Judaism vs Zionism in the Holy Land

Judaism vs Zionism in the Holy Land
Professor Yakov Rabkin lecturing at IHRC conference 2006

Of all the collective movements that set out to transform society in the twentieth century Zionism alone remains, a final vestige. Both Zionists and their adversaries agree that Zionism and the State of Israel that was to emerge from it in the mid-twentieth century consummated the sharpest break in the entire Jewish history.

To speak of the Jews before the 19th century is to refer to a normative connotation: a Jew is someone whose behaviour must by definition embody a certain number of principles originating in Judaism, which is the common denominator for the Jewish community. In the words of the German-American Rabbi Simon Schwab (1908-1993):

“… the Jewish people on every continent lived its own life, devoted to its Divine culture, set apart from the political history of the world around it, which had bestowed on it alternatively grudging love and boundless hatred … There was within Judaism only one interpretation of Jewish purpose, history and future that was considered authentic. Loyalty to the Law of |God was life’s ultimate purpose for every individual. It was also basic for the ethnic existence, the national unity of Israel which survived the collapse of all Jewish political independence.”

Secularism that swept over Europe was to bring about a radical change in Jewish identity and prepare the ground for Zionism. From a normative identity, Jewishness became a descriptive one that lent itself to a nationalist interpretation.

The Zionist Revolution

Zionism appeared as a secular nationalist movement with four principal objectives: 1) to transform the trans-national Jewish identity centred on the Torah into a national identity modelled on those of the other nations of Europe; 2) to develop a new vernacular tongue, a national idiom based on biblical and rabbinical Hebrew; 3) to transfer the Jews from their countries of origin to Palestine; and, 4) to establish political and economic control over the Holy Land.
Shlomo Avineri, Israeli political scientist and former director general of Israel’s Foreign Office, acknowledges that it would be “banal, conformist and apologetic” to view Zionism as part of the Jewish tradition’s “close ties with the Land of Israel.” One must instead speak of a revolution in Jewish consciousness, and surely not of the logical conclusion of centuries of yearning for the Holy Land.

In its attempt to ‘normalize the Jewish people’, Zionism challenged the historical continuity expressed in the dichotomy of reward and punishment, of exile and redemption. Both Zionist intellectuals and the orthodox rabbis who oppose them agree that Zionism represents a negation of Jewish tradition. Yosef Salmon, an Israeli authority on the history of Zionism, writes that:
it was the Zionist threat that offered the gravest danger, for it sought to rob the traditional community of its very birthright, both in the Diaspora and in Eretz Israel, the object of its messianic hopes. Zionism challenged all the aspects of traditional Judaism: in its proposal of a modern, national Jewish identity; in the subordination of traditional society to new life-styles; and in its attitude to the religious concepts of Diaspora and redemption. The Zionist threat reached every Jewish community. It was unrelenting and comprehensive, and therefore it met with uncompromising opposition.

The Zionists were not the first Jews to establish themselves in Palestine. The Jewish presence in the Land of Israel has been uninterrupted since the destruction of the Temple. The Old Yishuv, as the settlements of pious Jews are best known by history, existed in Jerusalem and in several other Palestinian towns when the first Zionist settlers arrived over a hundred years ago. Indeed, the old stock residents of Palestine, Jews and Arabs like, hardly corresponded with the image of a “land without people” cultivated by the Zionists who claimed to represent “a people without land.” The Zionists had arrived in a land where for centuries Jews, Muslims and Christians had cohabited peacefully. But in the eyes of the ideologues of Zionism the Land was empty. The Zionists did not ignore the Arabs alone; they hardly noticed the pious Jews, whose Sephardic majority was integrated into Arab economic life. The equally pious Ashkenazim had organized themselves in mutual aid and charitable structures.

The Zionists looked upon these pious Jews as vestiges of a long-lost past condemned to vanish in the whirlpool of Zionist colonization. However, these pious Jews lashed out at the new settlers in most dramatic terms: “They do not walk in the paths of the Torah and the fear of God… and their purpose is not to bring the redemption close but to delay it, God forbid.” Thus began the conflict between Judaism and Zionism in the Holy Land, a conflict that, more than a century later, has not yet played itself out.

