What Is The Real Basis Of Zionism?

During the formative years of the Zionist movement Theodor Herzl and others evolved an ideology which became the official stance of the World Zionist Organization and later of the state of Israel.  According to this doctrine, Jews were subject to persecution because we did not have a nation of our own and everywhere constituted a minority living in somebody else’s country.  When things got rough, there was a constant temptation for the non-Jewish majority to pick on the Jewish minority as a scapegoat and a lightning rod for anger and discontent.  This tendency was further exacerbated by the abnormal social structure of the Jewish community which contained too many merchants and intellectuals and not enough productive workers.  The only way to remedy this situation was for Jews to have a country of our own in which we could develop a normal social structure and become a normal nation like any other.

The great advantage of this ideology was its appeal to non-Jews and even to anti-Semites.  It presented anti-Semitism as something natural and inevitable, and its critique of the social structure and mores of the Jewish community in the Diaspora echoed many of the accusations of the anti-Semites.  Moreover the Zionists said that Jews should leave the countries in which they resided and move elsewhere, a sentiment which was shared by most anti-Semites prior to the rise of the Nazi exterminationist ideology.  However, Herzl’s hopes of support from anti-Semitic European sovereigns like the Czar of Russia and the Kaiser of Germany proved unfounded, and with the possible exception of Poland in the mid-1930s, the Zionist movement received little or no actual assistance from anti-Semites.  To the contrary, Zionists were targeted for extermination by the Nazis the same as all other Jews.  The Holocaust appeared to confirm the Zionist analysis of the inevitability of anti-Semitism so long as Jews remained a minority living among non-Jews, and the victorious Allies accepted this analysis by agreeing to permit the formation of the state of Israel.  Out of this history arose the doctrine that the main function of Israel was to provide a refuge for Jews in distress.

To be sure, from the start this doctrine coexisted with and was supplemented by another doctrine, according to which the true purpose of a Jewish state in the land of Israel was to serve as a “light unto the nations”.  Herzl propounded this second doctrine after his fashion in his visionary tract, Old New Land.  It was expressed in a different way by Achad HaAm and his followers, and it became an integral part of the ideology of David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the state of Israel.  Ben-Gurion repeated over and over that Israel should be a “model nation”, a position which was not entirely consistent with the view that Israel should simply be a normal nation.  However this contradiction was more apparent than real, since in practice Ben-Gurion and his contemporaries tended to define model nationhood in terms of the prevailing political and cultural standards of the victorious Allies.  Both model and normal in this context meant liberal, democratic and socialist, with the specific emphasis varying from one Israeli political party to another.

The ideas of Herzl and Ben-Gurion still remain the basis of Zionist thought, but their authority is not what it once was.  It has been undermined by developments in recent decades, which have highlighted certain weaknesses in Zionist ideology which had earlier been ignored.  In particular:

(1) The traditional Zionist analysis of the roots of anti-Semitism has been shown to be superficial and inadequate.  It is probably true that there exists an inherent tendency for majorities to coerce minorities, but whether this tendency actually results in outright persecution is determined by a number of factors, none of which were seriously considered by the early Zionist movement.  Experience has shown, for example, that virulent anti-Semitism is invariably associated with authoritarian political structures.  This was obviously true of Nazism, and it was and is also true of such disparate authoritarian systems as Stalinist Communism, the “Arab Socialism” of Nasser and the Ba’athists, and the Muslim fundamentalism of today.  Conversely, anti-Semitism has proved a relatively weak force in democratic societies, and those political movements which do espouse it in a democratic context are generally authoritarian in character.

Moreover, the way in which Jews have been singled out for persecution even more than most other minorities cannot be separated from the anti-Semitism contained in both Christian and Muslim tradition.  For over a thousand years prior to the modern era, the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches were the main persecutors of the Jewish people, and this persecution was openly justified by them on religious grounds.  The Muslims too persecuted the Jews from time to time during the pre-modern era, although not so severely as the Christians, and Mohammed himself was responsible for the murder of hundreds of Jews in Arabia and the condemnation of the Jewish people as “evil-doers” in the Koran.  Yet even today, it would be hard to name a single official spokesperson for the Zionist movement who has drawn attention to the anti-Semitism inherent in both Christian and Muslim tradition and brought out the connection between this anti-Semitism and hostility to Israel.

