The Meaning of Zionism for the Diaspora

Arthur Hertzberg. Cross Currents. Volume 48, Issue 4. Winter 1998/1999.

Jews in the multi-ethnic future will need to redefine themselves in the larger society, as Theodor Herzl did for political Zionism.

The modern Zionist movement has never been at peace with the Diaspora. In all of its versions, it has taken its measure of the Diaspora and found it wanting. I need hardly mention the most incendiary assertion of modern Zionism, the “denial of the Diaspora”—that is, the insistence that the Diaspora must now come to an end so that the Jews could become a “normal people.” The cultural Zionists had their own troubles with the Diaspora. The most radical of them, like Micah Yosef Berdichevski and Yosef Chaim Brenner, wanted the “transvaluation of values” which would discard the many centuries of Jewish religion and culture as defined in the Galut. Even Ahad Ha’am, who wanted to preserve the Jewishness of the Diaspora, thought that its traditional culture was in its last day’s and that only a vigorous “spiritual center” in the land of Israel could furnish it with enough energy to survive. In sum, the Zionist doctors disagreed vehemently with each other about the future of the new Jews in the land of Israel, but all agreed that the Diaspora was sick, perhaps dying, and many even thought, with ideological vehemence, that it deserved to die.

I should like to suggest, in passing, that this was not a totally unprecedented set of judgments, even though the Zionist leaders and thinkers who advanced them thought that they were. Actually, these were replays, using modern rhetoric, of the relationship between the Jewish communities in the land of Israel and in the Diaspora that had prevailed for many centuries. By definition, the Jews who dwelt in the land of Israel had always felt they were living a more difficult life, but one much closer to Jewish authenticity. They were entitled to support from the Diaspora because they were doing holy work and living in great danger for the sake of hastening the Messiah. In fact, the Diaspora internalized this attitude. It accepted the judgment that its Jewish life was inferior to life in the land of Israel and that the truest Jewish wisdom could be attained only in the Holy Land. The traditional Diaspora accepted, much more universally than the modern Diaspora ever has, the notion that its destiny was to come to an end and be ingathered. On that miraculous day, those who were already in the land of Israel would deserve the honor of being in the front line to welcome the Messiah.

It was thus not difficult for the early Zionists to persuade themselves, and their followers, of their negative assessment of the Diaspora and of its culture. The question that does not seem to have been posed, at least not by the Zionists, is one that now seems self-evident. This uncreative and supposedly moribund Diaspora of one hundred years ago was the place in which Zionism in all its forms was fashioned. It was also the birth place of all the movements through which Jews have tried to define themselves in the modern era. It is in that supposedly uncreative Diaspora that the modern Yeshiva was fashioned in Lithuania by Chaim of Volozhin as an answer to the very beginnings of the age of doubt in the early 1800s. In Central Europe, a few years later, neo-Orthodoxy was defined by Samson Raphael Hirsch. Radical religious reform appeared in the middle of the century and it was soon followed by secular revolutionary movements within the Jewish community. Modern literature in both Yiddish and Hebrew arose in Central and Eastern Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century. The Jewish Socialist Bund and, for that matter, Simon Dubnov’s dream of Jewish autonomy in multi-ethnic states, were creations of the Diaspora at the end of the nineteenth century, in the very years when political Zionism was created. It is simply not true that the Diaspora, in a sort of last gasp, imagined Zionism and then prepared to say some kind of secular Kaddish for itself. The very contrary is true.

Zionism had to fight very hard in the Diaspora, and it never became a majority movement until the Hitler era. I know very well that the state of Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust, but it certainly is true that if the Holocaust had not happened (and be it remembered that it was not predicted by any Zionist leader from Herzl to Weizmann, not even by the most apocalyptic figure among them, Vladimir Jabotinsky), we would have had a Jewish world at the end of this century with large and intensely Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe. Even if the Jewish state now existed with a population of, let’s say, four or five million, it would be dwarfed by therest of the Jewish world. But more important still, let it be remembered that every single Jewish movement, whether religious or secular, that exists to this day in the Diaspora and in Israel was created by Jews in the nineteenth century and in the early, heroic days at the beginning of this century, in Odessa and Pinsk, in Warsaw, Berlin, and in Vienna. This Diaspora was seething, but not dying. It was under vast pressure from the anti-Semites, and millions of its people, especially the poor, were moving westward, yet it was not culturally sterile—quite the contrary. All the Jewish modernities that we possess, including the very modernities which are vehemently critical of the Diaspora, were fashioned in the Galut.

