16 minute read



The historians of nationalism have reached a consensus that modern nationalism began as a secular movement, but almost all its varieties were affected by an undertow of older religious sentiments and loyalties. In many of the nationalisms (for example, in the battles between Greeks and Turks in the second decade of the nineteenth century or in the quarrel between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland) the religious dimension of the quarreling nationalisms was clear and avowed. In the case of Zionism the reverse seemed to be true. When modern Zionism appeared in the nineteenth century, it defined itself in secular terms. It did not come into the world to bring about the age of the messiah that had been foretold in many of the classic texts of the Jewish religion. Zionism offered to answer two major problems that faced contemporary Jews. They were victims of large-scale persecution, most overtly in Eastern Europe, and the Jewish intelligentsia were being all too attracted to the promise of equality in society—which was apparently only being offered to those who were willing to abandon their separateness and assimilate into the non-Jewish majority. The modern Zionist movement suggested that a Jewish national home would help solve the problems of persecution and assimilation (the Zionists really meant that they wanted a state of their own). Jews would have a homeland that would always gladly receive them, and Jews who were conflicted about their identity would be able to deal with this question in the safe and nurturing environment of a Jewish community in which they were an autonomous majority.

The question of religion did, inevitably, arise at the very beginning of modern Zionism. In the 1830s two rabbis from Central Europe, Yehudah Hai Alkalai and Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, each proposed that with nationalism burgeoning all around them—the Greeks had just won their revolt against the Turks, and other European nationalities were arising to fight for their independence—it was time for the Jews, who could trace their national existence back to biblical times, to assert their own unique identity. Surely, so Alkalai and Kalischer argued, as the oldest of all nationalities, the Jews had the right and even the duty to lead the contemporary parade of nations who were asserting their rebirths. But Alkalai and Kalischer, both of whom were not only rabbis learned in the Talmud but scholars of the Kabbalah (Jewish esoteric mystical teaching), were very careful to deny that they were announcing the beginning of a messianic movement. They held fast to the inherited doctrine that the messiah could come not as the result of human action, but as a free gift from God. The nationalism that Alkalai and Kalischer were suggesting might have some connection to messianic hopes: kabbalistic teaching had allowed that "stirrings down below" might act to remind heaven of the longing of the Jewish people for the messiah, but no political program could be built on this hope. In the nineteenth century peoples were defining themselves by their history and group identity; the Jews should therefore cease to think of themselves as a persecuted minority and begin to assert themselves as a people among the peoples of the earth.

Thus, it is inaccurate to label even the "religious Zionists" as the ancestors of contemporary Zionist messianism. This element in present-day Zionism descends from two sources; the first is the confusion that existed in the minds and hearts of some of the most seemingly secular of the Zionist leaders and thinkers. For example, Chaim Weizmann (1874–1952), the long-time leader of the World Zionist Organization and the first president of Israel, made no secret of the total secularity of his way of life. Nonetheless, at every crucial moment in the debate over the rights of Zionists to a Jewish national home and, ultimately, to a state in the Holy Land, Weizmann invoked sacred Scripture. He kept saying that "the Bible is our charter." The Zionist contemporary who was second only to Weizmann, David Ben Gurion (1886–1973), the first prime minister of Israel and the man who led the country to win its independence, was an even more avowed secularist than Weizmann. After years of studying his work, the author of this entry reached the conclusion that he was best defined by a paradox: there is no God, but he chose the Jewish people and gave them the land of Israel. So, at the time of Israel's astounding victory in June 1967, when it conquered the large territories all the way to the Jordan River and the Suez Canal, the pervasive mood in Israel and among the Jewish people as a whole was that a miracle had happened. Never mind whether it was God or the inherent "spirit of the Jewish people" that had performed the miracle. Most Jews were sure that they were living in a version of messianic times; they were free to carve out their own destiny, at least in much of the land that was now under their control.

The second source of the new messianism was in a change in the theology of the Orthodox Zionists. In the first years of the twentieth century a young and universally respected rabbinic scholar and Kabbalist, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), arrived in Jaffa to assume the post of chief rabbi of its growing Jewish community. Kook insisted that the Jews were indeed living in messianic times. He asserted that the new Zionist movement, despite its pronounced bias against religion, was despite itself an instrument of God's hands. Modern Zionism was reviving the sacred language, Hebrew. Kook insisted that the religious character of the tongue of the Bible was so deeply ingrained that the revival of Hebrew would inevitably act to bring contemporary Zionists closer to their roots. The secular Zionists, so Kook continued, might think that they were engaged in regaining the soil of the Holy Land for a contemporary Jewish state, but this soil was inherently holy; the labor to regain it and to dwell in it would soon transform the self-avowed secular people who were devoting their lives to this task. When World War I broke out in 1914, Rabbi Kook interpreted this enormous bloodletting as the war of Gog and Magog, the ultimate destructive war that had been foretold as the last preamble to the messianic age. The gentile world was destroying itself, and the moral credit of its achievements was now worthless. So it went after each major turning point in the course of the Zionist revival. Kook saw every event as part of the immediate drama of messianism.

