Evyatar Friesel. Journal of Israeli History. Volume 25, Issue 2. September 2006.
The axiomatic link in modern Jewish thought between Zionism and Jewish nationalism is questioned in this essay. It will be suggested that the connection between both embodied an ideological “marriage of convenience” blessed by both Jews and non-Jews, but not a deep-rooted bond, and that the idea of a “Jewish nationalism” deserves critical reconsideration. Three complementary hypotheses are proposed and analyzed: that Zionism and nationalism were basically unconnected; that Zion-related concepts, rooted in Jewish historical awareness, were a constant ideological factor among broad sectors of modernizing Jewry; and that Zionism was a modern concoction rooted in Zion-related concepts which also absorbed ideological elements from the general European milieu, among them national notions—national, in this context meaning “national in general,” and not “Jewish-national.”
The surge of academic interest in the last 30 years regarding the perceptions and realities underlying modern nationalism has shattered the belief that nations and the national idea are self-evident propositions. New criteria defining ethnicity, nation and nationalism were formulated, new schools of research emerged. The case of nationalism among the Jews, as well as the relationship between Zionism and nationalism, has also been considered according to those new academic views.
The present essay aims to analyze Zionism from a Jewish-internal perspective. For clearer argumentation, the concept Jewish “peoplehood” will be occasionally employed, meaning “the consciousness or awareness of being a people,” and used here to designate the ties binding the Jews in a conscious and active collective body, without necessarily referring to the notions “nationalism” or “Zionism.”
Jewish Nationalism: Older and Newer Approaches
“Jewish nationalism” is routinely put forward as a central classificatory concept for a variety of positions that developed in modern Jewish society. The fact that among Jews the existence of a Jewish national movement has been taken for granted may perhaps explain why relatively few scholars have attempted to establish the theoretical parameters of the idea. Among those who did, the approach of Haim Zhitlovsky (1865-1943) deserves attention. Between 1909 and 1915 Zhitlovsky published several essays about general and Jewish nationalism, nationalism and religion, progressive and reactionary nationalism. Especially interesting is an article written in 1910, “Tsu der teorye fun natsionalitet,” not the least because some of the views have an eerily contemporary flavor. Nationality is very much the invention of intellectuals, wrote Zhitlovsky, and has an inherently relative character: the national profile of a human group is sharpened or dimmed in comparison with another human group.
The eminent Jewish historian Simon Dubnow (1860-1941) formulated what at his time was the most elaborated view of Jewish history from a Jewish-national perspective, this in the framework of a theoretical exposition on nationalism and Jewish nationalism. Dubnow’s position was presented in a sequence of articles in the years 1897-1907, later published as Letters on Old and New Judaism. Especially interesting is the first essay, “The Doctrine of Jewish Nationalism,” that appeared in the crucial year 1897, when both the Jewish socialist Bund and the World Zionist Organization were founded. Nationalism was a seminal phenomenon in the history of all peoples, wrote Dubnow, and evolved in three phases: tribal, political-territorial, and cultural-spiritual. The organic and progressive character of the process, from one phase to the next, indeed, from a lower to a higher condition of national life, was central in Dubnow’s analysis. Most European nationalities were in the second phase, or aspired to it. The Jewish people had reached the third phase of national development, the cultural-spiritual period. Dubnow distinguished between nation and state, the latter being one of the characteristics of the second, the political-territorial period. The nation, not the state, was the true bearer of positive nationalism.
Dubnow was open-minded about the broad variety of characteristics of the Jewish people and he stressed that all aspects of Jewish civilization—languages, religion, communal institutions, educational structures, culture—were together the manifestations of Jewish national life, evolving over the centuries. Regarding Zionism, he thought that much of it was fantasy, but the Zionist program had also praiseworthy components: “Insofar as political Zionism is able to save certain elements of Judaism from the scourge of assimilation or indifference, its effects are all to the good. But it may also cause damage to the degree to which it falsifies the true historical perspective and the fundamental nature of the Jewish national idea.” All in all, Dubnow took a positive view of Zionism, considering it one more manifestation of Jewish national vitality.
True to the ideological usage of his time, Dubnow employed the terms “nationalism” and “Jewish nationalism” without paying major attention to a possible incongruence between the significance of the ideas in a general and a Jewish context. Still, Dubnow was well aware of (but quite unconcerned about) a significant weakness of his conceptual framework: that the Jews represented the only major case of the third phase of national development, the cultural-spiritual one. Dubnow could take solace from the emergence of a parallel ideological trend, the approach formulated by leading Austrian Marxists, which asserted the right to national affirmation of the working class belonging to diverse peoples, articulated in a variety of cultural and public ways but short of political independence. Later, after World War I, the multinational states established in East Central Europe were based on the recognition (at least in theory) of the cultural and political rights for their diverse national groups, including the Jews.
Freeing Dubnow’s scheme from his self-imposed evolutionist constraints, we see a description of Jewish peoplehood over the ages in its rich and diverse manifestations. In the center of his approach stood a vitalist view of Jewish history which he expressed with incomparable allure:
Each generation in Israel carries within itself the remnants of worlds created and destroyed during the course of the previous history of the Jewish people. The generation, in turn, builds and destroys worlds in its form and image, but in the long run continues to weave the thread that binds all the links of the nation into the chain of generations … Thus each generation in Israel is more the product of history than it is its creator. Every individual member of a generation, who is not like a dry branch or a leaf fallen from the tree, carries the “burden of the heritage” of the chain of generations; and he carries it willingly or unwillingly, knowingly or unknowingly. He is nursed and fed by the national forces accumulated in the past even when he rebels against the very means through which the forces were accumulated and even when he strives to destroy them, or to alter their form, or “reform” them.
On the basis of his historical construction, Dubnow elaborated a platform of political action, Jewish Autonomism. In 1906, he participated in the formation of a Jewish political party, the Folkspartay, whose goal was to strengthen Jewish public institutions and to represent politically the Jewish national group. The reaction in Russia brought these public steps to naught, but the Folkspartay again became active after World War I in the newly formed countries of East Central Europe. The Folkspartay never became an influential factor in Jewish public life, comparable to the Jewish socialists or the Zionists. This lack of success, however, did not move Dubnow to ponder if his theoretical structure fitted the realities of modern Jewish life.
Considering the ideological effervescence that has characterized Jewish life in the twentieth century, and the amount of attention paid by scholars to issues related to the national question among modern Jews, it is surprising to note that a full century passed until the elaboration of a new full-fledged theory of Jewish nationalism. This was done by Gideon Shimoni, in his 1995 book The Zionist Ideology, an intellectual feat of considerable proportions and a major contribution to modern Jewish scholarship. Shimoni aimed to integrate Zionism into the broad ideological framework of contemporary theory on nationalism:
Recognition that Zionism is unique only in the sense that each and every nationalism is unique, although also sharing fundamental commonalities that can be typologically compared, opens up the way to understanding the origins of Zionism within the context of a more general theory that accounts for the origin of nationalism.
