Questioning Zionism

Since the beginning of modern Zionism, some Jews have stood in opposition to it.

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Today, for better and for worse, many Jews consider Zionism and Judaism synonymous, but this was not always the case. In the late 19th century, when some European Jews began supporting and organizing the mass settlement of Palestine, they were criticized from almost every position on the Jewish religious spectrum.

From the Right

From the traditional point of view, the Zionists were revolting against God's will. The ingathering of the exiles, it was believed, was to be  a prominent feature of the messianic age,  but it was supposed to be initiated by God, not humankind. Classical teachings warned against "hastening the end"--trying to urge on the redemption--and Zionism was viewed as violating this taboo.

Additionally, the Zionist leadership was overwhelmingly secular; thus, from a religious viewpoint, their project was fundamentally tainted.

From the Left

The religious left also questioned Zionism. The Reform leadership embraced the opportunity to be European citizens, and therefore their religious outlook stressed universalism and the unity of humankind. Traditionally, the goal of Jewish history was a messianic return to Israel, but the reformers had the opposite view: Jewish history started in the Land of Israel, but was intended to spread outward. Judaism was a religion--not a nation--with a mission to proliferate morality. Going to Palestine to form a particularistic Jewish society was, therefore, blasphemous, because it countered everything the Jewish religion was meant to accomplish.

anti israel protestHermann Cohen, the great German Jewish philosopher, expressed the liberal position well when he wrote: "we regard the moral world as it unfolds throughout history as our Promised Land."

On the other side of the Atlantic, things weren't much different. On July 4, 1882, when Independence Day coincided with the 17th of Tammuz--a fast day commemorating the commencement of the destruction of ancient Jerusalem--Kaufmann Kohler, the leader of the Reform movement in America, opted to celebrate the secular holiday instead of mourning over "past political power and glory." Kohler urged his congregants to praise "the sublime Ruler of History for the new terms and prospects opened on this free soil for the realization of our messianic expectations."

In Kohler's view, the United States, not Palestine was the arena for messianic activity.

Martin Buber

Classical Zionism viewed Palestine as a virtually uninhabited place: "A land without people for a people without a land." Few Jews placed Jewish-Arab coexistence at the core of their Zionistic thinking because Zionism downplayed the reality of Arab existence in Palestine. Martin Buber, the existentialist Jewish philosopher, was a prominent exception, criticizing Zionism for ignoring the land's indigenous population. Buber was active in a group called Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace), which was founded in 1925 to advocate the creation of a bi-national state.

Buber recognized that from the Palestinian point of view, Jewish settlement was neither benevolent nor benign. He acknowledged that the Jews were somewhat culpable in soliciting Arab scorn. In regard to the riots of 1929 that left more than 100 Jews dead, Buber wrote, "perhaps we ourselves provided the motive for the religious fanaticism of the masses."

After the 1948 war, Buber continued to critique Israeli policy, even urging the government to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel. Still, Buber decided to support the Jewish state, particularly in light of the Holocaust.

After the Holocaust

Indeed, the Holocaust and the rise of European anti-Semitism that preceded it changed many opinions about Zionism. As dreams of universal brotherhood crumbled, the Reform movement embraced the idea of a Jewish state. In addition, a religious Zionist theology emerged that put active settlement of Israel into a messianic context unconcerned with the problem of "hastening the end."

Once the state was established, even Agudat Israel, the political arm of ultra-Orthodoxy, began participating in the Israeli government. In response to this, a radical anti-Zionist group known as Neturei Karta broke from Agudat Israel. To this day, Neturei Karta vehemently rejects a secular Jewish state on the age-old grounds that Jewish sovereignty prior to the messianic era is a rebellion against God. 

The New Historians

Beginning in the 1980s, the critique of Zionism found a new home: the Israeli academy. Israeli scholars began questioning Zionist histories of the pre-state and early state years.

Tom Segev, a journalist with academic training, was one of the first such writers. In 1949: The First Israelis, Segev suggested that certain accepted truths of Israeli history were at best historically simplistic, and often false. These included the near-universally held beliefs that: the Jews exhausted all efforts for peace in 1948; Israel was a weak "David" to the Arab "Goliath; and the Palestinians who fled their homes during the 1948 war did so primarily at the insistence of Arab leaders.

Benny Morris famously took up the last example in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949. Morris studied the exodus of Palestinians from more than 350 villages, looking at the reasons for their flight. He determined that there were a variety of stimuli, including forced expulsion by Jews, and in certain instances, even massacres. Morris described his work, as well as the work of Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim, as "new historiography."

The emergence of these New Historians was facilitated by recently declassified documents, but it was also a generational phenomenon. The New Historians grew up in a state that held established power, not in the pre-state period of Jewish vulnerability. Additionally, many of these scholars were affiliated with the political left who had become disillusioned by Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Finally, Morris, Pappe, and Shlaim were all trained in England, which may have given them the distance they needed to be critical of classical Zionist narratives.

Pappe's work is particularly intriguing because, unlike Morris, he embraced the essential subjectivity of historical narratives. He suggested that because opposing groups perceive the same events differently, historians should incorporate differing perspectives into their accounts.

In a sense, Pappe doesn't argue for history that revises Zionist narratives, but rather supports the addition of the Palestinian viewpoint into the Israeli narrative. Because of this, Pappe has been identified as a "post-Zionist,"a term applied to thosewho critique Zionist discourse and believe that "Zionist" and "Israeli" are not fundamentally synonymous.

Though Pappe rejects the post-Zionist label in favor of "a-Zionist" or "non-Zionist," he has expressed his displeasure with the nature of Israeli democracy, advocating for a state that is not fundamentally Jewish by mission.  

Interestingly, with the failure of the peace process and the rise of the Second Intifada in 2000, some of the New Historians abandoned their dovish predilections. Morris published a new edition of The Birth, and though he didn't revise his scholarship significantly, he did revise his moral stance, suggesting that Israel should have done a better job expelling Palestinians from their homes. In a New York Times interview, Morris noted that "had all the Palestinians crossed the Jordan River in 1948, either voluntarily or under compulsion, there would have been a complete separation between the two people, which would have taken some of the causation out of the continued warfare."

Morris has few consistent allies in Israel, but the reaction to his positions serves as a good barometer of Israeli political discourse and attitudes toward Zionism in general. History has never been a purely academic matter in Israel. It is fundamental to Zionist identity. Indeed, throughout the years, critics of Zionism have questioned the ideology's presuppositions--the nature of messianism, the Jewish mission, the relationship to other nations and religions. With more than a century of history behind it, some of the most volatile questions about Zionism today focus on history itself.

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Daniel Septimus

Daniel Septimus is Executive Director of The Sefaria Project. Previously, he served as Chief Executive Officer of MyJewishLearning, Inc.