Review: Losing the Normative Connection

Yakov Rabkin

Abstract: The role of Torah Jewish opposition to Zionism is an often overlooked aspect of the struggle. It’s importance is manifold: in readdressing wring conceptions of the conflict as religious; as challenging Zionist claims to represent Judaism and all Jews; and in Rabkin’s terms re-establishing a normative connection between religious culture and political action. Rabkin’s history recalls in great depth not just those who opposed Zionism from this perspective, but how and why.

A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism, Yakov M. Rabkin

“…, as is so often the case when religion is used for political ends, only the first part of the phrase is cited, and the promise of divine redemption falls by the wayside. It was by such a device that the name of the first Jewish settlement movement in Palestine , in 1882, was derived. Bilu is the acronym of the first four words of the verse: “O House of Jacob! Come, let us walk by the light of the Lord” (Isaiah 2:5), from which the words, the “the Light of the Lord” have been dropped. The same device was used in the campaign to help Soviet Jews to emigrate during the 1960s and the 1970s. The slogan, “Let my people go,” drops the second clause of the sentence: “to worship me” (Exodus 90:13). In both cases, what disappears is the normative connection with God.”(124)

A historian by profession, Professor Rabkin’s book, a translation from the original French Au nom de la Torah: une histoire de l’opposition juive au sionisme , sets out a meticulous account of Judaic opposition to an ideology that has been wrongly synonimised with the faith. This book combines not only historical analysis of the progression of the Zionist project, but a relation of the theological arguments that raged and still rage against Zionism and its appropriation of Judaism as a cloak for what Rabkin deems a colonialist project that imbued all the very worst elements and was carried on the wave of burgeoning 19 th century European nationalism.


A Threat from Within:
A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism,
Yakov M. Rabkin

Rabkin’s narrative charts a chronology of anti-Zionist and non-Zionist protest predating Herzl’s announcement of the Zionist project through the initial Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897. Quoting amongst others Benny Morris and Michel Abitbol, Rabkin adheres to the established critique of Zionism as colonialist and expansionist by nature. However he posits in this work the idea that the effects of what he describes as the intrinsically nefarious nature of Zionism, are reversible and more importantly that anything less is a violation of faith. Whether it is hatred of Arabs, which Rabkin asserts has been programmed into Jewish youth after the establishment of the Zionist state or the issue of borders, the author sees possibilities for transformation based on the transformative potential of value systems that hail from less secular quarters.

Herein lies the difference with Rabkin’s book. Normativity is borne out of this account of Torah Supporting Jews, whose opposition to Zionism finds its basis in obstinately non-secular sources. Zionism epitomises not only the very worst of European nationalism – exclusivism that leads to genocidal violence, but the triumph of arrogance and a lust for power that run counter to the commands of the Torah. In this regard, Rabkin’s critique of leading Zionist figures from Vladimir Jabotinsky, the architect of so many parts of the secular Zionist movement at the turn of the 20 th century, to Ariel Sharon, is biting. Their emulation of non-Jewish politicians and policies forms not only the basis of anti-Zionist critique amongst religious Jews, but makes clear in the author’s account the actual distance between Zionist heroes and thinkers and Judaic thought. Even the National Religious and other religious Jews who claim religiosity as the basis of their Zionist pretensions are presented as the usurpers of a tradition that in its various anti-Zionist guises condemns their claims.

This split is described by Rabkin in a profound and accessible way. The disagreement is presented not as mere matter of theological interpretation but as a long standing battle between a theological camp, and the nigh on heretical preaching of a few that helped a secular movement gain hold amongst a community that, early on, Rabkin describes as suffering from a loss of collective memory. Reinterpreting Jewish history is a far more important aspect, in this account, of Zionist ascendancy as a political movement than any pretensions to Judaic legitimacy. So both Biblical narrative and the European experience of assimilation, pogroms, rejection, and above all, secularisation, become subject to a rewrite to fit the aim of creating a state and also a community that understood itself to be a nation characterised by ethnic and cultural homogeneity. Religious anti-Zionism argues that the Jewish nation exists in a spiritual sense and only has meaning through attachment to Judaism. Rather than the bonds of ethnicity, the Jewish nation is defined by Torah adherence. There is no other definition of Jewishness that has meaning, as it is defined by faith not ethnicity.

This is distinct from orthodox Zionist advocates for ‘reform’ in a deeply Israeli society:

“For many of Zionism’s opponents the problem, as we have seen, is less the secular character of the state than the fact of establishing one in the first place. When people usurp a messianic prerogative, they commit a grave transgression against divine will. This rabbinical dictum should be seen as a reaction to the Zionist program for the ingathering and national self-determination of the Jews of Israel, with no regard either for their way of life or their relationship with the Torah.”(163)

Judaism’s messianic vision sees the establishment of state before the messiah’s arrival, antithetical to the salvation of the Jewish nation. Zionism’s appropriation of secular nationalistic ideas of nationhood and self-determination exemplify the breaking of the normative connection with God that Rabkin identifies in Jewish critique and opposition to Zionism.

Rabkin’s history charts the huge opposition to Zionism at its outset even in Russia , where pogroms and hatred against Jews prevailed and from where the Zionist project gained many of its key figures. The steadfast opposition of Rebbe and their students at a time when pressure against Jews in eastern European was intense, marks out a valiant and largely forgotten history of the Jewish community outside its own ranks. At what point Zionist thinking gained ascendancy is not answered by Rabkin, although this in itself is of little consequence to the book’s thesis either of the moral supremacy and legitimacy of anti-Zionist Torah aligned Judaism as opposed to Zionist supporting identities. Citing a story attributed to Rabbi Eyboschutz, as used by Rabbi Wasserman on the eve of the Second World War (226), Rabkin alludes to a tenet of Judaic faith that exceptionalises from the rule that in Jewish tradition “the majority must decide”:

“We are bound to go according to the majority only where there is a doubt, where the truth is not known. But where there is no doubt, when we are quite sure where the truth lies, majority opinion has no influence. We are convinced of the righteousness of our holy Torah, we have no doubt of it, so that the great majority which is against us has no influence upon us; and cannot take us out of our way.”

You do not need to be a religious Jew to appreciate that this account, though obviously sympathetic to religious opposition to Zionism, yet detached enough to be an effective history of a(n) religious movement(s), is an important addition to the literature accumulating against Zionism. Secular critiques are well known. Religious critiques have tended to centre on reports of the activities of religious anti-Zionist Jews such as the rabbis of Neturei Karta, and their publications.

As a Muslim, I see this work also as instructive to other faith communities in how they address the issue of Palestine . The temptation to disguise opposition in a secularised language of political change, can simply play into stereotypes of religious fundamentalism that fans the flames of exceptionalism. Further it removes from the arena of reconciliation the palliative that faith inspired experience and transformative discourse of faith traditions can provide. Rabkin’s own analysis is a revival of the memories of co-existence between communities and the ideas that imbued that co-existence, is an essential route to reversing the development of hatred amongst communities. Finally it outlines both strength of commitment that must be admired, as well as a hope in ultimate redemption and justice that the situation in Palestine will be redressed through the dismantling of the Zionist project.

Not to recognise the importance of this opposition is simply to undermine the cause of universal justice that goes beyond a fight between competing claims of national communities into the realm of plain, simple right and wrong.

A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism, Yakov M. Rabkin, 224 pages, Zed Books Ltd, Mar 2006, ISBN: 1842776991

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Review: Losing the Normative Connection