“Robin Hood is not a Jewish hero!”

Yakov Rabkin

On the 18th of December we met with Prof. Yakov M. Rabkin for a causerie on the Turkish edition of his book ‘A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism’.

The main purpose in life for a religious Jew is to accomplish Mitzvot (Commandments). But these can not be accomplished at the cost of committing a trangression (Ein mitzva ba alyedey avera). “Robin Hood is not a Jewish hero!”

We judged it appropriate to use this aphorism as the headline of this interview.

Denis Ojalvo


How would you introduce yourself to our readers?

I am a professor of History at Montreal University where I have been teaching for forty one years and have been in Israel for four Sabbaticals. My field is the History of Science. Science in non-Western Cultures, Jews and Science, Contemporary Jewish History are some of the topics I teach.

How did the idea of writing this book came to your mind? What was the drive?

In 1987 I studied Torah at the Beit Morasha institution of the National Religious movement related to Rav Kook. There I attended a seminar on Anti-Zionist Haredi Thought. The subject drew my interest.

In 2001 a newspaper requested me to write an article on the Neturei Karta (The Guardians of the Walls) phenomenon.

Then, a publisher, Presse de l’Université Laval in Quebec, contacted me and I wrote this book in French: Au nom de la Torah: une histoire de l’opposition juive au Sionisme  published in 2004. The book has been translated in 14 languages, among these in Hebrew and Turkish, both published in 2014. The aim of the book was to clarify the confusion between Judaism and Zionism because the Jews have become hostages of what Israel does. For instance the Jewish Community of Turkey has zero influence on Israel’s policies but suffers its consequences.

What do you think about Israel being the Nation State of the Jewish People?

The state of Israel is a legitimate entity but it has little to do with Jewish continuity. Zionism is a revolution in Judaism. It is a rupture. I have no problem with nation states. But I have a problem when Israel claims to belong to Jews, a good half of whom do not live or pay taxes there rather than to Palestinians who do both. (Comment of interviewer: Prof. Rabkin means Israeli Arabs. And these just as most Haredi Jews, are not drafted to the army ). I believe that all states should be run as “a state of all its citizens”, without exclusion and discrimination. On the other hand equal rights entail equal participation such as paying taxes or doing military service (Prof Rabkin refers to religious people who refuse to serve). If you get money from the budget you have to contribute.

You gave a lecture at the Bosphorus University. Did you lecture elsewhere too? Where? What sort of questions did the audience ask?

On the 16th of December 2014 I was hosted by a committee of scholars at the Bosphorus University. Whereas on the 17th at the Istanbul University there were scholars and students. About 60 of them.

The theme of my lecture was From Left to Right. The evolution of Israeli politics which started as an endeavor of the Left.

They asked questions on the Ashkenazi-Sephardi / Mizrachi (Jews from Arab countries) relations and how these affected Israel’s position in the region;  Whether there was such a thing which could be coined as a secular Jewish culture in Israel.

There is certainly an Israeli secular culture, and I find it fascinating. I am less certain about the viability of Jewish secular cultures, which have largely died out.

The unprecedented weakening of countries neighboring Israel is a phenomenon. I call that Demodernization. Modernization (building a national identity, infrastucture, scientific development, compared to religious identity) was considered a right, nowadays it is considered a privilege.

Iraq is a good example of that change.

Demodernization seems to be a feature of the unipolar world that emerged after the end of the Cold War. Earlier examples of demodernization can be found in British policies in the 19th century, namely in their demolition of modernization projects in Egypt of Mehmet Ali.

Today some countries are allowed to modernize and others are not. (When asked whether the USA was responsible for that, Prof. Rabkin said he was stating facts rather than engaging in a blame game.)

In Jewish religious terms is Israel a concrete thing or an abstract concept?

That depends on how you refer to it. If you refer to it as a congregation of Israel it means a Jewish community.  If you refer to it as a political entity then you mean the State of Israel.  Geography may as well contain theological aspects.

Do some Mitzvot (religious duties) have more merit when performed in the Land of Israel?

At that time, as we had just concluded breakfast, he recited a grace after a meal that mentions rebuilding Jerusalem. He said that observant Jews mention this many times a day. They ask God to rebuild the Temple as part of a fundamental messianic transformation of the world. This has nothing to do with banal construction projects that people undertake.

According to the Jewish tradition, the People of Israel was exiled from the land because of Sinat Hinam / gratuitous hatred. To return to it one would have to engage in its opposite: Ahavat Hinam / gratuitous love. The widows of the four victims of the terrorist attack which took place lately at the Har Nof synagogue, issued a statement saying Let us all accept upon ourselves that we will increase love and brotherhood – between each person and his fellow, between community and community (https://www.ou.org/life/israel/widows-four-har-nof-terror-victims-make-communal-request/).

