I'm a Non-Zionist Jew Who Supports Israel

New Torah scroll

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.