Most inhabitants of the Holy Land resented the arrival of the Zionists in the late 19th century. The pious Jews of Jerusalem were, in fact, the first to react to the newcomers, whom they saw as rebels against the Torah, and thus as persons both evil and dangerous. They called for “breaking off all relations, even to the detriment of family ties, with whomever belonged to the Jewish community governed by the new Zionist institutions.”

Jewish Opposition to Zionism
While many Arabs initially gave the enthusiastic Zionist newcomers the benefit of the doubt, pious Jews of Palestine swiftly rejected the newcomers, making no attempt to understand their political aims. The secularism of the Zionists made them immediately unacceptable to Jewish circles in the Holy Land. Whereas Arab opposition remained primarily political, the rejection of Zionism and, later, of the state of Israel by traditional Jews was deeply rooted in their Judaism, and was little influenced by political considerations. While the Arabs came to recognize the Zionists as colonialist intruders who would endanger their political and economic well being, the Haredim[1] were alarmed at the danger of the Divine punishment that the actions of those whom they viewed as miscreants threatened to bring down upon all the inhabitants of the Land of Israel.

Ever since the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, the Zionists enjoyed the support of the British authorities, who were more than prepared to accept their claim to speak on behalf of all the Jews of Palestine. But prominent Palestinian rabbis, such as Joseph Haim Sonnenfeld (1848-1932), could not accept even a measure of control by a predominantly Zionist institution. He made representations to the British authorities and, at the international level, to the League of Nations, in an attempt to gain recognition as an independent community. He was successful in blocking adoption by the British authorities of legislation that would have given the Zionists full control over religious life. It also established contact with influential European circles, thanks to the efforts of Jacob De Haan (1881-1924) who became an effective spokesman of the anti-Zionists in the last years of his life.

De Haan enjoyed high-level contacts in the West, and was prepared to activate them in an attempt to combat the Zionists and their designs on the traditional communities of Palestine. He was ready to convince his interlocutors in London that the Haredim represented no danger for the local Arab population, with whose leaders De Haan was in regular contact. He underlined the absence of nationalist ambitions among the traditional Jews, a nuance that placed them in a favourable position in the increasingly distraught context of the national struggle in Palestine. It is a nuance that often eluded contemporary observers, who seemed to confound the Zionists with their most tenacious detractors because both groups called themselves Jews. This confusion between Jews and Zionists persists to this day and is often cultivated for political purposes.

While many Haredim spoke Arabic and maintained cordial relations with their Arab neighbours, the majority of Palestinian rabbis, in Jerusalem and elsewhere, had mastered neither Western languages nor Western concepts such as the notion of the nation-state, a concept central to Zionism. Not surprisingly, the Zionists felt much more at ease with Westerners than with these rabbis clothed in their long black caftans. By the early 1920s, the necessity of finding a credible spokesman had become a matter of some urgency. De Haan filled the need brilliantly, but the aggressive atmosphere created by the Zionists around the pious Jews of the Old Yishuv cast a threatening shadow over his activities. The Zionists took very seriously the threat posed by Jacob De Haan: he was undercutting their strategy to position themselves as the exclusive representative of the Jews in Palestine in their relations with British decision-makers. The Zionists feared that De Haan would be able to set up a rival organization made up of Palestinian Jews who would reject the nationalist ambitions of the Zionist movement and establish cooperative relations with Arab leaders. Such an eventuality struck fear into the Zionists who, in demographic terms, were still in the minority in Palestine.

On the order of senior Zionist authorities, De Haan was assassinated in 1924 as he was leaving a synagogue in Jerusalem, the first terrorist act committed by the Zionists in Palestine. It struck at the critical link in the chain of communication that the Haredi communities had intended to establish with the outside world.

