The tendency of contemporary public discourse is to oversimplify. Ideas subject to heavily nuanced controversy in the past are now presented in black and white terms in order to take root in the rapidly contracting attention span of modern man’s mind. Those under heavy and constant bombardment by visual media need ideas presented in quick, fleeting fashion.
This is a most unfortunate set of circumstances in general and especially to be bemoaned in current portrayals of Jewish attitudes towards political Zionism. To peruse popular communication channels (and for that matter simplistic ‘Nationalist’ propaganda) is to learn that Zionism has and always has had the blind support of all Jews. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In the brief presentation to follow several Jewish alternatives to and critiques of mainstream political Zionism will be presented. Obviously the advocates of what follows would disagree vehemently among themselves on assorted basic questions. That, indeed, is precisely the point. Zionism as it currently presents itself to the world is a subject of much scrutiny particularly among the most touched by it, the Jewish people.
Jewish critiques of mainstream Zionism may be divided into three categories :
2. Orthodox Religious
3. Western Patriotic
Sometimes these schools overlap, as we shall see.
The founders of the political Zionist movement were the product of turn of the century Europe. (We must consistently distinguish between political Zionism which advocated political sovereignty over Palestine, and the natural love/veneration which traditional Jews always felt for the Holy Land. This feeling led Orthodox Jews throughout the centuries to go on pilgrimages to the land’s Holy Places and to establish small settlements there dedicated to prayer and study, but never involved political aspirations.) At the turn of the century European Zionists presented their plan for a Jewish homeland in Palestine without considering the indigenous population of that country. This was fairly typical for that time. The destinies and rights of self-determination of Third World peoples were little considered in pre-World War One colonialist Europe.
Once those early Zionists became aware of the large number of Arabs already living in the land, three distinct tendencies came into play. We will note them in order of their popularity. The first, Labour Zionism (the movement’s mainstream and constant holder of the reins of government in Israel until recently), sought to arrive at some sort of compromise with the Arabs. They agreed to the 1947 two-state partition plan. They have always felt that obstinacy rendered a just compromise impossible. To this day some of their Mapai Knesset members favour a two-state solution. The second, Revisionist Zionism, was always militant — demanding all of Mandate Palestine and believing in terrorist measures to achieve that goal. Today this group continues to call for “Greater Israel”, refusing as a matter of principle to negotiate with the Palestinians. The third group, who have been alternatively referred to as Cultural Zionists or Ethical Zionists, felt that the movement’s approach to the Arabs was flawed from the start. As Martin Buber (d.1964) a prominent Jewish philosopher and leading figure in the Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace) movement wrote : “The Arabs are the test God has given Zionism.”
Cultural or Ethical Zionists felt that all Jewish immigration to and settlement of the land must only be done in brotherly conciliation with the Palestinian people. Anything they would regard as an immoral imposition should not be attempted.
Ahad Ha’Am, a leading cultural Zionist, lamented after reports of Jewish vengeance attacks on innocent Arabs reached him in Palestine in the 1920s :
Jews and Blood!……Our blood was shed in all corners of the world during thousands of years, but we shed no-one’s blood…. What shall we say now if this horrible news is really true?…. Is this the dream of a return to Zion to stain its soil with innocent blood? If this be the messiah, then I do not wish to see his coming!
To the present this perspective has opposed the Israeli government’s approach to the Palestinians. Once most of them advocated a bi-national unified state, but today with collective hardening of attitudes having set in on both sides they generally favour the two-state solution. Their contemporary advocates may be found in organisations such as Peace Now, political Parties such as Mapam and C.R.M., and among some segments of Labour.
Although not monolithic (featuring the likes of an organisation such as Rabbi Elmer Berger’s American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism, which opposes the state altogether and the American journal Tikkum which calls for a careful, negotiated two-state plan) this third perspective is of one mind in that it feels that basic morality and humanitarianism call into question mainstream Zionism and many policies of the State. We repeat, many of these people are Zionists. They feel that Jews deserve a homeland, but are cognisant of the Palestinian counter-claim. They all call for some form of just compromise, to achieve peace and fairness for all.
