Antisemitism in Zionism and in Israel

Yakov Rabkin
Fall 2004

Published in Outlook (Vancouver), 2004 (42, 3), pp. 17-18.

Antisemitism in Zionism and in Israel

A few thoughts inspired by reading

Noah J. Efron, Real Jews, New York: Basic Books, 2003.

This book is written by a fellow historian of science who, like me[1], ventured outside his field to examine Zionism, Israel and at their place in the Jewish continuity. The book under review may disturb many a Zionist, particularly outside of Israel. The unease may begin with the frontispiece picture of a chained Haredi[2] Jew carrying a sign that reads: “State of Israel – a state of anti-Semitism to Jews”. Indeed, much of the book is devoted to an analysis, richly spruced with anecdotes, of anti-Semitism in Zionist theory and practice.

This analysis, hardly surprising to scholars of contemporary Jewish history, challenges the currently promoted wisdom that brands opposition to Zionism as anti-Semitic. The recent wave of conferences sponsored by the government of Israel and its advocates elsewhere has portrayed Israel as a victim, rather than a source, of resurging anti-Semitism. However, in view of the material presented in this book, such Israeli invocations of anti-Semitism appear false, self-serving and dangerous.

There are several reasons for this. Efron amply shows how Zionist theories are based on anti-Semitic stereotypes. He quotes several founding fathers of Zionism in support (p. 257):

Herzl had already noted in 1894 that Jews had ‘taken on a number of anti-social characteristics’ <…> and that Jewish character was ‘damaged’. David Frischman wrote that traditional ‘Jewish life is a dog’s life that evokes disgust’. Chaim Brenner likened Jews to ‘filthy dogs, inhuman, wounded dogs’. A.D. Gordon wrote that European Jews were parasites. M.J. Berdyczewski called traditional Jews ‘spiritual slaves, men whose natural forces had dried up and whose relation to the world was no longer normal,’ and elsewhere, ‘a non-people, a non-nation – non-men indeed.’

Israeli society, which incarnates these theories, naturally inherited this basic anti-Semitism with respect to traditional Jews, which the author illustrates with chilling cartoons drawn from mainstream Israeli press: “it is an ugly picture, and it recalls centuries of anti-Semitic iconography, from sixteenth-century woodblocks of Jews draining the blood of Christian innocents to Nazi portrayals of Jews as vermin” (p. 58).

Efron recalls that the main objective of Zionism was “regeneration” of the traditional Jew and his transformation into a virtually Aryan model of a Muskuljude, a strong, blond farmer tilling the land and valiantly defending his land and his people. This negates any value to the traditional Jew: intellectual, urban and meek, in line with Europe’s varieties of transformative nationalism of the 1930s.

At the same time as it professes it, Zionism postulates that anti-Semitism is a constant of this world and that only in Israel can Jews feel truly safe. Israel has benefited from moderate doses of anti-Semitism: it has increased its Jewish population by attracting those who feel threatened by the anti-Semites elsewhere. Israeli agents are even known to have spread anti-Jewish sentiments in order to frighten Jews and to encourage their aliya (e.g., in Morocco and Iraq). Nowadays, Israeli leaders are concerned about “the demographic bomb”, about Jews becoming again a minority in the Holy Land, which can only be delayed by aliya (immigration of Jews).

Moreover, because of Israel, Jews have come to be associated with gun-toting soldiers and settlers that fill the TV screens of the world. When Zionist activists stifle criticism of Israel by branding it anti-Semitic, this breeds resentment that feeds worldwide anti-Semitism. It is a testimony to the basic decency of our fellow Canadians that the anger provoked by the Aspers’ attempts to impose a pro-Israel line onto this country’s main dailies has not given rise to grass-root anti-Semitism.

Israeli leaders are wont to speak “in the name of the Jewish people” consciously blurring distinctions between Diaspora Jews and Israelis and claiming that Israel is “the state of the Jewish people,” not just of its citizens. In the wake of the assassination of Sheikh Yassin, spiritual leader of Hamas, in March 2004, Ariel Sharon claimed to have succeeded in the elimination of “an enemy of the Jewish people.” It did not take long for Hamas to reply in kind and to declare that “Zionist targets around the world” would become legitimate targets for attack.

This usurpation of the role of “the vanguard of the Jewish people” is rooted in the very nature of Zionism, which bears resemblance to revolutionary movements of the past century, each of which claiming to be “the vanguard” of their nation or class. Efron quotes Ben Gurion (p. 224):

The State of Israel and the Jewish people share a common destiny. The State will not endure without the People, and the People will no endure without the State, and therefore three things are intertwined: love of homeland, national loyalty, and loyalty to the Jewish people.

