Jewish Opposition to Zionism

Yakov Rabkin
December 2006

Published in Jewish Press (New York) on December 8, 2006, p. 95.


Jewish religious opposition to Zionism has found an echo on your pages in recent weeks. An interview with Jewish students showed a need to confront anti-Zionist ideas. A reader from Philadelphia expressed appreciation for the Neturei Karta, perhaps the most vocal Jewish anti-Zionist group, and argued that its activities aim at saving lives. While her letter was serene, one could sense anger and indignation in the reactions to it that appeared on November 29. Indeed, Jewish opposition to Zionism has often provoked more rage than debate. However, anger is rarely a good advisor, and our tradition privileges rational dispassionate analysis, particularly when lives are at stake.

It is in this spirit that I examined Judaic anti-Zionism in a book, initially published in French under the title Au nom de la Torah (In the Name of Torah), and this year in English as A Threat from within: a Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Fernwood/Zed Books). Having presented my book in several countries, I have seen that the enduring rejection of Zionism on the part of frum Jews makes many people aware of the pitfalls of confusing Judaism and Jews with what they read and watch in the media about Israel.

Both the founders of Zionism and their adversaries agreed that Zionism was a revolutionary break with the traditional yearning for Eretz Yisroel and geula shleima, Zionism as a social and political movement overtly promoted a secular national identity, which has clashed with the traditional Judaism of Torah and mitzvos in Israel and elsewhere. Inspired by European nationalism and a romantic reading of our history, a modern proud nation has taken root in Eretz Yisroel. It rejected as shameful vestiges of the past the traditional Jewish penchant for compromise and appeasement (Jacob’s approach to Esau is this week’s sedra is a prototype of this attitude). This new emphasis on pride and assertiveness explains the rage so many Jews feel when they see Neturei Karta members shake hands with the leader of Iran or pray at the bedside of Arafat. Many Orthodox Jews have also embraced the Zionist worldview, even though their embrace remains circumstantial and emotive. They would be reluctant to question the authority of a Chofetz Chaim or a Brisker Rov, a Satmar Rebbe or a Lubavitcher Rebbe, all of whom articulated strenuous opposition to Zionism and its reliance on military force.

Israelis are more prone than their Diaspora brethren to admit that the anti-Zionist rabbis reflect our tradition. “To recognize the legitimacy of religious anti-Zionism is vital to the debate on Israel and Zionism”, writes Professor Joseph Agassi of Tel Aviv University. “As an Israeli patriot, I consider it essential to integrate the discourse of Judaic anti-Zionism into the badly needed public debate about our past, present and future.” We can all gain by listening to this Israeli patriot: Jewish opposition to Zionism draws its strength from classical Judaism and raises questions that demand urgent and serious attention from all of us.

Yakov M Rabkin

Professor of History

University of Montreal.

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Jewish Opposition to Zionism