The first question that needs to be answered is: why was the Galut condemned by the Zionists? First of all, in actual fact, the Zionists did not invent the negation of the Galut. They may have expressed it in the rhetoric of nationalism, but disgust with the Galut had been growing for centuries. It was present, as Gershom Scholem has shown, in the most explosive movement of the seventeenth-century, the messianism of Shabtai Zvi. The latter found the existing, inherited Jewish life to be confining and wanted to lead the Jews toward a more spacious, more glorious new life. He wanted to replace the darkness of the Galut with the shining light of redemption. The relationship of the Hasidim to the messianic impulse is a matter about which scholars are still arguing and, even though I am myself descended from one of the founders of the Hasidic movement, I do not think that biology entitles me to an opinion in the debate among learned specialists. Nonetheless, whether or not the founders of Hasidism in the eighteenth-century were trying to bring the Messiah, it is clear, beyond doubt, that they wanted to raise their adherents beyond the nasty lives Jews were forced to live to a realm of inward nobility. Perhaps this is the explanation, at least in part, for their insistence on wearing the garb of eighteenth-century Polish nobility.

The most immediate and direct source of Zionism’s bad temper with the Galut is the major Jewish response to the Emancipation from its very beginnings in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Those elements in the Jewish community that were most eager to be integrated into the wider society wanted a radical change in the economic and cultural life of the ghetto. They wanted to “productivize’ the Jewish poor by teaching them to farm or to be artisans. They wanted to wrench them from the supposedly narrow and sick culture of the Jewish ghetto and bring them out of its “darkness” into the “light” of Western culture. The Zionists were, thus, the heirs of a century of Jewish response to the Emancipation when they imagined that the new Jewish culture in the homeland should be radically other than the culture of the ghetto. What has been less noticed is that the mass migration of Jews to the West, and primarily to the United States, a century ago, equally represented this revolt against the culture of the Galut. The early kibbutzim in Palestine, which proudly excluded all traces of religious piety, had their parallel in dances on Yom Kippur night, in defiance of the solemn fast day, that were given by anarchists and other godless people in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia at the turn of the century.

Many of the immigrant generation had come to America to cast aside their links with the European Jewish community and the culture from which they came. Some did maintain connections, building synagogues and institutions in which they affirmed themselves as carrying on the past, but there was enough rejection so that the American Jewish community was not constructed in the image of the European communities from which these immigrants had just come. Even many religious Jews among the immigrants fought bitterly against recreating in America the kehillah, the overarching Jewish community structure which could coerce individual Jews. They preferred the new American freedom of independent congregations which were controlled by their laities. The American Jews were as new in Jewish history, and as seemingly unprecedented, as the Second Aliya, the very secular wave of settlement which came to Palestine before the First World War. Both quite different phenomena were fueled by the abandonment, and even defiance, of the European Galut in which the immigrants to America and the founders of the kibbutzim in Palestine had been born.

This anger at the Galut was fueled by something else as well. In the notion that Jews needed to change radically in order to become “worthy of emancipation” there was the larger vision that the modern age was indeed the “end of history.” In the middle of the nineteenth century those Jews who were “reforming” their religion were certain that the new age of equal rights was the Messianic Era, and therefore, anything that the Jews might do to change themselves, even if it involved their eventual disappearance into the majority society, was worthwhile because it would help bring about the final redemption of mankind. The revolutionary socialists, in all of their varieties, had no doubt that the Jewish community would make its noble contribution, to itself and to the world, by disbanding into the classless society that the revolution was going to create. In turn, Theodor Herzl imagined that the Jews would make their peace with the world by becoming normal they would create a high-minded secular democracy and they would erase the remaining, and troubling, Jewish minorities in the world through total assimilation.

