The time has come to attempt to take stock of Zionism and to examine to what extent Zionist ideology, whose tenets have been offered to the Jewish people for about one hundred years, has stood the test of fulfillment. This task should be undertaken not primarily in the interest of historical and sociological research, but because of its practical implications. I claim that the numerous contradictions—some of them grotesque—in which the discussions of the fundamental questions in Israel have become entangled largely derive from a mistaken view of the Zionist ideology which guides, or should guide, public and political activities in Israel.
Since the establishment of the state of Israel, Zionism has generally been regarded as a success story. The peak of this attitude was reached shortly after the Six-Day War. It somewhat faded with the Yom Kippur War and during the last few years. But, fundamentally, the view of Zionism as a success story has not changed, in particular not among the official Israeli establishment. At most, its members are willing to admit the existence of transitory difficulties, perhaps even serious ones, similar to those which every political movement and every state must face from time to time.
The view of Zionism as a success story is, of course, based upon the existence of a Jewish state with proven physical power and with the diverse trappings of statehood. Notwithstanding its great popularity, this view is erroneous. The purpose of Zionism was not to establish a Jewish state, teach Hebrew, build a powerful army, or develop a productive economy based on agriculture and industry. The purpose of Zionism was to solve the Jewish problem.
The Jewish problem was defined by the fathers of Zionist ideology, such as Moses Hess, Leon Pinsker, and Theodor Herzl, as the inability of the Jews in the Diaspora to live safely as equals among equals. They also claimed that this problem would become increasingly severe until the physical existence of the Jews in the Diaspora would be endangered. The solution they proposed was to gather together the Diaspora Jews, or at least most of them, in one country where they could attain political independence like any other normal nation. The assumption was that the minority of Jews who would not want to settle in the Jewish state would assimilate among the Gentiles and cease being Jews (and thus have no problem). Ahad Ha’am’s version of Zionism was different; yet it was not acceptable to most of the movement nor did it stand the test of reality. The Zionist assumption was that living in one territory would grant the Jewish nation a “secure refuge,” one that would be recognized by public law.
Palestine was not essential for Pinsker and Herzl.
Leon Pinsker and Theodor Herzl, the two most important ideologues of Zionism, did not believe it essential that the Jews settle in what was then called Palestine. Herzl believed that it would not be difficult to find a suitable country for a Jewish state. His views were those of a European of the colonialist era during which the French and Italians settled in North Africa and the English throughout Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Herzl was also influenced by the anti-Semitic myth of the unlimited financial power of Jewish banking; he believed that it was possible to buy a country suitable for the realization of Zionism.
Herzl adopted Palestine as the site for realizing Zionism only after he found out that this was the only country for which it would be possible to enlist sufficiently large public support from the Jewish people. Even at the end of his life, Herzl was prepared to abandon Palestine and accept what he believed to be a British proposal of Uganda for Jewish settlement. However, once again, and painfully, he was compelled to realize that most organized Zionists were not willing even to consider a territorial solution except in Palestine. The votes taken at the Sixth and Seventh Zionist Congresses in 1903 and 1905, which rejected the Uganda plan, showed the failure of Herzl’s Zionist vision within the Zionist movement.
Thus the purpose of Zionism was to concentrate all or most of the Diaspora Jews in one country in which a Jewish state would be established. This state would secure their lives from persecution and discrimination, a security which they had not enjoyed, according to the correct Zionist diagnosis, in the countries of Europe. (Just as we first of all think of North American Jewry when we speak of Diaspora Jews today, the Jews were identified with Europe during the early days of the Zionist movement.)
If we examine the practical attainments of Zionism during the last hundred years we can point to a large number of achievements—those inclined to such language would call them miraculous. I will not list them here. The very fact that I am sitting in the garden of my house in Tel Aviv and writing this article, which will appear in a Hebrew daily newspaper that reaches readers from Metullah to Eilat, testifies to the soundness of the achievements of Zionism.* However, the fulfillment of the Zionist idea is not among these numerous achievements. Zionism has not solved the Jewish problem. Despite the changes it has undergone, the Jewish problem continues to exist as before and one of its disturbing manifestations is the problem of the Jews in Israel.
