A Brilliant Account of Zionism - Arthur Hertzberg's, The Zionist Idea

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg passed away in 2006 at age 84. One example of Hertzberg's intellectual legacy is his reader on Zionism -- is a brilliant statement of Jewish thought in its choices and its sensitive and sharply developed contextualizations.

In the introduction to The Zionist Idea, Hertzberg placed Zionism in its historical and cultural milieu:
Zionism exists, and it has had important consequences, but historical theory does not really know what to do with it. Though modern Zionism arose within the milieu of European nationalism in the nineteenth century, the historians of that era usually content themselves with briefly noticing the movement, for the sake of "completeness." The root cause of their difficulty (the relatively few members involved and the partial inaccessibility of the source material are quite secondary reasons) is that Zionism cannot be typed, and therefore easily explained, as a "normal" kind of national risorgimento. To mention only one important difference, all of the other nineteenth century nationalisms based their struggle for political sovereignty on an already existing national land or language (generally, there were both). Zionism alone proposed to acquire both of these usual preconditions of national identity by the ... of its nationalist will. It is, therefore, a maverick in the history of modern nationalism, and it simplifies the task of general historians to regard it, at least by implication, as belonging only on the more parochial stage of the inner history of the Jewish community.
For Jewish historians Zionism is, of course, one of the pre-eminent facts -- for most, it is the crucial issue -- of Jewish life in the modern age, and it therefore engages their complete attention. Nonetheless, how to place it in some larger frame is still the most debated, and least solved, problem of Jewish historiography. In part, the difficulty stems from the very nature of the Zionist phenomenon. As the historian attempts to assimilate Zionism within his larger understanding of the Jewish past, he is confronted by a movement for which the meaning and validity of that past are a central concern. The earliest forerunners of Zionism, pious rabbis like Alkalai and Kalischer, who insisted on standing within the tradition, had to prove before the bar of the classical religious heritage that self-help was a necessary pre- amble to the miraculous days of the Messiah rather than a rebellion against heaven. Pinsker and Herzl, who appeared several decades later to preach the total evacuation of the land of the gentiles, could make their case only by interpreting the whole of postexilic history as an otherwise insoluble struggle with anti-Semitism. Nor was the past less of a problem to the extremist versions of Zionism which crystallized in the early years of the twentieth century. Their program of total revolution, of a complete break with the entire earlier career of the Jew in favor of purely secular national life ("let us be like all the gentiles"), required the assumption that the eighteen centuries of life in exile had been a barren waste. In sum, therefore, the past was, in two senses, a crucial issue for Zionist theory: on the one hand, history was invoked to legitimize and prove the need for the Zionist revolution; in another dimension, as it followed the pattern of all revolutions in imagining the outlines of its promised land, the mainstream of Zionism sought a "usable past," to act as guideline for the great days to come. The inevitable differences about the meaning of Jewish history thus are the stuff out of which the warring Zionist theories have been fashioned. Precisely because these discussions have been complex, passionate, and often brilliant, the analysts of the career of Zionism have tended to be swept into the debate, so that most have written as partisans of, or in conscious opposition to, one or the other of these Zionist doctrines.
I tell my students to recognize the interpretive framework that H applied to the study of Zionism. He saw it as a form of Judaism that emphasized the nearness of the redemption heralded by the messiah - the anointed one - promised by the classical prophets. Zionism is a modern articulation of ancient beliefs, according to H.

But there is a more fundamental difficulty. From the Jewish perspective messianism, and not nationalism, is the primary element in Zionism. The very name of the movement evoked the dream of an end of days, of an ultimate release from the exile and a coming to rest in the land of Jewry's heroic age. Jewish historians have, therefore, attempted to understand Zionism as part of the career of the age-old messianic impulse in Judaism. Writers too numerous to mention have characterized the modern movement as "secular messianism," to indicate at once what is classical in Zionism -- its eschatological purpose; and what is modern -- the necessarily contemporary tools of political effort, colonization, and the definition of Jewry as a nation, thereby laying claim to an inalienable right to self-determination.

The great virtue of this estimate of Zionism is that it seems to succeed in providing the modern movement with a long history of which it is the heir. Zionism is made to stand in an unending line of messianic stirrings and rebellions against an evil destiny which began, right after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, with the Bar Kokba revolt in the next century. This theory highlights the story of frequent "ascents" of small groups of pietists from the Diaspora to the Holy Land, occurring in every century of the medieval and premodern age, as expressions of a main theme -- indeed, of
the main theme -- of "return," which gave meaning to Jewish experience in the exile. The bond between the people and its land, which it never gave up hope of resettling, was thus never broken, and Zionism is, therefore, the consummation of Jewish history under the long-awaited propitious circumstances afforded by the age of liberalism and nationalism.
Despite its neatness and appeal, this construction, which is chiefly identified with the name of the distinguished Israeli historian, Ben Zion Dinur, must be subjected to serious criticism. In the first place, it is really a kind of synthetic Zionist ideology presented as history. The assumption that we are in the midst of an "end of days," of a final resolution of the tension between the Jew and the world, is as yet unprovable. To date, even after the creation of the state of Israel, Zionism has neither failed nor succeeded. The position of the Jew is still unique in the world, and only those who are certain that their theories foretell the future can be convinced that, for example, the Diaspora will soon be dissolved. This may, indeed, be true, but an interpretation of the meaning of Zionism in Jewish history which boldly asserts that it must come to pass -- as this theory does -- is suspect of being doctrinaire.
Much more could be said in detail about the implications of this theory, but we must pass on to its essential premise, that Zionism is Jewish messianism in process of realizing itself through this-worldly means. This description fits that stream of Zionist thought which remained orthodox in religious outlook, and therefore limited its tinkering with the classical messianic conception of the Jewish religion to the question of means; but this thesis pretends to apply to the main body of the movement, and, as such, it is artificial and evasive. What is being obscured is the crucial problem of modern Zionist ideology, the tension between the inherited messianic concept and the radically new meaning that Zionism, at its most modern, was proposing to give it.
Religious messianism had always imagined the Redemption as a confrontation between the Jew and God.
Bottom line: if you want to understand the intellectual underpinnings of Zionism, there is no better account than Hertzberg's in The Zionist Idea. (originally posted 4/22/06)

No comments: