JWR Israel: Dreams, Realities
May 1, 1998 / 5 Iyar, 5758

Netanyahu The Chickens Come Home to Roost: Zionism's Internal Contradictions

By Jonathan Rosenblum

I. The Origins of Modern Zionism

Products of the Enlightenment

Modern Zionism is a result of both the "success" and the failure of the Enlightenment --- its "success" in weaning Jews from their religion by granting them the full rights of citizenship and its failure to thereby end anti-Semitism.

The founders of modern Zionism, in the words of Professor Shlomo Avineri, lacked, by and large, any traditional religioius background. They "were products of European education, imbued with the current ideas of the European intelligentsia."1 Yet for all that these secularized, emancipated Jews relished their entry into the mainstream of Western intellectual life, they were forced to recognize that the Enlightenment, and political emancipation to which it gave birth, had not fully resolved the "Jewish question." Above all, it had not done away with hatred of Jews.

The Dreyfus affair revealed that in the very birthplace of the Enlightenment, anti-Semitism remained as powerful as ever. But this was a different form of anti-Semitism. What horrified Herzl about the Dreyfus case was not the anti-Semitism per se, but that the wrath of anti-Semites was directed at an emancipated, secularized Jew.

In some respects, political emancipation had in fact made the position of the Jew vis-a-vis the hostile world even worse. By granting rights to Jews as individuals, while acknowledging no social grouping below the level of the state, the Emancipation fostered the breakdown of Jewish communal structures and the fraternal bonds between Jews. Jews were thus left to confront the hatred of the non-Jewish world as individuals, not as a community. Max Nordau, a best-selling German author and Herzl's second in command at the First Zionist conference, contrasted the situation of his contemporaries with that of a pre-Enlightenment Jewish community, which had provided a secure refuge for its members: "Here (within the Jewish community) were the associates by whom one wished to be valued ...; here was the public opinion whose acknowledgment was the aim of Jewish ambition ... (The members of this community) were harmonious human beings, not in want of the elements of normal social life."2

Nationalism versus the Enlightenment

The 18th Century was the age of the Enlightenment; the 19th Century, to a large extent, the age of nationalism. The basic tenet of 19th Century European nationalism was that mankind is divided into numerous races, and that each race is entitled to its own nation in which to maintain its homogeneity and in which its individual genius can flourish. The equation of nationality and race, of course, left the Jew out in the cold. No matter how assimilated, a Jew could never be a Frenchman in the same way as the descendants of the ancient Gauls. Even conversion was no solution since changin one's religion did not change one's race.

The grant of political rights to Jews, wrote Nordau, had been an exercise in the formal logic of Enlightenment principles: "Every man is born with certain rights; the Jews are human beings; consequently the Jews possess the rights of man." But such abstract principles of unaccompanied, as they were, by any fraternal feeling for individual Jews, were unable to withstand the view that Jews constitute an alien race, a threat to national homogeneity.

Rather than rejecting European nationalism and its underlying racialist premises -- which rendered them perpetual aliens in the lands of their birth -- the Zionists embraced that nationalism with a vengeance. Vladimir Jabotinsky is but the most extreme example. "Every race seeks to become a state ... because only in its own state will it feel comfortable ... There is no value in the world higher than the nation and the fatherland, there is not deity in the universe to which one should sacrifice thses two most valuable jewels," he preached. He accepted the right of each race to maintain its racial purity, and thus became a fervent champion of the flowering of Ukrainian national sentiment despite its strong anti-Semitic component. "I am a Zionist," he wrote, "because the Jewish people is a very nasty people, and its neighbors hate it, and they are right; its end in the Disapora will be a general Bartholomew Night, and the only rescue lies in general immigration to Palestine."

For many Zionists, the successful war for Italian independence provided the heroic model for which they were searching. Thus Moses Hess began his Rome and Jerusalem: "With the liberation of the Eternal City on the Tiber begins the liberation of the Eternal City on Mount Moriah."

Though the racial thinking that underpinned nationalist thought was the cause of anti-Semitism, that same naitonalism seemed to offer the solution to ongoing hatred of the Jew. If hatred of the Jew was an inevitable consequence of his being an alien race in his host country, then the solution lay in the creation of a state of his own. Assimilation on the individual level was impossible. But by achieving statehood, Jews would be able to collectively assimilate among the other nations of the world as equals no less deserving of respect than any other people.