(2) It has become a commonplace to observe that traditional Zionist ideology did not devote sufficient attention to the issue of relations with the Arabs.  Actually this observation, which is usually stated in the form of an accusation, misses the mark.  If the early Zionists had thought about the Arabs night and day, would it have made any difference?  Most Arabs didn’t want a Jewish state then and most Arabs don’t want one now.  If the early Zionists had not underestimated the depths of Arab opposition to the very concept of a Jewish state in the land of Israel they might never have chosen the Zionist path in the first place.  But having chosen this path, it was incumbent on them to develop a realistic program for relations with the Arabs, and it is here that some criticism is in order.  The program, or rather programs, which they chose have not stood the test of time, and it is important to understand why.

Once Arab opposition to the Zionist movement became overt, as it did during the 1920s and 1930s, two distinct approaches to relations with the Arabs developed in Zionist circles.  One was the concept of “bi-nationalism”, the other Jabotinsky’s doctrine of the “iron wall”.  What both approaches had in common was the assumption that Jews would always remain Jews and Arabs would always remain Arabs.  The bi-nationalists envisioned some kind of power sharing arrangement between Jews and Arabs, while the followers of Jabotinsky felt that the Arabs had to be put in their place and shown the futility of opposition to Jewish rule in the land of Israel.  In practice, elements of both programs have been incorporated into the actual policies of the state of Israel.  The Arabs living in “Israel proper” are Israeli citizens and have full democratic rights, but they are unarmed and contained by predominantly Jewish forces.  What has not happened to any great extent is the breakdown of the distinction between Jew and Arab and the formation of a non-sectarian Israeli identity.  It is at least in part because this has not happened that relations with the Arabs still remain so problematic for Israel today.

(3) The early Zionists did not devote much thought to the issue of the place of the Jewish religion in a Jewish state.  Most of them had a secular outlook, yet at the same time they were not particularly hostile to religion.  They expected rabbis to officiate at their weddings and funerals, and so they did not feel the need to institute a system of secular marriage and divorce.  However the word “God” does not appear in the Israeli Declaration of Independence, and Orthodox Jews played a relatively minor part in Zionist politics prior to the establishment of the state of Israel.  Early Zionism defined itself more or less exclusively in secular terms, treating religion, as was considered normal in “Western” societies, as a matter of individual choice, to be neither encouraged nor discouraged by the state.  On the other hand, certain requirements of the Jewish religion, such as abstaining from work on Shabbat, did receive state support on the grounds that they constituted part of the national culture of the Jewish people.  Israel thus came into being as a state which was secular in theory but accorded a special status and authority to the Jewish religion, as might well be expected in a self-styled “Jewish state”.

What the founders of Zionism did not anticipate was a gradual increase in the proportion of Orthodox Jews in Israeli society.  This change was due in part to Jewish immigration from the Muslim world, where secular influence is much weaker than in Europe, and in part to immigration of Hasidic Jews from Eastern Europe after the Holocaust.  As the number of Israeli religious Jews has increased, so too has the pressure to convert Israel into a “Torah state”, one which not only supports the Jewish religion but views this support as its main mission in life.  Needless to say, this pressure is enhanced by similar trends in the Muslim and Christian worlds and the emergence of outright theocratic regimes in countries like Iran.  But this pressure has also given rise to a counter-pressure from secular Jews in Israel calling for the complete disestablishment of the Jewish religion and the creation of a “state of all its citizens” in place of a Jewish state.  The net result of these trends has been the development of a conflict between religious and secular Jews in Israel much more severe than had previously been the case.  This conflict necessitates the development of a clearer understanding of the appropriate relationship between Zionism and the Jewish religion than the early Zionists had thought necessary.

The state of Israel and the Zionist movement today are thus faced with the task of redefining Zionist ideology in three areas: as it relates to anti-Semitism, as it relates to the Arabs, and as it relates to the Jewish religion.  How should this be done?  It is the thesis of this article that the way to do this is by bringing out the real basis of Zionism, a basis which was not openly expressed by traditional Zionist ideology.

Let us begin by asking: why was Ben-Gurion called Ben-Gurion?  Shabtai Teveth answers this question on page 73 of his authoritative biography of Ben-Gurion where he states that the young David Gruen assumed the name Ben-Gurion around 1908, taking it from “Joseph Ben-Gurion, the renowned defense minister in Jerusalem at the time of the great Jewish rebellion against the Romans”.  Around the same time as David Ben-Gurion assumed his new name, a secret society committed to the armed self-defense of Jews in the land of Israel was formed; its name was “Bar-Giora”, named after Shimon Bar-Giora, the main military commander of that very same Jewish rebellion in its latter stages.  The oath sworn by initiates into this secret society, which was the forerunner of the Labor Zionist Haganah, was taken from a 1903 poem by Jacob Kahan and read: “In blood and fire Judah fell, in blood and fire Judah will arise”.  This same slogan was later adopted by Jabotinsky and his followers and eventually became the common property of all the Zionist youth groups and para-military formations, the forerunners of the Israeli army.  This slogan too referred back to the Jewish rebellion against the Romans.