Kook was clearly a holy man, but his teaching contained a unexploded bomb. If the Jewish people were living in the immediate preamble to the messianic age, as he maintained, then what was to be done with the disappointments and the blockages that would occur on the path to redemption? Kook died in 1935, so these questions were left to a lesser figure, his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook (1891–1981), to contemplate. He ultimately succeeded his father as the head of the Mercaz Harav ("the rabbi's center"), the Yeshiva, the School of Tamudic Learning and Theological Thought, which the father had established. This school taught its students not only the conventional studies in Talmudic literature that were the staples of the other yeshivot. At this unique school the students were taught to enter the army and to prepare themselves to be elite combat troops. These young people were imbued by Zvi Yehudah Kook with an activist faith that it was their privilege and duty to help bring the messiah soon, in their own day—and Zvi Yehudah Kook never gave up the dream that all of the land that the Jews had possessed in biblical times, including especially the West Bank, would and must be returned to the Jewish people. The enormous and heady victories of the Six-Day War in 1967 were hailed in this religious circle as proof of their ideology. Yes, the messianic miracle had occurred, and the whole of the land of biblical Israel must now be possessed and never returned. Jewish settlement on the West Bank was a religious commandment, and those who opposed such settlements or hindered them or threatened to make them impossible were never to be forgiven. The most extreme thinking among this element was expressed by some younger people, especially among the rabbis who ministered to the new communities in the West Bank. Several of them were accused of encouraging Yigal Amir, the assassin who murdered Israel's prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995. Rabin's "sin" was that he had signed the agreement that Israel and the Palestinians had made secretly in Oslo in 1992. On behalf of Israel, Rabin had agreed to allow the Palestinians ultimately to establish a state of their own on the West Bank. He was therefore regarded by the hard-line believers in the "undivided land of Israel" as leaning toward religious and national treason.

At the start of the twenty-first century the shock of this murder had not abated because the activist minority—probably 20 percent of Israel's population—made no secret that it would engage in civil, and some even in armed, disobedience against any Israeli government that intends to allow the Palestinians a state of their own on most, or almost all, of the West Bank. This embitterment had the most profound effect on the question of the very nature of the Zionist enterprise. When modern Zionism was created, there was an existing consensus among all its factions that the highest authority within the Zionist movement would be the civil government of the national home that was being established. To be sure, from the very beginning a certain amount of respect was extended to the religious elements within the Jewish community. There was no question that the kitchens of the Israeli army would be kosher everywhere and that the Orthodox rabbinate would be given the ultimate authority on such matters as marriage and divorce among Jews. Through the years some elements in Israel have chafed under these controls, but the majority have made peace with the amount of religious coloration that exists in Israel's public life, but these issues were essentially peripheral. They did not involve religious judgments on the foreign policy of Israel or the questions of relations with the Arab world. In the aftermath of the Six-Day War of June 1967, the newly awakened messianic believers reframed their Zionist aims as politically maximalist. The new messianists proposed to enact their program in the name of God's will.

More recently, in the first years of the twenty-first century, modern Zionism is under attack from two other perspectives. The ultraright Zionists are ever more forthright in insisting that if the messiah does not come soon, they will at least solve the problem of keeping a Jewish state Jewish even as it controls a population that, between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, is already half Arab, either by denying the Arabs full political rights or by creating the conditions for the large-scale "transfer" of Arabs from the land of Israel. Such thinking used to be anathema to the Israeli mainstream, but it has become more thinkable as the armed conflict between Jews and Palestinians has become ever more embittered. By the end of 2003, there were well over two thousand dead among the Palestinians, but there had been nearly a thousand casualties among the Israelis since the outbreak of the "second intifada" in 2000. These deaths occurred in guerrilla warfare, including suicide bombings by the Palestinians, and in reprisals by the Israelis. In the current struggle, Israel's moderates have diminished after each suicide bombing, and no new moderates have appeared among the Palestinians. It seems ever less likely that Israelis and Palestinians will find a way to put their hurts behind them and make peace across the table. They will need strong leadership and pressure from the United States and from some of the rest of the international community.

By April 2004 Sharon made the first step toward accepting a notion that no one had ever expected he would accept: the demographic balance in "the undivided land of Israel" was shifting toward an Arab majority. He, therefore, proposed that the Israelis begin by evacuating all 7500 settlers from the Gaza Strip and leaving that to Arab rule. Despite opposition from his own Likud party, Sharon insisted ever more openly that demography commands Israel to cease ruling an unwilling and hostile Arab majority. Sharon's policies make an Arab state living beside Israel an inevitabilty, but one that will take much military and political turmoil to work.