All of these solutions to “the Jewish problem” were very radical. They required the Jews to make profound, even cataclysmic, changes they had been prepared for over many centuries by hearing tales of how radical and shattering the coming of the Messiah would be. Those days would be preceded by terrible wars and the transforming of all relations among peoples. Now that the Messiah was making his appearance in the very processes of human history, radicalism was in vogue. Was not the new name of the Messiah Progress?

It would be foolish to pretend that I have read most or even a large minority of the hopeful messianic literature of the nineteenth century, and I certainly know that this hopeful mood was fought and resisted by many thinkers who denied that the dawn of the world’s redemption had come. But the dominant mood of the century was optimism. It is certainly reflected in various movements toward modernity within the Jewish community. In all this literature I have found not one turn of phrase —though I grant, again, that I have not yet read everything—which suggests that anyone among the optimists believed for a single moment that the modern era would have successors. This was not just another phrase in human history. It was its climax. And so, the basic doctrine of Israeli historiography was enunciated by Ben Zion Dinur, the founder of Jewish historical studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Jewish history was to be explained in three phases: the people Israel settles in this land; it is exiled and keeps waiting to return; it achieves the climax and resolution of its history by returning to its land.

In the very midst of this discussion of secular historiography, the student of Talmud I once was, full-time, will not let me skip over this midrash. The ancient rabbis said that if the Jews had not sinned, Jewish history would have ended with the sixth book of the Bible, the Book of Joshua—that is, with the conquest of the land of Canaan and its transformation into the “promised land” of the Hebrew people. Because the Jews sinned, the prophets had to arise to chastise them, the rabbis of the Talmud to teach them, and all the later writers to deal with the vicissitudes that have come upon us, to this day. I have always thought Ben Zion Dinur was really repeating this midrash, but he thought the vicissitudes had ended and that the new book of Joshua which would represent the end was being written in this century. The seal would finally be set upon the history of the Jews who would live for all ages to come in the quiet perfection of their own land, within their own culture. The total effect of the “denial of the Galut’ was to break the connection with the Jewish past between the last gasp of Jewish independence in the Holy Land, the Bar Kochba revolt in 131-135, and the beginnings of modern Zionism. The long-reigning Gentile contempt for the life of the Jews in exile, after the destruction of the Temple, was thus internalized. The Christians had found the reason in Christ-rejection; the new anti-Semites had found the fault in the indelibly inferior Jewish nature; the Zionists now blamed their ancestors for not having fought their way back to the land.

I have reviewed this history to question two fundamental propositions. I do not believe that the modern age is the end of history and I do not believe in the denial of the Galut. I want to rethink what we have lost in the denial of the Galut and what illusions we have created for ourselves by the notion that the Messianic age is upon us. I maintain that the clock of history has not stopped and that we are living with the gray, and heroic, realities of keeping the life of our people going, in various forms, both in its own land and in the Galut. We must regain the links with fifteen centuries of Jewish experience in the Diaspora, and we must learn to live without the dangerous and often fatal illusion that the Messianic era is almost upon us.

These convictions come out of a different vision, a different “narrative” of Jewish history, to use the term in vogue nowadays. Our people has had a serious encounter with all the major civilizations and powers of Europe and the Middle East. Age after age, two main motifs have been repeated. A large part of our people has always been attracted to the glitter and the power of the majority. In midrash this truth is reflected in a folk memory that only a minority of the Jews left Egypt. The majority preferred to remain. Later, after 723 B.C.E., when the northern kingdom was destroyed by Assyria, the ten tribes quickly disappeared in their exile. Eight centuries later, so did the bulk of Greek-speaking Jewry. Many found Hellenistic culture too interesting and attractive to resist. We do not know how many Jews chose to become Muslim or Christian in the Middle Ages, but enough did so that we are aware of converts who made their mark in their new faith and new community.

