A threat from within:
New book describes a century of
Jewish opposition to Zionism
Yakov M. Rabkin
April 11, 2006
Do not utterly take the truth away from my mouth, for I have
put my hope in Your rules. (Psalms 119:43)
Jewish schools in France and Belgium are torched, synagogues in
Turkey and Tunisia are bombed. These are only among the most recent
consequences of the festering, century-long Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. But why have these attacks been aimed at targets in the
Jewish Diaspora? How can the Hasidic children of Antwerp or Cagny
be held responsible for the actions of Israeli soldiers in Jenin
But what, on the other hand, could be more normal than to associate
Jews with the State of Israel? Are not the Jews of the Diaspora
often seen as aliens, outsiders or perhaps even Israeli citizens
taking a long holiday far from "home"? Such insinuations
have always been dear to anti-Semites, for whom a world Jewish conspiracy
is an incontrovertible fact. But the linkage of Jews with the State
of Israel is also a theme popular with the Zionists, who, ever since
the creation of their political movement more than a century ago,
have claimed to be the vanguard of the entire Jewish people. Some
of them even assert that any threat to the survival of the State
of Israel is a threat to the survival of Jews throughout the world.
For them, Israel has become not only the guarantor but also the
standard-bearer of Judaism.
Reality, in the event, is far more complex.
The scene is downtown Montreal; the occasion, a massive demonstration
in commemoration of Israeli Independence Day. On one side of the
square, a compact group of Haredim in frock-coats and wide-brimmed
black hats brandish placards that proclaim: "Stop Zionism's
Bloody Adventure!", "The Zionist Dream has Become a Nightmare",
"Zionism is the Opposite of Judaism". The leaflets they
Worse than the toll of suffering, exploitation, death, and desecration
of the Torah, has been the inner rot that Zionism has injected into
the Jewish soul. It has dug deep into the essence of being a Jew.
It has offered a secular formulation of Jewish identity, as a replacement
for the unanimous belief of our people in Torah from Heaven. It
has caused Jews to view golus [exile] as a result of military weakness.
Thus, it has destroyed the Torah view of exile as a punishment for
sin. It has wreaked havoc among Jews both in Israel and America,
by casting us in the role of Goliath-like oppressors. It has made
cruelty and corruption the norm for its followers.
Thus, this, the fifth day of the Jewish month of Iyar, is a day
of extraordinary sadness for the Jewish people, and for all men.
It will be marked in many Orthodox circles with fasting and mourning
and the donning of sackcloth, as a sign of mourning. May we all
merit to see the peaceful dismantling of the state and the ushering
in of peace, between Muslims and Jews around the world. (Neturei
The pro-Israel demonstrators accuse them of treason, of not being
"real Jews." Still others attempt to rip the signs from
their hands. The riot squad is called in to separate the two Jewish
contingents. Similar scenes take place simultaneously in New York,
London and Jerusalem.
Such events may be local, but they throw light on a widely spread
phenomenon: the rejection of Zionism in the name of the Torah, in
the name of Jewish tradition. Such rejection is all the more significant
in that it can in no way be described as anti-Semitic, recent attempts
to conflate any expression of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism notwithstanding.
At first glance this seems to be a paradox. After all, the public
almost automatically associates Jews and Israel. The press continues
to refer to "the Jewish State." Israeli politicians often
speak "in the name of the Jewish people." Yet the Zionist
movement and the creation of the State of Israel have caused one
of the greatest schisms in Jewish history. An overwhelming majority
of those who defend and interpret the traditions of Judaism have,
from the beginning, opposed what was to become a vision for a new
society, a new concept of being Jewish, a program of massive immigration
to the Holy Land and the use of force to establish political hegemony
Curiously perhaps, both Zionist intellectuals and the Orthodox
rabbis who often oppose them agree that Zionism represents a negation
of Jewish tradition. Yosef Salmon, an Israeli authority on the history
of Zionism, writes: It was the Zionist threat that offered the gravest
danger, for it sought to rob the traditional community of its very
birthright, both in the Diaspora and in Eretz Israel, the object
of its messianic hopes. Zionism challenged all the aspects of traditional
Judaism: in its proposal of a modern, national Jewish identity;
in the subordination of traditional society to new life-styles;
and in its attitude to the religious concepts of Diaspora and redemption.
The Zionist threat reached every Jewish community. It was unrelenting
and comprehensive, and therefore it met with uncompromising opposition.
(Salmon 1998, 25)
This book presents readers with a history of the resistance to
the "unrelenting and comprehensive" threat of Zionism,
resistance whose conceptual bases, as we shall see, have changed
little in the last 120 years. It throws light on a vigorous, persistent
attitude, which the adherents of Zionism see, in turn, as a sacrilege.
