Zionism in a Nutshell

Dr. Z's Zionism in a Nutshell

The modern age in Europe in the 19th century followed in the aftermath of the French revolution. A half century or more of great change took place across the continent. The French revolution brought the Enlightenment to Western Europe--the age when society moved out of the former period of time and became receptive to the new ideas associated with the revolution and with the new themes and philosophies of society. While society was in the process of being reshaped by radical ideals and revolutionary events, beneath the surface the old attitudes and prejudices continued.

Universalism was a prevailing idea that through the actions of revolution and change, the universal goals of mankind would be achieved. After the French Revolution, especially after 1848, this concept of universalism was supplanted by a new wave of romantic rationalism--in the wake of the reunification of the German and Italian nations.

Nationalism grew over the course of the century and eventually led to two world wars. It exerted a powerful force over the imagination of the peoples in Europe including many prominent Jewish thinkers mainly in the Zionist ideology of the period. A perverse spin-off of nationalistic thinking was the rabid and dogmatic racism which arose within Western Europe.

Nationalism, Universalism, Socialism, Racism were each to have been able to further the march of history forward to the ultimate time, the end of days, the redemption of the world, the end of all travail. In this milieu Zionism developed and grew.

Let me provide some basic definitions and aspects of the Jewish community in the 19th century in Europe: "emancipation" means freedom--in specific freedom from slavery (e.g. the Emancipation Proclamation). For our historical setting it connotes the attainment of the basic rights of citizenship for the Jews. Beginning in France and spreading across the European countries the Jews were for the first time given equal rights to live as citizens. Previously, they lived in self-contained units, i.e. towns of small size with their own social institutions, schools, charitable organizations, medical help and so on, the small Shtetlach we have studied. Emancipation for the Jews came in the wake of the French Revolution. Both Jew and Gentile greeted the idea of emancipation. The Jews hoped that equal rights and citizenship would bring an end to anti-Semitism. The Jew would be equal and no longer subject to persecution. The Gentiles hoped that the kindness of extending a hand to the Jews would be the enticement needed to further their hopes of converting the Jews to Christianity. Few opposed the emancipation of the European Jewish Community.

With the new freedom the Jews pursued the ideas and ideals of the Western thinkers. To the traditional, religious adherent of Judaism, Enlightenment of the mind to new ideas and philosophies, especially to the current philosophies of the nineteenth century, which were hardly sympathetic to religion, and not at all kind to Judaism, was dangerous. It contradicted the goals of the established religious group. A few binary pairs form the basic vocabulary of modern Jewish thought in the Enlightenment: East Europe/West Europe; Reform/tradition; Anti-Semitism (racism)/national hope; Diaspora/refuge in a homeland.

The idea of Zion is at the center of Jewish thought going back to the Tanakh. For instance:
If I forget thee O Jerusalem let my right hand lose its cunning, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.
By the waters of Babylon there we sat, there we mourned for the land of Israel.

The exiles in the Diaspora longed for many millennia to return to a homeland. The rabbis carried over the idea of returning to Zion into their own reformulation of Jewish thought 1500-2000 years ago. In the liturgy, the prayers which they arranged for the synagogue and the home of the rabbinic Jew, they placed the idea of Zion. The Jew prays through the words of an anonymous rabbi,
Gather us from the four corners of the world--to Jerusalem. Return rulership to the Jew, return the land to the Jew, give the chance for the messianic age to dawn----for the son of David to rule, and by so doing to redeem the Jews.

What was so peculiar about the situation of the Jews in Europe in the 19th century that lead them to conclude that then was the proper time for the rebirth of the active Zionist Ideal? The Zionists perceived a situation intolerable at worst and unfulfilling at best for the Jews of Europe. The earliest thinkers alluded to the anti-Semitism of the times.

Anti-Semitism and the Birth of Modern Zionism

One of the basic ideological systems of modern Europe was anti-Semitism, although its extent is sometimes underestimated. It entailed more than just a hatred of Jews as individuals and went beyond single instances of persecution and discrimination. Anti-Semitism was a full-blown system of belief and policy of government officials. Political anti-Semites asked, who was responsible for the ills of the time? Who was standing in the way of redemption? The answer was always the same: the Jews. The solution many proposed was the same: eliminate the Jews from society; then it will improve.

Anti-Semitism was more virulent in Eastern Europe than in the west. Indeed, physical attacks against Jewish communities and villages were commonplace. In Western Europe, anti-Semitism was more sophisticated, more ideologically based, and more an official part of local and national policy. However, in both eastern and western Europe, the Christian Church added fuel to the fires of the anti-Semite. For centuries the Church had preached hatred and resentment against the Jews, whom Church leaders saw as the heirs of the Pharisees of Gospel literature.

Scholars have attempted to explain in other terms why Jews were singled out. Some believe it was due to the nature of the Jewish community, where Jews were well-organized in self-sufficient, internally-governed, tightly-linked communal structures. Because the community had its own institutions -- synagogues, charitable organizations, schools, care for young and old -- it was a small world of its own.

Anti-Semitism became more intense as the nineteenth century moved forward. The reaction of the Jews was limited to three choices: they could live in an essentially unbearable situation in Europe; they could try to change society, as many did through active participation in political movements, such as socialism or anarchism; or they could leave for another homeland. Many dreamed of Palestine; some went. Many others immigrated to America.

In Eastern Europe, life became more difficult for Jews after the assassination of the Czar in 1881. Because the Jews were blamed for many ills of society, this political event led to increased pogroms and further persecution. In Western Europe, anti-Semitism gradually became an acceptable and even fashionable way of thinking. To be a member of the intellectual aristocracy of the times, a person could not help but accept prevalent racial ideas -- especially the idea that the Jews were key contributors to all of society's ills. For the betterment of mankind, the anti-Semite concluded, Jews had to be expunged from society.