K'Chol Hagoyim Yisroel

The acceptance of 19th Century nationalism further alienated westernized, Jewish intellectuals from their roots. Nationalism's emphasis on the possession of a land and state as the highest expression of the destiny of the race only served to emphasize the anomalous position of the Jew in Exile, without a land or state of his own. As other people won their independence, the tides of history seemed to be passing the Jew by. Exile, wrote Leo Pinsker, had deprived Jews of their active role in history and turned them into objects and not actors.

Above all, the Zionists sought to prove that the Jewish people were as worthy as other races that had achieved nationhood. Of necessity, this process caused them to deemphasize Jewish religious identity and to attempt to portray Jews as no less brave and strong than other races. In their efforts at Jewish self-definition, they paid scant attention to the great expressions of Jewish religious life over three millennia, and their treatment of Jewish history tended to ignore the extent to which that history is one of the preservation of faith under conditions of adversity. In general, the spiritual character of the Jewish people was viewed as a reflection of the effeminization caused by the artificial conditions of exile, and it was systematically downplayed.

In the words of Israeli historian Anita Shapira:

Thus from its inception Zionism developed as an alternative to the traditional conception of Jewish nationhood in religious terms. As Chaim Hazaz, one of the leading Zionist writers put it pithily: "When it is difficult for a person to behave like a Jew, then he becomes a Zionist." Even Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, who the members of Mizrachi (National Religious Party) consider their spiritual leader, was forced to admit: "The writers ... connected the success of Zionism and its flowering among our people with the uprooting of the Torah and its laws."

Ahad Ha'am, viewed by many as the spiritual mentor of modern Zionism, was once asked whether there is an inherent contradiction between Zionism and Judaism. He replied that it would be possible to bring any number of proofs that no such contradiction exists. "But," he continued, "sometimes there exists a hidden contradiction in the depths of the soul that leads to rejection of demands of faith even if there is no obvious contradiction. (That was true of the Enlightenment) and it is true of Zionism. It addresses the whole of Judaism as a complete system; it is not merely a drive to settle Eretz Yisroel."

One of the central doctrines of nationalism was that each race possesses its own unique character that can only flower under conditions of national sovereignty. But the visions of the future state portrayed by Zionist writers were frequently nothing more than projections of various contemporary European ideologies, owing nothing to Jewish sources. Thus the hero of Theodore Herzl's utopian novel Alteneuland tells his fellow commune members: "Don't imagine I am jesting when I say that Neudorf (i.e., the ideal Jewish community) was not built in Palestine, but elsewhere. It was built in England, in America, in France and in Germany. It was evolved out of experiments of practical men and dreamers who were to serve you as object lessons, though you did not know it." A.D. Gordon's Religion of Labor, which inspired the kibbutz movement, was little more than warmed-over Tolstoy in his prophetic mode. The most common vision of the Zionist state was some form of socialism --- whether of the utopian socialist or Marxist variety.

In sum, Zionism was the product of Jews shaped by one set of European ideas --- the Enlightenment --- who were inspired by another set of European ideas --- 19th Century nationalism --- and whose visions of state they wished to create were almost wholly derivative of contemporary European ideologies.

II. Internal Contradictions

Jews without Judaism

A contradiction lies at the very heart of Zionism. On the one hand, Zionism claimed to be a movement of Jewish national revival. On the other hand, its values were, as we have seen, almost exclusively derived from contemporary European culture.3 Yossi Beilin, one of the leading architects of the current peace process, is a typical product of an ideology devoid of Jewish content. Asked recently how he would explain to his children why they should not intermarry, he admitted that he had not a ready answer.4

The contradiction of a Jewish nationalism devoid of any intrinsically Jewish content did not go entirely unnoticed even by the early Zionists themselves. Herzl's state, warned Ahad Ha'am, may be a State of the Jews but it will not be a Jewish State. But confronted with the enormous challenges of building a country from screatch, Zionism managed to sweep its philosophical problems under the rug for a time.

Indeed, few ideological movements have proven such an initial success. With the creation of the State of Israel, who could gainsay that the tides of Jewish history were with the Zionists. There was scarcely a house in the most fervent Orthodox bastion of Me'ah She'arim in Jerusalem in which a child was not lost to the Zionist cause. One of Israel's yeshiva deans recalls that of his classmates in Eitz Chaim, the most established cheder of the old Yishuv (Pre-State settlement) in Jerusalem, barely a handful remained religious.

But for all its original power, the Zionist ideal proved also to be one of the shorter-lived in Western intellectual history. Though the Chareidi (fervently-Orthodox) community in Israel continues to fear the contaminating influences of the "street," there is no fear of Zionism as an ideological movement appealing to the idealism of religious youth.

With the task of state-building largely behind it, the contradiction at the core of Zionism can no longer be ignored. Its manifestations are found everywhere in Israeli society today.5

The attempt to divorce Jewish nationalism from Jewish religion has proven futile. Thus the Zionists have consistently had to appropriate traditional religious symbols. That is why the creation of a Chief Rabbinate as an arm of the state was of such importance to the founders of Israel. Today the Western Wall is the scene of military ceremonies, and the Maccabees are the greatest of national heroes. Conveniently forgotten is that the Wall is the painful reminder of the intimate connection with the Creator that the Jewish people once experienced and which has been lost, and that the Maccabees were preeminently leaders of a civil war against Jews who had appropriated the ideals of the dominant Hellenistic culture.

Israelis today sense the ersatz nature of this appropriation of religious symbols. The furor with which they respond to the challenge to define what other than the accident of birth makes them Jewish is in direct proportion to the discomfort the question causes them.

Loss of Meaning

The widely noted loss of idealism among Israeli youth and the failure to create any indigenous Jewish culture both point to the empty vessel that Zionism has proven to be. The kibbutzim -- by far the most ideological sector of society -- are unable to hold half their young people today. What was once a relatively puritanical society -- particularly in its reverence for physical labor and sacrifice for the greater good -- has developed into one in which drugs are rife, pornography produced by the country's leading newspapers is the standard teenage reading fare, and the courts have ruled that adultery is not against public policy.

The nadir, hopefully, was reached a few years ago when two young teenagers from affluent Tel Aviv suburbs murdered a fifty-year old cab driver, and father of three, purely for the thrill of it. Perhaps most shocking was that they boasted of what they had done to their friends and printed up cards with the logo Murder, Inc., without fear of disapproval or of being turned in to the police. Commenting on the incident, the former head of juvenile division of the Tel Aviv police said: "I envy the Palestinian youth. They still have something they believe in."

There is unfortunately no comfort to be had in the loss of idealism among Israeli youth. Though Zionism may have lost its hold, nothing has replaced it besides emptiness. Contemplating the pictures on the walls of Acco prison of six Jewish boys hung by the British for their activities in the Irgun, one has no trouble discerning the Jewish soul in their eyes. On the streets today, all one sees are blank stares, dead eyes.

On the verse prophesying the return of "All the lost ones from Assyria and those who have been pushed away from Egypt," the Ishbitzer Rebbe explains that the "lost ones" refers to those who deliberately rebelled against G-d, while "those who have been pushed away" refers to those who have lost all concern with the Creator by virtue of having become mired in material pleasures. But if so, he asks, why are "the lost ones," who are. According to Jewish Law, the greater sinners of the two, the first to return? He answers that even those who rebel against the Creator remain spiritual beings. Today they are lost, but, like anyone who has lost something, when they find it, they will once again be whole. Those, however, who have lost the spark of spirituality -- "who have been pushed away" -- cannot be made whole again in the same way and will be redeemed with much more greater difficulty.

Israeli culture today resembles nothing so much as a poor man's imitation of America. In the weeks immediately following the signing of the Oslo agreement, more Israelis turned out to see the respective concerts of two American pop culture icons -- both known for unabashed depravity of their private lives -- than demostrated for or against the agreement. This aping of American culture cuts to the very heart of the Zionist enterprise. In traditional Zionist thought, writes Professor Avineri, Israel could be the normative focus of Jewish identity only if it succeeded in offering a life different from Jewish life in the Diaspora. That it patently has not done.6

Early Zionist thinkers tended to emphasize the supremacy of public, communitarian, and social values at the expense of personal ease, bourgeois comfort, and the good life for the individual. That value preference may today characterize religious communal life, as it has always done, but everywhere else those value preferences are in retreat. Chaim Ramon, who in a few short weeks managed to wrest control of the Histradut Labor Federation from the Labor Party for the first time in history, represents the new Israeli politician. Far-left in his views on the peace process, his economic views, like most of those in Meretz, tend to favor free-market capitalism over the traditional socialism of the Labor Party. He and his Mertz allies are preeminently the champions of individual rights, with scant regard to communal responsibilty. In short, Israeli yuppies.

The Blow to Religious Zionism

One of the first casualties of the peace process was Religious Zionism. From the beginning of the State, the National Religious Party has imbued the State with religious signifance. Once the State itself ws granted intrinsic religoius value, it became much easier to accommodate the demands of Jewish Law to the needs of the State.

Today, however, the State has embarked on a course in direct contravention to the supreme value in national religious thought --- a value transcending even the command to preserve Jewish life --- the sanctity of the Land. The crisis reached a head two months ago when the three leading rabbinic authorities in the national religous world, including Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapiro, issued a p'sak that soldiers are, according to Jewish Law forbiddent to obey orders to remove Jewish settlers from Hebron. That unambiguous challenge to the authority of the State sent the National Religious Party's echelons into emergency session. At the end of the meeting, the party's Knesset faction was unable to agree on any position. The party in short refused to endorse the position that Jewish Law, as interpreted by its leading halachic authorities, takes precedence over the laws of the State.

Zionism's Dark Secret

The dark secret in the Zionist closet is that most Israelis are not really sure their land was not stolen from the Arabs. Having rejected, or not even being aware of, the first Rashi in the Torah, in which Rashi makes plain that the Jewish claim to the Land is predicated on the Creator's absolute dominion over the entire world and His right to give His Land to whomever He chooses, they must base their claims solely on the principles of 19th Century nationalism.

But if the Jewish people seek to have their national claims recognized by the nations of the world, consistency requires that they also recognize the national aspirations of other peoples, however belated the development of their sense of national identity. Thus Jewish nationalism has to recognize the parallel claims of Palestinian nationalism. Once both claims have been put on the same level, the issue of title to Eretz Yisroel boils down to the question of who got there first, i.e., squatter's rights. But when dealing on the basis of squatter's rights there is a limit to the kinds of sacrifice one is willing to make. 7

Rabin's own casual reference to our occupation of land belonging to others with respect to territories seized in a defensive war in 1967 reveals how tenuous is his own sense of the Jewish claim to Eretz Yisroel.

All for the Approbation of Others

As we have argued, the fatal weakness of Zionism is that its ultimate siurce of values is the Western intellectual tradition and not Judaism. Zionists left Europe for Palestine in order to prove themselves equal to other nations of the world --- possessors of their own sovereign state. Only when they had achieved that, argued Pinsker in Auto Emancipation, would they be worthy of the respect of the other nations of the world.

By adopting the values of Europe as their own, Zionists made themselves dependent on the good opinion of the bearers of the Western intellectual tradition. Since 1967, the Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilins of Israeli society -- men of culture and broad secular learning -- have been galled to find themselves representatives of a nation that is subject of widespread opprobrium wherever men of culture and understanding gather to discuss the great issues of the day. Rather than being looked upon as in the vanguard of liberalism, as it was in the heady early days of the State, until it made the mistake of winning one too many war, Israel has become the most frequently condemned nation on earth.

The peace process is the Peres and Beilins means of recapturing Israel's lost lustre in the eyes of the world. As New Republic editor Marty Peretz, a skeptical supporter of the peace process put it, in the first days after Oslo:

The Zionists always laughed at the "Ma Yafis Jew" who sang and danced to avoid the beatings of his drunken poritz (feudal lord). But the Jew who paid external obeisance to the poritz never doubted in his heart of hearts that he was the member of a people infinitely superior to his oppressor. Never would it have occurred to him to look to that poritz for approval. Surely that represents a higher level of independence than the modern Israeli who boasts of his powerful army and yet still finds himself constantly looking over his shoulder for the approval of the non-Jewish world.9

Zionism today is a spent force. It has lost all power to stir the spiritual longings of the collective Jewish soul in a matter of just a few generations. But just as a wild animal in its death throes is never more dangerous, and may lunge and strike with great force at any moment, so may the death throes of Zionism, which the peace process in many ways represents, prove dangerous to all Jews living in the Holy Land.


1The characterizations of Zionist thought and leading Zionist thinkers in this section rely heavily on Professor Avineri's The Making of Modern Zionism: The Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State. Professor Avineri is a former Director of the Foreign Ministry, one of Israel's leading academic political philosophers, and an ardent Zionist.

2Nordau and his contemporaries were, however, too detached from their religious tradition to recognize the extent to which his description of the pre-Enlightenment communal life still refflected the world of Orthodox Jewry. However nostalgic they might wax on the past, these emancipated Jews could not conceive of themselves returning to a pre-Enlightenment world.

