Much has been written already on ‘left-wing antisemitism’. Lest I am accused of being a ‘right-winger’, (for some people – though not to me – that’s a terrible fault), let me ‘reassure’ my readers that Judeophobia is to be found everywhere: left, right and centre. It tends to more densely inhabit the more extreme segments of the political spectrum: both the far left and the far right. The reason why Judeophobes have, of late, become more conspicuous in UK’s Labour Party is that, under Jeremy Corbyn, that party has moved to the Far Left.
Needless to say, the Far Labourists would object to my calling them Judeophobes. They’d say they are only ‘Zio-phobes’. Far Labourists have ‘nothing against Jews’ – provided, that is, that they’re the right type of Jews. Far Labourists are ‘anti-Zionists’ and ‘anti-Israel’; they just care about the Palestinians. And the fact that they ‘happen’ to care about Palestinians much, much more than about Yazidis, Middle East Christians, Iranian Baha’is, Saudi women and the zillion other entities throughout the world that are oppressed more than the Palestinians… well, there surely are reasons for that… reasons which, of course, have anything to do with Israel being the only country with a Jewish majority.
If you think that pretence is ludicrous, I can’t blame you; yet it’s raised a question – one deemed important enough for UK’s Chief Rabbi to deal with. In a Telegraph article, Rabbi Mirvis states:
“It is astonishing to see figures on the hard Left of the British political spectrum presuming to define the relationship between Judaism and Zionism despite themselves being neither Jews nor Zionists. The likes of Ken Livingstone and Malia Boattia claim that Zionism is separate from Judaism as a faith; that it is purely political; that it is expansionist, colonialist and imperialist.
It is unclear why these people feel qualified to provide such an analysis of one of the axioms of Jewish belief. But let me be very clear. Their claims are a fiction. They are a wilful distortion of a noble and integral part of Judaism. Zionism is a belief in the right to Jewish self-determination in a land that has been at the centre of the Jewish world for more than 3,000 years. One can no more separate it from Judaism than separate the City of London from Great Britain.”
Such pronouncements caused an understandable stir. After all, the Chief Rabbi is supposed to know a fair deal about what Judaism is and what it’s not – perhaps more than Corbyn, Livingston & Co.
In desperation, the New Far Labour deployed its Trump… err, its trump card: a cabal (they wouldn’t call it like that – not to their faces!) of far left activists with Jewish-sounding names – the ultimate proof, you see, that one can be an anti-Zionist and a Jew at the same time. Referring to Rabbi Mirvis’s article in a letter to the Guardian, 88 of these ‘anti-Zionist Jews’ declared:
“We British Jews reject this categorically.”
It is rather unclear to me who elected (appointed?) those 88 signatories to speak for a quarter million British Jews. But let’s stick to the substance (or what passes as such) of their disagreement:
“Mirvis attacks as ‘antisemitic’ those who separate Judaism from Zionism. Yet most Jews who perished in the Holocaust were indifferent to Zionism and many opposed it. In the last municipal elections in Europe’s largest Jewish community, in Poland, just before the second world war, Poland’s Jews voted overwhelmingly for the secular, anti-Zionist, socialists of the Bund, while Zionist parties got derisory votes. Is Rabbi Mirvis recasting those victims of the Holocaust posthumously as enemies of Judaism and therefore as antisemites?”
Many found the letter offensive. Frankly, I find the argument ludicrous. To start with, the 88 anti-Zionists ‘deployed the Holocaust card’ – something the reviled Zionists are supposed to be doing. That’s surely a sign of deep desperation. As for the ‘argument’ that Polish Jews “voted overwhelmingly […] for the socialist of the Bund” in some random municipal elections more than 70 years ago… well, 200 years ago American Jews voted overwhelmingly for parties supporting black slavery. What’s that have to do with anything?
A slightly more nuanced (but ultimately just as ludicrous) critique was published in the Jewish Chronicle by one Simon Rocker. Mr. Rocker is not a Rabbi, but he is Editor for Judaism at the JC – and an occasional contributor to the Guardian. So he feels entitled to weigh in:
“But one point he [Chief Rabbi Mirvis] made has particularly generated over the past week – the relationship of Zionism to Judaism.”
I take “generated” in Mr. Rocker’s otherwise oh-so-elegant sentence to mean ‘generated disagreement’. That – admittedly speculative – understanding is driven by Rocker’s next pronouncements:
“The centrality of the land of Israel, the ultimate restoration of Jewish sovereignty, the ingathering of the exiles – these are, indisputably, cardinal beliefs in traditional Judaism handed down from generation to generation.
But the religious return to Zion is not quite the same thing as Zionism. Zionism was a 19th century political movement to establish a modern Jewish state which was influenced by the secular nationalism of the times. There may have been proto-Zionist groups who tried to found Jewish colonies in Eretz Yisrael but it was Zionism that led to Jewish statehood.”