Elaborating on Anthony D. Smith’s general typology of nations and nationalism, Shimoni describes three main stages in the evolution of an ethnic group towards modern nationalism: ethnicity, which is characterized by the presence of ethnic attributes, such as language, customs, territory and historical consciousness; ethnicism, where ethnic attributes of a group are transformed into highly ranked values; and nationalism, when ethnicism is transformed into an active program aspiring to political independence for the ethnic unit, now the nation.
Regarding the Jews, all that relates to the traits of the Jewish group (or ethnie), such as a specific religion, concepts about Jewish unity, Jewish languages, historical consciousness, even the ties to Eretz Yisrael, belongs to the category of ethnicity. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Shimoni explains, those characteristics turned into Jewish ethnicism, namely, into values that were recognized, affirmed, and as such, increasingly cultivated, also by circles that did not turn later in a Jewish-national direction (Shimoni mentions the earlier revival of Hebrew as a vehicle for cultural Jewish nonreligious expression among circles of maskilim in Western Europe). Along these lines, the growing interest in Eretz Yisrael indicated a passage from ethnicity-based to ethnicism-based values. In some circles this Jewish ethnicism turned in a Jewish-national direction, which soon grew into diverse ramifications, one of them the “Eretz Israel-oriented nationalist movement that came to be known as Zionism,” as Shimoni repeatedly emphasizes. Zionism, then, is one of the expressions of Jewish nationalism, and we may conclude from Shimoni’s presentation, the most fertile one. Nevertheless, Shimoni states that “the distinctiveness of Zionism is evident, but there is little that is unique. Parallels may readily be found for almost all of the apparently unique features of Zionism.” Systematic criteria were thus established by the author for a categorization of diverse phases and nuances of the national idea among the Jews, the ties binding Zionism to nationalism, the evolution and variations of the Zionist idea itself.
In consonance with his parameters on ethnicism and nationalism, Shimoni analyzes an array of Jewish thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and dedicates a comprehensive second chapter to the so-called “precursors” of Zionism. This is a theme whose academic parameters were established by Jacob Katz (1904-98), a historian and sociologist at the Hebrew University. Katz thought that the earlier history of the Zionist idea was intellectually confused in that some strange candidates were suggested as precursors of Zionism. In several essays written in the 1950s he aimed to establish clearer and more rigorous criteria in the research of the subject. Katz presented and analyzed several figures whom he considered as forerunners of Zionism—Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, Moses Hess, Jehuda Alkalai, and others—who in the 1860s, under the direct or indirect influence of national trends developing in Europe, began not only to ponder the Jewish question in new terms but also to consider the settlement of Jews in Palestine. Katz’s ideas strongly influenced research on the early history of Zionism.
Over the years, Katz’s ideas underwent further elaboration, in part due to the intellectual interaction between him and other Jewish scholars of his time, such as Benzion Dinur, Yehezkiel Kaufmann, Shmuel Ettinger, and others. It appears that the encounter with Ettinger was particularly significant. Ettinger did not accept the distinction between “forerunners of Zionism” and the first Jewish nationalists, and included both in the second category. He spoke not only about Jewish national ideas and earlier activities, but about a Jewish national movement of a continuous character. Ettinger’s approach was general, and he did not delve into the details of the early development of Zionism, while Katz’s work was much more systematic. As we shall see, the continuing debate on the origins of the Zionist idea brought Katz to pay closer attention to the inner development of Jewish nationalism.
Shimoni fully acknowledges the importance of Katz’s work, although he considers the issue of the precursors of Zionism according to his own approach and disagrees with the persons presented by Katz: “It remains doubtful whether their thought qualifies at all for the description ‘nationalist.'” Still, a sign of the intellectual strength of Katz’s analysis is the fact that his framework about the ideological forerunners of Zionism, although shaky, remains standing. Most present-day works dealing with the earlier history of Zionism still start with the parameters established by him.
Preceding the Precursors
The maturation of what became Zionism, as described by Katz and Shimoni, seems to leave several significant historical issues not fully or satisfactorily explained. Regarding Katz, his choice of precursors had an element of arbitrariness: with the exception of Moses Hess (usually considered a category by himself), the persons presented by Katz were Jews of the religious-traditional type, only slightly touched by modern influences. Our general picture about early Zionism may appear in a different light if we examine additional sectors of nineteenth-century Jewish society. Prima facie, we should look into the hotbeds of European national ideas, and there, for Jewish types more integrated in the general environment than those mentioned by Katz. In his excellent study of the 1840 Damascus Affair, Jonathan Frankel points to “a recognizable body of opinion, sprung not from the traditional but from the modernized sections of the Jewish world, which demanded that a positive response be made to the restorationist [i.e. Palestine-oriented] challenge.” The people in question included Jewish students at the University of Vienna, contributors to the German-Jewish periodical Der Orient, so central a figure in the Damascus Affair as Adolphe Crémieux, budding Jewish intellectuals like Moritz Steinschneider and Abraham Benisch, as well as Moses Hess.
Were they exceptions? Another source strengthens the possibility that additional segments of Jewish society, so far unconsidered, were receptive to similar ideas, such as some of the collaborators in the Jewish periodical Oesterreichisches Central-Organ für Glaubensfreiheit, Cultur, Geschichte und Literatur der Juden, which appeared in Vienna for about six months, during the 1848 revolution. An article from August 1848, written by Simon Hock (1815-87), a prosperous Prague industrialist with a good Jewish and German education, deserves particular attention. Hock opened with a comparison between the Jews and other national groups in the Habsburg Empire:
All the still immature peoples around us, with a young, undefined and petty history, carried away by mundane and frequently even undignified memories, stare with burning patriotism into their past. They warm up to the most negligible events of their history, they long for the restoration of the past glories of their people, albeit, with the exception of some articles in newspapers written by dreamers, without hope for success … But we, the scions of an ancient nation, with the Book of Books in our hands, where the oldest records of mankind written down; we … although endowed by our inspired prophets with the most solemn promises about our renaissance as a people, with a great future foretold us by seers with hot-burning love for the land of our forefathers—we behave otherwise. Cowardly, we renounce all hope for the restoration of our independence (Selbständigkeit)—yes, so far it has gone—we are ashamed of the idea to become, like once, a great and free people. We prefer to crawl under the tables of the mighty and to beg for some crumbles of emancipation, we humiliate ourselves slavishly as flatterers of the government or of the people, and we gain nothing by it, but the despise that such behavior deserves. All our thoughts and wishes aim—oh, what a shame! to deny and to destroy the Jew within us; in diametrical contrast to all other peoples … we want to abandon everything distinctive, to forego everything specific, so that nobody shall get bruised by our Jewishness … The more barriers we remove on our side in order to get closer to the Christians, the more walls go up on the other side. We believe that we still have not relinquished enough, and yet we have achieved nothing for our endless efforts, besides the scorn and the mockery of our neighbors.
