General Topics

Zionism or Judaism


Yom or Chag HaAtzmaut is this coming week. I don’t give a toss for what the world thinks. For me, it is a day to celebrate.

But there are issues worth dwelling on. Once that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism were two different pathologies. After all, on the right and the left, the secular, and the religious there have always been Jews who have opposed Zionism as a political movement on principle.

Sadly, as a general rule, it is now clear that is not the case. Bomb threats against synagogues, schools, and Jewish institutions around the world are now everyday events.  . The pretense, or perhaps the delusion, is over. 

I was brought up in a passionately religious Zionist family. My late father objected to religious parties on principle because of the inevitable corruption that is always associated with politics.  At the same time, his religious inspiration came from what we would call the Haredi world, which certainly did not describe itself as Zionist. However, not all of them are opposed to the idea of a Jewish state. My father was not blind to Israel’s faults and fissures, but he was completely committed to the idea of a Jewish return to Zion. He insisted that we speak Hebrew and that even in prayer we used modern Hebrew or Ivrit as opposed to the old Ashkenazi pronunciation that he was brought up on. And in the year before he died, in 1962, he had already decided to set up a Jewish school similar to Carmel outside Zichron Yaakov in Israel.

I went to a yeshiva in Israel first in the late 1950s and witnessed then the divide that existed between the parties on the left and those on the right. The secular and the religious. In the early years of the State, Ben Gurion, the Prime Minister held the view that now that political Zionism had achieved its aim of a Jewish State it was no longer necessary to preserve the distinction between Zionism and Judaism. But largely as a result of pressure from the United States of America and a reluctance to change, he was forced to backtrack on his assertion that what defined a Jew was whether he or she came to live in Israel in a Jewish homeland.

 I too always had deep reservations about Israeli politics. I identified with the worldview of the great Chief Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) who tried to reconcile Jewish spiritual universality with deep religious commitment. I wholeheartedly supported the idea of a Jewish homeland not just for the negative reason that Jews needed somewhere to escape to when the world turned against us. But as a return to the Biblical ideal of a holistic nation with its own traditions in an alien world. Over my career both in Israel and the diaspora I have worked for reconciliation and understanding between Jews and other religions and between Israelis and Palestinians, both organizationally and personally.  I have always been a peacenik and believed in exchanging Land for Peace and reconciliation. I felt that occupation would have a negative impact on the occupiers. But one needed a willing peaceful partner and I have yet to be convinced that so far there has been one.

I was always aware of both Jewish and non-Jewish anti-Semitism in Britain. And political opponents of Israel both from Fascists and the Marxists. At Cambridge University we had to defend our right to a homeland at Union debates. I recall a conference organized by the British Foreign Office I attended thirty years ago between Jewish and Palestinians including Hamas representatives, that aimed to increase understanding on both sides. The Hamas spokesmen admitted quite openly that there would never be a until Israel was destroyed and the most they would ever agree to, was a Hudna, a ceasefire, no more. 

I realized then that war, hot or cold, hatred for our very existence, would wax and wane, but never go away. Two families inhabiting the same house who will neither compromise nor fight. Intransigence and violence have always been at the root of the issue. From the era of Trumpeldor through the Arab massacres and riots in 1929 and declarations of war,  violence has never ceased. And now more than ever it is clear that it never will. When all nations lay down their swords, when all nationalism is abolished, then perhaps we may enter a messianic perfect world. But as long as hatred, competition, and ideological conflict persist we will never know permanent peace. That is the sad and at the same time the noble reality of being Jewish.

Ben Gurion was wrong to imply one cannot be a Jew outside Israel. But he was right to stress that it was the Jewish right to live Judaism in their own land ( in whatever degree they chose) without having to live under other nations. This is why Israel’s independence is so important and worth fighting for no matter whether we agree or not or what the rest of the world may think. Politics is corrupt and culture is both creative and divisive. This is probably why all religions have some form of messianism that looks to a supernatural force to bring everyone together. It hasn’t worked so far. But we must not give up the idea or stop fighting for it.

I do incline to retire Zionism as a separate ideology. But either way and regardless we celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut this year, even as we are also experiencing universal hatred as never before in our lifetime. Which only reinforces how important it is for us to be strong. And combat negativity with joy, celebration, and optimism.