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Zionism: Going Back to Our Roots

מאגר מידע » ציונות » Zionism General

This article attempts to trace and explain, why after so many thousands of years of hoping or a return to Zion, that hope should be translated into reality.

There can be no argument that Zionism and the Zionist Movement has revolutionized Jewish existence in the twentieth century. It brought together the ancient hopes and yearnings of a Jewish return to the Land of Israel by the creation of a modern, political movement. No one can doubt the depth and intensity of the bond between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. Over the centuries there has always been a Jewish community there, and there has always been a trickle of Jews corning to live and die in the Holy Land. Had this link not existed, had Israel not been part of the essence of the Jewish value system, then the Jewish people would have become a mere religious community. It should also be remembered that Jews were singled out from the majority Christian and Moslem communities in which they resided, not only because of their distinct religious beliefs, but because of their ties with the land of their foreparents. Consequently the Jews were considered by themselves -and others -as not just a minority, but a minority in exile.
However, despite these feelings of an emotional, cultural and religious bond, this link with Palestine did not change the basis of Jewish life in the diaspora. The Jews might pray three times a day for deliverance, which would both transform the world and also transport them to Jerusalem but they did not emigrate there.
The Jewish people clearly did not relate to the vision of the Return to Zion in an active way. Jewish religious thought even evolved a theoretical construct, aimed at legitimizing this passivity; Divine Providence, not human intervention, should determine when and how the Jews will be redeemed from exile.
So here lies a paradox: Jews had a feeling of attachment to the Land of Israel, yet maintained a passive attitude to any practical or operational consequences of this commitment.
It is only in the latter half of the nineteenth century that an active movement for Jewish return to Palestine appears. This culminates with the emergence of Zionism as a political force and leads to the establishment of the State of Israel; an event which has radically changed the course of Jewish history.
The question we must ask is how Zionism came about. How did this link between Jews and Palestine change from a dormant, passive hope to practical reality? Why precisely in the secularized atmosphere of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did this bond become a potent force for action?
The most common explanation, by both Zionists and anti-Zionists, relates to the emergence of Zionism in the nineteenth century to the outbreak of anti-Semitism in Europe. This clearly cannot explain Zionism; Jewish history is a chronicle of discrimination at the hands of Christians and Moslems alike, long before the rise of modern racist theories of anti-Semitism. Jews were persecuted under the Visigoths and Byzantines, massacred during the Crusades, expelled from England and France and then, traumatically from Spain and Portugal; they were not allowed to reside in imperial cities in the Holy Roman Empire; forcibly converted in Portugal and Persia alike; made to wear distinctive clothes and barred from holding public office in Christian Italy and Moslem Morocco. In all these cases, the Jews reacted with resignation and by immigration to other countries, but not to Palestine.
To be able to comprehend why Jews turned to Zion in the late nineteenth century, it is necessary to look at what happened to the Jews in the nineteenth century. If one compares 1815 to 1914, it becomes blatantly and obvious that economically, socially, politically and intellectually it was a revolutionary century for the Jews. A people who could be described as almost outside history, were propelled into the centre of European life.
With the French Revolution and the Emancipation, at long last the walls of the European ghettos started to crumble. Until 1815, hardly any Jewish person had had a major impact on European politics, philosophy, finance or medicine, the arts or the law. A history of Europe need not contain more than a passing reference to the existence of the Jews -one hundred years later the story was very different.
Here again, we face another contradiction: if this period was so good for the Jews, why did it give rise to a movement that attempted to uproot the Jews from the continents in which they had resided, albeit precariously, for 2,000 years.
In the nineteenth century there was still a Jewish problem. It was not a continuation of the dilemmas faced by the Jews in non-Jewish society prior to 1789. These problems were in fact, a consequence of the Enlightenment and Emancipation.
Enlightenment and secularization changed the perception of Jews both of themselves and how they were perceived. Prior to this period, identity was seen in terms of religious beliefs. Since the political structure of Christian society expressed the religious tenets of a Christian State, the Jews had to be excluded, although to a certain extent still tolerated. The price for this toleration was a clearly-defined and legitimized discrimination. Additionally the Jew had no wish to be a member of a society whose basic tenets she repudiated. Those Jews who did not convert, opted for the marginal status allocated to them.
In this unequal and hierarchical equilibrium, Judaism was able to exist for almost two millenia. The basic principles of this equilibrium and apartness of Jews were internalized by both Jew and non-Jew alike.
The Enlightenment and the reverberation of the French Revolution disrupted this equilibrium. Secularization and liberalism opened European society for Jews as equals. Equality before the Law and the relegation of religion to the realm of private concerns meant that the State no longer viewed itself as Christian, but as encompassing every citizen, regardless of their religious beliefs. It was this revolution that catapulted the Jews from their marginal status to their central and salient positions towards the end of the century.
It was precisely this opening of society which created a whole new set of dilemmas for the Jews.