Hock’s sharpest critique was directed towards the Jewish Reform movement in Germany, not so much because of their religious initiatives but due to their readiness to give up their Jewish specificity:
Foremostly, there are two newer institutions of German Jewry, the rabbinical assemblies and the reform associations, who are possessed by such a glassy patriotism, that they are afraid that it may be shattered because of the most innocent stirring of a positive Judaism … Geiger, the patriot, yearns for the day when the Hebrew language is eradicated from the prayers, and the bond holding together all Jews into one brotherhood, at the Jordan as at the Ohio River, at the Valley of the Nile as at the shores of the Weichsel, will be torn asunder and destroyed …
Who would not be outraged by the servile bootlicking of the reform association of Berlin: in their otherwise balanced and positive minded religious program, they considered the repudiation of the Messiah as so important as to mention it specifically and negatively. The reform association ignores and dismisses an enormous number of religious rules and instructions, which goes unmentioned, but by the negation of the Messiah they wanted to make a concession to the secular rulers, and to get deviously the emancipation. Of course, such a behavior shows not only a dubiousness of mind, a dog-like subservience, but it is also a betrayal against the whole Jewish people, because implicitly it states: all the Jews, we excepted, who have not yet given up the obsession of the Messiah, are still unfree and you may leave them as they are; but we, who have forsworn such delusions, we should be accepted in your midst.
Almost naturally Hock went over to a surprising theme, considering the time:
We must reject emphatically all reproaches that the hope for the restoration (Erstehung) of a new Jewish state stands in contradiction to the loyal devotion to the present fatherland; in this matter, we may leave the patriotic scruples to the personal discretion of each individual; the more so, since beliefs and desires regarding this subject are not so much related to the religion but to the national feelings of everyone; it is, then, a pure matter of inner conviction, that can be neither inoculated nor explained away; and to cope with the eternal skeptics, we can point towards the renaissance of old Hellas, the new stirrings of the Lion of St. Marco, and the world-shattering upheavals of the present, events that were all the more surprising since before they happened there was no reason to expect them.
Hock seems close to the views of another collaborator of the journal, Simon Szántó (1819-82), a Jewish educator of Hungarian origin, later the editor of the important Viennese Jewish periodical Die Neuzeit, who wrote in a poem entitled “The Jew’s Fatherland”:
Where is the Jew’s fatherland?
Is it in Judea, the once blessed land?
Is it there, where in the north the cedar grows?
Where milk and honey in abundance flow?
Oh, yes—and then, oh, no!
There it should—there it cannot be.
In another issue of the periodical Szántó wrote that blue and white are the national colors of the Jewish people and that the Magen David is the Jewish coat-of-arms.
The utterances above are difficult to bring into accord with the criteria suggested both by Katz and by Shimoni. Hock and Szántó were religiously traditional but fairly well integrated in the German cultural environment. Many of their comments appear also among the persons mentioned in Jonathan Frankel’s book and belong to what later became the ideological arsenal of Zionist thought: the example of other peoples, national aspirations, the tension between Jews and gentiles, messianic views expressed in secular terms, secular Jewish self-understanding strongly tinged by Jewish traditional values, a sharp anti-assimilationist position—all together, a vigorous and continuing Jewish peoplehood consciousness influenced by modern European concepts. In other terms, we hear a higher ethnicist tone, although no program of action is considered. Even if Hock or Szántó did not develop their thoughts in further writings we may well suppose that the views they expressed, attuned as they were to the multinational realities of the Habsburg Empire, were not unheard in their Jewish milieu—and we are still in the 1840s. All this seems quite different from the typology, the people and the time framework that we have become used to when referring to “precursors” of Zionism.
Further questions that remain open concern the relationship between Zionism and nationalism as explained by Shimoni. Current national theory does not quite explain how Hebrew, the “high” language of the Jews, became the vernacular of Zionism—it is as if Latin had turned into the vernacular of one of the European peoples. Shimoni himself points out that the usual process in national movements (in fact, without exceptions) was the transformation of the “low” language into the vernacular. In the Jewish case, the actual renaissance of Hebrew in modern times started (although it did not continue) in earlier circles of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) whose inner development, as we shall mention soon, had its own logic. To complicate matters, later Jewish socialism supported and eagerly developed what actually was the popular language of East European Jewry, Yiddish, as the national language of the Jews—a step fiercely opposed by the Zionists.
There are additional factors that do not fit a nationalism-related interpretation of Zionism. For instance, how do we explain the interest in Palestine on the part of the earlier Alliance Israélite Universelle, which in 1870 brought about the establishment of Mikveh Israel, the first agricultural school in the land? It should be noted that the original intention was to establish Jewish colonies: an agricultural school was an alternative and more modest plan, reflecting the recognition that colonies were not viable until Jewish farmers came into being. Another example: most of the immigrants who came to Palestine as part of what is called the first and second aliyot (two waves of Jewish immigration into Palestine, from the early 1880s to 1914, part of the new Zionist enterprise) were not motivated by a declared national ideology. Many of the new immigrants were Orthodox Jews who came to the land out of religious motivations; others, who settled in Jerusalem, Jaffa and other cities, had a mixed composition: some were Ashkenazic Europeans, some were Sephardic Jews from Turkey, Greece and Egypt (whose reasons and circumstances for settling in Palestine have attracted less scholarly attention). Then there was the Yemenite aliyah, which is a story in itself: from no other Jewish community did such a large proportion migrate to Eretz Yisrael before the creation of the Jewish state. The aliyah of the Yemenites (and their numbers ran into the tens of thousands) cannot be explained as motivated by Jewish national reasons. Easier and more secure travel routes, the improved economic situation in Palestine, and above all, strong feelings of peoplehood of which the traditional attachment to Eretz Yisrael was a very significant part, seem a more convincing explanation. Furthermore, there is a wide field of Eretz Yisrael-directed initiatives that bear the clear imprint of modernity but have not been properly analyzed, apparently a reflection of the influence of not always broad-minded Zionist-tinted research trends. Such is the case of Baron Edmond de Rothschild and his activities in Palestine: Rothschild actually rescued most of the colonies of the First Aliyah from economic collapse, and he became the largest Jewish landowner (at least until the early 1920s) in the country. Another case was the health-oriented enterprises in Palestine of the American-Jewish magnate Nathan Straus (in whose honor the Israeli city of Netanya is named), which were not far in scale from the work done by Rothschild. Then there were the Palestine-directed educational activities of Jewish organizations such as the British Anglo-Jewish Association, the Joint and, especially, the German-Jewish Hilfsverein. Those people and associations were motivated by diverse ideas and aims, such as plans for the professional and social “normalization” of the Jews (a problematic, albeit popular concept in modern times), but they all had in common a varying degree of Jewish peoplehood sentiments, the attachment to Eretz Yisrael and the support for the developing Jewish community there being one of their expressions. By the beginning of the twentieth century those establishments were producing more trained Jewish craftsmen than Palestine could absorb. Last but not least, there was the huge and consistent work in Palestine of Orthodox sectors of Jewry, from nineteenth-century financial assistance (the halukah) to yeshiva building and social support one century later, which expressed traditionalist ways of thought combined with increasingly modern conditions. Again, these activities were motivated by concepts that were also fundamental to Zionist thought but bore no relation to national ideas.
Last, the points of reference employed by Katz and Shimoni are highly Eurocentric. True, the early history of Zionism, in terms of ideological evolution and organization, happened in Europe. Nevertheless, Zion-related concepts also had a deep meaning for Jews living outside Europe and European-inspired social and ideological conditions. The term “Jewish nationalism” was hardly mentioned in American Zionist thought. American Zionists apparently felt more comfortable with the concept “Jewish peoplehood.” An important early American Zionist like Solomon Schechter was declaredly anti-nationalist, in the general sense of the term. “National” meant for him “religious-national,” with the emphasis on “religious.” On the other side of the world, there was the kind of Zionism (if the term indeed applies) of the Jewries in Muslim countries, who emigrated to Israel after the establishment of the Jewish state, an astonishing process with no parallel in modern history, not yet properly explained but certainly ill fitting a national-related interpretation of Zionism.
In the light of these observations, perhaps the study of the emergence of Zionism within the framework of current trends of research on nationalism deserves reconsideration. Perhaps Zionism is better understood as being attuned to traditional trends in Jewish history, unencumbered by the too rigid constraints of evolutionist theory.
Trends in the Modernization of Jewish Society
I would suggest that Zionism be considered not as a case of Jewish nationalism but as the outcome of a transformation of traditional Jewish concepts influenced by elements of European political thought. The difference between the two approaches concerns the source of the compelling power of the Zionist idea. The answer offered here is that Zionism was driven by Jewish core concepts, which will be elaborated upon below.
To uphold that approach, the analysis of Zionism should be rigorously kept within the general framework of the development of European Jewry in modern times, for two reasons: first, because Zionism was affected by the same ideological tendencies that shaped Jewish society in general; and second, to avoid anachronistic thinking that tends to push Zionism into too central a place in the unfolding of modern Jewish history. As the saying goes, nothing succeeds like success, and in our case the later achievements of the Zionist enterprise are apt to cloud our historical understanding regarding its earlier situation. Although Zionism was articulate and active, neither the idea nor the movement was very consequential in Jewish life well into the twentieth century. In 1939, after more than 40 years of Zionist activity and on the eve of the Catastrophe, only about 3% of all Jews lived in Palestine, and even among those a significant part were non- or anti-Zionists. The dominant social tendency in modernizing Jewry was acculturation to the general surroundings, first in Western Europe, later also in the vital Jewish centers in East Central Europe, the Soviet Union, or the new Jewish settlements in America. Jewish peoplehood consciousness also survived among the acculturating sectors of Jewish society, although bound to its own conditions and with its particular characteristics.
The modernization of Jewry occurred under the impact of new intellectual and social trends that had been active in European society since the late eighteenth century, especially the Enlightenment and secularization. In the framework of the present essay the German pattern of modernization deserves attention: its underlying ideas influenced first the Jews in the German states and then in Eastern Europe, where the Zionist movement was later to build its strongest bastions. To underline the specificity of that model, it should be remembered that there were also other ways towards modernization. The Jews in Holland had already become “modern” in the seventeenth century; the Jews in North America and England had paths of their own.
The leading concepts of the modernizing process—the Enlightenment, secularization, acculturation, social and political integration in general society—represented together a protracted process of transformation in the history of the Jews which would cause an enduring upheaval in Jewish self-perceptions. The period and the theme fascinate Jewish cultural historians to this day. Contemporary scholars, among them David Sorkin and Shmuel Feiner, have refined our understanding of the dynamics of modernization in Jewish society, first in the German realm, later in Eastern Europe. Their analyses emphasize the two paths along which modernizing influences penetrated Jewish society: the general Enlightenment and the Haskalah, which acted like a screen through which the strong rays of the general trend were filtered. The Haskalah also had a restraining function, explains Feiner:
The Haskalah movement played a crucial rule in the modernization of the Jews. Yet the limitations it set itself as a controlled and limited option for change were characteristic. The relationship between Haskalah and modernization was not clear-cut but ambivalent: support and enthusiasm on the one hand, constraint and control on the other.
Sorkin thinks along similar lines in his analysis of the German Haskalah: “the appropriation of German culture did not lead to the loss of the ‘Jewish’ but to the creation of the ‘German-Jewish’,” meaning, the development of a Jewish subculture combining general and Jewish elements. Thus seen, the Haskalah provided a protective platform from which also new Jewish ideological initiatives could be launched.
These dichotomous characteristics of the earlier Jewish modernization would also continue later and influence a broad range of new Jewish positions. Jacob Katz elaborated general parameters for that process, which were also related to his views about the emergence of modern Zionism. Katz described the Jewish enlightenment (or Jewish “emancipation,” again, a highly ideologically laden concept) as a specific case of the abolition of the social estates in the old European order. While among the European peoples that process had created the impulse towards the ideological and political reorganization of society around the ideas of nation and nationality, among the Jews the development had been significantly different. The first tendency of the earlier layer of modernizing Jews was to integrate culturally and socially into the general environment, which meant a turn “outwards” (or in Shmuel Ettinger’s terminology, a “centrifugal” turn). Later, in the second half of the nineteenth century, came a reaction that brought sectors of modernizing Jews back into an “inward” (or “centripetal”) direction—a Jewish-national one, according to Katz and Ettinger, which also brought forth modern Zionism (both used the concepts “Jewish nationalism” and “Zionism” almost interchangeably) and represented one of the seminal moments in modern Jewish history. The whole process had a dialectical logic: the so-called “emancipation” of the Jews had to reach a certain point before the turn to Jewish national ideas could occur.
Many scholars agree with these dialectics of Jewish modernization, and with the related turn to Jewish nationalism/Zionism. However, it should be noted that the dialectical course referred to by Katz was not the classical Hegelian model, where an overall leading Geist, or spiritual principle, directs the evolution of mankind forwards. “Dialectic” as used by Katz and others meant sociological-dialectic, denoting the mechanics of a social or ideological development whose impelling inner forces must still be explained. Thus seen, there was a dialectic logic also in the Haskalah, as the process is interpreted in contemporary research: an earlier form of Jewish modernization, with an “outward” tendency restrained by an “inward” pull, in certain ideological circumstances.
In the whirl of Jewish modernization, where traditional Jewish beliefs and ideas met and clashed with the concepts of acculturation and secularization, a new Jewish conceptual field gradually emerged. The edges of that evolving ground were easy to recognize. Those belonging to one extreme (labeled by some as “assimilationists”) strove for a far-reaching degree of Jewish adaptation to the non-Jewish environment, with the accompanying weakening of Jewish group distinctiveness and peoplehood awareness, in both the social and the ideological sense. Those belonging to the opposite “inward”-directed extreme, the ultra-Orthodox or haredi, were part of a camp of varying fortunes but undeniable vitality, which rejected any or most changes in the social and political situation of Jewry not induced by divine intervention or, at least, divine guidance. This study considers the middle of that field. Although aware that the most pervasive social and intellectual tendency was and remained the acculturation of the Jews into the general environment, in the midst of that process there occurred a rich ideological blossoming, resulting from a particular interaction of “outward”-directed and “inward”-directed (or, “centrifugal” and “centripetal”) tendencies. The ideological turn that Ettinger, Katz and other scholars have associated with the concept “Jewish nationalism”—due, perhaps, to the lack of a better term—occurred in that sociological sector. In fact, the turn had a broader content, as it expressed a Jewish particularism manifested in secular, European-influenced terms. A new ideological ground emerged, characterized by diverse patterns of modern Jewish awareness. Such a particularism deserves to be understood as a full-fledged paradigm in modern Jewish history, of which the hashkalah represented an earlier (but continuous) case. Apparently the Haskalah itself, through its ideas and possibly by its very example, contributed to molding the subsequent variations in the general pattern. A major difference between the former and later model resided in the significance of the European ideological components of each. The Haskalah was shaped by the European rationalism of the late eighteenth century and its enlightened views about human nature and the natural rights of man. The later particularist trends drew from additional ideas: nineteenth-century romanticism, nationalism, political self-determination.
Jewish particularism had a radical impact on modern Jewish history. Sectors of Jewish society were now brought to question part of the intellectual propositions underlying Jewish acculturation. True, aversion to aspects of the acculturation, such as the excessive assimilation of the Jews, had been heard in modernized Jewish circles since the 1840s. By the late nineteenth century the opposition to aspects of Jewish acculturation had become a quest for new political solutions. Positions were formulated demanding recognition for separate frameworks of social existence for the Jews as a people, either in the non-Jewish environment (autonomism), or in a socially reconstituted human milieu (Jewish socialism), or in a separate territory (territorialism), or in the Land of Israel (Zionism), or in a socially reconstituted human environment in the Land of Israel (Socialist Zionism). Whatever the preferred solution, the new particularism was built on a specific balance between “centripetal” and “centrifugal” influences on modern Jewish life, in which the centripetal, the Jewish “inward”-directed orientation, was stronger than the opposite trend, at least on the sociopolitical level.
Zionism and Its Components
Zionism was one of the particularist currents evolving in modern Jewry and embodied a distinct amalgamation of traditional Jewish and general European concepts. There is a problem with the Jewish components, ideas long rooted in Jewish collective consciousness and long active in Jewish spiritual life: these are exceedingly difficult concepts to translate into Western ideological terms. Typical is ahavattziyon, the yearning or love for Zion, the age-old connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, with all the concepts it entails: galut (exile), the notion that due to historical and/or theological circumstances the Jewish people was driven out of the Land; and ge’ulah, redemption, through shivat tziyon, a return to Zion. These ideas were related to the concept of the mashiah, the Messiah, the latter-day royal scion from the House of David who would realize the hope for the end of days (aharit ha-yamim): the redemption of the Jewish people from the condition of exile through the return of the dispersed to the Land of Israel. In traditional Jewish thought these ideas had diverse and diverging religious, historical and mystical meanings and interpretations, sometimes related, sometimes not. Then there was the concept of klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people and the mutual responsibility of all Jews, a typical expression of Jewish peoplehood consciousness.
Among the principles that Zionism adopted from the European ideological milieu was the notion of secular activism, including the political kind; nationalism, which defined the Jewish ethnie in new ways; political democracy, without which organized Zionism would not have functioned; and the modern patterns of rational and relatively efficient political organization that allowed the Zionist movement to keep a widely dispersed international structure with rights and duties accepted by both the leadership and the local members. Socialism was another “outward” factor that would bring about the creation of a highly influential Socialist Zionist branch. Once its basic components fused together, Zionism turned into an idea whose impact was as powerful as its propositions were far-reaching. The change of ideological direction from integration to disintegration, the turn away from galut, from the lands of the Exile, towards the re-concentration of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, remains one of the astonishing social processes in the modern history of the Jews, indeed, in modern history in general. Recognizing the sweeping significance of the idea, maturing Zionism coined an additional concept: shlilat ha-golah, the negation of the diaspora, which embodied a sharp critique of Jewish life in exile from every possible angle.
How can the dynamics of the concoction of ideological elements that combined in Zionism be explained? And where, among its “internal” and “external” components, did the driving power of the Zionist idea lie? One way to elucidate these questions might be according to the dialectical logic mentioned above. Another possibility, which is preferred here, is to distinguish a double process of amalgamation in the emergence of Zionism: the Jewish elements—ahavat tziyon, galut, ge’ulah—were taken out of their broader Jewish traditional context and bound together in an action-directed sequence, in which the political concepts and tools adopted from the European ideological milieu played a necessary role. We should also ponder the possible role that the Haskalah fulfilled in the launching of modern Zionism: the inward-directed intellectual atmosphere created by the Haskalah established a congenial ambience that may have affected the earlier steps of the budding Zionist movement and kept Zionism open, up to a point, for sectors of traditionalist-minded Jewish society who continued to be cautious, even suspicious, with regard to modernizing, outward-pulling influences.
It would be arbitrary to try to pinpoint the relative weight of each ideological ingredient that contributed to the final result, Zionism; or to claim that the process by which these elements were integrated into the evolving structure of the Zionist idea can be accurately determined. However, several tentative conclusions can be suggested: first, the compelling power of Zionism lay in the peculiar amalgamation of its Jewish core concepts, which generated action-directed intensity. Second, external ideological influences, such as nationalism and secularism, played an indispensable role in that process, as factors that combined with the Jewish core concepts and launched them in a political direction. Although necessary, the role of those external factors was only instrumental: essentially, Zionism was and remained an expression of traditional Jewish concepts and hopes, adapted to the conditions of modernity. Third, Zionism developed more closely to the center of the modernization road of European Jewry than other particularist ideologies; Zionism was able to keep open bridges both to the traditionalist part of Jewish society and to sectors more integrated into the general environment. However, sectors on both the “inward” and “outward” extremes of modern Jewry had no positive points of contact with the Zionist movement because of their opposition to central tenets of the Zionist position: the attachment to Zion, in the case of those Jewish circles that were too far acculturated into the general environment; or the political concepts adopted from the general European environment, in the case of parts of the Orthodox camp.
The present consideration of Zionism gives different weight to several factors that are usually seen as significant in the shaping of the Zionist idea. One is anti-Semitism, considered by most Zionist thinkers as a major cause underlying the Zionist program. The life of the Jews in the midst of European society had reached a point of crisis, it is argued, and only the evacuation of the Jews and their concentration in the Land of Israel might solve that problem. Understandably, anti-Semitism was an issue that preoccupied Jews and Zionists very much, but historically seen did not strengthen the Zionist enterprise in Palestine. As mentioned, anti-Semitic pressure, with its diverse economic, ideological and political expressions, led Jews to emigrate to America and to other countries of the world, but hardly to Palestine. I would suggest that the role of anti-Semitism in the unfolding of Zionism was smaller than classical Zionist historiography has claimed.
Another factor was what Shmuel Almog has called “the rise of a new Jewish consciousness,” meaning the whole conceptual superstructure of social and cultural views and hopes associated with the Zionist program. Usually those plans, mostly taken from the general European conceptual reservoir, reflected very subjective and highly critical views about the social and cultural structures of Jewish society. They aimed for the so-called “normalization” of Jewish life, changes in the professional structure of Jewish society, the deepening of Jewish historical consciousness, the revitalization of culture, a new Jewish dignity. The very interesting social experiments of Labor Zionism in Palestine, especially the kibbutz movement, were an expression of Zionism’s intense quest for new forms of Jewish life. All this happened at a time when acculturating Jewry was reaching economic and cultural achievements that had no parallel in recent and not-so-recent Jewish history. That broad theme, where the Zionist and the Jewish-general level deserve coordinated analysis, has been abundantly described but still awaits comprehensive historical evaluation.
Modernization and the Ties to Zion
From the perspective of the present analysis some of the usual views and alignments in Zionist theory might appear in a different light. The concept that Zionism had “precursors” deserves to be reconsidered: apparently, the integrating dynamics that produced Zionism cannot be well explained in terms of “earlier” and “later.” The spiritual significance of its Jewish core components, by themselves or as part of the Zionist concoction, has remained constant and stable throughout the centuries, and the development of Zionism was well incorporated in the general process of Jewish modernization. The growth of the organized structures of the movement towards the end of the nineteenth century reflected the deepening influence of political concepts that originated in the European public realm, but that did not affect the stability or the significance of the Jewish core elements in Zionism. The degree of cohesion between these core elements may have changed under the influence of European political concepts, but that did not alter their essential message.
The encounter between the Jewish traditionalist sector and more secular-minded parts of Jewish society seems extremely consequential for the emergence of Zionism as explained here. This theme has been carefully examined by Yosef Salmon. Salmon describes how in the 1880s and 1890s, when Zionism was groping towards its first organizational expressions, religious Jews, many touched by the Haskalah, others less, struggled with the question of their participation in the budding movement. Zionism represented a perplexing riddle for religious East European Jewry: on the one hand, it embodied some of the core concepts of Judaism and its deepest hopes; on the other, it seemed increasingly in the grip of circles and ideas that were anathema to many traditionalist believers. The dilemma arose when the secular trend in Zionism gained the upper hand in the movement with the appearance of Theodor Herzl, the First Zionist Congress in 1897, and the creation of the World Zionist Organization (WZO). In the early twentieth century the religious camp split into supporters of the WZO, organized since 1902 in the Mizrachi movement, and opponents of Zionism, some of whom formed Agudat Israel in 1912. The ideological situation of religious Jews who decided to continue in the Zionist organization was difficult, pressed on one side from the haredi anti-Zionist sector and on the other from the secular majority in the movement. Nevertheless, Zionism did not become so secular as to make it impossible for a part of the more religious sector of Jewish society to find a place in the movement. The very fact that they remained in the Zionist organization, and this without compromising in any way their religious beliefs and ways of life, is one more indication regarding the significance of the Jewish core components of Zionism for both its secular and its traditionalist adherents.
I suggest a different angle for understanding Moses Hess and the important Jewish intellectuals close to him, such as the great historian Heinrich Graetz, or Zacharias Frankel, who formulated the approach known as “positive-historical Judaism.” In fact, all three were personally close and considered themselves as holding similar views on matters Jewish. Scholars have pondered where to locate Graetz (or Frankel) ideologically: whether they qualify as proto-Zionists or as Jewish nationalists. It is a line of inquiry that can be applied to many more Jewish intellectuals, then or later, but the very question seems anachronistic. An alternative way to describe their views is to detach the analysis from the burden of Jewish nationalism on the one hand and of Zionist precursorship on the other, and to consider those men on their own terms: nineteenth-century Jewish intellectuals, influenced by the European ideological trends of their time, deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, responsive to Zion-bound concepts, and very much aware of their Jewish peoplehood. The highly inventive Hess formulated the concept of shivat tziyon, the Return, in secular and national terms long before it became fully integrated into Zionist ideology, but he was in tune with other thoughtful Jews of his time who were less imaginative. Graetz impresses one as moving on an unabashedly Jewish particularist path that combined a strong sense of Jewish peoplehood, Zion-related core ideas, and European intellectual concepts. It has been suggested that Graetz may have refrained from drawing more active conclusions from his views out of caution, after having been severely criticized by the German historian Heinrich von Treitschke. However this may be, as one of the most articulate spokesmen of his time of a very affirmative Jewish historical awareness expressed in modern terms, Graetz built a conceptual platform that was extremely useful for the soon-to-emerge Zionist movement.
We may consider along similar lines figures of a later period who did not define themselves as Zionists but collaborated with the already ideologically mature and organizationally active Zionist movement. Baron Edmond de Rothschild has already been mentioned, or the American-Jewish leader Louis Marshall, the decisive non-Zionist figure in the negotiations that in 1929 brought about the creation of the Enlarged Jewish Agency. These were acculturated Jews, each well rooted in his particular social and ideological environment. Both were opposed to Zionism for any number of reasons, the most important being, apparently, their rejection of a separate Jewish-national self-definition and consequently their disagreement with a politically defined Jewish entity in Palestine. Nevertheless, what is important here is not their negative views of Zionism but the reason for their positive interest in the Zionist enterprise. Rothschild and Marshall possessed a strong sense of Jewish peoplehood and were responsive to traditional Zion-bound core ideas, which they recognized as components of organized Zionism. Although they did not identify with the political aims of the Zionist movement, their affinity with many of the basic concepts of Zionism was strong enough to bring them to support and to collaborate with the Zionists, directly and indirectly. The same logic applies also to those non-Zionists who participated in the Enlarged Jewish Agency; or to many Jews from Poland, Germany and other European countries, who settled in Palestine impelled by the socioeconomic upheavals of the 1930s. Among them were many whose social and ideological outlook was decisively influenced by the ways of thought of their original non-Jewish cultural environment, who did not declare themselves as Zionists and were mostly opposed or indifferent to ideas such as Jewish nationalism, Jewish political activism, Jewish statehood. Still, Jewish peoplehood, as well as the allure of the Return, may have played a role in their decision to settle in Palestine: after all, many of them might have chosen to emigrate elsewhere. Then there were the Jewries of the Muslim countries: bound to traditional Zion-related ideas, relatively untouched by the inroads of acculturation, they had little interest in and even less understanding of the “external” concepts that were part of mature Zionism. Very few among those Jews belonged to the WZO, but they settled massively in Israel after the establishment of the Jewish state. For these Jews political Zionism opened a road towards Zion for which they were spiritually prepared. Last but not least, there were the millions of Jews who lived in the diaspora but took an interest in the fortunes of the developing Jewish National Home in Palestine, and later in the Jewish state. Each of these sectors worked out its own interpretation of its ties with Zionism, a continuing process of ideological elaboration that goes on to this day.
In the scheme presented there is a question that still requires explanation: the connection that developed in modern Jewish ideological self-definition between nationalism and Zionism.
The National Idea in Modern Jewish Life
In view of the fact that national ideas were important in the self-definition of influential sectors of modernizing Jewry, what were the channels through which they penetrated Jewish social perceptions? Given the time when this occurred, it is broadly (although not uniformly) accepted that this ideological development was strongly influenced by the 1881-82 pogroms in Russia. In Jewish circles already receptive to modern European ideas (circles that were admittedly still small but nevertheless influential) the reaction to the pogroms caused a shift from “outward”- to “inward”-directed ideological tendencies. But why did that shift take a “Jewish-national” direction? What was the stimulus (or the need) in Jewish public life that led (and perhaps compelled) certain segments of organized Jewry, mostly in Eastern Europe, to adopt a Jewish-national self-definition?
Apparently, there were different reasons for diverse sectors of East European Jewry. For intellectuals such as Peretz Smolenskin, Moshe Leib Lilienblum, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and especially Ahad Ha-Am, the national interpretation represented a key for the formulation of their very keen sense of Jewish peoplehood, with its Eretz-Yisrael-oriented concepts, in modern secular European terms. The national framework provided an answer to an essential question worrying such secular-minded Zionists: what, if not religion, had held the Jewish people together from time immemorial to the present? Their Zion-bound views, they became now convinced, were not idle messianic dreaming but the expression of an ideological trend in Jewry that ran parallel to similar hopes among European peoples, had its own cultural expressions, and was bound to a specific political dream. Conviction squared with convenience: to dwell on the messianic-driven roots of traditional Jewish creed would hardly have appealed to “rational”-minded modern Jews, and even less impressed European public opinion. Their Zionist formulation combined moral contention with functional argument. Herzl would soon state that the creation of a Jewish homeland (Heimstätte) in Palestine was in the interest of the European powers since it would solve the vexing problem of anti-Semitism. The Zionist national-based approach, then, tied historical perspective with practical logic, all capped by a moral argument: like other peoples, the Jews too had a right to a political life of their own. Zionism in the garb of a Jewish national movement thus acquired the glorified status of modernity and, formulated in secular terms, was in tune with major trends in European political thought.
However, there was an additional and probably more significant channel for the penetration of national ideas into a sector of modernizing Jewish society: the Jewish socialist movement in Eastern Europe, especially as represented by the Bund, the General Jewish Workers’ Union, founded in 1897. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the Bund and its influence on Jewish life, in Eastern Europe as well as in the Jewish immigrant communities in America, Argentina and elsewhere. In the early years of the twentieth century the Bund was certainly the largest, most modern and most active organization among East European Jewry or Jews of East European origin, with a more vibrant presence and a larger influence than the Zionist movement. In its formative stage, the main ideological tendency among the leading activists of the Bund had been internationalist, aiming for the revolution of the working class as a whole. Jonathan Frankel mentions two possible reasons for the Bund’s turn in a Jewish-national direction. One was its expansion into a large revolutionary organization, the move from “propaganda” to “agitation,” meaning political activity among growing numbers of Jewish workers living in a Jewish environment. The second is related to the confrontation with other socialist organizations (especially the Polish PPS and the Russian RSDRP), which brought the Bund towards an affirmation of its Jewish-national characteristics. In either case, the use and promotion of Yiddish as the language of the Jewish working class played a significant role. We may assume that the new ideas about the national characteristics of the working class that were elaborated at this time in the Austrian Social Democratic movement found an attentive ear among the activists of the Bund as well. Whatever the reasons that led the Bund to an increasingly assertive Jewish-national self-definition, it was a difficult and protracted process of inner search and unending debate, inside the Bund and with the parties to which the Bund was ideologically close. Influential ideological voices in the Marxist camp, such as Otto Bauer, Karl Kautsky, as well as the group close to Lenin, while heedful to the specific interests of the national minorities in Central and Eastern Europe, refused to recognize the Jews as a national group.
The formulation of Jewish-national concepts was probably stimulated by the appearance of additional Jewish parties with social-revolutionary leanings, especially in the years 1905-1906, a time of pogroms, Jewish self-defense, and hopes arising from the first Russian revolution. Organizations such as the Zionist Socialist Workers’ Party (or SS), founded in Odessa in 1905, which despite its name was more territorialist than Zionist, the Jewish Socialist Workers’ Party (or SERP), established in Kiev, in 1906, with an autonomist orientation, and the Jewish Social Democratic Workers’ Party Poalei-Zion (ESDRP-PZ), organized also in 1906, which was Marxist and Zionist, were all defined as Jewish national, active in a similar ideological environment as the Bund and aiming to influence the same Jewish public.
Whenever exactly the concept “Jewish nationalism” was coined, it seems that at this time, in the early twentieth century, the term became recognized ideological currency among the Jewish socialists, Zionist Socialists, Zionists in general, and even among those Jews and Jewish organizations that were opposed to the new concept.
In the Jewish sectors that adopted national and Jewish-national self-definitions, what exactly was the ideological weight of those notions? There is a subtle distinction between the two concepts that became blurred in modern Jewish political discourse. For the Bund and for other Jewish socialist organizations the principle of a Jewish nationalism was essential. After all, it was in the name of the national characteristics of the Jewish working class that the Bund demanded and soon attained recognition as an autonomous body within the broader framework of the social democratic revolutionary movement, first in Russia and later also in other countries in East Central Europe. Nevertheless, the Jewish national idea was the reason neither for the creation nor for the continuing struggle of the Bund. The aim, at least for the more acculturated leadership of the organization, was the revolution of the working class according to Marxist theory. However, we may well suppose that for the rank and file of the Bund, Jewish peoplehood with its multifold implications remained highly significant.
A Jewish-national self-definition was certainly functional for the Zionists, but was it also essential? For the Zionists, even those of social-revolutionary leanings, nationalism, and even more so Jewish nationalism, had an element of redundancy: after all, the main ideological basis of this concept, that the Jews were a people, had limited significance in terms of Zionist thought. Jews had always defined themselves as a people (am), and Zionism naturally took over that view from traditional sources. This was not the case for the Marxist-minded Jewish socialist leadership, whose internationalism had, up to a point, a clearly assimilationist bent: their political aim was social transformation that would also create conditions for the harmonious integration of the Jewish working class in their countries of residence. A secular Jewish-national self-definition was necessary for the rank and file of the Jewish socialist movement, where social needs and hopes mixed with traditional Jewish attachments. Having discarded religion, having disavowed the ties to Zion, and being militantly opposed to large sectors of Jewish society (the “clerics,” the Jewish bourgeoisie, the Zionists), what remained Jewish in the ideology of the Bund, besides the Yiddish language and national self-definition? “National,” however, had to mean necessarily, explicitly, “Jewish-national.”
Soon the Zionists would experience a political development that also demanded “Jewish-national” categories. Once the Zionist movement decided to engage in Gegenwartsarbeit, political activity among diaspora Jewry, the principles of Jewish nationalism became an indispensable ideological tool, applied to those Jews who still lived (temporarily, from a strict Zionist political view) in galut. At one of the seminal moments in the ideological evolution of the Zionist movement, the Helsingfors Conference of the Russian Zionists (November 1906), resolutions were adopted that demanded changes in the Russian state involving “the recognition of the Jewish nationality and legal self-administration in all matters of Jewish national life.” Somewhat like the Jewish socialists, the Zionists now also needed a Jewish-national self-definition as a fence between the Jews and the other peoples in the rich East European human mosaic. From that time—the first years of the twentieth century—some of the ideological components of Zionism were apparently elaborated backwards: Jewish nationalism came to be considered as one of the foundations of the Zionist creed. And yet, in the Zionist camp the national component had never had the same kind of essentiality as among the Jewish socialists. No one needed to define himself as a nationalist, or a Jewish nationalist, in order to become an active member of the Zionist organization, and probably most Zionists never considered the matter. What was primordial in Zionism was the tie to Zion. The point had been emphatically made three years earlier, at the Sixth Zionist Congress, during the so-called “Uganda controversy.” The justification then presented for Jewish colonization in East Africa made eminent political and practical sense and was served by seemingly better arguments than the case for Palestine. Nevertheless, it was the Zion-directed tendency that imposed itself, and definitively so, on the Zionist movement.
As for Jewish nationalism “pure,” without socialist or Zionist connections, its main political proposition was that the Jews should concentrate in a territory of their own, or establish autonomous forms of Jewish life in countries where the Jews wished to do so. None of these intentions succeeded, not only due to the disinterest or opposition of general society, but foremost because no significant sector of Jewish society was prepared to support either option. Jewish territorialism never turned into a movement. The Folkspartay, ideologically based on the autonomist approach of Simon Dubnow and active in the countries of East Central Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, did not become a significant force in local Jewish politics. Without the leaven of the hopes for Zion, or the plans for the international revolution of the proletariat, the acculturating tendencies working upon the Jewish public were more powerful than the attraction of Jewish-national ideas, even in Eastern Europe.
When pondering on Zionism, we have become so used to the concept and to the later achievements of the movement that we no longer marvel at the sheer bizarreness of the idea of shivat tziyon, the Return. Plain commonsense should us bring to wonder how so strange a proposition was seriously considered, how it inflamed the hearts and minds of so many, and, strangest of all, how it was realized.
An explanation frequently found in Zionist research attributes the accomplishments of the movement to the radical strength of the idea: Zionism is described as a revolutionary power in Jewish history, even more, as a permanent revolution in Jewish contemporary life. Admittedly, Zionism aimed for radical, even revolutionary changes in the situation of the Jews. Nevertheless, in this essay a different interpretation was suggested: that the might of Zionism lay in ideas deeply rooted in Jewish traditional awareness—galut,ahavat tziyon, ge’ulah—which became integrated into an action-directed message. Parallel to their influence in the Zionist concoction, each of these core concepts also maintained a continuing hold on sectors of Jewish society, a hold that the onslaught of modernization was unable to break. Thus Zionism, or elements of it, had an appeal for broad parts of modern Jewry, including Jews who did not become members of the Zionist organization.
Up to a point, the present analysis has adopted Antony D. Smith’s views on nation and nationalism, not as a construction of a self-serving elite, but as an expression of the spiritual consciousness of Jewry (or of Jewish peoplehood), where age-old ideas combined under the influence of European ideologies into a new and specific position. Although Zionism incorporated elements of modern national thought, it cannot be understood as an expression of modern nationalism. In fact, the very elaborateness of the Jewish components in the Zionist idea seems ideologically deeper and richer than the tenets of national theory. Jacob Katz’s view apparently still holds: that Zionism “obliges a historian who would assess its character to avoid comparing it with contemporary movements. It is only proper that an examination of the Zionist essence be conducted against the background of Jewish history in its entirety.” Admittedly, the assertion that Zionism has unique characteristics (and the same applies to Jewish history in general, of which Zionism is but an expression) encumbers the application of accepted historical categories to the Zionist case. And to consider Jewish history as unique, so it has been authoritatively stated, runs against the very sense of modern historiography. This latter view is not shared in the present essay. Modern Jewish historiography has kept itself open to interpretations in diverse directions, including that of Jewish specificity, and such an intellectual elasticity has been a source of internal strength and creative tension, not of weakness. In general, one should not force on Zionism interpretations that have the lure of compliance to accepted norms but leave open a nagging doubt that the phenomenon in question has not, after all, been convincingly explained.
Regarding the influence of the national idea in modern Jewish life, it was argued here that we should distinguish between two major and distinct political trends with national components: a Jewish socialist movement (divided into several unrelated parties) and the Zionist movement. They had in common a sense of Jewish peoplehood, certainly a significant bond, but little else: neither their analysis of the Jewish situation, nor their historical conception of the Jewish people, nor their preferred linguistic and cultural instruments, and least of all the vision of the future of the Jewish ethnie each trend strove for. Zionism and the Jewish socialist movement were soon in bitter and unrelenting confrontation, which makes it difficult to bind them together as two different ideological (or geographic) expressions of the same national tendency. Last, the concept of “pure” Jewish nationalism, of the autonomist kind, undoubtedly inspired impressive intellectual formulations but never developed political or social vitality of its own. Pure Jewish nationalism seems to belong to the “imagined” concepts Benedict Anderson wrote about.
Recognizing that Zionism was a well-defined and assertive phenomenon in modern Jewish history, it is all the more important to keep its interpretation inside the parameters of changing Jewish life and to recognize, beside its achievements, also the limitations of the Zionist enterprise. There were other trends shaping Jewish existence that were equally, if not more, influential, especially acculturation into the general environment. Compared to the highly vocal Zionism, the acculturation of the Jews was almost mute, which should not delude us regarding its pervasiveness. Although a degree of acculturation was one of the necessary characteristics of Zionism, most acculturated Jews were no more than lukewarm in their sympathies for the Zionist venture; while well-defined and relatively large sectors of the Jewish people remained (and remain) opposed to Zionism, many due to the degree of their assimilation in the non-Jewish environment, but many for declaredly ideological reasons: the revolutionary socialists of the first half of the twentieth century, the religious reformists of the more extreme type, and the broadly defined haredi society, although a sizable segment among the latter found in Palestine and later in Israel a congenial place to live. It is telling that in modern times no links remained between those sectors of Jewry—apart from their opposition to Zionism.
If the study of history aims to clarify our present through the understanding of the past, the distinction between Jewish peoplehood, nationalism, and Jewish nationalism is relevant. With the establishment of Israel a new Jewish collective entity has emerged, one that certainly bears national features and peoplehood traits, apparently of a new character. At the same time, the traditional core concepts that were also integrated into the Zionist idea are still markedly present in Israeli Jewish society, and the same applies to sectors of diaspora Jewry. Today, more than half a century after Israel’s rebirth, the inner fires of ahavat tziyon are still burning.