Yom ha-Atzmaut (Assorted Thoughts)
On the State of Our Statehood (2000)
What I wrote in my pre-Pesah reflections on the meaning of Jewish nationhood and peoplehood holds true as well, but even more so, for Yom ha-Atzmaut—Israel’s 52nd Independence Day. The bon ton of our age, at least among sophisticated, “modern” people, is that nationalism is passe. We live in a new, “internationalized” and “globalized” world without borders. Many Israelis seem deeply disillusioned in the reality of the state. At times, there seems to be an all-pervasive sense of frustration, of carping criticism, of the feeling that the state is not what people dreamed it would be nor what their sons, brothers, husbands or fathers gave their lives for. It’s not Jewish enough, or it’s too Jewish, i.e. religiously coercive. The government is too Left Wing, making too many concession to the Palestinians, or too Right Wing, following the essentially intransigent, “securitism” policy of Israel Gallili and Golda Meir of old, with minimum window dressing. The “new light” has “arisen on Zion,” but it’s not as bright or shining or clear as people had thought.
Hanna Kim, in a pre-independence op-ed piece (Ha-Aretz, 9-5-00, p. B-1), claims that nearly a third of the population of the state—the Haredim and the Arabs, to start with—don’t identify Yom Ha-Atzmaut as ”their” holiday. Indeed, Israeli society seems divided into tribes as never before: the Ultra-Orthodox; the Tel Aviv educated secularists; the so-called Sephardim or Oriental Jews, who after two generations, and in many cases at least a modicum of middle-class comfort and success, still seem to bear a strong feeling of ressentiment at past and present affronts at the hand of the ruling Ashkenazic establishment; the Russian immigrants, who seem happy to live with a “five o’clock shadow,” working at their professions by day while going home at might to their Russian-speaking sub-culture; and, of course, the Israel Arabs, who are still instinctively regarded by many as a real or potential “fifth column,” and perhaps rightly complain that the government neither lets them live their lives in peace and quiet, nor invest in a reasonable level of infrastructure and communal services for their towns and villages as it does for their Jewish cousins. There are those who say that, with peace at long last within sight, we are confronting the long-expected and long-feared Kulturkampf, the “cultural war” among the Jews themselves to determine the shape of our state, which may in many ways be far more violent and painful than our conflict with our enemies in the region.
I could write much more, but since today is nevertheless a day of celebration, I shall leave the “gevalt-saying”—a favorite Jewish pastime—aside. We have achieved normalcy, and this is its price. (Although perhaps too many Israelis, in their own mentality, still carry the complex of the persecuted Jews, and have not yet internalized what it means to be a majority, and to have other minorities subjugated to us, whose lives we can make pleasant or miserable depending upon our attitude toward them. For better or worse, there’s no way to put an entire population on the couch.)
When such lugubrious thoughts comes to mind, it is helpful to have some perspective of the truly remarkable fact that we live here in our own state, to reflect on the history of Jewry in Galut (Exile) over the past two millennia, and to appreciate what this has meant for the position of the Jew in the world. I think of my grandfather, an early Rabbinic activist in the nascent Zionist movement, first in Poland and then in the United States, who wrote in the dedication to his first volume of sermons on the weekly portion, “may we see the success of our sons and daughters, and merit to go up to Zion with song.” What would he have thought to know that, 75 years later, his a daughter and son-in-law lived there last years in a sovereign Jewish state in the Land of Israel and are buried there, and that he has two grandsons and seven great-grandchildren living there? And that these great-grandchildren speak a revived Hebrew as their first language of social interaction with their peers, a language that for two millennia had been a formal language of learned written discourse, with a slightly stilted, archaic flavor, and not a vehicle of everyday discourse. For these two things alone: Dayenu!
Why Israel? or, Contra Judt (2004)
This year , Yom ha-Atzmaut is being celebrated in an atmosphere, not only of growing criticism and controversy regarding Israel’s policies, but also, among certain circles, of questioning its very legitimacy. Among certain intellectuals and “thinking people,” one hears the idea expressed that perhaps the creation of the State of Israel was a mistake, and that not only the world, but the Jewish people, would be better off without it. This idea was prominently expressed last fall in a widely discussed article by Tony Judt, “Israel: The Alternative,” published in The New York Review of Books (Vol 50:16; Oct 23 2003). I was shocked, not long ago, when someone close to me expressed a similar idea, in the words: “After all, what other religion has its own state?”
