Eretz Israel is our unforgettable historic homeland...The Jews who will it shall achieve their State...And whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind. (Theodor Herzl, DerJudenstaat, 1896)

We offer peace and amity to all the neighbouring states and their peoples, and invite them to cooperate with the independent Jewish nation for the common good of all. The State of Israel is ready to contribute its full share to the peaceful progress and development of the Middle East.
(From Proclamation of the State of Israel, 5 Iyar 5708; 14 May 1948)

With a liberal democratic political system operating under the rule of law, a flourishing market economy producing technological innovation to the benefit of the wider world, and a population as educated and cultured as anywhere in Europe or North America, Israel is a normal Western country with a right to be treated as such in the community of nations.... For the global jihad, Israel may be the first objective. But it will not be the last. (Friends of Israel Initiative)

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Zionist Idea from Jewish Emancipation to 1948 - a Beginner's Guide

The emancipation of Diaspora Jewry, which began in central and western Europe at the end of the eighteenth century, eclipsed the traditional longing for restoration to Zion in the minds of Jews who were now - at least theoretically - equal citizens of the countries in which they lived.  Emancipation meant that they were no longer sojourners or barely tolerated aliens in their countries of residence; plainly, therefore, they were no longer in exile.  Thus as early as 1791, when Jews stood on the threshold of emancipation in revolutionary France, a Jew wrote to a Parisian newspaper euphorically: "France ... is our Palestine; its mountains are our Zion, its rivers our Jordan.  Let us drink the water of these sources; it is the water of liberty ..."

Such an attitude meant that while Jews still paid tribute to their ancestral land in their synagogue prayers, most had no expectations, however vague, of relocating there.  "Next year in Jerusalem!" was still affirmed at Passover, but had scant practical relevance.  "Wherever you are treated humanely", wrote the editor of a German Jewish periodical at the start of the nineteenth century, "wherever you prosper, there also is your Palestine, your fatherland ..."

Emancipated Jews henceforth sought to prove themselves worthy of their newly bestowed citizenship, and were eager to integrate fully into the life of the wider society.  Typically, in western and central Europe, and in Britain (where the struggle for "emancipation" chiefly involved the right of practising Jews to sit in Parliament, achieved in 1858) as well as in the United States, there was a tendency on the part of Jews to call themselves Israelites.  In part, this was because the word Jew, with its connotations of miserliness, moneylending, and hawking, had derogatory implications.  But the word also had a nationalistic emphasis: in Hebrew Yehudi, Jew was a term of relatively late origin, denoting an inhabitant of Judah or Judea.  Israelite, on the other hand, was a term rooted in the Torah, and it had a religious designation.  K'lal Israel was the religious community of Israel, the entire Jewish people, a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation", covenanted by God. 

As a prominent French Jew argued during Napoleon's reign: "The Bible calls them the Children of Israel; their language is the Hebrew language.  Should they not, then, be called Israelites or Hebrews?"  That would free the Jews of opprobrium, and encourage non-Jews to view them through less prejudiced eyes.  Or so he hoped.

Although there were notable exceptions, the term Israelite became the favoured self-designation for Jews in the secular world.  It is seen in the names of nineteenth-century communal newspapers and organisations.  Such terminology identified Jews as members of a faith, distinguished from their fellow citizens only by religion  - "the Mosaic persuasion" was a frequent euphemism for Judaism, the German equivalent of which, Judentum, had the unwelcome stereotypical secondary definition "commerce".  The emancipated Jewish world of the nineteenth century was one in which Jews had (potentially at any rate) more in common with Christians of their respective countries than with other Jews abroad, and in which Jews were liable to face each other as enemies on the field of battle, as in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

Despite the establishment of such bodies as the Alliance Israélite Universelle, the celebrated Jewish self-help organisation founded in 1860  with the motto Ehud ("unity") to aid oppressed Jews overseas, the old adage "all Israelites are responsible for one another" was increasingly relevant only within national boundaries.  And, as that French Jew writing in 1791 had foreshadowed, emancipation profoundly affected perceptions of the Promised Land.