The Jews did not choose Zionism
The major reason why Zionism has not achieved its goal is that the Jews, for the most part, refused to adopt the Zionist idea. Only about one fifth of the Jews of the world live in Israel. The country is very much alive and it cannot be ignored by anyone, but it is not the realization of the Zionist idea. Most Jews did not choose the Zionist solution. This fact is no less important than the existence of the state of Israel and it is particularly grave and astonishing because everything that has happened to the Jews in the European Diaspora since the days of Pinsker and Herzl has verified the Zionist forecast of the fate of European Jewry with astonishing precision. Zionism was right about everything—except about the willingness of the Jews to accept the Zionist solution.
In his autobiography, Chaim Weizmann writes that in 1906, during his first casual meeting with Arthur Balfour, he tried to explain to him the Zionist idea. Balfour listened in astonishment and in the end he asked: “Are there many Jews who think as you do, Dr. Weizmann?” Weizmann replied: “If you go to Pinsk, you’ll find that the streets of the town are paved with Jews like me.” To this Balfour remarked: “If that is true, you are a power and you will get Jerusalem.” The trouble was that Weizmann was wrong. Most of the Jews of Pinsk remained in Russia (until the Holocaust caught up with them); or they emigrated to America.
Believing that the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe were prepared to go to Palestine, the British adopted the Zionist plan at the end of World War I. In 1920, the British Prime Minister Lloyd George told Weizmann in San Remo: “Now is your chance. Take advantage of it quickly. The world is at present in a fluid state. In another few years, the political situation will again freeze like the Baltic in winter. What you fail to do now, you won’t be able to alter later on.” If the Jewish masses from Eastern and Central Europe had gone to Palestine during the early years of the British Mandate and had settled the country (as masses of European emigrants—including millions of Jews—had settled America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), it is possible that Zionism would have been able to realize its program and “solve the Jewish problem.” But it did not happen. The number of Jews who settled in the country in 1920, in the first year of the British Mandate, were only about 10 percent of the number who came to Israel after the Holocaust, during the first years of the state.
Emancipation: The Precondition for Zionism
This is not the place for a thorough examination of all the reasons why most Jews did not become Zionists, but I shall attempt to list a few. The very appearance of the Zionist idea among European Jews in the final third of the nineteenth century indicates that European Jews were then undergoing far-reaching changes. The most important was in the way they looked at themselves. This was more important than the changes, dramatic though they were, in the external circumstances of their lives. It is generally believed that the Hibbat Zion movement arose in the wake of the pogroms in southern Russia during the early 1880s and that Herzl became a Zionist as a result of the Dreyfus case. This is undoubtedly true. However, the really new revolutionary development was not the persecution and the judicial frame-up of the Jews, but their reactions to these events. Ever since the early Middle Ages, European Jewry had suffered far more serious persecution and exile, as well as blood libel, which was inestimably more dangerous than what took place late in the nineteenth century. Why did all these earlier events not result in reactions similar to the rise of Zionism?
The answer is that the Jews living at the end of the nineteenth century differed from the Jews of all preceding generations of the Diaspora. Those who were attracted to the Zionist idea had undergone emancipation or were at least in the process of being affected by it. All the Jewish leaders who conceived and developed the Zionist idea and dedicated themselves to its realization had abandoned the traditional way of Jewish life that had heretofore prevailed. Many of them—the more important ones in particular—had assimilated among the Gentiles; and for none of them did their Zionism include any aspiration to return to the traditional Jewish way of life. Their reaction to the Jewish problem conformed to the behavior patterns of their Gentile contemporaries, among whom they lived, rather than to those of the traditional Jews. Zionism could not have arisen without the national movements which altered the face of Europe during the nineteenth century, without the discovery by the Russian narodniki of the spiritual wealth of the simple people and their needs and problems, and without German romanticism. Kurt Blumenfeld, the important ideologue of German Zionism, said with good reason: Zionism is the gift of Europe to the Jewish people.
Zionism is an outcome of the change in the character of European Jews brought about by the emancipation; yet it is not the last of the changes effected by it. As we are learning somewhat painfully, Zionism is not even an essential stage which every emancipated Jew must go through.