Judt’s opening argument is that Israel is an anachronism. “It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world… of individual rights, open frontiers and international law.”
Historically, of course, this is true. Zionism originated in an age of nascent nationalisms in Europe. The question is: to what extent are we really living in a post-nationalist world? In the Middle East, nationalism, or various forms of group/tribal/ religious identity, are still very much alive. To ignore that, and to expect Palestinian nationalists and radical Islamists to begin overnight to act and think like members of the ACLU, who want nothing more than a neutral “state of all its citizens” based solely upon individual rights, would be a foolhardy misreading of reality, tantamount to suicide.
Even in Europe, the recent case of Yugoslavia, and the bitter warfare among its different ethnic groups a mere decade ago, bear witness to the vitality—for better or worse—of national and ethnic identity. And there are many other ethnic groups struggling for recognition and cultural expression in the “new” Europe. Centrifugal and centripetal forces wrestle one another powerfully throughout the world. Hence, it seems rather premature to say Kaddish for the idea of nationalism (more on this point below).
But more than that: those who argue that Israel is an anomaly evidently need a refresher course in modern Jewish history, and in the nature of Jewish identity. Zionism emerged as a solution to what was called in its day “the Jewish problem”: the discrimination and worse confronted by Jews, as individuals and as a collectivity, wherever they went. The basic idea was that, so long as Jews were not masters of their own fate, sovereign in their own state, they would be subject to the caprices and arbitrary decisions of an often hostile world.
There are those who have suggested that a liberal, democratic, open society provides a better solution to the problem of minority existence than does nationalism. Thus, for example, Tony Kushner, editor of the anthology, Wrestling with Zion, invokes the example of homosexuals, who have begun to enjoy a certain degree of acceptance in the Western democracies thanks to the principles of tolerance and equality before the law.
Admittedly, the degree of openness, pluralism, and tolerance found today in, for example, American society, was hardly foreseen by the founding fathers of Zionism. Nevertheless: Jews have learned, through centuries of persecution, a certain feeling of suspicion towards the non-Jewish world; that even the most liberal, accepting, tolerant society can change in unexpected ways. The Jewish state was conceived, first and foremost, as a safe haven from such upheavals. The Golden Age of Spain came to an end in pogroms, inquisition, and expulsion. Closer to our own time, Germany, through much of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, was a liberal, progressive society, the dynamic center of European humanism—in music, in philosophy, in literature, in scientific and humanistic research. Then, within a period of a few decades, things turned around. Dark elements and motifs in Germanic culture—whose seeds were, in retrospect, present all along, albeit in muted form, living an underground existence—emerged and dominated society. The end of that story is known to all of us.
In truth, there are elements of xenophobia and hatred and jingoism in every culture—including American culture. The struggle between good and evil, between love and hate, between acceptance and generosity, and suspicion and self-protectiveness, are present in every human soul, and writ large represent a potential threat in every human society (Israeli society included).
But there is more to Zionism than paranoia and fear of the “goyim.” Jews are an ethnic-national-religious-cultural group with a long history, whose culture and collective existence and culture can best be realized in the framework of a nation-state. Zionism was born, if you will, out of a sense of being “fed up” with Galut, with Exile, and in the desire to create a healthier, more natural firm of existence. Moreover, what some see as the advantage of open, democratic societies—its ability to accept and assimilate all varieties of humankind—is itself its down side for those passionately devoted to promulgating and developing their own particularistic culture. Jewish life in the modern, open Diaspora is a constant uphill struggle for group survival and continuity—hopefully, without rendering one’s children neurotic through the contradictions involved in the posture of “participate and enjoy the broader culture, but….”
The other day, I listened to Corinne Elal on the radio, singing her haunting rendition of Ein li Eretz Aheret, “I Have No Other Country.” This prompted reflections on the fact that Israel has created a generation of Jews who have a sense of true rootedness in a particular place. I thought of the contrast to someone like George Steiner, a brilliant intellectual, almost an archetype of a certain breed of modern cosmopolitan Jews, who has declared rootlessness a virtue; he has often spoken of the fact that wandering, the condition of having no country, has sharpened the sensitivity of the Jew, honing both his critical faculties and his capacity for empathy: hence the preponderance of Diaspora Jews in such fields as sociology, psychology, literary criticism, and other disciplines based on a critical, outsider perspective. Yet somehow, there seems to me something more healthy, natural, in the simple sense of the tzabar that “We are here; this is ours,” and in leaving behind all the neuroses of the modern Diaspora Jew. I think of my son, who spends every possible free day or even half-day exploring the country, on tiyyulim (nature treks), discovering his homeland with his feet.