This approach blurs distinctions between Israeli and Diaspora Jews and raises the spectre of dual loyalty. Recently, Diaspora Zionists have become bolder in their affirmation of loyalty to the State of Israel. For example, at a recent synagogue breakfast a prominent Zionist activist, albeit to the best of my knowledge not a citizen of Israel, introduced that country’s Consul General in Montreal as “our Consul.”

Today, Jewish complicity with the State of Israel appears almost natural. The anti-Semites have long claimed to believe in the existence of a world Jewish conspiracy, of specifically Jewish political interests, allegedly injurious to the rest of humanity. Zionist claims to constitute “the vanguard of the Jewish people” reinforce this association. Thus, Israel’s protestations against anti-Semitism resemble the pleas of the man who, having killed his parents, asks for compassion as an orphan.

But one can understand those for whom the State of Israel has become the main pillar of their Jewish identity. My late colleague and friend Daniel Elazar, a perspicacious observer of the relations between Israel and Diaspora, used to call this identity “Israelotry,” a combination of two words “Israel” and “idolatry”. This stems from a major transformation of what it means to be a Jew that has occurred in the last two centuries. Traditionally, the Jews’ identity was based on Judaism. Secularization, particularly as it was lived in the Russian Empire, brought to light new “ethnic” and “national” identities, unusually militant in their rejection of Judaism.

These new identities flourished in a variety of political shapes, of which Zionism may be the last significant remnant. Anti-Zionist Jewish Socialist secularism has not weathered the combined effects of the Nazi genocide, the establishment of the State of Israel and the embourgeoisement of the post-war Diaspora life. It is hard to discern any vestiges of the traits that used to characterize the Jewish Socialists. For example, the Jewish People’s School in Montreal, established by these Jewish secularists, has joined the mainstream and, while attracting children from secular homes, teaches them elements of Judaism and inculcates identification with the State of Israel. BMWs and SUVs waiting for students outside its gates complete the picture as to this group’s erstwhile loyalty to the working class.

Today, revolt against the mainstream takes a different shape. A group of secular Israelis turned Hasidim, left Israel and settled north of Montreal. Strict adherents of the Jewish law, they strenuously oppose Zionism and even avoid their native Israeli Hebrew, speaking mostly Yiddish among them. They are undoing the Zionist oeuvre of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda who, upon arrival in Palestine over a hundred years ago, created a new Hebrew vernacular. They reject as absurd the Zionist concept of a nation and refuse to reduce the Land of Israel, the source of spiritual longings for over two millennia, into a physical “motherland.” While the Zionist is proud, hard-nosed and self-reliant, these rebels affirm the three traditional Jewish traits – timidity, compassion and good deeds – as well as the traditional garb and behaviour that so irritated the founding fathers of Zionism.

Efron’s grandparents were traditional American Jews who rejoiced at the establishment of Israel and, soon after retirement, moved to Bnei Brak, a major Haredi bastion near Tel-Aviv. He recalls them in concluding his candid book (p. 275):

When I told her [my grandmother] that I was moving to a kibbutz, she was as proud as if I had gone to a great Talmudic academy, perhaps more. But the sense of shared purpose and grand accomplishment that enchanted my grandmother has now largely evaporated. One of the few values still shared by most secular Jews in Israel is rage aimed at the ultra-Orthodox. My grandparents did not live to see the self-assurance of secular Israel disintegrate. They did not live to be hated by people whom they loved so deeply, and for this I am relieved. Even in these very troubled times, I somehow think that this relief saddens me most of all.

In view of all this, and the relatively brief character of the Zionist project, it makes little sense to associate the Jews to the State of Israel and its behaviour. It would be better to substitute “Zionist” for “Jewish” in such terms as “the Jewish state” or “the Jewish lobby.” Indeed, there are more Christians than Jews who offer the State of Israel their unconditional support, coming usually from right-wing circles, traditionally imbued with anti-Semitism. Some are intent on assembling the Jews in the Holy Land as a pre-condition for the second coming of Christ. They expect the gathered Jews to accept Jesus as the messiah or face mass extermination, a prospect hardly enticing to most Jews.

Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik the Brisker (1853-1918) asserted that the real purpose of the Zionists was not so much to establish a state as to tear the Jews away from Judaism. In this sense, it becomes irrelevant whether Zionists are Jewish or Christian since both negate the Jewish tradition and strive to transform a Jew into a different entity, a goal that many would deem truly anti-Semitic.

Yakov M Rabkin

Department of History

University of Montreal

(During a lecture tour in

[1] See: Yakov M. Rabkin, Au nom de la Torah: une histoire de l’opposition juive au sionisme, Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2004.

[2] Haredi is an Israeli term denoting Jews who follow Jewish law in the traditional, pre-Zionist manner, are clad in black and white and are often referred to in the media as “Ultra-Orthodox”, an expression with pronounced negative overtones that I prefer to avoid.

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