On the side of the Palestinians and their sympathizers, especially in the Arab world, there is equally strong awareness that demographic trends are producing an Arab majority in the supposedly "undivided land of Israel." The basic Arab policy seems to have moved in the direction of waiting out the next few years and then demanding that only one state should exist in this land but that this state should be ruled by the principle of "one man, one vote." This notion is often dressed up as the realization of the great democratic dream, a binational state of Jews and Arabs, in which Jews can be assured that a growing Arab majority will not treat them harshly. Most of those who argue this view, however, do not manage to hide their indifference, or even glee, at the thought that the Zionist venture would then be over. The Jewish state would be gone; it would be replaced by a state with an Arab majority. All the claims that the Jews have made concerning their need and their right for a state of their own in which they could make their own destiny by their own rights would end in failure. These Jewish notions seemed plausible—so the argument goes—only late in the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth when nationalism and even colonialism still had some credit in the world.

But modern Zionism will not die so easily and certainly not in the pages of left-wing journals in the Western world or in the pronouncements by Islamic nationalists in their own media in the Arab world. The Jews who founded Zionism and their followers who began to come to Palestine more than a century ago to establish the modern Zionist presence did not suffer and die so that, as Chaim Weizmann once said, they might become "Hebrew nationals in a Palestinian State." Zionists will not allow the state of Israel to pack up and leave but are determined to stay put despite the bitter quarrels. Devotion to Israel's survival as a Jewish state does, and will, force it to fight. By the same token, the Palestinians are not going to leave. The Arab states in the Middle East have no desire to absorb any substantial number of Palestinian Arabs, and the world as a whole, especially the West, is not overly hospitable to those who would enter it as part of a new mass migration.

These considerations already existed many decades ago when it became clear that Jews and Palestinian Arabs were, despite themselves, having to find ways of living in some tolerable peace. The reigning suggestion was defined in 1937 by the Peel Commission, the highest-level investigation into the conflict in the Holy Land that the British authorities ever empowered. This body knew very well that there was no happy answer to the conflict between Jews and Arabs, but they ruled that the least obnoxious and most likely mode of making some tolerable peace would be the partition of the land between Jews and Arabs. Ten years later in 1947, the nascent United Nations reiterated the conclusions of the Peel Commission and voted to divide the land between a Jewish and an Arab state. On neither of these two occasions was the recommended solution enacted peacefully because the bulk of the Palestinians and their Arab confederates refused to recognize the legitimacy of giving the Jews even one ell of the land of Palestine for a state of their own.

The most interesting new development lies not in Palestinian and Arab opinion, but in a substantial shift among many political liberals who had traditionally supported the Zionist vision and program. This change in opinion began in some circles in 1967 when parts of the liberal intelligentsia shifted allegiance during and after the Six-Day War. They found reason to be annoyed with the Jews for concentrating on so parochial a purpose as the survival of the Jewish state and not on such wider concerns as America's misdeeds in the Vietnam War and, more immediately, on the pains and needs of the Palestinians. By 1967 the memory of the Holocaust, the murder of six million defenseless Jews in Europe, had begun to fade, and the Jewish people as a whole were becoming for many in the liberal left an annoying reminder of past deaths and past guilts. Israel was now a going concern—an increasingly powerful one—and thus the Palestinians became the new "victims" of choice. The undertow of this change in political faction was an increasing impatience with the unique demands that the Zionist state was making for special consideration for the Jewish people.

Why, indeed, should the Jews need a state of their own? The main charge that the Arab states have kept raising against the state of Israel is that it is a "rabbinic theocracy" but no one has challenged almost all of the Arab states to not conduct themselves as "Muslim theocracies" with scant concern for the right of minorities. On the contrary, left-liberal doctrine insisted that Jewish nationalism should disappear even as most other nationalisms in the world have an unquestioned right to continue. The most interesting part of this phenomenon is that some of its theories are being advanced by Jews. The older assimilationist doctrines, which stated that the Jews should meld into the majority among whom they lived, are being applied even to the Zionist community in the Middle East: it should accept and gladly welcome absorption among the many million of Arabs in the region.

In the early twenty-first century it is being argued by various spokesmen of the liberal left—many Arabs and some Jews—that the Zionist state should be dismantled. Let one state be established in which the inevitable Arab majority could supposedly be trusted to treat the Jewish minority fairly according to democratic principles. Anyone who knows the history of the region and has any reasonable assessment of the present tensions knows that this vision is a pipe dream. It is advanced by people who might wring their hands when a supposed democracy of Jews and Arabs in one state does not live up to its promises, but then these thinkers will have lost interest in the problem. Of all the visions that are being held out to the warring Israelis and Palestinians, the one-state solution is by far the least likely because neither side to the conflict can trust the other to rein in its maximalists.

The most sober assessment has to be that the problems will continue and that the conflict will not be easily resolved, but modern Zionism and its creation, the state of Israel, are here to stay. Its future is not guaranteed by the coming of the messiah soon, but Israel is not ultimately threatened even by the intifada and the suicide bombers. It exists and will continue to exist by the will of its own people. Jews will not surrender their claim to a home of their own to which those who need to come may come freely, nor their claim to a national center of their own in which Jewish energies may continue to define what the long past of this people means in the present and what it can be understood to mean in the future.

Arthur Hertzberg

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Well-being to Jan Ɓukasiewicz Biography