively to exterminate the Jewish presence in the Holy Land, mixed Jewish-Muslim villages in the Galilee (Pëqi‘in and Shëfar‘am, to name two) held on until today.

The true beginning of the modern “return to Zion” is dated much earlier, not long after Salah ad-Din’s shattering defeat of the Crusaders. Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, affectionately known by his initials throughout the Jewish world as Ramban, rabbi of the prestigious Jewish community of Barcelona, was forced to engage in a disputation with a Dominican monk who was a convert to Christianity. Having secured the permission of the king to speak freely without fear of retaliation, the Ramban demolished his opponent in 1263. However, the king was forced to mollify the Dominicans, and the Ramban left, settling in Jerusalem in 1267. From Jerusalem, he sent letters far and wide to the various Jewish communities, urging people to make ‘aliya since the Crusaders were gone and the Muslims did not care. When he arrived, he already found thriving communities in Yafo (“Jaffa”) and other places as well.

From then on, they began to come in a trickle. The fact that there was this small-but-constant movement is important, for the Talmud tells us (end of Kethuboth) that Israel is obligated, during the present (rather long, granted) exile, not to rebel against the nations of the world, and especially not to engage in what the Talmud calls ‘aliya ke-choma. This is what the great Jewish commentator Rashi (1040-1105) defines (and all other commentators agree) as taking the Holy Land back by force. For this main reason, the vast majority of the rabbinical authorities of Europe, with very few exceptions, were utterly opposed to the Zionist movement, and included what eventually became the inception of the “religious” Zionist movement.

Some highlights of the steady stream of ‘aliya set in motion by the Ramban and his followers:

  • In 1492, when Spain was unified and the entire Jewish community given the choice of conversion or exile, many thousands of people began the process which carried them to sanctuary in the Ottoman Empire and on to the Holy Land. This was followed by a similar expulsion from Portugal.
  • In 1554, Don Yosef Nasi and his aunt, Doña Gracia, settled in Constantinople, where his knowledge of western languages made him of great value to the sultan as foreign minister. In exchange for his services, Nasi was showered with lands and riches. Beginning in 1561, he repopulated the cities of Tzëfath (“Safed”) and Tëverya (“Tiberias”) with Jewish refugees and their descendants.
  • At the close of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, the Ukrainians rose up against their Polish overseers under Hetman Bohdan Chmielnitsky, and as a side-bar, devastated the Jewish communities of the Ukraine and southern Poland, again sending many thousands of refugees streaming south into the Ottoman Empire and onward to the Holy Land.
  • In 1777, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk and 300 followers settled in the Holy Land, first in Tzefath, and then later in Teverya.
  • Between 1809 to 1812, three groups of Jews totaling over 500 people, in obedience to the will of their master Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer (known as the “Vilner Ga’on”), moved to Eretz Yisra’él and settled primarily in Jerusalem.

All of these movements occurred long before the 1880s. None of them involved force, and nobody thought of establishing a Jewish state. Eretz Yisra’él was a refuge for the Jewish people long before politics were involved.

Before we continue, I must make a clear distinction between nationhood and nationalism. The Jewish people were founded as a mamlecheth kohanim vë-goy qadosh, a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus XIX,6), at the foot of Mt. Sinai over 3,300 years ago. From that moment, we have not ceased to be a nation.

The great historian Ernest Renan defined a nation as “a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future….” The Jewish people surely have such a solidarity, as we remember and commemorate annually the Exodus from Egypt (Passover), the Divine protections granted in the wilderness (Sukkoth), the giving of the Torah, the true Jewish independence day (Shavu’oth), and such later events as the destruction of the Temple (Tish’a bë-Av), the miraculous rescue from the wicked King Ahashvérosh by Mordëchai and Esther (Purim), and the miracle of the oil in the Second Temple (Hanukkah). All of these form part of our shared memories in solidarity, testifying to our nationhood.

Nationalism, on the other hand, is an ideology born in 19th-century Germany (the term was coined by Johann Gottfried Herder) which sees the state as the ultimate expression of a nation, demanding subordination of the individual to the state. We saw where that took us in what has been called the Second Thirty Years’ War of 1914-1945.

Now let us look specifically at Zionism. The 19th century was a time of great ferment in Europe, especially for the Jewish communities. Under the influence of the ideals of the French Revolution, spread by Napoleon’s armies, there arose in central Europe the reform of Judaism, intended to eliminate any sense of Jewish nationhood and promote assimilation in the local population. There was also a parallel movement further east that called itself Haskala, usually rendered “enlightenment.” The Maskilim (as the adherents of the movement were called) sought to carry out a similar reform in Tsarist Russia, weakening the traditional authority of the rabbis and adulterating the curricula of Jewish schools. Though they succeeded all too well, they failed to gain acceptance, and it was out of that frustration, not any particular attachment to Jewish tradition, that Leon Pinsker wrote his Auto-Emancipation. A decade later, Theodor Herzl (who had been a staunch member of the extreme Austrian Deutschnational movement as a university student, until thrown out of the fraternity for being Jewish) founded the World Zionist Congress. If you read Herzl’s two books, Der Judenstaat and Altneuland, you will see that from the beginning, his intent was to establish a state populated by Jews. Though initially Herzl didn’t care where this state was established (Uganda and Madagascar were both candidates at one time), Pinsker and others persuaded him that the emotional attachment to Eretz Yisra’él would move the Jewish masses.

There were only two problems with this ambition: The first was that Eretz Yisra’él was not ownerless; it was an integral part of the Ottoman Empire. Second, since this would necessarily involve forceful rebellion against the nations, the overwhelming majority of rabbis were adamantly opposed. Please note that they were not opposed to Jews settling in the Holy Land; they were opposed to the ideals of an irreligious Zionist state in contravention of the Talmudic dictum. In 1912, representatives of the Orthodox rabbinates of Germany, Poland and Russia came together to form Agudath Yisra’él, among other things, to resist the Zionist movement.