Thus, large-scale loss to assimilation into the majority culture is not a new phenomenon. Those who are making of it an unparalleled and unprecedented disaster are saying this for partisan and ideological reasons and not because it is an historical truth. The society in which Jews are more nearly equal worldwide than they have ever been before and in which they can enjoy MacDonald’s, Coca Cola, and, if they succeed, Bentley cars and chalets in the Alps, is merely the contemporary expression of the splendor in which some Jews lived in Hellenistic days or in the “golden age” in Spain. Such losses are the recurrent price we pay for being a minority, a small people, in the Diaspora and even in our own land, surrounded by the influences of majority cultures. The answer Jews have devised, since the time of the prophets, is to urge their fellow Jews to remain with their otherness and uniqueness. Always and everywhere a saving remnant has chosen to be loyal. So it will be in the next century despite all the losses that the Jews are suffering to consumer society, with its denial of any ultimate moral values.

I want to add a word here on the nature of that saving remnant. Contrary to the prevailing cliche, these Jews will not consist primarily of Lubavitcher Hasidim waiting for the rebbe to reappear as the Messiah. The remnant will not be situated only in B’nai Brak or in Borough Park. In age after age, the lasting energy of that saving remnant has expressed itself in a variety of forms and beliefs. Those who survived the expulsion from Spain in 1492 did not lock themselves up in some new ghetto. On the contrary, they were a most varied and creative group of people who made signal contributions to mercantilism, to philosophy, to literature, to poetry, to all fields of human endeavor. So it will be in the future.

Let me take my courage in both my hands and deny another cliche, almost a sacred mantra, of contemporary discussion: the uniqueness of the Holocaust. I need to raise this painful theme here because the Holocaust is invoked to prove that we have indeed been living in an unprecedented age, in which a horror without parallel was inflicted on the Jews. It follows, therefore (so it is argued), that Jewish history in this century, and especially the creation of the state of Israel, represent a unique climax in Jewish experience. I insist that even the Holocaust belongs within, and not outside, the recurring pattern of the history of the Jews. The Holocaust was indeed unique in one respect and, let me add, in only one: that the Germans used the most modern technological means to murder the Jews. What was not unique was the total attack on Jewish religion and culture. That has happened over and over again, and supremely so in the second century in the persecutions after the Bar Kochba rebellion. Judaism in Palestine was then totally proscribed by a hostile government which wanted to eradicate everything that it regarded as Jewish about the Jews. The Nazis simply took this point further and acted on the presumption that what was Jewish about Jews could not be eradicated; therefore, the Nazis decided to eradicate the Jews. I am saying this to insist on the point that Jews have faced totally destructive anti-Semitism many times before in our history. My teacher, Salo Baron, once maintained, in a famous analysis, that after the Crusades no more than ten thousand Jews were left in Europe north of the Pyrenees, and that they and their descendants rebuilt Jewish life. We have proved, several times, that we have the capacity as a people to rise from the ashes. In this century, we have proved it as never before, for the greatest achievement of the Jewish people since the days of the Maccabees is the reconstitution of Jewish independence in the state of Israel. We are, as Nachman Krochmal suggested in the 1830s, the phoenix which rises again from its destruction.

What of the future? The next time we meet, in 2001, humanity will be, in its secular calendar, at the beginning of a new century and a new millennium. We shall have to be devising ways to survive as a people amidst the complexities now being born before our eyes. The responses that we devised a hundred years ago will have to be recast.

The nation-state was a dream, and invention, of the nineteenth century. In its name many peoples won freedom from their oppressors. This dream provided much of the energy for the Zionist quest for “normalcy.” But the nation-state is not the permanent, lasting form of political organization. On the contrary, everywhere in the world political structures are under pressure to make room for ever more prominent, and prevalent, minorities. In many places in the world the price for the purity of the nation-state is still being paid in blood and terror. There is “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia, genocide in Rwanda, and unending strife in northern Ireland. Need I add to this list? But this is not the tide of the future. In the most advanced, technologically adept societies, economies are now interlocked in a global market. Those who work in this environment are ever more mobile. Americans and Europeans w and Israelis- are now being sent by their firms or research institutes for many years of work abroad. It does not matter what political doctrines of nationalism or xenophobia a society might invoke. These programs will inevitably be short-lived, even if they are enforced with the tough-mindedness of the rulers of Singapore. The global normalcy of the next century will be the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural state or region.