Spinoza: the first modern Jew
Zionism is part of the process of change which began with the disappearance of the walls of the internal, spiritual ghetto, i.e., the walls which the Jews themselves had erected around them—not merely because they preferred it that way, but because these spiritual walls were an authentic and essential expression of their very existence. As the American scholar Arthur Hertzberg has shown, the first real breach of the walls of the internal ghetto occurred when Baruch Spinoza in the mid-seventeenth century decided to leave the Jewish community in Amsterdam. Spinoza was the first Jew to become a full-fledged citizen of the cultural republic of modern Europe.
Since then, Spinoza has been joined by many others of Jewish descent without whose distinctive contributions Western culture would not be what it is today. Among all these distinguished Jews there was not one who did not move far away from the traditional Jewish way of life; not one among them who was not a heretic or even an apostate in the eyes of Orthodox Jews.
From the viewpoint of traditional Judaism, ever since the beginning of the emancipation the Jewish people have been constantly retreating from the fundamentals of Judaism—and from generation to generation the “Jewish component” of Jews who had gone through the emancipation process became more and more diluted. However, from these generations of Jews whose Jewish piety was increasingly evaporating, arose the men whose unique contributions to European thought (whose “Jewish” nature was recognized by both Gentiles and Jews) earned modern Jewry its right to citizenship in Western culture. Zionism, too, is the creation of Jews who had abandoned their traditions. However, only a minority of European Jews took upon themselves the burden of realizing its goals.
That religious Zionism is increasingly present in Israel today must not mislead us. The forces of emancipation under whose impact Zionism developed did not—and do not—progress at the same pace for all parts of society. For some classes the emancipation was halted, either temporarily or otherwise, in the middle of the road, or even before, by the various compromises made by traditional Jews with social forces and movements that were essentially alien to traditional Judaism. Two generations ago there were Orthodox Jews in Frankfurt whose extreme orthodoxy did not prevent them from being nationalistic Germans. Similarly, some of the traditional Jews in Eastern Europe, if only a minority, were attracted to Zionism, the creation of secular Jews. These religious Jews joined the ranks of the Zionist movement. It is fortunate that they did so, and unfortunate that many more among the religious masses did not follow them. However, no mistake should be made; without Pinsker, Herzl, Ussishkin, Weizmann, Ben-Gurion, and numerous other secular Jews, Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai and Rabbi Zwi Kalischer would be mentioned only briefly in the Encyclopedia Judaica and would not be known as the “heralds of Zionism.”
The religion is not essential for the state
A Jewish state is conceivable without the religious element. However, the establishment of the state of Israel without the secular liberal and socialist movements and the exertions of their nonreligious leaders is unimaginable. And as far as the cultural life is concerned, all modern Hebrew literature and poetry is “secular.”
Nor should the importance of religious groups to political coalitions in Israel be confused with their specific weight. It is true that the influence of the religious Zionists in coalitions with other groups is very evident. This has been the case since the beginning of the Zionist movement when the secular parties—which always made up a large majority—drew up a concordat of sorts with the religious camp. But in Israel there are also religious non-Zionists and anti-Zionists who carry a great deal of weight in coalitions, although they care very little for the welfare—and even the very existence—of the state. This is true first of all for the members and supporters of the Agudath Israel religious party. It could be argued that the religious non-Zionists and the anti-Zionists have even greater power in coalitions than the religious Zionists. Israel pays a very high price for the concordat with the religious groups—in money as well as in other values. And the price to Israel of the unholy combination of religious extremism and nationalist fanaticism which doesn’t figure in any Zionist doctrine cannot yet be assessed.
We turn now again to the major subject of our study. The willingness of the Zionist movement to compromise with the numerous demands of the religious groups, and by so doing to substantially restrict the civil rights and the freedom of the large secular majority, originally arose from the desire to increase as much as possible the numbers participating in the Zionist movement and in the settlement of the land of Israel. Most of the nonreligious Jews had already moved so far from their Jewish origins that it was not possible to convince them to join in a Jewish national movement. The most extreme example of Zionist willingness to make concessions to the religious sector has been its submission to the refusal of the strictly Orthodox population to take part in Israel’s defense effort and to serve in its army.
