The Threat of Messianism: An Interview with Gershom Scholem

One of the most distinguished Jewish scholars of this century, Gershom Scholem almost singlehandedly created the field of academic study of Jewish mysticism. Yet his books on this arcane subject—Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Sabbatai Sevi, and The Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (to mention only a few)—have won him a wide audience beyond the scholarly world. In recent years, Scholem has come to be recognized as one of the major spokesmen for Judaism in our time. Born in Berlin in 1897 and resident in Jerusalem since 1923, Scholem’s life and career have been singularly intertwined with the development of the Zionist movement and the state of Israel. As professor of Jewish mysticism at the Hebrew University since 1925, Scholem is considered in Israel to be an authoritative voice on cultural and political affairs.

DAVID BIALE: In the English translation of your memoir, From Berlin to Jerusalem, you describe how, as a young German Jew from an assimilated family, you came to reject the German-Jewish milieu and adopt Zionism. In 1923 you left Germany and came to Palestine. How do you evaluate the development of the Zionist movement since that time? Did it fulfill the aspirations you had for it when you emigrated from Berlin to Jerusalem?

GERSHOM SCHOLEM: The people who came to Palestine between 1923 and 1933 had made up their minds that they wanted to live among Jews and not in a ghetto. They wanted to be free men and women and work for the renaissance of the Jewish people. These people—and I was one of them—regarded themselves as the vanguard of the Jewish people. In 1933, Hitler came to power and everything changed. Hitler proved that the Zionist analysis of the Jewish situation was right and the anti-Zionist analysis was wrong. But the majority of people who came after 1933 did not have the same idealistic convictions as those who had come before and they came because they had no choice. These were a different type of people; they did not come to create a new Jewish society, but just to live in Israel because there was no other place for them to go.

After 1948 there came a major influx of Jews from Islamic countries who were also refugees. They also did not come with the conscious purpose of rebuilding something; very few of them were even Zionists. This affected the climate of the country and created the social problems we are now faced with. Some of these problems are not solvable in our generation. The Jewish state, which had to be created as a result of the historical crises of our generation, now has to confront social problems which never existed before in Jewish history. For example, for the first time there is serious physical violence between Jews, including cases of rape. There has also emerged a Jewish underworld which was virtually unknown in Europe.

We now realize that there are two very different social groups among the Jewish people …

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