The question of the rationale for Zionism brings us to the heart of the problem of Jewish identity. Is Judaism (or Jewishness) a nation or a religion? The only answer that seems to me both honest and factual, is that it is both, or either, almost as the person chooses. In other words, it is a strange combination of religion and nationhood, a kind of hybrid beast. Israeli author A. B. Yehoshua recently said that “we drive the world crazy” because of our strange identity, which is a mélange of religion and nationhood; that this is somehow one of the roots of our ongoing problems in the Middlre East. But what can we do? This is who we are.
This dual concept has both a long history and a deep logic of its own. Rabbenu Saadya Gaon said that “Israel is a nation by virtue of its Torah, its religion.” Rav Soloveitchik spoke of a dual covenant: one of destiny, into which ever Jew is born willy-nilly, and one of purposefulness, of meaning, expressed through mitzvot and Jewish action. The idea underlying this classic concept is that, if religion is truly significant, then society and national existence and social norm, and not only the private realm of the individual, must also reflect it. If God is real, then He is ultimately the only true reality (a notion of which we have spoken here often in terms of Hasidic thought), and God-consciousness must pervade all areas of life. (The problem is how that may be squared with the values of a liberal, open society, and how to assure that this does not lead to the all-too-well-known cruelty of fanaticism and religious zealotry. This is an important problem, but far too vast to discuss here now.)
The simple fact is, that the world is filled with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of atheist, agnostic, and religiously indifferent Jews, whose Jewish identity is shaped by a combination of history, language, territory, ethnic identity, nostalgia, self-conscious alienation, etc. On the other hand, there are many Jews who define their being so in purely religious terms—but the liturgy they pray is filled with phrases that indicate that their faith group is constituted by blood links: “God and God of our fathers… God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…” Even the proselyte, who chooses to be Jewish out of purely religious conviction, becomes so through a ceremony of symbolic rebirth as a Jew (mikveh=womb)—and he/she is halakhically as much a part of the Jewish nation/ethnos as any born Jew.
The bulk of Judt’s article is devoted to an analysis, not so much of the theoretical basis of Zionism, but to a harsh critique of the current Israel government’s policies. Readers of these pages will know that I share many of his concerns about our government’s actions. But this is neither the time nor the place for a full-scale discussion of this topic. I will only relate in brief to a few of the points he makes, and conclude with some remarks about nationalism.
Judt quotes Avraham Burg’s remarks that, “After two thousand years of struggle for survival, the reality of Israel is a colonialist state, run by a corrupt clique which scorns and mocks law and civic morality.” And Judt continues: “Unless something changes, in half a decade, Israel will be neither Jewish nor democratic.” I share his fears. I see the de-facto annexation of the territories—or worse, their being left in a kind of political limbo for nearly two generations—as the Mother of all of Israel’s Sins. Yeshayahu Leibowitz was prophetic in decrying it from the very beginning; for too long, his was a lone voice crying in the wilderness. The occupation of the territories has led to a variety of ills—ranging from the grating everyday humiliation of the roadblocks and closures of villages, through the disruption of everyday life and such things as medical service, family life, schooling, etc., and through the random killing of innocent bystanders—that make the life of the Palestinian civilians intolerable, and which it is difficult to justify on any grounds. But this does not mean that Israel’s existence per se is invalid, as I explain above.
He continues: “The two state solution —the core of the Oslo process and the present ‘road-map’—is probably already doomed…. The true alternative[s]… [are] between an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel and a single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians… Most of the readers of this essay live in pluralist states which have long since become multiethnic and multicultural.”
Yes, the situation is bad, and the tendency of many of Israel’s leaders to see “gaining time” as a virtue in and of itself, contributes to this—as if the problem will go away if we ignore it. (The recent rejection of Sharon’s disengagement plan is just one more such backwards step.) True, the two-state solution cannot be jump-started at this point. But to my mind, much of the blame still goes to Arafat’s stubbornness at Camp David in 2000, which many Western critics of Israel have either forgotten or misinterpret—but that’s not really the point now. Sharon’s policies over the past three years have contributed to the impasse by declaring the PA irrelevant, avoiding any direct discussions, and generally doing everything possible to prevent the two-state solution, to which it has theoretically declared its commitment, with its “painful compromises” and the necessity of withdrawing from the territories and dismantling settlements.