From political Zionism’s inception the movement has been opposed by large segments of Orthodox Jewry. Their antagonism was multi-faceted, but centred on one of the following considerations :
1. The establishment of Jewish political rule in the Holy Land is inherently illegitimate before the Messianic End of Days to be ushered in only by God.
2. Zionism was an overwhelmingly secular movement which served, and often sought to substitute, “nationalism” for religion.
3. Zionism’s often insensitive belligerency would severely damage Jewish-Gentile relations.
After the establishment of the state in 1948 Anti-Zionist Jews split into two camps. The first, largely embodied in the Agudat Israel Party in Israel (and movement world-wide by the same name), retained its coldness to Zionism but opted to recognise and participate in the Government. This ideology is essentially concerned with religious questions, but generally favours territorial compromise to achieve peace with the Palestinians.
The Second faction generically referred to as Kanaim (Zealots) refuse to recognise what they see as an intrinsically evil state. Groups affiliated with this philosophy would include the Satmar group world-wide; Toldot Aron in Jerusalem; Neturei Karta and all those affiliated with the traditional Rabbinical authority of Aidah Haredis in Israel.
It should be noted that the above two sentiments include almost all of the more traditionally oriented Orthodox Jews. Religious political Zionism, largely represented throughout recent decades by the Mizrahi movement, was generally less religiously committed that its Anti-Zionist opponents. In recent decades (notably since the 1967 war) a faction of religious Zionism has grown up associated with West Bank settlers known generally as Gush Emunim, who militantly advocate “Greater Israel”. Unlike the old Mizrahi movement they are decidedly orthodox. Understandably those new religious Zionists are condemned by both Agudah and the Kanaim.
Many Western European Jews opposed the Zionist Movement because they saw it as lessening the patriotism and loyalty to the nation. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a German Orthodox leader of the nineteenth century was a passionate advocate of Jewish Patriotism, but his position was largely typical of his time. It was not until just before World War Two, for example, that American Reform Jewry ceased its consistent denunciation of Zionism. It would seem, though, that according to this position only those Jews living in nations other than Israel would be obligated to be anti or Non-Zionists. Migration to Israel might be a viable option.
World War Two
The gruesome suffering of European Jewry at the hands of Nazism and its allies, often passively accepted by large numbers of Non-Nazis among the general population, has significantly altered many Jewish attitudes to Zionism. Large numbers of Jews now see Israel as a necessity, a potential safe haven to flee to should persecution develop anew.
This deep-rooted fear is not a mere fantasy. It is born of the horrible events a mere five decades ago. By and large the third critique of Zionism has been the most muted since 1945. Jews became wary of placing their future in the hands of people who seemed all too capable of turning on them. Fear based on the past also plays a role in the Israeli government’s unwillingness to trust the Palestinians’ recent show of goodwill.
Efforts by non-imperialist Zionists to influence the Israeli government towards a compromise settlement with the Palestinians will only be encouraged to the degree that Jews begin to feel that Non-Jews mean them no harm. In particular those Non-Jews possessing a clear sense of their own group identities can do much in this regard, as they are generally the most feared.
For their part the Jewish people living in European nations must keep in mind that these are communities with identities, culture, norms of conduct etc., and that attempts to preserve and/or advance them should not be subverted out of transposed fear. In addition, it would be hoped that Jews who do opt for Zionism pursue the non-imperialist varieties of that creed.
Respect And Empathy
The Third Way is a way of mutual respect and empathy. All those sincerely aware of other people are called to the task of working out the parameters of harmonious, but not obliterating, co-existence.
Suggestions For Further Reading
For a moving presentation of ethical Zionism see Martin Buber’s One Land, Two Peoples or of more recent vintage My Friend The Enemy by Uri Avnery. Little exists in English of the religious critique of Zionism. However the Neturei Karta position is presented, if a bit stridently, in The Transformation by Cyril Domb. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in Horeb deals with the totality of Judaism, but has several sections relevant to our topic. Ahad Ha’Am’s Cultural Zionism is ably presented by his adherent Hans Kohn in Zion and the Jewish National Idea — a photocopy of which can be obtained by sending an SAE to the Editorial Address.