What do we have here?  Is it a desire to found a normal state, or even a model state?  No, it is a desire to right the great wrong which was done to the Jewish people 2000 years ago by the Romans.  At the core of the modern Zionist movement was the memory of the “great Jewish rebellion against the Romans” and the people who led this rebellion, who are commonly known as “Zealots”.  Moreover, alongside the Zealots the early Zionists also enshrined the memory of Shimon Bar-Kochba, the leader of the second rebellion against the Romans.  The name of Jabotinsky’s youth group, Betar, officially an acronym for “Brit Trumpeldor”, was also the name of Bar-Kochba’s chief stronghold, where he is thought to have died in battle against the Romans.  Ben-Gurion and his circle turned the Jewish holiday of Lag Ba’Omer into a celebration of the memory of Bar-Kochba and his tactics of guerilla war.  The two Jewish rebellions, the Zealots, Bar-Kochba, the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, Masada, the fact that rabbi Akiba had hailed Bar-Kochba as the “King Messiah”: these are the memories and themes that reverberate throughout the literature and culture of the Zionists who actually founded the state of Israel and fought its first battles.  Yet of this entire complex of memories hardly a trace appears in the official Zionist ideology of the time with its resolutely sane and rational ambition to found a normal model state.

In order to understand the power of the slogan, “In blood and fire Judah fell, in blood and fire Judah will arise”, it is necessary to ask certain questions which are rarely asked.  Why did the Europeans, in the wake of the Jewish rebellions, turn to the worship of a crucified Jew?  Why did the Arabs, after conquering the Middle East, establish a holy shrine on the former site of the Jewish Temple?  Is it not evident that somewhere in the background of both the Christian and Muslim religions is to be found the buried historical fact that the Romans and their Greek allies not only destroyed the Jewish Temple but slaughtered somewhere between two million and three million Jews during the first two centuries of what is now called the “Common Era”?  Yet this fact has been buried so thoroughly that not even Hollywood has been able to resurrect it.  Although Jews controlled the major studios for 50 years and produced innumerable fictional epics glorifying the early Christians, they did not dare to produce one single film about the Jewish rebellions against Rome.  Talk about Holocaust denial!  Both the Christian and Muslim religions could well be viewed as extreme cases of Holocaust denial, in which real Jewish courage and suffering is sanctified by worship of the Jewish “God” while the Jews themselves are vilified and slandered in every possible way.

Even the Jewish religion failed to do justice to the rebels against Rome.  Bar-Kochba is condemned as a “false Messiah” in the Talmud, while the Zealots are treated as beneath mention.  Rabbinical Judaism was, after all, founded by Jewish deserters from the siege of Jerusalem, who received formal permission from the Romans to found a rabbinical academy at Yavneh.  Yet it can hardly be viewed as a coincidence that the later rabbinical establishment venerated the memory of the rabbis Akiba and Shimon Bar-Yochai, contemporaries of Bar-Kochba who supported his rebellion.  Moreover the rabbis preserved the ambition to redress the wrong which the Romans had done in the form of belief in the coming of “the” Messiah, who was destined to rebuild the Temple and reestablish the nation of Judah.  Belief in the coming of the Messiah was treated by Maimonides as one of the articles of faith of the Jewish religion, denial of which was considered an act of heresy punishable by death.  Belief in the coming of the Messiah, which was also expressed even more strongly in Jewish popular culture, created the cultural and ideological milieu from which the modern Zionist movement eventually emerged.  As Ben-Gurion himself repeatedly stated, modern Zionism was nothing other than traditional Jewish Messianism in a secular and activist garb.