Despite the great pliancy of the Zionist movement toward the religious groups, the movement did not succeed in bringing more than 20 percent of the Jewish people to the state of Israel (even after the number of Jews was diminished by millions during the Holocaust). This basic fact must be the starting point for charting a new course for Zionists and citizens of the state of Israel. The differences among the various Zionist doctrines such as those of Herzl and Ahad Ha’am, Weizmann and Jabotinsky, A.D. Gordon and Borochov, are no longer of any practical importance. What is important is that for one hundred years, the many-sided Zionist idea did not succeed in recruiting more than a small part of the Jewish population scattered throughout the world.
Nor did the two major events for Jews of our time—the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel—change the tendencies of the Diaspora Jews. Even the Jews of Russia, having been subjected to Soviet rule for over sixty years, act exactly as their fore-fathers did two and three generations ago. Just as at the turn of the century, in the days of the Second Aliyah and even before then, in the days of the Biluim, most of those who want to emigrate and succeed in doing so make for America, while only a small minority comes to Israel.
Moreover, there is no escaping the painful conclusion that the existence of the state of Israel—following the wave of enthusiasm it aroused in its first years—has weakened the attractiveness of the Zionist idea. Nor is this surprising. Not only did the state of Israel fail to realize the Zionist program by solving the Jewish problem; the patterns of its existence today actually contradict the major principles of Zionism.
Herzl would have abandoned Zionism
Zionism’s goal was to attain a homeland for the persecuted Jewish people in which they could live in safety. The fathers of Zionism did not consider for a moment that the state of Israel would be established by a war with all of its neighboring countries and certainly not that this war would continue and become a permanent feature in the life of the state. The refusal of the Arab world (including the Arab inhabitants of former Palestine) to recognize the existence of the state, the Arabs’ enhanced economic and political power throughout the world as a result of their oil, the transformation of the region into one of the world’s largest concentrations of modern lethal weapons, almost all of which are directed against Israel—all these are features that have seriously diminished Israel’s attraction as a country in which Jews could hope to live in safety.
The Zionists always warned the Jews that their lives in the Diaspora were not safe. Today it is not easy to convince Diaspora Jews that their lives in Israel will be any safer. Undoubtedly one of the important reasons why most of the Jews who manage to emigrate both from Russia and from Iran do not come to Israel is that the country’s situation seems to them insecure.
Nor did the founders of Zionism ever imagine that the Jewish state would depend on outside aid and the continued economic support of Diaspora Jews. The purpose of Zionism was to abolish the Diaspora, not to create a state that would be a protectorate of the Diaspora. If Herzl had known that the Jewish state would include only one-fifth of the world’s Jews and that its political fortunes would be dependent upon the “Jewish vote” in the United States, he might very well have abandoned the Zionist idea altogether and returned to his original idea of mass conversion.
These are painful facts. Yet ignoring their existence, as the leadership of Israel—the Knesset and the government—and the Zionist movement stubbornly continue to do, is not going to make them disappear.
Israelis and Zionists must recognize these facts and take them into account when deciding upon their conduct. For all its evident accomplishments during one hundred years of existence, the Zionist movement has not been able to inspire its own members to realize its goal, i.e., to move to Israel. There is, therefore, no reason why it should continue to pretend to carry out functions for which it is not qualified.
Both the Zionist movement as it exists today and all of its diverse institutions are anachronisms, relics from the days before the state was established. There is no reason for the continued existence of the Zionist Federation, or that of the Jewish Agency. Their responsibilities (as far as they are not fake responsibilities) should be transferred to qualified bodies that are authorized to discharge them. For example, there is no reason for the Zionist movement to attempt to disseminate Jewish (?), Israeli (?), and Zionist (?) culture in the Diaspora. There is no Zionist culture. There is a variegated cultural life in Israel (which has its problems but is alive and interesting). In charge of such activities should be not the Jewish Agency but an authority to be set up by the state of Israel, one similar to the British Council, the Goethe Institute, the French and US Cultural Centers, which represent and disseminate the culture of their nations throughout the world, including instruction in their language.