When Balfour made his famous declaration of 1917, in a letter sent to Lord Rothschild, head of the British Zionist organization, that “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country,” it must be remembered that this national home was not actually in Balfour’s power to give. He was offering them territory of another sovereign state.

The opposition of local Muslims to these ambitions is therefore understandable, even more so if one considers the consequences of a program that the Labor Zionists (ancestors of the modern “Zionist Union” and “Meretz” parties), who completely dominated the movement at that time, called ‘avoda ‘Ivrit (“Hebrew Labor”). You see, most of the villagers in those settlements established from the 1880s and onward had grown accustomed to employing local, Arabic-speaking laborers who were more familiar with local conditions and crops than people from Russia were likely to be.

The Labor Zionists engaged in all the tactics familiar to us from the labor unions in this country, resorting to threats, intimidation and vandalism in order to persuade these farmers to accept much less efficient Hebrew laborers in place of the Arabs who had now been employed for decades. Atrocity was met with atrocity, and the hapless British were caught between the nebulous and vague Jewish national home which they had committed to establish and the “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” They could not square the circle, nor could they cope with the pressures of events unfolding in Central Europe.

By 1947, when the partition vote took place in the UN, it was obvious that the Zionists had won the political argument, to the extent that a state was certainly going to be created (as it was in May, 1948). At that point, the constituent organization of European non-Zionist Orthodox Jewry, Agudath Israel, was faced with a quandary: should they participate in the government of this state, or should they not?

The question was posed to one of the greatest surviving halachic scholars of the day, Rabbi Re’uven Grozovsky, rosh yeshiva of Torah va-Da’ath in New York, and he issued a decision in which he reluctantly agreed that the lesser of two evils would be to participate in elections. It was his hope that the religious community might thereby blunt any anti-religious decrees issued by the militantly secular socialist Zionists who ran every facet of the state from 1948 through 1976, and perhaps even influence them to the good.

The vast majority of the non-Zionist religious public accepted this ruling (only a tiny faction did not, which eventually coalesced into Neturei Qarta, noisy but negligible) and an agreement was struck between all parties to have a status quo government, later ratified by a letter issued by Ben Gurion which guaranteed certain minimum Jewish standards.

Now, 68 years later, the religious Zionists still use the prayer for the welfare of the state, which refers to it as réshith tzemichath ge’ullathenu, roughly, “the beginning of the sprouting of our redemption.” It’s been an awfully long and bloody beginning, and the end of the beginning is still not in sight. Not only that, but as I wrote in an earlier piece, the European feelings of guilt which led to the partition vote in 1947 have dissipated, and most of those countries would now be happy if Israel would simply go away.

But the reality is that the state exists, that 6 million acheinu benei Yisrael (“our brothers, sons of Israel”) live in daily danger, and also that there is a demographic time bomb waiting to happen. It is not the so-called Arab demographic bomb, which is fiction based on bloated figures provided by the PLO, but it is a religious population explosion. Israeli academic demographers agree that within 15-20 years — based on birth rates, proportion of Jewish immigration and Orthodox outreach programs in Israel — there will be a majority religious population with roughly 55% of that total being non-Zionist.

So what should our attitude be toward Zionism?

The Bible tells us the story of Yerov‘am ben Nevat (I Kings XIff.), who led a sort of taxpayers’ revolt against Rechav‘am, son of King Solomon, and split the kingdom of Israel into the northern kingdom (still called Israel) and the southern kingdom, under Rechav‘am, now called Yehuda. A fairly deep political thinker, Yerov‘am considered what would happen if his people continued the three annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem, which had remained the capital of Yehuda. The people would gradually become reconciled to Rechav‘am, and that would be the end of Yerov‘am’s kingdom.

He took steps to prevent this, posting soldiers on the road leading south to discourage people from going there as well as building two new temples at opposite ends of his kingdom. He also installed a statue intended to represent G-d in each, and declaring a new (bogus) holiday for those temples.

Many people assume that Yerov‘am was guilty of idolatry; however, the great Jewish historian Rabbi Yitzchaq ha-Levi, in his pioneering work Doroth ha-Rishonim, takes issue with this on the following grounds:

Several generations later, his namesake and descendant Yerov‘am II (cf. II Kings IIIff.) ascended the throne of Israel. He is described by the Bible in favorable terms, with the exception of following in the custom of his forebear, and “did what was upright in the eyes of Ha-Shem” (ibid., v. 3). Therefore, however grave the sin of the original Yerov‘am was (the sin, by the way, was creating an image to represent the one G-d, not creating a new idol; grave enough, but not nearly as serious as idolatry would have been), it wasn’t that bad, and he was generally favorable.

This, I believe, should be our attitude toward religious Zionism: if the only departure is that some people are now following an established custom, and in every other way are faithfully trying to fulfill the commandments of the Torah, then we can agree to disagree on the one thing and cooperate everywhere else.

My model in this lies in a story I heard about the great Rabbi Ya‘aqov Yisrael Ruderman, legendary founder of Ner Yisrael in Baltimore, and a staunch opponent of Zionism. On one occasion, the head of the American religious Zionist organizatrion, Rabbi Ze’ev Gold, was visiting Baltimore and accepted Rabbi Ruderman’s hospitality. When other Zionists took him to task for this, Rabbi Gold responded, “Rabbi Ruderman and I have a difference of opinion concerning one commandment in the Torah; concerning the other 612 we’re in perfect agreement. You and I, however, happen to agree about one commandment in the Torah; about some of the others, I’m not so sure….”