Isn’t that a very Christian approach ?

It is not. Many Jews unfamiliar with classical Judaism mistake this profoundly Judaic emphasis on love for a Christian innovation

Do you think that only the Haredi have the exclusive right to represent Jewishness?

Teiko! (Unresolved issue in Talmudic terms) The Gemara (interpretation of the Mishna/Oral Law) says that the Messiah (or rather Prophet Elijah, his herald) will tell us what is right, when he comes.

Do you or do all Jews believe in the coming of the Messiah?

Maimonides established the 13 principles of the Jewish faith. One of these is the belief in the coming of the Messiah. (When advised that Maimonides was not an Ashkenazi, Prof. Rabkin said Yes, he was Sephardi and a rationalist too. And he cracked a joke): There was that Askenazi rabbi who died after living a long life. At the gates of heaven he was questioned by a committee who asked him about his religious work. He said he had done research on Maimonides. One of the Judges of the committee who looked like an oriental Jew, said that that his interpretations were wrong, to which the Ashkenazi rabbi replied What does this Schwarzer/black man (oriental guy) understand anyway? It turned out it was Maimonides himself.

Is there something which can be called The Jewish People? Do you have to be religious to be Jewish?

For the last 3000 years or so, Jews have been united by a common denominator which we call Torah (Jewish law) and Mitzvot (commandments/good deeds). In the 19th century some Europeans came with a new concept of race. As a reaction some Jews postulated that what unites the Jews is ethnic origin rather than religion. Today the common denominator especially for the less observants all over has become the State of Israel and Antisemitism. The evolution of Jewish identity in the course of the last 150 years has been in that direction. That’s a radical departure from Saadia Gaon’s (Xth. century Jewish rabbi and philosopher)  precept “Ein anu uma ela be Torah u Mitzvot” We are a nation only thanks to the Torah and the commandments.

Do you agree with the Talmudic precept “Af al pi she hata Israel hu” “Even though he sinned he is still a Jew” ?

I do! As long as a Jew is conscious that he commits a sin (Het) or a transgression (Avera) he is still in the Judaic framework. The moment he is not conscious or he doesn’t care, then he is out. Another situation is when there is no choice. That is the case of a “Tinok she nishba beyn ha Goyim”  “Jewish baby found and raised by Gentiles” when the child doesn’t know he is Jewish. He can not be held accountable for something he doesn’t know. This term is currently used for Jewish children raised by secularists so as to enable these to return to the fold. These will be able to make a conscious choice as Jews.

Isn’t that a contradiction? You said that a Jew has to be observant in order to be considered a Jew?

That reminds me of a Jewish parable: In a shtetl (A jewish village in Eastern Europe) a Jew asks the rabbi about another Jew who committed an Avera (transgression) by smoking during Shabbat, questioning whether the latter was still considered a Jew. The Rabbi replied Yes! Then telling the rabbi that this particular man ate non-Kosher, he asked whether he was still a Jew. The rabbi said Yes! Then he asked the rabbi under which circumstances that man would cease to be a Jew. The rabbi replied: When the man will not consider any more he is committing a transgression.

What is the percentage of religious Jews who negate Judaic legitimacy of the State of Israel?

There are about 1.000.000 Haredi Jews who do so passively but only about 10% are actively against.

How many religious Jews consider themselves bound with the “Three Oaths” ? (These oaths are found in the Talmud and relate to what the tradition considers the exile of Jews from the Land of Israel by Roman authorities: One, that Israel should not storm the wall – meaning not return to Zion forcefully-  Two, God adjured Israel not to rebel against the nations of the world –who rule them-. Three, God adjured the nations that they would not oppress Israel too much).

Is there an internal debate among religious Jews on that issue? What about Haredi immigration to the State of Israel?

People mostly are unaware of these oaths. They think they have to be pure in order to live in the Land of Israel. They can simply go there as long as they do not have to conquer the land. Then it would have been a problem for them. Haredi immigration to Israel follows the ancient pattern of engaging in Torah study in the Land of Israel. They are weary of the modern State of Israel built essentially by non-observant Zionists, avoid army service and, more generally, shun integration in mainstream Israeli society.

The main purpose in life for a religious Jew is to accomplish Mitzvot (Commandments). But these can not be accomplished at the cost of committing a trangression (Ein mitzva ba alyedey avera)“Robin Hood is not a Jewish hero!”In the absence of religious observance among the Jews wouldn’t national feelings be functional for keeping the Jews together until they perhaps be won back to religion?

I am not a fan of statistics and never believed in quantity. A small but devout group is likely to contribute to Jewish continuity more than a crowd of people disconnected from Torah.