Since the Zionist movement is not able to motivate people to emigrate to Israel, it should cease its ludicrous debates on this issue and its futile activities encouraging immigration, a matter it is not qualified to handle.
The state of Israel, which is interested in increasing its Jewish population, is entitled to engage in activities to attract desirable immigrants to Israel—just as other countries do.
From arrogance to self-disparagement
A realistic view of Zionism, one hundred years after its beginnings, requires that the position of the state of Israel be seen in a different light from the one to which we are accustomed. One of the truisms of Marxism is that reality determines consciousness. However, much time occasionally passes before this process takes place. Israelis are still inclined to see the state of Israel—or at least its mission—through the eyes of the fathers of Zionism—Herzl, Jabotinsky, Berl Katznelson, and Ben-Gurion. In their consciousness (which lags behind reality), the state is still the tool for realizing Zionism, i.e., for the solution of the universal Jewish problem. This deceptive view is the source of an unfounded sense of superiority and of the arrogance with which they regard the world and, in particular, Diaspora Jewry. The success of the efforts to establish and defend the state have nourished this state of mind. However, since it does not correspond to the actual situation of the state, its hold on many important parts of Israeli society has weakened.
This process first became evident among groups of morally sensitive youths immediately after the Six-Day War. It was expressed, for example, in the book Talk of Soldiers and in Amos Elon’s book The Israelis: Fathers and Sons. After the disappointments following the Yom Kippur War, the attitude of superiority that had formerly been adopted by Israelis was reversed. Arrogance was replaced by self-disparagement and morbid prophecies about the future of the state became fashionable. But just as the feeling that Israel depended on “us and only us” was unjustified, so self-disparaging laments of today are also unwarranted.
Only a minority of the world’s Jews wish to live in Israel today, and some of the country’s citizens are even inclined to leave it, preferring a new Diaspora to life in the independent homeland. These are sobering facts but they are not sufficient to destroy the vision of a Jewish state or to deny its importance for the survival of Jews in the world, now and in the future. Jewish existence is exposed to danger today as it has always been. The state of Israel is one of the most important facts in the lives of contemporary Jews, if not the most important one. The future of Jewry is not assured today just as it was never assured before. However, the concentration of a substantial minority of Jews in an independent state improves the chances for Jewish survival. That is the role of the state of Israel and this is its task—and it is by no means a negligible one. Israel should not see itself as sustained by “us and no one else,” but as one of the vital manifestations, if not the most vital one, of Jewish existence today. Perhaps it is not the sole precondition sufficient to guarantee Jewish survival in the future, but it is probably one of the essential preconditions for that survival.
If Israelis get used to looking at themselves in this way, many things will appear differently. Debates between Israeli and Diaspora Jews will continue, but meaningless ones will cease, for example the debate on whether Diaspora Jews should be allowed to intervene in Israel’s internal affairs. Obviously, Israeli citizens must decide their own state affairs. But a state of Israel that sees itself as part of the Jewish people in the world and hopes to obtain their assistance in economic and political (and even cultural) affairs, and wants to attract Diaspora Jews to settle in Israel—such a state must take into account the vital interests, of the Jews living in the Diaspora. For example, in its treatment of non-Jewish minorities living under Israeli rule, Israel must avoid acts that might create problems for Jews living as minorities in the Diaspora. Israelis must also be interested in maintaining the delicate balance which makes it possible for Diaspora Jews to support Israel politically in their relations with their own government without involving them in intolerable conflicts with those governments.
The Israeli Diaspora
If Israelis were guided in their actions by reality rather than by an outmoded dogma which has become a nightmare, they would not try to “encourage immigration” of Diaspora Jews by sending faltering emissaries abroad who do not know how and why to convince American and other Jews to settle in Israel, and who occasionally even settle in the countries of their missions. Instead, Israel should realize that immigration can be encouraged primarily in Israel itself, by improving Israeli society and by striving for a better quality of life.
