Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010
A THREAT FROM WITHIN: A CENTURY OF JEWISH OPPOSITION TO ZIONISM
by Yakov M. Rabkin; translated from French by Fred A. Reed
Fernwood Books, 2006
Review by Rafael Chodos
Every once in a while an important book flies under our radar systems; this is one of them. Although the original French edition (2004) was reviewed in some small periodicals in Canada, Mexico, and Europe, it did not receive anything near the attention it deserves. The book has been published in Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Dutch, Polish, Italian, and Russian, but it came to my attention only because my wife is Japanese: she reads the Asahi Shimbun every day and there was a long, highly favorable review of the Japanese edition of this book in the May 10, 2010, edition of that newspaper.
Many American Jews will be surprised to learn that when the notion of establishing the State of Israel was first proposed, and ever since, there has been strong opposition to the idea from within the Jewish community. This opposition is based on many grounds. It arises partly from the conviction that Judaism is a religion rather than an ethnicity or a political enterprise: many see Zionism as an insidious effort to transform the religion into a kind of statism, replacing its focus on God with a focus on building the kind of state that arose in Europe during the nineteenth century and that Mussolini cast as the centerpiece of a fascist, power-seeking "national identity."
Jewish opposition to the State of Israel arises partly from the sense that Judaism is a religion of introspection rather than political action. The image of the "muscular Jew," which is so much a part of the new State of Israel, does not fit well with the notion of the Jew who bends over a desk or table to study books. For some the opposition also arises from the Orthodox Jewish belief that the return to the Land of Israel should not take place until the Moshiach comes: to return in organized fashion before that is a sin. For other Jews it arises from a revulsion toward the violence and force used against the inhabitants of the land. Some see violence toward the Palestinians as a sin for which the Jewish people will be required to pay a heavy price -- like the many sins of the Jewish people recounted in the Bible for which they paid through the destruction of the Temple and exile.
Rabkin's book traces the history of these ideas in detail, mainly analyzing sources from the late nineteenth century through the late twentieth century, but also identifying their roots in talmudic, medieval, and renaissance Jewish texts.
Zionism was one response to the European, post-Enlightenment disillusionment with religious orthodoxy. Rabkin quotes the rhetoric of the early Zionists who said the Jewish spine needed straightening -- that it was too long curved both by the weight of oppression and by the weight of the volumes of the Talmud. To them, Zionism was the way the Jewish people could take its place among the other peoples of the world and stand tall. By forming a real nation-state, the Jewish people would free itself from the "yoke of the heavenly kingdom." Many of the founders of the State of Israel were largely unfamiliar with Jewish tradition and cared very little for it, just as many contemporary Israelis have neither patience with the Orthodox Jews who live among them, nor any knowledge of the tradition that they claim to uphold.
Rabkin is clearly striving for academic rigor and historical objectivity, and his book is sophisticated and well-researched. Even so, the author's bias shows through. I mention this not to criticize the book but to highlight one of its virtues; by arguing his points, Rabkin persuades us to take a deeper look at Zionism by showing us how much propaganda and distortion of the truth was involved in the foundation of the State of Israel.
Rabkin's book also dramatizes the painful irony woven into Judaism's very DNA: the Torah's whole narrative about the Exodus from Egypt and the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel in the "Promised Land" is itself a prototype of the Zionist myth. The Moses of the Chumash can be seen as an early Zionist who corrupted the purity and sanctity of the personal encounter with the Divine, which we read about in the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and imbedded it in a hieratic, bureaucratic structure reminiscent of the Egyptian one in which he was raised. By the time the "editorial board" in Josiah's court was putting the text of the Books of Genesis through Joshua into final form, their intention was already a propagandistic effort to justify and glorify Josiah's kingdom by tracing its roots to the very first days of creation and by asserting that the kingdom itself was a fulfillment of destiny and of God's intentions for human history.
Rabbinic Judaism arose and flourished in the centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple, and one of Judaism's qualities, which distinguishes it from most forms of Christianity, is its statelessness. To Rabkin and many of the thinkers he quotes, entangling religion with a political enterprise is just not Judaism's "thing" because it necessarily involves a debasement of religion. Of course, the ideal of separating church and state is elusive because when the state insists on separating itself from this particular church or that one, it sometimes can end up becoming a church itself. Rabkin's book focuses on this problem in a constructive way. Particularly to American Jews who have been educated to believe that supporting the State of Israel is a religious duty, this book offers a different and very valuable perspective.
Rafael Chodos is a lawyer and the author of The Law of Fiduciary Duties and many other books and articles. He is the CEO of Giotto Multimedia and founder of The Foundation for Centripetal Art.
Source Citation: Chodos, Raphael. 2010. Jewish Anti-Zionism. Tikkun 25(6): 66