Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 2008, pages 54, 56

Israel and Judaism

The Long—and Largely Untold—History Of Jewish Opposition to Zionism

By Allan C. Brownfeld

  • Members of the ultra-Orthodox and anti-Zionist Neturei Karta (Guards of the Walls) join a Nov. 6, 2007 demonstration in Jerusalem against the city’s policy of demolishing Palestinian homes (AFP photo/Menahem Kahana).

WHILE MANY in Israel and in Jewish communities here and in other countries now promote the idea that Zionism and Judaism are, in effect, the same, and that opposition to Zionism constitutes “anti-Semitism,” the historical—largely untold—fact is that, for most of its history, Zionism has been a decidedly minority movement among Jews throughout the world.

Since its inception as a political movement in 1897, both Reform and Orthodox Jews have rejected Zionism’s basic premise of creating a Jewish state in Palestine and having Jews either emigrate to it or, at the very least, view it as “central” to their Jewish identity.

An overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews, unwilling to accept the restoration of a Jewish state in Palestine by means other than divine intervention, considered Zionism a false messianic movement. Most Jewish liberals and socialists, having accepted the ideals of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis in optimism, reason and progress, rejected Zionism as a reactionary philosophy. Acculturated Jews in Western and Central Europe who regarded themselves simply as members of a religious community, rejected the notion that their nationality was not English, French or German—but “Jewish.”

Reform Judaism’s position was quite contrary to that promulgated by Zionism. The most articulate spokesman for the German Reform movement, the distinguished rabbi and scholar Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), argued that Judaism developed through an evolutionary process that had begun with God’s revelation to the Hebrew prophets. That revelation was progressive, with new truth becoming available to every generation. According to Geiger, the underlying and unchangeable essence of Judaism was its morality, and the core of Judaism was ethical monotheism. He considered the Jewish people a religious community, destined to carry on the mission to “serve as a light to the nations,” to bear witness to God and His moral law. The dispersion of the Jews was not a punishment for their sins, in Geiger’s view, but a part of God’s plan whereby they were to disseminate the universal message of ethical monotheism throughout the world. Indeed, in a Reform prayerbook he edited in 1854 Geiger deleted all prayers about a return to Zion.

American Reform Judaism, in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, rejected Jewish nationalism. Its fifth paragraph declared: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation but a religious community.”

On March 4, 1919 Julius Kahn, a Jewish congressman from San Fransisco, delivered to President Woodrow Wilson a statement endorsed by 299 prominent Jewish Americans denouncing the Zionists for attempting to segregate Jews and reverse the historic trend toward emancipation. It objected to the creation of a distinctly Jewish state in Palestine because such a political entity would be contrary “to the principles of democracy.”

On April 20, 1922, Rabbi David Philipson, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, rejected the characterization of Palestine “as the national home of the Jewish people.” He insisted that, “No land can be spoken of as the national home of the Jewish people, as Jews are nationals of many lands.”

An important new book, A Threat From Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (available from the AET Book Club) by Professor Yakov M. Rabkin, professor of history at the University of Montreal, sheds significant light on Jewish religious opposition to Zionism. After completing his university education, Dr. Rabkin studied Judaism with rabbis in Montreal, Paris and Jerusalem. He brings a lifetime of study and experience to his subject.

Noting that “the rejection of Zionism is often interpreted as an act of treachery toward the Jewish people,” Rabkin explains that “’Zionism’ was an invention of intellectuals and assimilated Jews...who turned their back on the rabbis and aspired to modernity, seeking desperately for a remedy for their existential anxiety.”

Zionism gained support in areas where social and political conditions were unfavorable to Jews, particularly within the Russian Empire. Indeed, Rabkin argues, Zionism has far more in common with the emerging nationalisms which swept Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries than with anything to be found in Jewish tradition.

Many today forget the fact that, as Rabkin writes, “Zionism constitutes the most radical revolution in Jewish history. Opposition to this nationalist conceptualization of the Jew and of Jewish history was as intense as it was immediate. Even those rabbis who at first encouraged settlement in Palestine in the closing decades of the 19th century felt obliged to turn against Zionism. What made the Jews unique, they declared, was neither the territory of Eretz Israel nor the Hebrew language, but the Torah and the practice of mitzvahs. The pious Jews of Palestine—the only kind before Zionist settlement—enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy granted by the sultan. They had never contemplated national status, a concept as foreign to the Palestinian Jews as it was to the Ottoman authorities in Istanbul.”

In the early 20th century, the reaction to Zionism among both Orthodox and Reform Jews was overwhelming. The French rabbis were unanimous. Zionism was “narrow-minded and reactionary.” They refused to recognize Jews as a separate political nation. “We, the French Israelites, have a fatherland and we intend to keep it.”

Israel, the state, rather than God, has become the object of worship for many Jews at the present time, Rabkin notes. Indeed, Zionism not only has changed Jewish life, but has shifted the meaning of the word “Israel.” According to Rabbi Jacob Neusner, an American academic and one of the most prolific interpreters of Judaism, “The word ”˜Israel’ today generally refers to the overseas political nation, the State of Israel. When people say, ”˜I am going to Israel,’ they mean a trip to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem...[But] the prayers that Judaism teaches, all use the word ”˜Israel’ to mean ”˜the holy community.’”

In his book, Transformation, Rabbi Israel Domb writes: “It manifestly is absurd to believe that we have been waiting for 2000 years in so much anguish and with such high hopes and with so many heartfelt prayers merely in order to finish up by playing the same role in the world as an Albania or Honduras. Is it not the height of futility, to believe that all the streams of blood and tears, to which we ourselves can bear witness in our own time apart from the testimony of our ancestors, should have been fated to the acquisition of this kind of nationhood which the Rumanians or Czechs, for instance, have achieved to a greater extent of success without all these preparations.”

Professor Rabkin points out in A Threat From Within that many positions taken by anti-Zionists are close to those of the Israeli “peace camp.” For example, a Neturei Karta document asserts: “The Zionist movement was not only a heretical departure from Judaism...It was monstrously blind to the indigenous inhabitants of the Holy Land. In the 1890s, less than 5% of the Holy Land’s population was Jewish, yet Theodor Herzl...described his movement as that of ”˜a people without a land for a land without a people’...They have dispossessed thousands...and plunged the region into its never-ending spiral of bloodshed.”

No one who reads Yakov Rabkin’s thoroughly researched book will ever again believe that Zionism and Judaism are the same, or that Zionism enjoys the level of support among Jews in the United States and elsewhere in the world which it claims. 


Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.

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