Another contradiction which afflicts Israelis because they look at themselves through outdated lenses concerns what is known as yerida, the emigration of Israeli citizens to other countries. If Israel is supposed to represent the “solution to the Jewish problem” and the liquidation of the Diaspora, then leaving it is tantamount to treason. But if we accept that the state of Israel is only one of the forms—if for us the most preferable—of Jewish existence in our time, we must also regard differently those Israeli citizens who prefer to live abroad. That they do so is a social phenomenon that is related to Israeli reality and also springs from the nature of the Jewish people. The Jews have always been a mobile people; a large Jewish Diaspora existed in the ancient world long before the destruction of the Second Temple. One can regret emigration from Israel because it weakens the country, and even more so because it testifies to a weakness in the social structure of Israel. However, this phenomenon cannot be changed by means of ostracism and excommunication. People should be free to choose where they want to live. That there is an Israeli Diaspora in the world today is certainly something no one in Israel expected, but it has taken place.
The Israelis living abroad did not leave because they were excessively happy at home. But many of them, if not most, take pains to maintain their ties with the country they continue to regard as their homeland, even if in Israel they are looked upon with indignation. Many of them think of returning to Israel and more than a few actually do so. The most likely immigrants to Israel are still to be found among them and among their children. Israel and its representatives overseas must help them to preserve the ties with their former home. Israel is not the only country which has citizens living abroad. Before World War II, an Italian network of schools in France was supervised by the Italian Ministry of Education. If there were Israeli schools in American cities where tens and even hundreds of thousands of Israelis now live, they would not lack pupils.
The reasons for leaving Israel are many and diverse. They include economic difficulties, the housing problem, the lasting tensions over politics and security, and the burden of unending military service. Another important reason, in my view, is that Israel has not yet been able to evolve the unique cultural atmosphere and quality of life that would be decisive in keeping people here when thoughts of moving to other countries arise. And particularly for the young people of established families—which, since the start of the new Jewish settlement several decades ago, have carried much of the responsibility for building the country and state—the increased power of religious circles and institutions over the patterns of Israeli life has been especially discouraging.
Religious sector grown in strength
Since the inception of the state, religious parties have been essential partners in all government coalitions and naturally they use their power to bring down the government in order to add to their conquests and constantly to increase their achievements, assets, and privileges. A situation has thus arisen which restricts—often quite painfully—the freedom of the secular majority. Those who suffer the most from this are young people who find it hard to accept restrictions on marriage and other important matters that exist in none of the other free Western countries. Many Israelis—the young and the not-so-young—feel that this is not the same society they were born into and where they grew up. This feeling lowers their resistance to thoughts of emigration.
However, the increased power of the religious parties and institutions has other important repercussions beyond those on emigration from Israel. Numerically, the proportion of the population that is religious has increased during recent decades because of the mass immigration from underdeveloped Moslem countries. The much higher fertility rate among the religious Israelis has the same effect. No change in this trend is currently foreseeable. On the contrary, it is quite possible that the gap between the high birth rate of the religious Jews and that of the nonreligious majority, which approaches zero, will continue to grow.
This is likely to lead to a change in the composition of Israeli society caused not only by the religious minority’s successful exploitation of its political power but by demographic changes as well. Therefore, one must reckon with a grave new possibility. Although both Zionism and the development of Israel and its culture were overwhelmingly, and often almost exclusively, the work of people who had abandoned traditional Judaism, and were molded by western secular thinking, Israel is liable to develop into a state in which the religious establishment and the religious groups will intervene in every sphere of life.
Even people who do not belong to the strictly Orthodox part of the population could view such a prospect—if not happily, then at least with a certain equanimity—if they could be confident that the constructive forces responsible for founding Israeli society and for its progress would continue undisturbed under religious hegemony. It is doubtful, however, that such an expectation is justified. It is more reasonable to assume that the fanatic religious elements may well be able to gain political control of the country, but that they will not be capable of maintaining the momentum that has carried Israel forward until now, and that the nation’s dynamic and creative forces will weaken.
The example of Italy and Ireland
There are precedents for such developments. For more than a thousand years Italy was divided and split into a large number of small political units. Consequently, the country was ruled by foreign powers. In the mid-nineteenth century, there arose a national revival movement which tried to liberate the country from its foreign rulers and to unify it into a single modern state. The leaders and supporters of this national movement belonged to the progressive, liberal, and secular groups among the Italian nation. The movement was opposed by conservative forces, the strongest of which was the Catholic church, which stood to lose a great deal from Italy’s political union. After Italy was unified, it again came under control of the conservative and clerical elements that had originally opposed the risorgimento. This situation has to a large extent prevailed—with a certain intermission during the Fascist era—until today. As experienced an observer as Luigi Barzini believes that the failure of the progressive circles that established the new Italy to provide political and social leadership capable of governing is the cause of the continued weakness of that lovely country’s social structure.