The problem is that the idea of a binational state, in any foreseeable future, is even more unrealistic and unworkable. There is so much hatred, so much fear of the other, between the two peoples, that it is difficult to imagine them settling down to becoming one happy, tolerant family. There are very real fears, of many Jews in Israel, of Arab irredentism even within the ‘67 borders; that once they gain the upper hand they will persecute us in far more extreme and primitive ways than we ever did to them. Much of popular Islamic teaching about Jews and Judaism, promulgated in the mosques and schools within Palestine and in many of the neighboring Arab states, is filled with primitive stereotypes equating Jews to pigs and monkeys. It remains to be proven that they have abandoned their dream of a Judenrein Middle East.
All this, not to mention the desire of each people for the state in which they live to bear the impress of their particular national culture (but here we run into a philosophical question: is a state merely a formal, administrative tool, or is it the bearer and promulgator of a particular national culture). Then there is the obvious question of what language will be used, what national holidays celebrated, historical memories, “civic religion,” etc. Shall the Jews, after 2000 years of Exile, having at least realized a secular version of the Return to Zion, be asked to relinquish their sovereignty in the name of a dubious binational state, or perhaps federation between “equal partners”?
All one can realistically hope for at this point is de-escalation of the warfare and very slow steps to rebuild trust. Sharon’s plan for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza would be a good step in that direction, if I believed that he was sincere in moving things in that direction. But, alas, it seems quite clear that he is not. Not only the Right Wing in Israel, but also Arab spokesman, such as MK Muhammed Baraka, have spoken out against it because it denies Palestinians any voice in the self-determination of their fate (which still is basic political principle in any decent society).
Yet another one of Judt’s arguments relates to the “New anti-Semitism” in Europe. He writes that the Jewish state is “holding non-Israeli Jews hostage for its own actions. Anti-Semitism in Europe “is primarily attributable to misdirected efforts, often by young Muslims, to get back at Israel.”
Factually true. There is a certain irony in the fact that Israel, which was originally conceived as a safe haven for all of world Jewry, now seems to be, not only less safe than many places in the West, but the indirect cause of much violence against Jews and even, it may be argued, the focus of much tension and unrest in the world generally (given that Islamic terror consistently paints Israel and the U.S. as its main enemies, the “Little Satan” and the “Big Satan”). But to conclude from this that one ought to dismantle or dejudaize Israel is suspiciously like blaming the victim.
I would like to comment about the almost universal Left-wing support of the Palestinian cause. My entire life, I have been a man of the Left, somewhere in that vague region between “social democrat” and “democratic socialist.” Yet I cannot avoid the clear sense that the Left’s position on this question is based less on a serious study of the problem, than it is on the reflexive assumption that any cause that can present itself as “Third World” is automatically justified; that Palestinian rage is equivalent to the righteous anger of the colonized against the colonizer, and that Israel’s position is like that of the French in Algeria. Yet the position of much of the Arab world is based as much or more upon religious fanaticism, intolerance, blind hatred, and old-fashioned anti-Semitism, as it is on legitimate oppression. The present Intifada came in the wake of serious and earnest peace talks which, to all appearances, failed because of the unwillingness of the Palestinian side to accept any proposal short of total capitulation to their demands. Bernard Lewis and others have attempted to understand the roots of Islamic extremism. As implied by the title of one of his books, What Went Wrong?, something went dreadfully wrong with Arab culture in its encounter with the modern world, something which the categories of traditional Left Wing analysis—and even those of “post-modern, post-colonialist, post-Marxist” thought—fail to understand. Some writers about the “new anti-Semitism” assume that the Arab world learned it from Europe. There is in fact a long history of indigenous Islamic anti-Semitism as well, going back to Muhammed’s jibes against the Jews of Koraish for not helping him in his military ventures. Albeit only rarely as virulent and murderous as medieval Christian anti-Semitism, it was nevertheless based on a deep lack of respect for the other as an equal. (There were also forced conversions at times, and even slaughter of Jews. To turn in passing to our theme for the year: the Maimonides family was forced to leave, first Spain, and then North Africa, due to the fanatical Almohyad regime.) The dominant model for dealing with minorities in Islam was the theory of the Dhimmi—that of the tolerated minority, consigned an inferior status with second-class rights.
