Secular Zionism

From religious idea to secular ideology.

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Herzl set out a plan: The nations of the world should come together and grant the Jews their natural right to a state. He envisioned the creation of a Society of Jews that would be charged with the administration of the land that would be granted (hopefully Palestine, but the society would "take whatever it is given and whatever Jewish public opinion favors"). The Society would set up a Jewish Company that would liquidate Jewish property in the Diaspora and reinvest in building the new homeland. Herzl even discussed which professions should emigrate first and the kinds of buildings that should be erected.

In the first Zionist congress in 1897, Herzl championed his vision of a Jewish state, noting that if colonization efforts continued at the small rate they were moving, it would take "900 years" to gather all of the Jews to the land. At first, Herzl and the Zionist movement entertained the possibility of other lands (Argentina, Uganda), but from 1905, the only land considered by the Zionists was the Land of Israel.

To thinkers like Herzl and Pinsker the main stage was the political stage, with the ultimate goal being the creation of Jewish sovereignty in a land granted by the nations, followed by mass Jewish emigration. Notions of a Jewish social and cultural revolution were not central in their writings.

Cultural Zionism

Not everyone applauded Herzl as they listened to his speeches during the first Zionist Congress in 1897 in Basle.

Asher Zvi Ginsberg--better known as Ahad Ha-am ("One of the Nation") and also known as the "Agnostic Rabbi"--was horrified by Herzl's answer to the Jewish Problem. According to Ahad Ha-am, the redemption of the Jewish people would come only from a Jewish cultural and spiritual revival, not the creation of a political state.

Ahad Ha-am did not believe that the "Ingathering of the Exiles" should be the goal of Zionism. While a politically sovereign state could be a possible outcome of the colonization efforts, it could not supercede the spiritual and cultural revival which must be at the center of the effort. The revival of Hebrew language, literature, art, music, and Jewish study within an organic, natural Jewish environment in the original homeland were not dependent on Jewish sovereignty, but on a small, talented, and committed core of pioneers. 

Ahad Ha-am wanted "not merely a State of Jews but a really Jewish state," which would be the center of the worldwide Jewish revival, from which the spirit of Judaism would "radiate to the great circumference, to all the communities of the Diaspora."

Although he represented a minority in the movement and was often a gadfly, he remained highly respected. When he moved to Tel Aviv (where he died in 1927), the street upon which he lived was closed during his naptime, and on Friday nights, many residents of Tel Aviv would gather there for the "Oneg Shabbat" celebration, a secular observance of the Sabbath Eve.

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Rabbi Ed Snitkoff

Rabbi Ed Snitkoff is the Director of the Ramah Israel Seminar and lives in Jerusalem.