Similarly, in Ireland the forces that led the revolt against the English conqueror and fought for an independent republic came, for the most part, from the most educated and progressive parts of Irish society; members of the Protestant minority in Ireland were conspicuous in this group. The Irish nationalist movement was accompanied by a cultural awakening which could be compared to the creation of the new Hebrew culture during the period lasting from Ahad Ha’am and Bialik to Alterman. After the progressive and enlightened forces had won and an independent Ireland was established, the country has been ruled—through its parliamentary majority—largely by reactionary and clerical elements. Ireland is now the most backward country in Western Europe; writers of the stature of Yeats and Joyce have had no successors.
Recent Jewish history presents a similar picture. In the sixty crucial years between the pogroms of Alexander the Third (1881) and the annihilation of the Jews of Europe in World War II, a battle took place between the forces of Jewish conservativism and those advocating change and national revival.
Seclusion or openness
The great achievement of the conservative Jewish elements was to maintain the unity of the nation behind the walls of rabbinical law (halacha) and tradition throughout the ages of exile. However, beginning from the middle of the seventeenth century, it became more and more apparent that this conservative structure could not stand up to the challenges of modern times. If the traditional religious leadership had continued unchallenged, only a constantly decreasing minority of the Jews in Europe would have remained under its control. This minority would have turned into a secluded sect on the margins of the modern world, and the Jews would really have become a fossil remnant as defined by Arnold Toynbee. Most would have left this oppressive system and disappeared among the gentiles. And this is indeed what happened, and would have happened to a much greater degree had it not been for modern anti-Semitism and the forces of Zionism’s national revival movement, which endeavored—if only with partial success—to make Jewish life and Jewish identity possible as part of the modern world.
If these forces which built Israel should be defeated and the Orthodox elements advocating seclusion from the modern world put their stamp on the state of Israel, then Israel’s survival will be put in doubt—even if we do not take into account all of the other dangers threatening the country today.
Within Israel’s religious camp, there are still groups that advocate relative openness to the spirit of modern times, and claim that it is possible to be an observant Jew and a modern man at the same time. It is indeed likely that this is possible, but only in a society ruled by tenets of a modern secular western culture. A free secular society can and must show tolerance and grant equal rights to those who hold religious beliefs and observe tradition. A society ruled by the Orthodox camp will not exhibit this type of tolerance and will gradually be controlled by religious extremists. The hostility of the Chief Rabbinate toward the conservative and liberal denominations in Israel shows how a religious establishment operates when in control.
Bar Ilan University in Israel or Yeshiva University in New York are both religious institutions. Still, they are able to function in all—or almost all—respects as universities and research institutes as long as they operate within a cultural climate determined by secular universities and research institutes. If Israel is ruled by the Council of Sages, the highest authority of the Agudat Israel religious party, the days of Bar Ilan University will be numbered.
Today the MAFDAL, or National Religious Party, faction in the Knesset can occasionally make a show of independence of the rabbis since MAFDAL functions within secular Israeli democracy. Should the religious camp acquire control of our political institutions, MAFDAL will not be able to do so since there is an insoluble political contradiction between parliamentary democracy and the rule of the Torah. Even so wellknown a member of MAFDAL as Dr. Joseph Burg would not be the foreign minister in a religious state. Instead some extremist such as Rabbi Shenberger or Rabbi Hirsch would take his place. In other words, if this development should occur, no trace will be left of the Israeli society with which we are familiar. Along with the other, more visible, trials facing Israel today, a fateful battle is thus being fought against powerful religious forces that would revoke the results of the emancipation from which both Zionism and the modern Jewish state have emerged.
This article first appeared in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, of which Gershom Schocken is editor.↩
This article first appeared in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, of which Gershom Schocken is editor.↩