The area of education provides a good example of these dilemmas. With Emancipation, Jewish parents could now send their children to the general schools which had become secularized. No longer were they Christian schools: religious education, insofar as it was offered, was just one subject amongst many and Jewish children could be excused from it. These apparently reasonable, decent and liberal solutions left some very basic problems of identity. As school was open on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, Jewish parents and pupils were confronted with coping with an educational system that conflicted with Jewish tenets about the Sabbath. Should the child go to school on the Sabbath? Should the child write? (something expressly forbidden in Jewish tradition). What if there were exams on Saturdays? To all these dilemmas thousands of separate answers were given by Jewish parents and pupils. What matters is not the individual solutions, but the problems of Jewish identity which had not been solved by liberalism and tolerance. In a way, they had been exacerbated.
Being Jewish no longer meant a single, sometimes heroic, decision to stand by one's conviction. Rather it became a series of innumerable daily decisions, bringing out the difference and distinction within equality in hundreds of individual decisions. These problems faced Jews in every aspect of their lives; in education, in business and in their social activities.
To this specifically modem dilemma of identity in the context of liberalism must be added another set of predicaments. These were brought about by nationalism. The modem, secularized and educated Jews having shed much of his/her particular characteristics, was nonetheless faced with the difficulty of relating to non-Jewish society. For all its adherence to universalistic principles, modern society viewed its own identity in terms of national integration and cohesion. If people ceased to view themselves primarily as Christians and their neighbours as Jews, they began to view themselves as French, Germans, Russians, Poles or Hungarians.
It was into this world of growing nationalism that the modern, emancipated Jew entered, only to be confronted by completely new dilemmas of identity.
Still there remained the question of whether the Jewish people could regard themselves, or be regarded by others, as French or Polish or German. While the principles of the French Revolution were universalistic in outlook, the fact remained that modem nationalism was in contrast exclusivist.
Imagine the problem of a modern, emancipated Jewish family in the mid-nineteenth century in Lithuania. They want to send their child to school for a general education but to which school? The area is part of the Czarist Empire, hence the State school is a Russian school. However, there is a sizeable polish minority which has its own school, as does the German minority with its Gymnasium, offering the best German education and German identity. Then of course there is the awakening nationalism of the Lithuanian population, with an emerging school system of its own. So the Jewish parents, not wanting to give their child a 'Jewish' education, discover that they are unable to give the child a general or universalistic education either.
It is not surprising that the first attempt to write a modem, secular, yet biblical historical novel in Hebrew emerged in Lithuania, out of the dilemmas of identity and cross-currents of contending nationalisms. If both the Poles and Lithuanians could delve into their history and forge their own modem, national identity, why could Jews not follow this modem and liberating example!
The political movement of Zionism was preceded in Eastern Europe by a revival of the Hebrew language, as a non-religious literary medium. This development was anathema to the rabbis, who saw it as a desecration of the Holy Tongue. The origins of this movement are found in ethnically mixed Lithuania and later Galicia, where German nationalism contended with that of the Poles and Ukrainians.
In this nationalistically-charged atmosphere, the secular modem Jew began to ask for the origins of his/her culture; for the roots of his/her history. Jewish people began to extol the glories of Jerusalem; to ask whether they should not look into their past, just as members of other groups were doing.
So out of the dilemmas of Jewish identity, caused by emancipation, secularization, liberalism and nationalism, came the beginning of a new Jewish self-awareness. This self-awareness was no longer framed in any religious terms. The development of a modem Hebrew literature and the Jewish Haskalah (enlightenment) was the first step in that direction. The political Zionism of Leo Pinsker, Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau followed. It is no coincidence that, in all these founders of modem Zionism there appears again and again the same phenomenon: they were all products of European education, imbued with the current ideas of the European intelligentsia; they responded -just like the Black leaders in America a century later -to the challenge of their identity, looking for their roots.
Jews who were seeking mere survival and economic safety and success emigrated to America in the wake of the pogroms and pauperization. Those who went to Palestine were seeking to build and to be built. They were looking for self-determination, identity and national liberation, within the terms of post-1789 European culture and their newly-awakened self-consciousness.
Zionism is a post-Emancipation phenomenon, but at the same time it is based on a historical bond with the ancestral Land of Israel. It was made into an active historical-practical focus, a symbol that had been dormant in Jewish religious tradition. Jewish nationalism was the one specific aspect of the ideas unleashed by the French Revolution, by modernism and secularism. It was a response to the challenges of liberalism and nationalism, and cannot be explained as merely a response to anti-Semitism.
Zionism was, and is a fundamental revolution in Jewish life. It substituted a secular self-identity as a nation for the traditional, Orthodox self-identity in religious terms. It transformed a language relegated to a merely religious usage into the modem, secular mode of intercourse of a nation-State.
To explain how Zionism came about, it is necessary to look at the society that created it:
"Great revolutions which strike the eye at a glance must have been preceded by a quiet and secret revolution in the spirit of the age, a revolution not visible to every eye, especially imperceptible to contemporaries and as hard to discern as to describe in words. It is lack of acquaintance with this spiritual revolution which makes the resulting changes astonishing." (Hegel)
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