In the adaption to modernity which accompanied emancipation, many western Jews questioned the relevance of traditional Judaism and endeavoured to reform it in accordance with the ideas of the Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment, which had been heavily influenced by the general European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.  Reformers were usually opposed to retaining liturgical references to the return to Zion.  Prayers for restoration to Eretz Israel were considered inappropriate and outmoded.  Explained a French layman with reformist tendencies: "Jerusalem is no longer for us anything but a memory; it need no longer be a hope".  Moreover, such prayers were seen as an affront to the countries of which Jews had become citizens. 

Therefore, more often than not, Reform congregations established in Europe and the United States during the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth omitted references to the return to Zion.  The widespread practice of calling such congregations temples was instructive - it signified that their founders and members did not expect the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem.  This was a rejection of traditional Jewish teaching.  Traditional (or Orthodox) Jews, by contrast, were at pains not to jettison references to the return to Zion, but rather to stress that the promise of an eventual return would be effected only through divine intervention and in God's own time.

Both approaches - the disavowal of an expected return to Zion on the one hand, and on the other the denial of any but a divine agency in bringing such a movement about - were at odds with secular Zionism.  The Zionist movement, which began in the nineteenth century, saw such a return as the salvation of persecuted Jewry and looked to Jews themselves to achieve the redemption of the Promised Land.

A further impediment to the acceptance of Zionism by Reform Jews at that juncture was Reform's disavowal of Jewish peoplehood.  "We consider ourselves no longer a nation but a religious community", declared the important Pittsburgh Conference of American Reform Rabbis in 1885, justifying their refusal to entertain the idea of a Jewish restoration to Palestine.  It was a typical Reform response.

"The efforts of so-called Zionists to create a Jewish National State in Palestine are antagonistic to the messianic promises of Judaism, as contained in Holy Writ [Torah] and in later religious sources", declared the traditionally-minded executive committee of the German Rabbinical Association in 1897, reacting to Theodor Herzl's convening that year of the first Zionist Congress (which launched the modern Zionist movement). "Judaism obliges its followers to serve the country in which they belong with the utmost devotion, and to further its interest with their whole heart and all their strength ... Religion and Patriotism alike impose upon us the duty of begging all who have the welfare of Judaism at heart, to hold aloof from the ... Zionist movement".  This protest, which typifies the attitude of most western Jews at that time, received overwhelming endorsement from the rank and file of the German Rabbinical Association when it met in 1898.

Even so, the statement conceded that "There is no antagonism between [patriotism] and the noble efforts directed towards the colonisation of Palestine [which was, as contemporary sources attest, home not to a significant Arab population as modern anti-Zionist propaganda would have it but to a thinly scattered population of  "fellaheen"] by Jewish agriculturalists, as they have no relation whatever to a National State."  This was probably a reference to Hibbat Zion ("Love of Zion") - or Hovevei Zion ("Lovers of Zion"), headed by Leon Pinsker, author of Auto-Emancipation (1882), written against a backdrop of pogroms in Russia and persecution of Jews there and in Romania, as well as of burgeoning antisemitic political movements in Germany and Austria.  Hibbat Zion aimed to encourage poor and oppressed East European Jews to form agricultural settlements in Eretz Israel, which was of course under Ottoman rule,and received enthusiastic financial backing from the eminent French Jewish philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild.

With the rise of antisemitism in continental Europe at the end of the nineteenth century political Zionism was born.   Der Judenstaat ("The Jewish State", a title with a double meaning), Herzl's celebrated book published in 1896, precipitated the movement.  However, its precepts had been anticipated by the German Jew Moses Hess in Rom und Jerusalem (1862).