While most of the opponents of Zionism were Ashkenazi Jews, the Sephardim also formulated a strong critique of Zionism. The Hakham Salomon Eliezer Alfandari, “sabba ha-kadosh, the Holy Grandfather” (c. 1826-1930) was the living embodiment of the Sephardic opposition. Another Sephardic personality, Hakham Jacob Meir (1856-1939), chief of Palestine’s Sephardic communities, articulated his attacks on Zionism in 1928, on the occasion of the departure from Jerusalem of Herbert Plumer (1857-1932), the British High Commissioner. When the master of ceremonies presented Meir along with other representatives of the Jewish community associated with the Zionist apparatus, the rabbi protested vigorously and declared that he neither recognized nor belonged to that community. All pious Jews must separate themselves from it, he declared.

Along with Sonnenfeld, he drafted a letter to Plumer in which he condemned the Zionists and called upon the British authorities to free the Haredim from Zionist control. The League of Nations later issued a ruling along these lines, leaving the Jerusalem Haredim outside of the increasingly influential Zionist infrastructure.

Between Collaboration and Exclusion
Their isolation (“right of exclusion” in the language of the day) came formally to an end with the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948, but the anti-Zionists redoubled their efforts to obtain at least equivalent status from the United Nations, successor body to the League of Nations. In their representations, they emphasized that they had never signed the Israeli declaration of independence. The refusal to recognize the State of Israel would deprive the anti-Zionists of all their political or social rights. To remain independent of the “Zionist entity,” their designation, as well as that of Zionism’s Arabs adversaries for the state of Israel, meant accepting total exclusion.

The policy of self-segregation affected almost all fields where contact with the Zionists might occur. Following the death of Rabbi Sonnenfeld, a smaller group split off to follow a more rigid course, particularly with regard to education. Rabbi Amram Blau (1894-1974) was to emerge as the leader of the new group, known as Neturei Karta. In 1953 Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum (1887-1979), the author of the fundamental treatise on anti-Zionism Va-Yoel Moshe, assumed the leadership of the Haredim. Thus was established a broad anti-Zionist alliance that was deeply opposed to all forms of cooperation with the State of Israel.

However, other anti-Zionists showed a degree of pragmatism and authorized limited participation in political affairs. It was a conception that could be traced to the attitude of Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (1878-1953), a major rabbinical authority better known as Hazon Ish. He permitted Jews to participate in the Israeli political system while denying its legitimacy: “If a highwayman falls upon me in a forest and threatens me with arms, and I begin a discussion with him, so that he spare my life, does that mean that I recognize his legitimacy? No; for me, he remains a highwayman.” Witnesses relate that when the venerated Hazon Ish received Prime Minister Ben Gurion, who was at the time attempting to integrate the Haredim in the newly founded state, the rabbi neither shook his hand, nor looked him in the eye. It was apparent that he was observing the Talmudic prescription that forbids looking upon the face of an evil person.
Haredim have largely avoided the symbols of the state of Israel. Thus several rabbis, including the contemporary Sephardic authority Ovadia Yosef, have forbidden the flying of the Israeli flag in the synagogue since the state of Israel represented no Jewish value and could not be associated with a Jewish house of worship. Hazon Ish took an even more intransigent position, forbidding entry into a synagogue decorated with an Israeli flag even if there is no other synagogue in the vicinity. The Jew who asked the question of Hazon Ish added that it concerned the only Sabbath of the year when every Jew, man and woman, is obliged to attend services and to listen to the biblical verses mentioning Amalek. And yet, despite this obligation, Hazon Ish insisted that it was forbidden to enter such a synagogue.

Many observant Jews, while not active opponents of Zionism, keep away from identification with the state of Israel. Moreover, doubts as to the future of the Zionist state remain widely spread even among those who do not belong to the traditionally anti-Zionist circles. The recently deceased Rabbi Moshe Sober, one of the translators of the Talmud into English, expressed this doubt in these words:

In 1948, there was a great religious thinker, Rabbi Teitelbaum of Satmar, who warned the Jewish leadership that based on his understanding of G-d’s Will, establishing the state of Israel would be a costly mistake in the long run. His words were overwhelmingly rejected by a Jewish community mesmerized by waving flags and marching armies and blooming deserts, but he may yet prove to have been a true prophet, in the tradition of Jeremiah and the other unpopular prophets of doom. We cannot know for sure.