The detractors of Zionism whom we will meet in these pages are not
all Jews in black frock coats. Their number includes all who base
their opposition on arguments of a Judaic nature: Hasidim and Mitnagdim,
Reform and Modern Orthodox Jews, Israelis and Diaspora Jews, even
some National Religious Jews who have begun to question their own
Zionist convictions. This work also explains how a commitment to
the Torah forms the common denominator for religious opposition
Most of the critics are rabbis who judge all aspects of Zionism
according to Judaic criteria they consider eternal. What distinguishes
those whose views are represented in this book from all other opponents
of Zionism (Shatz) is the centrality of Torah commandments and values
in their assessment of Zionism and Israel.
This book draws extensively on the rich tradition of rabbinical
thought. In Jewish life, the title of rabbi need not be a position
or an occupation but is a sign of Judaic scholarship. The wealth
and variety of views and interpretations that have come to typify
Judaism over the last two centuries, as well as its much older institutional
decentralization, make it imperative to present this very diversity,
even at the risk of an occasional repetition.
Jewish tradition holds that the only way to influence someone else's
behavior is through love and respect. However, the rejection of
Zionism is often interpreted as an act of treachery toward the Jewish
people. The rabbis of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue (2001a), in London,
clearly formulate the dilemma: "We seem to have to choose between
loyalty to our people and loyalty to God. Did not the Prophets love
their people? Yet they castigated its leadership. Did anybody ever
love the Jewish people more passionately than Jeremiah? Yet he condemned
their sins - and for that very reason - all the more passionately."
Indeed, the detractors of Zionism are often passionate; some go
as far as to diabolize both Zionism and the state that emerged from
The pious Jews who publicly criticize Zionism believe that they
are obliged to do so for two imperious reasons spelled out in Jewish
tradition. The first of these is to prevent desecration of the name
of God. And since the State of Israel often claims to be acting
on behalf of all the world's Jews, and even in the name of Judaism,
these Jews feel they must explain to the public, and primarily to
non-Jews, the falsehood of this pretension. The second commandment
is to preserve human life. By exposing the Judaic rejection of Zionism,
they hope to protect Jews from the outrage they believe the State
of Israel has generated among the nations of the world. They work
to prevent turning the world's Jews into hostages of Israeli policies
and their consequences. They insist that the State of Israel be
known as the "Zionist State" and not the "Jewish
This attempt to dissociate the destiny of the Jewish people from
the fate of the State of Israel belongs to a much broader set of
issues that extends well beyond the limits of Jewish history. Defining
identity as distinct from state institutions is a constant concern
of millions of human beings. The Jews have demonstrated that a people
can preserve its identity over the course of more than two millennia
without a state of its own and in conditions often threatening its
very physical survival. Has the emergence of Zionism and the State
of Israel so transformed the Jewish people as to bring its unique
history to an end? Could it be that Israel, in the light of Jewish
tradition, is not at all Jewish?
After sketching out a brief history of Zionism (Chapter 1) and
the way in which it has transformed the Jewish identity (Chapter
2), we compare how Jewish tradition and Zionist ideology view messianism
and the Land of Israel (Chapter 3). The Judaic legitimacy of the
use of force is compared with the ideas and the reality of the Zionist
enterprise in the Land of Israel for more than a century (Chapter
4). The political and economic hegemony established by the Zionists
during the first half of the twentieth century and the proclamation
of the State of Israel in 1948 created new challenges for practicing
Jews. Is it licit for them to collaborate with Zionist organizations?
Are they permitted to recognize the state and to contribute to maintaining
the new political entity? Chapter 5 offers a broad overview and
analysis of the different positions articulated around the question
The State of Israel was proclaimed in the long shadow of the Shoah,
which continues to be part of Israeli collective consciousness and
political life. Chapter 6 compares the place of the Shoah in Zionist
ideology with the lessons several eminent rabbis draw from the Shoah
and its connections with Zionism. Chapter 7 presents several critical
views of Israel's place in Jewish continuity, in the project of
messianic redemption and in the emergence of a "new anti-Semitism."
The diversity of opinions and positions characteristic of Jewish
life over the last two centuries - and which this book aspires to
lay before readers - should help the reader distinguish between
Judaism and Zionism, and thus undermine the myths and beliefs on
which anti-Semitism continues to thrive.
Yakov M Rabkin is a Professor of History at the University of
This article is excerpted from A Threat Within: A Century
of Jewish Opposition to Zionism, from Fernwood Publishing, January
2006, 262 pages, $24.95. ISBN 1-55266-171-7.
This fascinating book analyzes, within an historical and contemporary
perspective, the little-studied and little-known phenomenon of the
opposition of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews to both the Zionist movement
and the State of Israel. After half a century, when it seemed Zionist
secularism was gradually sweeping away everything before it, the
return of religion as an issue in world politics, together with
the new uncertainty about the fate of Israel, make a new work on
the haredi-Zionist conflict topical and relevant.
"Yakov Rabkin has produced an altogether remarkable book
that tells the story and analyzes the ideas of the Orthodox Jewish
movement opposed to Zionism and the State of Israel. I am enormously
impressed by the author's historical scholarship, by his brilliant
analysis of a complex literature and the lucidity of his prose.
This is an extraordinary book." - Dr. Gregory Baum, McGill
See also: A
Threat from Within: Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Review)
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