Herzl was not a religious man, and at first he had no clear idea where the Jewish homeland should be situated: Palestine or some empty spacious territory such as Argentina.  The initial Zionist Congress called for the recognition of a legally secured, publicly recognised home for the Jewish people in Palestine, and the Zionist movement refused to be deflected from that aim.  the sixth Congress (1903) narrowly accepted, as a stop-gap measure for alleviating Jewish suffering in Eastern Europe, an official offer from the British government to allocate territory in East Africa for Jewish settlement.  As Herzl, who favoured this offer as a "relief measure" stressed: "our views on the Land of Israel cannot and will not be subject to change; Uganda is not Zion and will never be Zion".  (Acceptance of the Uganda proposal caused such a furore in the World Zionist Organization that at the seventh Zionist Congress, held in 1905, it was formally overturned.)  The attitude of Zionists can be clearly seen in Hatikvah ("The Hope"), a song written in 1886, which was adopted as the official hymn of the Zionist movement and became the anthem of the State of Israel:
So long as within the inmost heart
A Jewish spirit sings,
So long as the eye looks eastward,
Gazing towards Zion,
Our hope is not lost,
That hope of two millennia,
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

Despite the traditional Jewish insistence that restoration to Zion can be effected only through divine intervention as part of a messianic redemption, sone nineteenth-century rabbis - notably Yehuda Alkalai, Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, and Samuel Mohilever - paved the way for religious Zionism with their view that divine restoration would be preceded by human endeavour in the ancestral land.  Of similar mind was Rabbi Isaac Reines, who in 1902 helped to found the religious Zionist movement Mizrachi (slogan: "The Land of Israel for the People of Israel according to the Torah of Israel").

Rabbi A. I. Kook, Russian-born Chief Rabbi of Palestine from 1919-35, was very influential in persuading many adherents of Orthodox Judaism of the value of the Zionist movement.  Like the adherents of Mizrachi, he was prepared to cooperate with secular Zionists.  His writings emphasised the centrality of Eretz Israel and of Jewish nationalism to Judaism.  He argued that the return of Jews to Zion was a portent of the messianic redemption, and he tolerated secular Zionists because he regarded them as participants in the holy task of rebuilding Jewry's ancient heritage. 

The yearning expressed in Hatikvah was not shared by acculturated Jews living in western and central Europe, in Britain and its Dominions, and in the United States, many of whom were alarmed by the development of political Zionism.  They feared that it would undermine or even abrogate their status as citizens of the countries in which they lived, and that they would be expected to relocate to Palestine.

In the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the British Foreign Secretary advised the Zionist movement that "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate ... this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice ... the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country".  It was now possible for acculturated Jews to adopt a more conciliatory attitude towards Zionism, certainly towards the idea of Eretz Israel as a refuge for the oppressed.

In view of Britain's assumption of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine in 1922, British Jews could view philanthropic endeavours on behalf of Eretz Israel in terms of pro-British patriotism, a situation which altered as the perceived interests of Britain and the Zionist movement gradually slid into open conflict by 1939.

With the Biltmore Program of 1942 the organised Zionist movement made an unequivocal drive for an independent Jewish state in Eretz Israel, a drive spearheaded by future Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion and by American Zionists. As soon as Britain wearily relinquished the Mandate in 1948, the State of Israel was proclaimed (14 May) in a Declaration of Independence read by Ben-Gurion, head of the Jewish provisional government in Palestine. A striking indication of shifting attitudes towards Zionism can be seen in the attitude of the St Kilda Hebrew Congregation in Melbourne, Australia, a congregation which had been for decades a bastion of opposition to anything but "philanthropic Zionism".  The congregation's executive stuffily noted  "the establishment of the Jewish state and wished it every success".  Owing to rumblings among members, that low key motion was discarded for one praying that the state "will not only enhance the honour of the Jewish name but will become a blessing in the midst of the earth".  But congregants were only satisfied when the motion lauded "with profound attitude to Almighty God this blessed event in our time".

1 comment:

  1. I should explain that, like my previous post, this is from a booklet I prepared for students.

    I realise it's long, but I hope it proves of interest.

    "Normal" blogging will soon resume!