3 Amos Oz, Israel's best-known novelist and sometime spokesman for Peace Now, permits himself a long diatribe on Zionist history in the middle of his non-fiction work, In the Land of Israel. In the course of that harangue, he identifies Zionism exclusively with European humanism dating back to the Renaissance. Not once does he seek to imbue it with any specific Jewish content.

4 Beilin's response represents no betrayal of traditional Zionist values. Prior to the First Zionist Congress, Herzl wrote to Nordau that he should not fear that his gentile wife would impair his service to the Zionist cause. In "the Jewish state," Herzl assured him, there would be nothing wrong with intermarriage and the offspring of such intermarriage would be fully recognized as Jews.

5 The treatment of the definition of "Jew" under the Israeli Law of Return is an example of the ideological confusion of Zionism. Consistent with origins of Zionism in European nationalism, the definition is racial, not halachic: anyone with a Jewish father or grandfather is automatically entitled to Israeli citizenship. Another strand of Zionist thought is also reflected in the judicial interpretation of the Law. Zionism has always made identification with the Jewish people --- the most important determinant of one's Jewishness. Under the Law of Return, anyone who expresses any sort of nebulous identification through "conversion" under the auspicies of one of the so-called "streams" of Judasim is also eligible for Israeli citizenship. (Given the lack of halachic mooring to these conversions, the conversion requirement makes little more sense than permitting a personal declaration of one's Jewish identification.)

Such confusion of Jewishness with identification with the State of Israel is common in Israel today. Witness the furor that erupts whenever the religious authorities balk at burying non-Jewish IDF soldiers in Jewish cemeteries. What is less often noticed is Jewishness as identification directly conflicts with the racial definition of Jewishness. A race is not something that can be joined at will. Interestingly, Absorption Minister Yair Tsaban, of the left-wing Meretz party, has expressed the fear that Israel will be overrun with immigrants if it agrees to provide refuge to anyone willing to live there no matter how spurious their claim to being Jewish.

6 Professor Avineri claims that "to turn Israel for American Jews into what Ireland and Italy have been for Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans is a tremendous revolution." Yet it is hard to see how the centrality of Israel, and, it should be added, the Holocaust, to American Jewish identity reflect anything more that the lamentable shallowness of that identity. Upon hearing of the Balfour Declaration, the Chofetz Chaim said, "We did not wait two thousand years to be another Albania." In response to Professor Avineri, it might be added, "Nor did we wait for our own St. Patrick's Day or Columbus Day parade."

7 Rabbi Zvi Wainman, a leading student of Zionism, argues that Peres and Rabin may have felt forced into the current peace process by their perceptions that there will soon be few Israelis willing to undertake the sacrifices of war and onerous reserve duty. In such a situation, they decided to cut a deal while the PLO is comparatively weak.

8 Shortly after the Washington signing ceremony between Prime Minister Rabin and Arafat, I happened to meet an advisor to the Justice Minister of international law. He explained to me how important it was in the government's eyes that Israel troops leaving the Gaza Strip be defined as "withdrawing" rather than "redeploying", for then Israel would cease to be a "belligerent occupier" under the terms of the Geneva Convention. When I asked him whether a country that seizes land in a defensive war could really be a belligerent occupier, he replied with a straight face that "we fired the first shots in 1967."

No other nation in the world, it is safe to say, would have been so caught up in the minutiae of international law when it felt its vital national interest to be at stake. Certainly the U.S. was not when it mined Nicaraguan harbors. That is just one more example of the concern with what the nations will think.

9 As a young man, the Pri Megadim was invited to Berlin to rekindle the religious enthusiasm of the Jewish youth. While there, he ran afoul of Moses Mendelssohn and his followers. One day, two of those followers approached him and asked him to explain the meaning of the verse, "Timan was the concubine of Eliphaz" (Genesis). He told them he had no explanation for them. They promptly went to the Rav of Berlin and told him to dismiss the Pri Megadim since he had shown himself unfamiliar with the commentary of Rashi to the verse.

The Rav summoned the Pri Megadim and asked for an explanation. The Pri Megadim replied that Rashi explains that Timna preferred being the mistress to the lowliest of Abraham's descendants of Abraham, over all the peoples of the earth. But for those for whom gentiles are everything and the Jews nothing, there is no explanation of the verse.

It is our misfortune today to be led by those for whom the gentile world is everything and Jewish world nothing.

Jonathan Rosenblum is the author of several biographies of contemporary Orthodox leaders. A frequent contributor to The Jewish Observer, he is a columnist at The Jerusalem Post.

©1998, Agudath Israel of America