Zionism provided the most positive alternative for Jews in Europe. Early Zionists proposed that Jews could only be at home in a land of their own. Out of that land and the society they would create, they could contribute to the betterment of their situation. Zionist thinkers proposed that from the example of this new society, the world would learn and be saved. Thus Zionism would eventually usher in a redemptive era for Jews and for all humanity.

Zionism took many forms in its early development. There were socialist, political, religious and cultural Zionists. But in time it was the political Zionists who took the initiative. They proclaimed that through political action they would have the best chance to bring the Zionist dream of a Jewish state to reality.

Theodore Herzl made the dream more of a reality. In 1897 he convened the first Zionist World Congress at Basel, Switzerland. In the midst of pomp and ceremony, and with little real power behind him, Herzl boldly proclaimed, "Here the state was founded". He believed that it would be a matter of routine to convince European heads of state to accept the ideals of Zionism. Indeed, Herzl could not envision any rational leader who might reject the requests of the Zionist activists. Surely, he thought, the leaders would accede to an idea that would remove the Jews from Europe, a goal they so often sought. Herzl hoped that the age of redemption could be achieved through the ideals of the Zionist. But Herzl miscalculated. It wasn't until fifty years later, after the world had allowed the destruction of European Jewry during World War II that the state of Israel was founded on the positive ideals Herzl and his colleagues had laid out at Basel. Israel brought to fruition many of the positive ideals they sought: a unified nation, a common language and culture, and a better world.

Zionism was a radical new movement within Judaism. For centuries no one proposed that the Jews would reestablish their own homeland. But in nineteenth-century Europe, Jews flocked to the Zionist leaders. In fact, many considered Herzl a king among the Jews. Even if the state was never achieved, many believed at the turn of the century that the movement had at least restored national dignity to the Jews. In Europe every people had dignity. But the Jews were not included in the ultimate goals of any of the European nations. Through Zionism, the Jews had established ultimate goals for a utopia of their own.

Finding the Sources of Deliverance

Let's now make some larger observations about the history of Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism is a meta-historical system, that is, history did not figure centrally in the thought of Talmudic rabbis. What mattered most was the meaning of everyday life. For instance, the rabbis paid close attention to the notions of their religious system that dealt with sacred time, sacred space, purity, the meal, and ritual. Further, they sought to interpret the symbolic structures of reality. For rabbinic Judaism everything on earth had a counterpart in heaven. All of creation was joined together through parallel lines of being.

Throughout its history, Judaism has been concerned with messianic component of life. Rabbis from the first to the nineteenth centuries hoped for the culmination of time. Actually, throughout Jewish history there are many variations of thought on the subject of messianic redemption. For example, Rabbi Yohanan b. Zakkai, one of the founders of rabbinic Judaism in the first century, said, "If you are in the process of planting a tree and someone comes and announces, 'the Messiah has come', first finish planting, then go and greet the Messiah". The exilarchs and rabbis in Babylonia also confronted in different ways the issue of messianic hope.

Over the centuries of the Middle Ages many messianic pretenders arose and declared that they were about to bring in the age of redemption. Many rabbis proclaimed that they had calculated the secret time of the coming of the Messiah. He would come, they said, in a year or a decade, usually at some time just beyond the present. Of course the basic idea of national redemption through a messiah, or an anointed one, goes back to the classical prophecy of the Tanakh.

In the nineteenth century the two newest movements of the Jews, Reform Judaism and Zionism, carried forward the messianic hopes of Israel. Reform Judaism concentrated on the message of the prophets. Its leaders called for dedication to ethics and for restoration of the basic values of Judaism. They proclaimed that Jews no longer needed to live their lives within the structures of rabbinic Judaism. Instead, they could accept the new ideas of Reform and live a kind of religion in the messianic mode. Reform placed a great deal of emphasis on belief in the coming redemption, combined with practice ordinary life interpreted only through the eyes of contemporary society. Reform Judaism rejected the rabbinic concept of the world.

Zionism in many of its expressions also abandoned the rabbinic ideals. Most Zionists cared little about the higher meaning of reality; instead they sought to understand and interpret the higher meanings of world history. The Zionist vision was a clear new drama of Jewish life. The destiny of the Jews was to found an ideal state.

In this new drama the Jews were the central actors, the Gentiles (persons of non-Jewish faith or of non-Jewish nations) the supporting characters. The rabbis had no role in this script. Their teachings, symbolic structures, and practices and precepts had no meaning for the Zionists. Judaism for the Zionists was completely directed towards a historical view of reality. And in history, the Jews looked forward to the coming of a new era.

The rabbinic Jew also found a place within Zionism, for religious Zionists continued utilizing the structures of rabbinic Judaism. They employed the festivals and the laws to interpret the meanings of life and of history. They also attached a more mystical significance to the ideals of Zionism. The land -- Israel -- and the language -- Hebrew -- endowed life with a higher reality.

These leaders, along with others in the Zionist movement, discovered new values for the Zionist. They saw fulfillment in working the land. Digging, planting, and cultivating became positive religious activities. In Europe many Zionists were middle - and upper - class members of society -- professionals and businessmen. But in Israel they worked the land.

The state of Israel today combines elements from both the "secular Jews", oriented within the society, together with the "religious Jews", who accept the rabbinic world view and add to it revolutionary new aspects. Many of the internal political and social problems of Israeli society grow out of the combination of so many approaches within one framework.

reposted from 4/30/06

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