In your opinion, why would a secular Jew  wish to settle in Israel? Why would he feel a committment and identify with  the state of Israel

To feel pride. Because Israel has become a pillar as a substitute of their religious identity. Has it become a new religion? It is too early to judge that.    

Is Reform Judaism still Anti-Zionist?

(Reform or Liberal Judaism strives to integrate Jews in modern society emphasizing Jewish moral values’ but neglecting much of the ritual practice. Zionism was perceived as harmful to integration efforts in the larger society)

Yes and no. While The American Council for Judaism maintains the traditionally negative attitude to Zionism, the majority of Reform Jews, among which the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (today’s Union for Reform Judaism) endorses Zionism.

Do you believe in “Divine Intervention”? To cite an example, when the Jewish Kingdom state was destroyed by Babylon, the Persian king’s intervention brought a redemption which had a political consequence such as the restoration of a state of the Jews. Could that be the case for the State of Israel nowadays?

Yes I do. Even the rationalist Maimonides  said that men should acknowledge that they are not able to comprehend certain things. God’s ways are inscrutable. We must be humble and accept that. Once I asked Professor Leibowitz (A religious Jewish scientist and a philosopher) if “Medinat  Israel hi reishit tzmihat Geulatenu” meaning whether the State of Israel was the beginning of our redemption. (This is the formula used in Zionist synagogues when blessing the State of Israel) He said: I check my mail every day and “The Blessed Holy One” did not send me a registered letter on that subject yet. Humility ! Sometimes divine intervention manifests immediately, sometimes much time elapses as humans put Divine patience to test.

What is your explanation of the Holocaust? How come God abandoned the Jewish people? You relate on what others say in a scientific way. But how does Yakov Rabkin explain that? Could the Holocaust have been prevented?

That is the subject of the sixth chapter of my book. I think it has to do with European history of xenophobia and racial theories.That is a rational explanation. But there is a religious explanation: When calamities come, we assume that there is a reason for that and we should revise our behavior and improve it.  The Holocaust could have been prevented had the French and the British cooperated with the Soviets instead of ignoring them. They hated the Bolsheviks more than they hated the Nazis, Because class interests were more important to them than national interests, the system of collective security promoted by the Soviet Foreign Affairs Commissar Maxim Litvinov (incidentally a Jew) was not built. Some people believe that the Zionist project was wrong but I have enough humility to say that I don’t know. (The interviewer’s comment: Prof. Rabkin avoided conceding that the Holocaust could have been prevented, had the British abided by the clauses of the mandate given to them by the League of Nations for the creation of a national Home and a safe haven in Palestine for the Jewish People)

On page 256 of his book in Turkish, Prof. Rabkin, based on Rav Soloveitchik’s interpretaion of Talmudic sources, paraphrases the following explanations regarding the advent of the Holocaust:

…The misuse of the free-will looks like an innate talent having the propensity to trigger God’s wrath. …The tragedies occurring following God’s withdrawal of his divine providence…  …and when people are punished the innocent suffer too. The Shoah (the Holocaust)  tragedy… is a call for careful review of one’s behavior. This is not an act where the executioner can be blamed. The executioner…is the intermediary of a divine punishment… No doubt that this is a cruel means of forcing the Jews to repent.

Had the British implemented their commitments in the Balfour Declaration and not impose immigration restrictions to Palestine for Jews wouldn’t the Holocaust be prevented? Can we say that the Holocaust proved the Zionist project wrong?

Several prominent rabbis quoted in my book attribute the mass murder of Jews in Europe to the Zionist project. They explicitly reject your supposition that a greater openness of Britain to the Zionist project would have prevented the genocide.

 “This year we are slaves in Egypt, next year we shall be free people in the land of Israel” Could the above statement be realized without a state? Is “Next year in Jeruslaem” a religious hopeful wish or a Zionist slogan? Doesn’t the existence of the State of Israel enable the massive immigration of Jews who wish to do so? In other words, isn’t the state a functional tool in that regard?

I don’t believe people are freer in Israel than elsewhere. The Zionists like other nationalists, use religious symbols for political purposes.

The State of Israel not only allows but promotes immigration of Jews. But this has nothing to do with the Messianic yearning expressed at the conclusion of the Passover Seder.
(Comment of interviewer: The Messianic period Psalm 137 not only contradicts Prof. Rabkin but  summarizesvery well the Zionist ideology : By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem    my highest joy.)

Do you agree with the Talmudic precept “Ha ba lehorgeha, ashkem lehorgo” (Wake up earlier than the one who comes to kill you and kill him)?  Is “Pikuah nefesh” (Self preservation) a religious imperative? Can you comment on these in the context of International Relations? Was Israel wrong in making a pre-emptive strike in 1967 when Arab states amassed troops at its borders?