Visions of the Future
Certain opponents of Zionism have already begun to prepare for a “post-Israel” dispensation, which explains their ongoing contacts with the Palestinians. More often than not, these contacts, for example, the nomination of the Neturei Karta Rabbi Moshe Hirsch as Minister for Jewish Affairs of the Palestinian Authority, are more symbol than substance. Still, an official letter written on the letterhead of the Palestinian Authority and signed by Yasser Arafat would indicate that the work of the anti-Zionists is bearing fruit. After thanking the Haredim for demonstrating against the state of Israel and exhibiting their compassion for the sufferings of the Palestinian people during the Intifada, Arafat concludes:

These expressions are priceless examples of the long-standing and abiding relationship between Jews and Arabs reaching back hundreds of years, and enable the entire world to see the stark contrast between the eternal and beautiful values of Judaism and those embodied in aggressive Zionism. These demonstrations and expressions are of critical importance in enabling the Palestinian people and Arabs worldwide to see this crucial difference so that everybody understands that the actions of the Israeli state do not reflect anything rooted in the traditions, beliefs and laws of Judaism. This is vital in emphasizing that there is no conflict between Jew and Arab.

Their overtures to the Palestinians, and their continuing insistence on compromise and negotiation have won for the anti-Zionist Haredim, faithful to the tradition of political flexibility, the scorn of the Zionists who have nothing but disdain for “this tradition of the weak” and insist on the values of courage and pride. But for the critics of Zionism such values are in direct contradiction not only with traditional Jewish values, but represent a danger for the entire Jewish people.
They remind us that the Jews constitute a truly minuscule group when measured against the whole of humanity. It would be imprudent to seek confrontation, as do Israeli politicians and the Jewish leaders who are faithful to them today. According to the anti-Zionists, it is time to abandon the illusions of megalomania and omnipotence and rediscover the gold thread that has guided generations of Jews. This gold thread weaves its way through the entire continuum of the Jewish spiritual heritage. It is summed up in the classical Jewish dictum: “Who is the greatest hero? The one who turns an enemy into a friend.” Most anti-Zionists hope to turn the divisions and hatred generated in the last hundred years into cooperation and amity. They pray that the Zionist state would collapse without violence and bloodshed just as the mighty Soviet Union did in 1991.

The temporary accommodations made by the anti-Zionist and non-Zionist Jewish population with Israeli society and with the existence of the state have barely modified their theological stance. It remains to be seen whether the fracture between those who hold fast to Judaism and the adepts of Jewish nationalism may one day be mended. Or, like Christianity before it, will Zionism develop into an independent focus of identity departing from Judaism altogether?
Judaic criticism of Zionism reflects deep-seated theological convictions. What is at stake is the entire theological interpretation of Jewish history, the consciousness and meaning of Jewishness itself. This is why the opposition to Zionism in the name of the Torah is likely to continue as long as the Zionist enterprise endures in the Holy Land. Even if many Haredim have embraced elements of the Zionist worldview, that identification remains emotive and circumstantial: most Judaic authorities have rejected Zionism in no uncertain terms. The perseverance of anti-Zionism obliges many Jews to come to terms with the contradictions between the Jewish religion they profess to believe in and the Zionist ideology that has in fact taken hold of them.

For more detailed treatment of the phenomenon of Jewish opposition to Zionism and references to the above quotes see the author’s recent book: Yakov M Rabkin, A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism, Fernwood/Zed Books, 2006. This book is also available in: 


[1] Haredim, the Hebrew for « strictly observant », is a common appellation of all traditional Jewish groups, usually distinguishable by their black-and-white dress code. They are often referred to as « ultra-Orthodox » by the media.

Copyright © 2006 Palestine Internationalist Volume 2 Issue 1

Yakov Rabkin is a Professor at the University of Montreal where he has taught contemporary Jewish history, Soviet history and the history of science since 1973. l. Professor Rabkin’s most recent book is A Threat from Within: a Century of Jewish opposition to Zionism (Zedbooks/Fernwood, 2006; originally published in French under the title Au nom de la Torah: une histoire de l’opposition juive au sionisme, PUL, 2004).

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