Alongside the “new anti-Semitism” of the working class Muslim immigrant workers in Europe, there is a new, “politically correct” anti-Semitism of the Left Wing intelligentsia, which treats Israel as a pariah state. At Concordia University in Montreal, Muslim and Left Wing students tried—successfully, for a certain period—to prevent an Israeli speaker from speaking on campus, and even to ban the activities of Hillel generally. Charges of “racism” and “fascism” were invoked in a mindless kind of way against the Jewish student group. Several countries in Europe have adopted an (official or unofficial) academic boycott against Israel. The irony is that Israelis who are among the most outspoken opponents of the Sharon government, such as long-time peace activist and translator Miriam Schlesinger, who was removed from the editorial board of a British translator’s journal, have been banned simply because they are Israelis. Similarly, a Dutch filmmaker refused to allow his film about trafficking in women to be shown at a conference of anti-trafficking activists in Israel—again, simply because it was Israel (albeit he later changed his mind). How does all this square with the principles of academic freedom, tolerance, and free discussion and exchange of ideas which such liberal groups allegedly support? It is hard to escape the feeling that the so-called “moral” and “ethical” outrage at Israel, and Jews, is totally incommensurate with that applied elsewhere. The same Britain which looks down at Israel, certainly did not show one-tenth the tolerance for IRA violence in Northern Ireland that it expects Israel to display to Palestinians and even to the Hamas!
I find myself reluctantly coming to the sad conclusion that the attitudes of many Leftists are motivated by a peculiar psychological mechanism, in which they automatically support Third World, brown-skinned people. The roots of this lie more in Western guilt, and in anger at the US, and especially at President Bush, than any real consideration of the relevant facts. Indeed, Bush’s obvious shortcomings, and his pompous rhetoric, seem to blind many intelligent people from giving serious consideration to the reality of the threats of which he speaks. In other words: terror—specifically, Islamic terror—constitutes a real threat to our world, even if the person who talks about it most sounds like a Yahoo!
At the risk of sounding supercilious, one might say that today, the real difference between “Right” and “Left” is that, whereas the “Right Wing” is automatically patriotic and supports its own interests, blaming the Other in any conflict, being “Left Wing” is equated with automatic blame of self, and the assumption that the “Other” is right. I can understand where this is coming from: the ethical idea that sympathy for the other is in itself praiseworthy. But when it becomes an automatic reflex, without real judgment or knowledge of the particulars of an often complex situation, a case of “leaning over backwards,” it is foolish, neurotic—and worse. Moreover, it has nothing to do with authentic Left politics and program, which in my book means the attempt to build a more just and equitable society, particularly in the economic sphere. In what way are Osama bin Laden, Hasan Nasralla or Yassir Arafat building any more equitable or socialistic a future than Sharon or Netanyahu?
Incidentally, what I have described as the stereotypic Right wing position—jingoistic patriotism, xenophobia, and seeing one’s own country as being in the right, is in a sense rooted in a kind of simple psychological health: the instinct of self-preservation instinct and the simple wish to live. “If I am not for myself, who shall be for me?” Fortunately, in the real world, a person can hopefully make subtler decisions than either of these two.
I would like to conclude by extending the discussion to some broader implications of the question with which we opened: why Israel, and why nationalism? Judt states that we live in a post-nationalist world, one of “individual rights, open frontiers and international law.” Indeed, the bon ton among progressive intellectuals today tends to be universalist. For many, the ideal trend of the future seems to be a model in which the individual identifies with no specific national community, but only with all of humanity. The question in my mind is whether this trend is a positive one, or not. It is interesting that this is occurring at the same time that we are also experiencing the gradual—or not-so-gradual—erosion of the family as an institution. It is politically correct among the Left to mock those that support “family values”—which is admittedly used mostly by the Religious Right in America—and to support all those programs that are rooted in an individualistic, libertarian approach to family and sexuality—gay liberation, the “pro-choice” approach to abortion, radical gender feminism, etc. Taking all these factors together, we face a situation in which the family, as the fundamental mini-community in which children are raised and socialized, and which may best be described as an intermediate stage between the individual and the broader community, is also greatly reduced in its influence.