What does this mean for the Jewish people? In the Galut the answer is clear, beyond any doubt. The largest of the Diasporas is in the United States. For three centuries, and especially in the last hundred years, it has been convinced that America would be dominated permanently by a white, Christian majority and that the task of the Jews was to find the way to fit into such a society. Jews wanted to persuade this majority that its Christian culture had decisive roots in Judaism, so that American culture would be renamed Judeo-Christian. Great victories have been achieved in this battle but the days of this Judeo-Christian vision of America are numbered. Already more than half the children in the United States who are under eight are not white, and not of European extraction. By the year 205.0 barely half of the American population will still be white. Jews in America will be living in a multi-ethnic society in which the population, and the power elite, will include not only Jews, African-Americans, and Hispanics, but also Asians from all of Asia and Muslim newcomers from several continents.

What of Israel? From the largest perspective, the politics of this or any other moment are irrelevant. No matter what boundaries or political structures are put in place—or not put in place—Israel between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is a binational area, and it will remain so. Whatever flag flies over Ramallah in fifty years, if there is any sort of peace, there will be centers of business and production in that part of the land with which Jerusalem and Tel Aviv will want to maintain close connection. The tide of the future is pulling toward a regional structure, of the order of the ongoing integration of Europe, in which nationalism will no longer be the dominant value.

There is, of course, an obvious alternative to integrating the Jews into a new, pluralistic world order. It is to dig in our heels and become isolationists. This is being tried before our eyes by those religious elements, both in Israel and the Galut, which are creating high walls around themselves. In politics, both in Israel and the Galut, several elements agree that the Jewish people must insist on its rights, as the maximalists define them, and not yield to the temptation to compromises. It is not an accident that the ultra-Orthodox, who were vehemently anti-Zionist until very recently, are mostly now partisans of right-wing Zionist nationalism. The basic emotion is the same: we have a right, even a divine right, to our nation-state on our own terms. The trouble with this isolationist vision is that it cannot last, if only because of the terrible prospect that it leads to unencling terrorism by Arabs. This war will not be limited to conventional explosives, for much more deadly weapons are becoming available in forms which can be used by suicide bombers. The politics of defiance can lead only to horrors which have not yet been imagined.

But what if the nation-state is not the “end of history”? What if Zionism as we know it was the necessary response to an age of human history that is ending? Then we, the Zionists of this day, will have to do what Theodor Herzl did a hundred years ago. He redefined the Jewish people in an age of nationalism. We must redefine it for the age that has already dawned, the time of multi-ethnic states. Some Jews have already made their choice—they will be defiant isolationists—but the large majority want to live as Jews within the larger society. Both in Israel and in the Diaspora the Jewish people will have to face the deepest question of the next century: what does it mean to be a Jew within the context of the new multi-ethnic world? What values do we represent which this creative and passionate small people, the Jews, will want to choose and uphold?

A hundred years ago, at the very beginning of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl answered this question for his own day—and for ours. Here is what he wrote in the front-page editorial with which he launched his weekly Die Welt, on June 4, 1897: “As people relate to each other, they are behaving more peacefully. A deep longing for social reform is evident not only among the poor, but also among the upper classes. This nascent movement of Jewish nationalism is part of all these labors and efforts—not only because peace and social reform will help our people but because they are good for all the peoples.” Herzl wrote that he derived these hopes from Jewish memory, from “the beautiful past of our people, from its history of resistance and its courage to suffer.” He could hope, like his ancestors, for better days and he could “share these glorious hopes with all mankind.”

Herzl was an optimist. Supposedly, he knew very little about Judaism, but he was rooted in its essence. He believed in decency for individuals and among peoples. Truth might be crushed to earth, again and again, but it would prevail. The misnamed “post-Zionist” age that has now, supposedly, begun should continue the moral teaching of the Zionism of Theodor Herzl.