Dangers of Jewish Opposition to Judaism

Yakov Rabkin
June 2007

Written for Haaretz (Tel Aviv) in June 2007.

Dangers of Jewish Opposition to Zionism

By Yakov M Rabkin

Shlomo Avineri is right to be concerned (“Post-Zionism doesn’t exist”, June 6, 2007). A specialist in the intellectual history of Zionism, he knows well how its leaders can turn against it. He does not name Avrum Burg but he clearly has in mind the recent statements of the former Speaker of the Knesset and Chairman of the Jewish Agency, who nowadays bitterly denounces Zionism and the society it has engendered. This betrayal is not new. Nathan Birnbaum , the inventor of the very term “Zionism” and the first Secretary General of the Zionist Organization, also later turned against the movement he helped to establish. What the two have in common, besides their earlier elevated positions in the Zionist establishment, is that both reverted to traditional Judaism in their rejection of Zionism. The two cases, however different and a century apart, seem to confirm what an old poster in Mea Shearim has been proclaiming for years: “Judaism and Zionism are diametrically opposed”.

Professor Avineri also writes that “”post-Zionists” are simply anti-Zionists of the old sort. … They do not see Zionism and the State of Israel as a reality that has come to pass, but rather as something that is not legitimate from the outset and that must be eliminated down to its very foundations. “ Moreover, he admits that ”the anti-Zionist position has accompanied Zionism from the very outset, and it is a legitimate position even if one does not agree with it.” Jewish anti-Zionism is unlikely to vanish; this is why it is important to understand the phenomenon of Jewish religious opposition to Zionism in its context. Jewish anti-Zionism has often provoked more anger than analysis. While anger may be understandable, explanations are in order since the anti-Zionist threat from within the Jewish people may, in the long term, be more grievous that the outside hostility of the Arab and Muslim world.

One early morning last month, I received an e-mail from a friend in Israel: “Did Avrum plagiarize your book?” This is how I discovered the interview of Ari Shavit with Avrum Burg that this newspaper published last June 8. Indeed, Burg’s conclusions do resemble the opinions that I analyze in my recent book about Judaic adversaries of Zionism and the very idea of a Jewish state.* Burg is just one of the many Jews trying to come to terms with the contradictions between the Judaism they profess to adhere to and the Zionist ideology that has in fact taken hold of them.

Quite a few Jews now publicly ask whether the chronically besieged ethnic nation-state in the Middle East is “good for the Jews.” Many, like Burg and his rabbinical precursors, believe that militant Zionism destroys Jewish moral values and endangers Jews in Israel and elsewhere. This debate has entered pop culture as well: The recent films Munich by the American Steven Spielberg and Walk on Water by the Israeli Eytan Fox sharply focus on the moral and human cost of Israel’s chronic reliance on force. Doubts about Zionism are also articulated in several books published over the past few years – Prophets Outcast, Wrestling With Zion, The Question of Zion, The Myths of Zionism – all authored by Jews who are concerned about the same essential conflict between Zionism and Jewish values.

Their relationship with the state of Israel and with Zionism has polarized the Jews. The axis along which this polarization has taken shape does not correspond to any of the habitual divisions: Ashkenazi/Sephardic, observant/nonobservant, Israelis/Diaspora Jews. In each of these categories are Jews for whom national pride, even chutzpah, is a positive value, and who give their enthusiastic support to the state that incarnates what they identify as a life force, a triumph of the will and a guarantee of Jewish survival. But each of these categories also includes Jews who believe that the very idea of a Jewish state, and the human and moral price that it demands, undermines all that Judaism teaches.

Divisions about Israel and Zionism are so acute that they may split Jews as irremediably as did the advent of Christianity two millennia ago. Christianity, which embodies a Greek reading of the Torah, eventually broke away from Judaism, taking many Jews with it. Zionism, reflecting a nationalist, romantic reading of Jewish history, has already transformed millions of Jews. The break between traditional Judaism and Zionism may in fact be more serious than between Judaism and Christianity. While Christianity claimed to supercede Judaism deemed no longer relevant, it did inherit, at least in theory, many core values of Judaism. However, Zionist education has done away with most of them, such as the obligation to be bashful and compassionate, and to perform acts of kindness (bayshanim, rahmanim ve-gomlei hasadim). It remains to be seen whether the fracture between those who hold fast to Jewish moral tradition and the converts to Jewish nationalism may one day be mended. However fateful for Jews and Judaism – and however serious the internal threat it poses to Israel – this fracture is unlikely to affect Israel’s external relations. Israel can always count on millions of unconditional supporters around the world among whom there are many more evangelical Christians than Jews.

The author is professor of history and associate of the Centre for International Studies at the University of Montreal in Canada.

* A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism, Zedbooks/Palgrave Macmillan, 2006; also available in French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and Arabic.

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