Now, I must be a bit thick. Because I rather struggle to understand how the “restoration of Jewish sovereignty” (which Mr. Rocker declares an indisputable cardinal belief in Judaism) is “not quite the same as” renewed Jewish statehood in Eretz-Yisrael (a rather cardinal issue in Zionism). It may be that “ingathering of the exiles” is not quite the same as Aliyah; but the difference seems to me so small as to make Mr. Rocker’s entire endeavour look like a bit of frantic nit-picking.
Pedantry attains new peaks when Mr. Rocker proceeds to point out that:
“… one can’t forget that Zionism was not, and is still not, universally accepted within Orthodoxy.
Some of the most prominent rabbis of the early 20th century opposed the movement for two main reasons. They feared – not without justification – that it would replace the primacy of Torah commitment with secular nationalism. Some also argued that the exile was divinely ordained and that the return to Zion must await messianic times, until which Jews must bear their fate in the diaspora.
Those views still persist in parts of the Charedi world, even if the diehard opponents represent only a minority trend. That doesn’t make them more ‘authentic’ than any other intepretations [sic!] of Judaism. But it remains true that love of Zion and Zionism are not quite the same thing.”
But why does anything need to be “universally accepted” (rather than ‘generally accepted’), to be considered part and parcel of Judaism? No ‘liberal-minded’ journalist would require Muslims to ‘universally accept’ a concept, before it’s considered part of Islam. Mr. Rocker’s objection to Rabbi Mirvis’s view is that… there are fringe Judaic sects (which, by the way, are likely to opine that Rabbi Mirvis himself is not a ‘true Jew’) that are opposed to Zionism – though they still of course proclaim their “love of Zion” and belief in the “in-gathering of the exiles”, albeit in God’s good time. In practice, Mr. Rocker has rather prolixly demonstrated that Rabbi Mirvis is not 100% right – only 95%. Good point, Mr. Rocker!
Employing meaningless sophistry is a sign of desperation and paucity of arguments. But Mr. Rocker is not the only culprit. On BBC’s Radio 4, Yachad’s Hannah Weisfeld was asked about the antisemitism espoused by former Labour MP Naz Shah – the one who opined that Jewish Israelis should be ‘transported’ to America. Hannah’s response was a masterpiece of pointless word-mincing:
“I think that Naz Shah said a lot of things that are antisemitic; I’m not sure she is an anti-Semite and I think there’s quite a big difference…”
Beyond the utter absurdity, such approach is dangerous because it enables some people to move the goal-posts: there is no antisemitism in the Labour Party; after all, its leaders and activists have only “said a lot of things that are anti-Semitic”; they haven’t yet beaten Jews in the street, now did they?
But let us move on from pedantic ‘analyses’ to the facts.
The Siddur is Judaism’s main book of prayers. Amidah is arguably Siddur’s centre-piece prayer – it is recited (standing up, rather than sitting) as part of every synagogue service. It includes the following supplication (translation from Hebrew):
“Sound the great Shofar for our freedom; raise a banner to gather our Diasporas, and bring us swiftly together from the four corners of the Earth into our Land. Blessed are You Lord, Who gathers the exiles of His people Israel.”
No, Amidah was not concocted (by either mythical ‘Elders of Zion’ or real-life Zionists) in the 19th century. It dates from around the 2nd century CE. Observant Jews everywhere have been reciting it three times a day ever since. Less observant Jews – whenever they happen to attend a synagogue service.
Amidah is just one of the many Jewish prayers and rituals that express hope in the ‘ingathering of exiles’ and ‘restauration of Jewish sovereignty’. Which, as we remember ‘are not quite the same’ (read: they are ‘largely the same’) as Zionism.
So I really can’t fault Rabbi Mirvis for stating in his article:
“Open a Jewish daily prayer book used in any part of the world and Zionism will leap out at you. The innumerable references to the land of Israel are inescapable and demonstrative.”
But what about his next paragraph? It claims:
“Throughout our collective history we have yearned for a chance to determine our own future, to revive an ancient language and return to rejoice in our love for this tiny sliver of land.”
Really, “Throughout our collective history”? Wasn’t Zionism “a 19th century political movement”, as Mr. Rocker so learnedly explained? Here are a few historical facts that preceded the 19th century:
66–73 CE: ‘Great Jewish Revolt’ against Roman occupation. After defeating it, the Romans demolish the Temple. Jews are prohibited from entering Jerusalem and are gradually expelled from the Land of Israel.
115–117: ‘Rebellion of the Exile’. Exiled Jews in several corners of the Roman Empire rise against the Romans and return to the Land of Israel. They are eventually defeated.
132–135: ‘Bar Kokhba revolt’. Jews rise against the Romans under the leadership of Bar Kokhba. They regain Jerusalem, proclaim independence, even make coins with the text ‘To the freedom of Jerusalem’. They are ultimately defeated by superior Roman forces. Emperor Hadrian prohibits the practice of Judaism. He prohibits the terms ‘Israel’ and ‘Judaea’ and re-names the country ‘Syria-Palaestina’ after the Philistines, the ancient enemies of the Jews.