Yes I do. And it is a practical advice too !  It implies preventive warfare. Referring to Israel’s pre-emptive strike in 1967, since when Israel acts according to religious principles?  General Moshe Dayan later said that Israel did not face an existential threat when it triggered the war.  But the 1973 war was a defensive one. Generally, reliance only on military force undermines security.

Is there anything wrong with Israel being “The Nation State of the Jewish People”?

I don’t know what the “Nation State of the Jewish People” means ! Today 22% of Canadians are of French expression. Defining Canada exclusively as the state of English speaking Protestant people would be today considered provocative and destabilizing. A state of all its citzens is the best stable system because every citizen has a commitment to such a state. I also believe Israel would benefit from defining the borders it desires.

Is the “Law of Return” enabling the unrestricted immigration of Jews to Israel, a racist prerogative?

The Law of Return enables anyone of Jewish ancestry or married to such a person to immigrate to Israel and to receive certain benefits. At the same time, those who were born in the country are not allowed to return to it and settle in their homes. These people and their descendants are known as Palestinian refugees. Israel has ignored UN resolutions calling on it to allow the return of the refugees. The prerogative given to those of Jewish ancestry and their family members cannot be considered “racist” unless we consider this rather diverse group of people “a race”. But the Law of Return is certainly discriminatory and is used to assure a non-Arab majority in Israel.
(Comment of the interviewer: Prof Rabkin omitted to mention that more Jews from Arab countries were dispossessed and forced to flee Arab lands compared to Palestinian Arabs who fled owing to the civil war and were encouraged to do so by Arab leaders.)

Does every one have the right and freedom to live where he wants? Were that law be in force in Mandatory Palestine wouldn’t Jews have been spared from the Holocaust?

Philosophically speaking (every one has the right and freedom to live where he wants) yes. Practically, there exist borders that prevent free migration of people. While investment capital can move rather freely these days, people cannot. This seems to be a peculiar inversion of a motto formulated by Marx: “Capitalists of the world – unite!”
(Comment of the interviewer:. Whereas there are a few thousand Jews left in the Arab world, approximately 1.200.000 Arabs enjoy Israeli citizenship)

The mandate of the League of Nations given to Britain obliged it to ensure the rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, including those who aimed at building a Jewish homeland there. Britain could not enact a law that would give privilege to certain groups of foreigners at the expense of the local population. (Comment of the interviewer: Prof. Rabkin omits to mention that Britain did not privilege but restricted and prohibited the sale of lands to Jews whereas it did not restrict or prohibit Arabs in that regard)

The Arabs by blackmailing the British to restrict Jewish immigration to Palestine contributed to the genocide of the Jewish People. Right?

This is wrong. The Zionist project never meant to be a rescue operation. Zionist leaders, including Chaim Weizmann, were quite open about it. They wanted to build a new society and to create a new Jew there. The Zionists’ policy of separate development (they called it “hafrada”) antagonized local population, including local Jews, who feared that the Zionists’ insistence on “reconquering the land” would bring conflict to the hitherto peaceful land. Some rabbis argued after the Holocaust, that it is the Zionists who antagonized Palestinian Arabs and thus destroyed the possibility of bringing millions of persecuted Jews to Palestine. But all this is “iffy” history. What is real history is that Palestinians have been made to pay to this day for the European genocide of Jews. Several historical works, mostly by Israeli scholars that I quote in my book, have made this point. (Comment of the interviewer: The “hafrada” had nothing to do with European Jews who wished to immigrate.  It was the Arabs who antagonized with Jews and massacred them in 1929 and 1936.  Prof. Rabkin is completely wrong regarding the rescue of Jews from Europe. What prevented the Jews from finding refuge in Palestine were the provisions of the MacDonald  White Paper of 1939 which restricted the immigration of Jews to 15.000 people a year for 5 years to come. In fact, the Arabs did NOT pay for blackmailing the British to limit Jewish immigration into Palestine and made the Holocaust possible.)

Why Jews are required to abide by higher moral standards than the rest of the world? Is it because Jews are the “Chosen People”?

Jewish tradition interprets the Torah term “am segula” (“a special, dear people”) as an obligation to comply with 613 commandments. Non-Jews, according to Jewish tradition, are required to abide by 7 commandments only. This is the very essence of the concept often referred to as “a chosen people”. Moral demands are part and parcel of the 613 commandments. Thus it is Jewish tradition that holds Jews to a higher moral standard. In Deuteronomy one finds terrible punishments that befall us because we “did not worship God in joy”. One has to look at this issue from within the Jewish tradition to understand the dynamic of reward and punishment inherent in Judaism.

(Comment of the interviewer: Still, there is no justification for other nations to act on behalf of God and subject the Jewish nation to higher standards than they actually abide)

Thank you for your time dear Professor Rabkin.

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“Robin Hood is not a Jewish hero!”