How Israel went from atheist Zionism to Jewish state

Shlomo Sand writes: Zionism as a national movement that rebelled against historical Judaism was mainly atheistic. Most of its leaders and activists ceased believing in redemption through the coming of the Messiah, the long-standing essence of Jewish belief, and took their fate into their own hands. The power of the human subject replaced the power of the omnipotent God.

The rabbis knew that, and were terrified – and, therefore, almost all of them became avowed anti-Zionists. From Hasidic rebbes Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, the Admor of Lubavitch (Chabad) and Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (the Admor of Gur) to leading U.S. Reform Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, founder of the Reform Central Conference, mitnagdim and Hasidim, Orthodox, Reform and Conservative, all saw the rise of Zionism as the end of Judaism. Due to the sweeping opposition of the rabbis of Germany, Theodor Herzl was forced to transfer the First Zionist Congress from Munich to the Swiss city of Basel.

But beginning with the first stages in the consolidation and settlement of the Zionist movement, it was forced to meticulously sort and thoroughly nationalize some of the religious beliefs in order to turn them into nation-building myths.

For the atheistic Zionists, God was dead and therefore the Holy Land became the homeland; all the traditional holidays became national holidays; and Jerusalem stopped being a heavenly city and became the very earthly capital of an eternal people. But it wasn’t these decisions, or many others, that prevented secular nationalism from serving as the foundation for the establishment of the State of Israel.

The main reason for Zionism’s inability to establish a secular entity with a constitution – in which religion is separated from the state – lay elsewhere. The problematic nature of defining the “Jew” according to secular criteria – cultural, linguistic, political or “biological” (despite all efforts, it’s still impossible to determine who is a Jew by means of DNA) – was what eliminated the option of a secularized identity.

For example, in 1918, Ben-Gurion – the future founder of the state – was convinced, as were many others, that most of the population of the Land of Israel had not been exiled, but converted to Islam with the Arab conquest, and therefore was clearly Jewish in origin.

In 1948, he had already given up on this confused and dangerous idea, and instead asserted that the Jewish people had been exiled by force and had wandered in isolation for 2,000 years. Shortly before that, he presented the weak and depleted religious Zionist stream with a valuable gift: In the famous “status quo” letter, all the laws pertaining to marital status, adoption and burial were given over to the Chief Rabbinate. The fear of assimilation was the nightmare shared by Judaism and Zionism, and it won out in the end.

Within a short time, the principle of the religious definition was accepted in identity politics: A “Jew” is someone who was born to a Jewish mother or converted, and is not a member of another religion. In other words, if you don’t meet those conditions, you cannot be a part of the revival of the “Jewish people,” even if you adopt Israeli culture, speak fluent Hebrew and celebrate on Israeli Independence Day. It’s a very logical historical process: Since there is no secular Jewish culture, it’s impossible to join by secular means something that doesn’t exist.

And then came 1967. The State of Israel expanded significantly, but at the same time a large non-Jewish population was also brought together under the country’s muscular Jewish wing. The Jewish constraints also had to be tightened in the face of the confusing misunderstandings that were liable to be created as a result of the territorial-demographic booby trap.

From now on, more than ever, the emphasis had to be on the heading “Jewish” – in other words, the state belonging to those who were born to a Jewish mother or converted according to Jewish law and, God forbid, not the country of all its citizens. [Continue reading…]

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Comments

  1. Louis Proyect says:

    This was behind a paywall. I am glad to read the paragraphs you posted but it is frustrating not to be able to read the whole article. My advice is not to post excerpts for items that can’t be read in full unless you are a paid subscriber.

  2. Paul Woodward says:

    My rationale for posting extracts from articles behind paywalls is that I generally provide a larger snippet than the paywall allows and that the extract on its own needs to be informative. That is to say, the extract needs to contain substance and not simply be a teaser.

    Anyone with a burning desire to read the complete article can of course become a paid subscriber to the publication where it appears or pursue other gateways of entry (e.g. links through Twitter). Paywalls vary considerably in terms of how solidly they are constructed.

    The bottom line in a case like this is that something (the extract I posted) seems better than nothing.

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