And even that is not the whole story, since the traditional Jewish Messianists also had their activist wing.  When the modern Zionists first started arriving in the land of Israel in the 1880s, they found a Jewish majority already established in Jerusalem, composed of religious Jews who had been moving to the “four holy cities” of Jerusalem, Tiberias, Safed and Hebron in a small but steady stream ever since the Ottoman empire opened the land of Israel to Jewish immigration in the early 16th century.  Even earlier, Jewish Messianic movements in the Arab world, centered in the large Jewish community of Iraq, had launched a number of unsuccessful attempts to return en masse to the land of Israel.  These movements were in turn an outgrowth of the Jewish Messianism of the Sassanid Persian empire, which had actually succeeded in restoring Jewish rule to Jerusalem for a few years starting in 614 CE.  It was around this time, and not by coincidence, that Mohammed in Mecca exhorted his original followers to turn in prayer to Jerusalem and abstain from eating pork.  Yet of this entire history not a trace remains in the consciousness of the world.  It has been supplanted by the substitutionist ideology of both Christianity and Islam, according to which only they are fit to rule in Jerusalem because of their appropriation of a few of the trappings of Judaism.

Once the real basis of Zionism is understood, the path to a restatement of Zionist ideology becomes clear.  Zionism is the culmination of a 2000 year struggle to redress an ancient wrong, a struggle which ultimately succeeded precisely because both the Christians and the Muslims felt compelled, after their fashion, to pay tribute to the courage and heroism of the Jewish people.  What does this mean in practice?

(1) The cutting edge of the struggle against anti-Semitism should be the demand that both Christians and Muslims recognize their debt to the Jewish people.  This means that we have the right to demand that both religions eliminate the anti-Semitic component of their teachings, a component whose main function is to mask their debt to the Jews.  How dare the Christians sit in church and pretend to eat the flesh and drink the blood of a Jewish man and consider themselves charitable, moral people?  How dare the Muslims claim that Mohammed flew to the Temple Mount on a magic horse and that is why they alone are entitled to worship there while the Jews, who died in the millions to defend it, are not?  Since both Christians and Muslims claim to believe in justice, we have the right to demand from them the repudiation of the anti-Semitic lies, rituals and slanders which have motivated innumerable crimes against the Jewish people on their part, crimes which they have yet to acknowledge, much less apologize for.  It is high time that both of them got in the habit of telling the truth, and there is no better way to start than telling the truth about their relationship to the Jewish people.

(2) Just as Christians in the United States strive to assimilate the Jewish minority in their midst through the concept of a “Judeo-Christian tradition”, so Jews in Israel ought to strive to assimilate the Arab minority in our midst through the concept of a “Judeo-Islamic tradition”.  Not only did Islam derive many beliefs and customs from Judaism, including the myth of common descent from Abraham, but for 800 years before the time of Mohammed, the Jewish people constituted the leading force in the struggle for the independence and sovereignty of the Middle Eastern nations in opposition to Greco-Roman imperialism.  There is no reason why Arabs cannot relate to the story of Hanukah or Jews to the achievements of Saladin.  Through the concept of a Judeo-Islamic tradition it ought to be the long range goal of the Zionist movement to break down the distinction between Jew and Arab and create a non-sectarian Israeli identity which both groups can identify with.  Key features of this identity ought to be use of the Hebrew language, identification with the historic struggle of the Jewish people for national independence and affirmation of the historic role of Islam in defending the Middle East against European colonialism and aggression.

(3) It is high time that the state of Israel made available the possibility of secular marriage and divorce and ceased to fund religious schools of any kind.  Modern Zionism is the direct outgrowth of the Jewish religion, but just for this reason the Jewish religion has lost its main raison d’etre.  For 2000 years the Jewish religion kept alive the hope that Judah would arise once more, but now that the Messiah has come and gone, Judaism has been forced to reinvent itself.  It still serves as a source of Zionist inspiration for some, but for most it has become either an abstract ethical philosophy or a means of separation from the modern world.  Those who believe in these teachings have every right to their opinion, which may in many cases have a real social utility, but there is no reason why the state of Israel should sponsor their beliefs.  State support of the Jewish religion in Israel should be confined to observance of the Jewish holidays, which are the common property of the entire Jewish people and symbolize our history and culture.  All the rest, as they say, is commentary, and commentary is best left to the commentators.

To summarize: the real basis of Zionism is the entire history of the Jewish people in general and in particular the 2000 year struggle of the Jewish people to right the wrong of the Greco-Roman Holocaust.  What needs to happen now is that the real basis of Zionism become its overt basis.  The way to do this is by bringing out the truth of Jewish history in every conceivable context.  This truth needs to be taught to Israelis, both Arabs and Jews; it needs to be taught to Christians and Muslims everywhere; and it needs to be taught to the entire “international community”, whose understanding of Israel and Zionism is so amazingly superficial, one-sided and distorted.  In our struggle to survive, truth is our most reliable weapon, and the more we use it, the stronger it will become..

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