The end result is that the liberal Left today, at least within the developed countries, has become the champion of radical individualism. Individual rights seem to have become the be-all and end-all of legal theory. (To cite two small examples that shocked me: liberal thinkers in Israel were among the opponents of a Good Samaritan Law, i.e., one obligating a person to help another individual in danger, such as to call for help in the case of a traffic accident or to save a drowning person. Why? Philosophically, because it involves the imposition of obligations that restrict the individual’s freedom—and liberals today evidently believe in an absolute minimum of obligations imposed by society on the individual. This aspect of the current Zeitgeist is likewise expressed by many drivers in Germany, who objected in principle to speed limits because they limit their “right” to drive 80 or 90 mph on the autobahn.)
Carrying this concept to its logical conclusion, in the absence of either the family or the nation as natural communities that command the individual’s allegiance, we are left with a world in which the individual ‘s only moral allegiance is to “humankind” as a whole. This is a wonderful, truly “universal” utopian vision—but given the vastness of humankind and the near-impossibility of actualizing such a commitment in reality in any meaningful way, the practical meaning is that each individual, in practice, lives for him or herself alone. As in so many other phenomenon: the most sublime idealism is dialectally transformed into the coarsest selfishness (in much the same way as happened to Marxian communism). The unspoken fear of many liberals is that talk of collectivity is “fascist.” But Fascism has a specific meaning; the manipulation of national feeling for totalitarian purposes—often, or specifically, to serve the economic interests of small elite. True, the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century were all based on a strong, centralized, “collectivist” state. Yet, ironically, capitalism, which is supposedly the watchword of the Right, is by its nature radically individualistic. In its classical form, there is no innate rationale at all for social responsibility; Homos economicus engages in a war of all on all, and the hidden hand of Adam Smith will straighten things out by itself. Or else, the poor will benefit from Milton Friedman’s “drip-down” effect (which is used to justify “growth” as only criteria of economic policy). By contrast, real communalism (which must include nationalism), which by rights should be the precursor to socialism, supposedly the sine qua non of Leftist thought, is dismissed as “fascistic.”
There is a new communitarian movement, in the United States and elsewhere, that is opposing this trend, trying to rebuild community, but not in the reactionary, repressive mode of the Right Wing, which seems based on nostalgia for the 19th century world of small-town America that is gone forever. I do not know how strong this movement is. Michael Lerner, of Tikkun magazine, has written some interesting things about this subject, as have many others.
In Israel, there are additional, special factors turning people away from talk of “the nation” or “the collectivity of Israel”: several generations of nation-building using collective rhetoric, of youth movement education, of a culture which left little room for the individual, have fostered a counter-reaction, leaving a younger generation of Israelis wanting room for themselves as individuals. Hopefully, this will only be a temporary phenomenon, and the pendulum will eventually begin to swing back to a more tolerant ethic, that combines national responsibility with room for differences.
Incidentally, the so-called “universalism” or “globalism” championed by today’s liberals is as likely as not to result in America writ large as its default option. And by this, I mean the America of Baywatch, Coca Cola and MacDonalds—not anything profound or culturally rich, but the superficialities of a mass-packaged culture based on buying and selling.
I will add a brief comment about the implications of these changes for the spiritual life: the Achilles heel of some of the best spiritual teaching going around today, including some movements in Judaism, is that it is almost entirely focused on the individual: Judaism freely chosen by the individual (I believe this is part of the “paradigm shift” described by Zalman Schachter). Of course this may be the sociological reality today, but is it desirable? Do we really want to remove such concepts as Klal Yisrael and the Masorah community off the map of what we teach? That, too, is also an implication of the new individualism.
Hasidism and Zionism
Israel Independence Day seems an appropriate time to say a few words on the complex subject of Hasidism’s approach to Zionism. It is a vast subject, which has more to do with religious politics and sociology of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries than it does with Hasidic thought per se. For those interested, a good deal has been written on the subject, both by academic historians and by partisans actively involved in the ideological fray. A few titles (almost all of which involve the interaction of other Orthodox groups with Zionism as well as Hasidut) are: Yitzhak Alfasi’s Hasidut ve-Zion, Shimon Federbusch’s Torah u-Melukha, Aviezer Ravitzky’s Ha-Ketz ha-Meguleh, Yosef Salmon’s Dat ve-Zionut, as well as various titles by Ehud Luz, Dov Schwartz, and others.
