A Threat From Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism

Yakov Rabkin

Professor Emeritus Faculty of Religious Studies McGill University Birks Building, 3520 University Street Montreal, Quebec H3A 2A7 Canada

According to a press release (PR Web) of 30 November 2007, the Central Rabbinical Congress of the USA and Canada made a public statement correcting the views of certain Jewish organisations that returning parts of the Holy Land and particularly Jerusalem for the sake of peace is prohibited by the Torah. According to the statement made by the Congress, territorial concessions for the sake of saving lives and preventing human suffering are not only sanctioned by the Torah, but required. Most people will not have heard of the Central Rabbinical Congress. Its website on the Internet explains that the Congress `has consistently opposed Zionism and the actions of the Zionists, issuing statements, advertisements and organizing protests’.

Since the Jewish opposition to Zionism is a topic not well-known, one must be grateful to Yakov Rabkin’s study, A Threat From Within, that documents the teaching of the Orthodox rabbis who have, from the end of the nineteenth century up to the present day, rejected the Zionist claims for reasons that are properly theological. The pious rabbis known as haredim have produced a substantial literature that Rabkin has subjected to a careful analysis. The principal theological argument of the haredim is that the Zionists have transformed the religious messianism implicit in Judaism into a political nationalism and tried to replace the religious definition of Jewish identity by one that is secular and political. According to the haredim, the exile of the Jews from the Promised Land has been imposed on them by God as a punishment for their infidelity to the Torah. Some of them even suggest that the Holocaust was a divine punishment for the stubborn refusal of so many Jews to observe the laws of the Torah. According to the haredim, the return of the Jews to the Holy Land is a messianic promise: it will therefore take place as God’s doing, not be the result of a political movement or, even less, of military action. The conservative Orthodox congregations living in Israel refuse to recognise the Israeli State; they would prefer to live as distinct communities in a Palestinian state.

The haredim represent a minor theological current within Judaism. Their literalist reading of the Bible and their extreme cultural conservatism, including a certain subjugation of women, prevent them from gaining the respect of the wider Jewish community. Yet their rejection of Zionism is not so surprising when one remembers that prior to the Holocaust, Zionism was a very small movement in the worldwide Jewish community. Orthodox Jews rejected Zionism because they defined Jewish identity in religious terms; Reformed and secular Jews rejected it because they were assimilated as loyal citizens of their country; and socialist Jews rejected it because they felt called to wrestle for a just society transcending the capitalist order. It was only after the Holocaust that the majority of Jews came to support the Zionist project.

In his book Rabkin tells us that many of his fellow Jews have tried to persuade him not to publish this book. They argued that to resist the antisemitic currents in society and defend the State of Israel against the accusations coming from all sides, it is important that Jews demonstrate their unanimity and stand united behind the Jewish State. Rabkin does not accept this analysis. He thinks, on the contrary, that the public debate in the Jewish community about the State of Israel and its policies is a protection against antisemitic propaganda. It refutes the argument that the Jewish lobby in Washington represents all American Jews, and it demonstrates that the Jews are, like all other human communities, engaged in a lively internal debate.

Rabkin’s book is a brilliant, elegantly written study of a literature that will fascinate his readers by intruding them into a spiritual world hidden from view that has presently acquired explosive political meaning. The author may share some of the views of the haredim, yet he has written the book not as a polemic but as a sober and objective study of a theological tradition that merits attention.

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A Threat From Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism