Zionism – the continuation of Judaism by other means
(Provenance: posted on the ALEF forum, based at the University of Haifa, on 27 September 2005, this article was circulated a few years earlier by Ms. Lotan’s daughter)
Anyone who wishes to discuss the phenomenon of Zionism immediately runs into the problem of how to define it. Unlike the European colonization of the Americas, for example, or the British domination of Kenya or India, the Jewish settlement in Palestine has been given various and contradictory definitions. The two commonest, and conflicting, definitions are: 1. ‘Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people;’ 2. ‘Zionism is one of the manifestations of European colonialism in the 20th century.’ I shall return to these definitions, their sources and limitations.
I propose to show that Zionism is an essentially Jewish phenomenon, and cannot be separated from Judaism (in the religious-historical sense of the term), and therefore its resemblance to either national liberation or colonialist movements is morphological rather than taxonomic, and leaves various aspects of Zionism unexplained.
What is Judaism?
A prayer called Hamavdil (the Separator), said by observant Jews every Saturday evening as the Sabbath ends, praises God who ‘separates the sacred from the profane’. Judaism is dominated by the idea of separation. What are the origins and rationale of this striking characteristic? – This question ought to be tackled with the tools of anthropology, psychology, history and sociology. There must be various reasons why Judaism has not been investigated with these tools, and why the few scholars who attempted to analyze the nature of Judaism tended to produce apologetics. One reason may be that some of the fathers of modern anthropology were themselves Jews (e.g., Franz Boas and Claude Levi-Strauss), and were unwilling or unable to tackle their ancestral culture with the same tools with which they tackled exotic ones. But then, neither did non-Jewish scholars apply to the religion which gave birth to Christianity the same analytical methods they applied unhesitatingly to alien cultures and religions. A rare and illuminating exception may be found in Mary Douglas’ famous book Purity and Danger, in which she discusses the purity laws in the Book of Leviticus, placing them in a broad anthropological context.
But this is a rare study, and it deals only with the primeval phase of Judaism. It can no more cover the subject of latter-day Judaism than a discussion of the early days of the American republic can cover the subject of the US today. It is time that someone applied the usual anthropological methods to the Shulhan Arukh – the all-embracing rule-book for observant Jews – in comparison with other old cultures, from the Hindu Brahmins to Papuan tribes. But even without all these, it is possible to outline some of the main features of Judaism.
1. The Old Testament defines the Yahwist deity in terms of what he is not: Jehovah is not the god of other tribes; He does not share his dominion over his chosen tribe with any other deity; Being a deity of the upper air, the wind and the surface of the earth, he has no dealings with what lies under the earth, namely, the world of the dead and the chthonic powers – which accounts for such biblical assertions as ‘The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into silence,’ and for the injunctions against the consumption of blood and necromancy; Jehovah requires from his followers to adopt signs to distinguish them from other people, e.g., circumcision, and the prohibition of work or lighting a fire one day a week. The Bible also lay down rules of separation between different kinds of field crops, a ban on yoking together an ass and an ox, on weaving fabrics with mixed animal and vegetable fibres, etc. In the course of time Judaism added more and more ritual separations, until it became totally dominated and obsessed by the business of keeping various categories of things apart – the pure and the impure, the sacred and the profane, kasher and taref (ritually clean and unclean meats), meat and dairy products, leavened and unleavened dough (during Passover), silk and cotton, men and women, adults and minors, and so on.
2. Judaism as we know it began to evolve in the time of the Second Temple, i.e., the fifth century BC. Thereafter, the principal separation, namely, between Jews and ‘Gentiles’, became entrenched, as the religious leaders Ezra and Nehemiah forbade inter-marriage between Jews and other people. Even the Samaritans, who were their brothers from the northern kingdom of Samaria, were rejected. Jews who adopted some of the ways of the world around them were reviled and shunned by the traditionalists (known in the New Testament as Pharisees). A Jew who assimilated culturally and socially with the Greeks and later with the Romans was regarded as an enemy. The Hellenistic civilization of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, which was largely extinguished by Christendom until the Renaissance, was utterly rejected by the Jews who remained faithful to their tribal religion. Christianity, with its ambivalent attitude towards Judaism, which gradually turned into vicious enmity, made the separation that much easier.
(It is important to distinguish between earlier examples of Jewish hostility to strangers – e.g., the story of Moses’ Ethiopian wife – which reflected ordinary xenophobia, and the later isolationism, which was anchored in religious law. The historical books of the Old Testament show that up until the time of the Second Temple there was constant inter-marriage between the Israelites and their neighbours.)
3. After the fall of Judea and the destruction of the Temple, in the year 70 AD, separateness became the hallmark of Judaism. Some other nations circumcized their sons, or worshipped a single god, sometimes even an unseen god (according to Tacitus, so did some Germanic tribes), or prohibited the eating of pigs, but these features did not lead to a spiritual or social alliance with the Jews. In later times Islam adopted the main tenets of Judaism, but was nevertheless rejected. The biblical verse ‘The people shall dwell alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations’ became the motto of the Jews. Judaism adopted the Roman principle of descent through the female, since mater semper certa est – the mother is always known – and with it the notion that Jews are not only set apart by their religion, but are actually made of a different, purer, substance, which must not be defiled by mixed marriage. In a curious way, the religion and its rituals became almost secondary, because ‘A Jew, even if he transgresses, remains a Jew’ – meaning, that even if he ate pork or lit a fire on the Sabbath, he was still a member of the chosen people, and could always return to the fold. On the other hand, a Gentile can be circumcized and observe all the numerous rules, yet he remains a goy, and every effort is made to discourage goyim from trying to convert to Judaism. Thus Judaism does not really claim to be a universal religion, like Christianity and Islam, otherwise it would have sought to convert everyone. This is the great paradox: that the universal deity the Jews believe in is not interested in the rest of the human race, and maintains a separate arrangement with a particular tribe.
4. The Hebrew word Yahadut, which denotes both Judaism and Jewry, demonstrates that there is no difference between the faith and the people. The familiar Jewish saying that ‘It is not Israel who kept the Sabbath, but the Sabbath that kept Israel’, is perfectly true. The religion, with its endless prohibitions and rules of ritual purity, preserved the distinctive identity of its adherents. That was its function. At the same time, it held out an eschatological vision according to which at the End of Days the entire world will acknowledge the supremacy of Jehovah and recognize Jerusalem as his abode and the Jews as his priests – ‘a kingdom of priests and an holy nation.’ It does not suggest that all men will become Jews! The separation is therefore a cosmic phenomenon, and will continue even in the afterworld. In this it differs from the Brahmin caste – which resembles Jewry in having strict laws of purity and separation – since in the Hindu religion the individual’s caste-identity applies only to a single incarnation, and does not have a cosmic status.
Modern Times and the Enlightenment
In the 19th century the impact of the Enlightenment began to undermine Jewish isolationism. In Europe, where the majority of Jews lived, religious observance was visibly weakening and assimilation was increasing. As the surrounding society grew more secular and open, abandoning the identification of individuals by their religion, more and more Jews came to feel uncomfortable in their isolation. But for the violent crises which rocked European societies during that period, it is possible that most Jews would have assimilated, leaving only a few small Orthodox communities to cling to their traditional way of life. But the upheavals in Europe in the late 19th century exposed all the ethnic and religious minorities to existential dangers, and Jews were traditional targets of popular discontent and frustration. At this time, antisemism, whose origins were religious and whose roots went back to the Crusades, took on a secularized and racist quality. It has been argued that Jewish separateness provoked antisemitism, or at least exacerbated it. Even if so, it may not matter any longer. What is certain, however, is that the violent outbreaks of European antisemitism stimulated the mass emigration of Jews to America and other distant lands.
At the start of the 20th century, when assimilation was spreading from Western Europe to the more tradition-bound Jewish communities in Central and even Eastern Europe, there were three options for the preservation of Jewish identity. The first was the time-honoured Orthodox way – namely, the strict observance of the ritual laws, which amounted to a physical barrier to assimilation, since you cannot assimilate among people with whom you cannot share a meal or a drink, or pass your leisure time, let alone marry them. The second option was to preserve Jewish identity by means of ‘cultural autonomy’, as promoted by the Yiddishist movement known as the Bund – namely, by encouraging the distinctive Jewish culture in Yiddish language and literature, in music and various traditions. This popular movement could join the progressive current, support radical ideologies, and even adopt an anti-religious stance, for if there was a distinctive Jewish culture, it could help preserve their separate identity, even if the walls it built around them were not as impregnable as those of Orthodoxy. Finally, there was the territorial option – namely, Zionism.
What Zionism offered was a way of maintaining Jewish separateness in the most natural way: by a physical separation from the rest of mankind. In a Jewish State it would be possible to preserve the tribe without having constantly to resist assimilation. Moreover, it would be possible to achieve a ‘normalization’ of the Jewish people – while living apart, it would be ‘a nation among nations’, and like the others it would consist of different classes – workers and capitalists, religious and secular people – who would all be Jews. Furthermore, if masses of Jews gathered from all over the world to live in one place, their existence would be more secure than as minority communities in alien and sometimes hostile societies. But for this plan to succeed it had to be located in a place which would not only be empty of ‘Gentiles’, but would also have specific Jewish associations – namely, the ‘Land of Israel’ (the traditional Jewish name for Palestine). All attempts to create a territorial solution in another location – e.g., in the Argentine pampas, in Uganda or Birobidjan – were not Jewish solutions and remained ideologically and numerically insignificant.
During the first third of the century the Zionist option did not enjoy much success. The Orthodox option was still well entrenched, and progressive Jews were more attracted by the cultural, quasi-secular, option of the Bund. The rest were people who were not averse to assimilation, who regarded Judaism as a burden which any sensible person would prefer to drop. There is no doubt that but for the rise of Nazism and its consequences, Zionism would not have become in the latter half of the century the success story that it is.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel, the two definitions of Zionism quoted at the beginning of this article have been prevalent, not only in Israel but wherever the subject is raised. Secular Jews describe Zionism as one of the national liberation movements which arose around the turn of the century, and therefore define every Jewish community the world over as part of the Jewish People, or the Jewish Nation; we shall come back to the problems of this definition. Jews and non-Jews of Marxist background usually describe Zionism as a colonial manifestation, but this definition is not quite satisfactory either, as we shall see.
Zionism as a Movement of National Liberation
Zionism, then, offered to solve the problem of Jewish separateness by territorial means. Unfortunately for it, it turned out that the autochthonous inhabitants of Palestine, which the Zionist leadership had described as a handful of Ishmaelite nomads who could be ignored or driven out, were in fact a nation. Ben Gurion recalled how, when he disembarked at the port of Jaffa in 1906, he looked around him and grew alarmed: ‘What are all these Arabs doing in my country?’ – Did not Zionism promise to spare the Jews from having to build walls of separation”! This was the start of the Middle East conflict. And not only the conflict between Jews and Arabs. In the first decade of the century Zionist leaders bemoaned the fact that Jewish agriculturists in Palestine were employing ‘Ishmaelite men and women’ in their orchards and homes. What was the point of immigrating to the Land of Israel, they said, if there too they had to mingle with goyim, and ‘Gentile’ women worked in their kitchens and looked after their children? The solution proposed was to bring Jews from the Yemen – known from their communities in Jerusalem as deeply religious – and employ them instead of Arabs in the orchards and houses. This was in fact done in 1906 – the settlement called Sha’arayim was created near Rehovot, and populated with a Jewish community imported especially from Yemen. However, where the Ashkenazi families in Rehovot had received four acres each, the Yemenites received only one acre per family, thus ensuring that they would be unable to support their families by agriculture, and would have to go to work for their Ashkenazi neighbours.
But the definition of Jews as a nation is extraordinarily problematic. It’s perfectly obvious that the only common denominator between European and Yemenite Jews, or between, say, a Jew from Cochin and a Jew from Romania, is religion. (It is true that after two or three generations of living together in Israel something resembling an Israeli nation has come into being, just as an American nation and an Australian nation emerged in their time. However, the periodic flooding of Israel with masses of new immigrants hinders the crystallization of an Israeli nation; but this lies outside the present discussion.) And indeed, in Israel, after a century of local history, religion remains the framework of society. Israel cannot cease to be a ‘Jewish State’, or a ‘State of the Jews’. An editorial in the secular Israeli daily Haaretz expressed it thus: ‘The State was established to provide a national home for the Jewish people, and so it remains on the threshold of the 21st century. The Jewish people is a unique ethnic-national entity, combining religion and nationality… The rules governing the political scene in Israel are derived from the axiom that this is a Jewish State… This position is anchored in Supreme Court rulings and in the laws concerning the Knesset, which determine that ‘a party may not compete in the general elections for the Knesset if its aims or its acts oppose, openly or implicitly, the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people’ (12 February 1996). The formula ‘The Jewish people is a unique ethnic-national entity, combining religion and nationality,’ rests on premises which cannot be rationally sustained. What kind of ‘ethnic entity’ can contain both Russian and Iraqi Jews? Can the term ‘nationality’ do so? – Clearly not. The one and only common denominator is the religion, and with it the tradition, or myth, of a shared origin thousands of years ago. Where religion fails, Zionism sustains the myth of ethnic continuity by various other means – archaeology, the swearing of soldiers in Massada or at the Wailing Wall, and so on.
Zionism as a European Colonial Movement
People with a Marxist background apply to Zionism the terms they regard as universal, i.e., those of materialism, economics and class. And indeed, Zionist history as a whole resembles that of European colonialism. The early Zionist leadership was predominantly bourgeois European, and had strong links with the bourgeois European governments of the time. Moreover, it enjoyed the crucial support of powerful capitalist elements, such as the Baron Rothschild and others. Looking at the history of Zionism, from the imperialist ‘Balfour Declaration’ of 1917 to the present Western support for aggressive Israel, it is easy to draw parallels between it and, say, the French colonization of Algeria or Indochina. All the same, it is a different story. Between the 1920s and 1940s there was a popular Zionist slogan that often drew fire from the progressive wing: it was a call for ‘Hebrew Labour’ – i.e., ‘Employ Jews, not Arabs!’ But though it expressed indifference to the needs of the Arab labour force, it could not be defined as racism in the usual sense of the term, for we have seen that Yemenite Jewish labourers, who were not ‘European’, and did not differ ‘racially’ or culturally from their Moslem neighbours in Yemen, were actually imported to replace local Arab labourers. (The Jewish credentials of the Yemenite community were never in doubt. On the contrary – rabbis, cantors and radio announcers of Yemenite background were highly prized for their vast knowledge of Hebrew and its heritage.) But if not racism, what did the call for ‘Hebrew labour’ signify? – Quite simply, the traditional Jewish separation from the goyim, an application of the same principles Jews have lived by throughout the world for centuries.
By contrast, the European colonists in the Americas, Africa and Asia were attracted by the availability of a cheap labour force. People migrated from Europe to various parts of the world in order to enrich themselves by exploiting the natural resources of those countries by means of the local labour force. The Zionist settlement in Palestine from the late 19th to the mid-20th century was a different enterprise. Before World War II, most of the Zionist settlers came to Palestine of their own will, not so much driven by circumstances as impelled by ideological fervour, often leaving behind them far better conditions than those they encountered in the ‘Promised Land’. Those Jews who wished to better their condition materially emigrated to the Americas, to Australia and South Africa. As for the money that Jewish capitalists invested in the Zionist settlement – this was characteristic Jewish philanthropy (i.e., dedicated to Jewish causes), enlivened with sympathy for the new ideology. When these capitalists looked for profits, they invested in far more promising enterprises than the Jewish settlement in Palestine; (though they probably did hope that eventually there would be a self-supporting Jewish community in Palestine, that might in the fullness of time even become profitable.)
It is hardly surprising that the Zionist movement conducted itself in some ways like other European colonial movements, since the political thinking of its central leadership stemmed from the European worldview of its time. Even when these leaders proclaimed progressive views, they continued to identify with Western colonialism. (We must not forget that in those days even progressive people in the West believed in the superiority of European civilization.) Certainly, as far as the Zionists could see, colonialism was the only viable scenario, and all other strategies must have seemed totally unrealistic. Zionism rode on the skirts of European imperialism, and cooperated with it in order to win its support. When Britain was the dominant power in the Middle East, Zionism collaborated with it. Nowadays, when the dominant power is the United States, Israel serves American interests because they serve her own. Yet the aim of Zionism has been to serve not the interests of Britain or the United States, but the age-old Jewish goal of a separate existence.
It is natural that the Zionist movement could contain various currents, because they all flowed to the same destination – namely, a Jewish state, in which separateness would be automatic. (Today even secular Zionists are capable of describing the process of Jewish assimilation and inter-marriage in the Western world as ‘a demographic Holocaust’!) Many people believe that in a few generations the only Jews in the world, other than a handful of ultra-Orthodox communities who maintain their identity in the old, well-tried way, will be the citizens of the Jewish State. The rest will assimilate and disappear among the ‘Gentiles’. That is why Zionism remains the common programme of nearly all of the political parties in Israel, from Moledet on the extreme Right to Meretz on the Left. Its principal tenet is that there must be a separate Jewish political entity, and the only question left is by what means this may be achieved. Right-wingers believe that it is possible to suppress and perhaps expel the non-Jews living in Palestine, either gradually by driving them to emigrate, or by more violent means; at the very least they seek to confine the Palestinians to some scattered, closed, supervised reservations. At the other end of the scale, the most committed members of the peace camp voice a preference for a very small Israel, within the pre-1967 borders or even smaller, provided it is ‘all ours’ – meaning, without any Arabs, or only a tiny minority as a testimony to Israeli democracy. In this they closely resemble the white Afrikaner movement in South Africa, which, since the fall of Apartheid, has been clamouring for a separate white state in Natal Province.
The realization that Zionism is a continuation of Judaism by other means helps to explain how it can resemble European colonialism and at the same time differ from it in important ways, and also resemble national liberation movements in some aspects and be quite unlike them in others. The Holocaust provided Jewish isolationism with a retroactive, if paranoid, vindication, and is therefore never absent from Zionist propaganda and apologetics. (I say ‘paranoid’, because there is no reason to regard the Nazi extermination policy as an ongoing threat, any more than African-Americans are threatened with a return to slavery.) And, as stated before, today there is little point in arguing whether or not Jewish separateness itself provoked antisemitism. Even if it did, then – as in cases of rape – the victim is not to be blamed.
Today it is difficult to digest the paradoxes of the Israeli situation unless one considers the aim of Zionism. It is difficult to understand why in South Africa the reverse process is taking place – from Apartheid to unification, despite all the problems and obstacles – whereas in Israel even the popular peace-camp slogan, ‘Two States for Two Nations’, whose motives are ostensibly enlightened, strives towards the same goal as the Orthodoxy. There is, of course, a basic difference between the two main Zionist camps, but it may be illustrated by the following metaphor: the hawkish Right wants Israel to remain a thorn in the flesh of the Middle East, and prefers a state of hostility over a peaceable solution, whereas the dovish Left seeks to heal the inflamed wound and turn Israel into a kind of implant in the Middle East, something like a cardiac pacemaker or plastic hip-replacement – an essentially benign, non-infective foreign body.
There is no point in giving good and bad marks to history. The question is not whether the aim of separateness is good or bad, but what it signifies and where it must lead. Because the supra-national empires of Europe fell apart in the early years of this century, people often speak of our time as being the ‘era of the nation state’; but in reality we are living in an era of non-nation states. The dominant power in the world today, the United States of America, is not a nation state, nor is there such a state anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, from pole to pole. Similarly, Australia, Great Britain, India, China, Russia and Indonesia, are not nation states, and the same holds true for most of the African states. As time goes on, there are fewer and fewer countries whose inhabitants predominantly belong to a single ethnic-cultural group. The mass migrations of the past century have greatly eroded the national pattern, which was never as static as some people imagine.
In reality Zionism, though based on the concept of a ‘Jewish nation’, gave birth to a state based on religion, while at the same time trying to maintain a modern, quasi-secular, quasi-democratic guise. Yet though there are today some vigorous theocracies and semi-theocracies – chiefly in the Moslem world – they do have ethnic-cultural foundations to sustain them, which cannot be said about Israel, as any visitor soon perceives. People who believe that it will be possible in future to maintain a ‘Jewish State’ in Israel are deluding themselves. Not only the Palestinian Arabs, but all of human reality will prevent this dream from materializing. The question remains, how dearly will the inhabitants of this land still have to pay before a solution is found.