It is well-known that Hasidism includes within its ranks some of the most virulently anti-Zionist groups in the Jewish world—most notably Satmar, Toldot Aharon and Munkacs. But it in fact spans the entire gamut of opinion, the largest group adhering to the “middle-of-the-road” Agudat Yisrael, which adheres to a non-Zionist or a-Zionist ideology, based in equal measure on the belief that “the Redeemer has not yet come” and its rejection of the overt secularism of the dominant groups in Zionism. This bloc includes such large courts as Belz, Ger, Vizhnitz and, in a rather different way, Lubavitch; these groups have by-and-large come to a practical accommodation with the state, and have learned to use their political clout (some of these groups number in the tens of thousands, and run impressive institutional networks) and the possibilities of Knesset representation to their advantage.
But there are also Hasidic groups who enthusiastically embraced Zionism. Immediately following Independence, in 1948, there were a significant number of rebbes who felt the hand of God in these redemptive events. My friend Rav Aryeh Strikovsky provided me with a short list of “Hasidic rebbes who say Hallel on Yom ha-Atzmaut,” past and present. These include: several of the “Admorim” of Rozhin, especially “Reb Shlomenyu”; the previous Modzhitzer Rebbe; rather surprisingly, the late R. Barukh Rabinowitz of Munkacs (official rabbi of Holon in the ‘40s and ‘50s); and, in our day, the Rebbes of Monistrizh, of Medzibozh (home of the Baal Shem Tov), Siatin (Husyatin?), Filtz, and R. Elimelekh Shapira, the present Piaseczno Rebbe. Another particularly interesting figure was Rabbi Avraham Teichtal, a former Munkacs hasid who “converted” to Zionism after the Holocaust and wrote a theological treatise entitled Eim Habanim Semeiha in defense of Zionism.
Several of the central figures of early religious Zionism came from Hasidic background. While they generally broke with the established Rebbes, they felt a deep emotional tie to Hasidism, which energized and motivated their Zionism. These include: R. Shmuel Hayyim Landau (Shahal), a central figure of Mizrachi in the ‘20s and ‘30s, who coined the concept Hamered Hakadosh (“The Holy Rebellion”); Rav Moshe Zvi Neriah, founder of Kfar Haroeh and of the network of B’nai Akiva yeshivot; and such Rabbinic literary figures as Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin and Rav Elimelekh Bar-Shaul.
A unique figure, deserving of special attention, was R. Yeshayahu Shapira, known as Admor ha-Halutz, the “Pioneer-Rebbe” (brother of the sainted R. Kalonymus Kalman of Piaseczno, author of Esh Kodesh, who was murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto). He came to Israel in the 1920s, where he organized work brigades enabling religious Jews, who felt uncomfortable and faced concrete halakhic difficulties participating in the regular work brigades, to participate in some of the basic projects involved in building the country and reclaiming the land. He worked alongside them, while at night he sang Hasidic songs with them and taught Torah. Later he was director of the Zerubavel Bank, but he left that position to work the land at Kfar Pines. But there were also ideological roots to the conflict, on both sides. On the one hand, by the point in history at which political Zionism emerged, Hasidism had become quite conservative in its social attitudes. By this time, the bitter polemics and conflict between Mitnaggedism and Hasidism had become muted and rather low-key, and they joined forces against the secularist opponent. All of the various modernist options found in Eastern Europe for a new kind of Jewish identity—socialism (Bund), Haskalah, assimilation, and Zionism—were perceived as threatening to the religious tradition, and most of those involved were seen to have abandoned their religious observance. Moreover, the traditional ideology of supernatural redemption and the “three oaths” seemed to rule out any human-initiated return to Zion.
On the other hand, those who did become Zionists found support for it within the Hasidic concept of avodah begashmiut, of realizing holiness through concrete action within the world. The subtle dialectics of Hasidic thought opened the way to reinterpretation of the messianic idea, to perceiving God acting in hidden, immanent ways through the events of “secular” history. Thus, Rav Kook—although he came from a non-Hasidic background and studied at the Volozhin yeshivah, perhaps the classical Lithuanian yeshivah of his day—seemed to express what might be called a Hasidic spirit, in his perception of the underlying holiness of the Zionist enterprise.