351–352: ‘Revolt against Gallus’. Jewish revolt liberates Galilee, before being defeated.
362-572: Several Samaritan revolts against Byzantine rule. The Samaritan faith (a sect of Judaism which had survived in the Judean Hills) is outlawed.
602-628: Persian Jews form an army, join forces with the Sassanids against the Byzantines and reconquer Jerusalem. A semi-autonomous Jewish state is declared, but is ultimately defeated in 628.
636: Arab conquest of ‘Syria’ (including the Land of Israel). Jews are initially allowed back into Jerusalem, but are later prohibited again from entering. The Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are built on the site of the destroyed Jewish Temple.
1160: Revolt of Jews in Kurdistan. Failed attempt to reconquer the Land of Israel.
1198: Jews from Maghreb arrive and settle in Jerusalem.
1204: Moshe Ben Maimon (Maimonides) dies and is buried in Tiberias, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
1211: Around 300 Jews from England and France manage to reach the Land of Israel and settle in Jerusalem. The majority are killed by the Crusaders in 1219. The few remaining are exiled from Jerusalem and find refuge in Acre.
1217: Judah al-Harizi (rabbi, translator, poet and traveller who travelled from Spain to the Land of Israel) bemoans in his writings the state of the Temple Mount.
1260: Having settled in the Land of Israel, Yechiel of Paris (French rabbi) establishes a Talmudic academy in Acre.
1266: Jews banned from entering the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
1267: Nachmanides (leading medieval Jewish scholar from Catalonia) arrives in Jerusalem; Ramban synagogue established.
1286: Meir of Rothenburg (famous rabbi and poet from Germany) is incarcerated after attempting to emigrate to the Land of Israel.
1355: Physician and geographer Ishtori Haparchi (born in France and settled in the Land of Israel) dies in Bet She’an.
1428: Jews attempt to purchase the Tomb of David; the Pope issues a prohibition for ship captains to carry Jews to the Land of Israel.
1434: Elijah of Ferrara (famous Talmudist and traveller) settles in Jerusalem.
1441: Famine forces Jerusalem’s Jews to send emissaries to European Jews, asking for help.
1455: Failed large scale immigration attempt starting from Sicily. The would-be immigrants are condemned to death, but the punishment is commuted to a heavy fine.
1474: Great Synagogue of Jerusalem demolished by Arab mob.
1488: Obadiah ben Abraham of Bertinoro arrives in Jerusalem on March 25, 1488, having commenced his journey October 29, 1486. When, following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, many of the exiles settled in Jerusalem, Bertinoro became their intellectual leader. These Spanish Jews presented Bertinoro with a site for a yeshivah (religious academy) in Jerusalem, which he founded. Considerable support for the maintenance of the yeshivah was given by the Jews of Egypt and Turkey at Bertinoro’s written solicitation.
1493: Joseph Saragossi travels from Spain and settles in Safed. He becomes the leader of the local Jewish community and dies in 1507.
1561: Spanish Jews travel to the Land of Israel under the leadership of Don Joseph Nasi. They settle in Safed. Joseph Nasi secures permission from Sultan Selim II to acquire Tiberias and seven surrounding villages to create a Jewish city-state. He hoped that large numbers of Jewish refugees and Marranos (Jews forced to convert to Catholicism) would settle there, free from fear and oppression; indeed, the persecuted Jews of Cori, Italy, numbering about 200 souls, decided to emigrate to Tiberias. Nasi had the walls of the town rebuilt by 1564 and attempted to turn it into a self-sufficient textile manufacturing centre by planting mulberry trees and producing silk. Nevertheless, a number of factors during the following years contributed to the plan’s ultimate failure. But by 1576, the Jewish community of Safed faced an expulsion order: 1,000 prosperous families were to be deported to Cyprus, ‘for the good of the said island’, with another 500 the following year. The order was issued as an instrument of extortion: it was rescinded once a hefty bribe was extracted from the Jews in the form of ‘rent’.
1648: Jews from Turkey attempt to return as a group to Israel, under the leadership of Sabbatai Zevi. His arrival in Jerusalem triggers an anti-Jewish pogrom.
1700: A group of 1,500 Ashkenazi Jews attempt to travel to the Land of Israel under the leadership of Rabbi Yehuda he-Hasid. A third die on the way. The Rabbi himself dies within days of arrival. The survivors settle in Jerusalem.
1764-1850: Small groups of Jews (between 5 and 500 each) make their way to the Land of Israel under various rabbis.
It’s not that Zionism was “a 19th century political movement”. It is that it became a political movement in the 19th century – acquiring in the process a name and the appropriate ‘ism’ suffix. The desire (or rather the craving) was there in every previous century – or in every generation; it’s just that it took such extent and form that suited the times. One can hardly expect any “political movement” – let alone a Jewish one – to appear as such in the 15th century. In fact, in the 15th century Zionism was so much an integral part of Judaism that people who believed in it (and put it in practice whenever possible) thought they were only practicing their religion.
Narrowly interpreting Zionism as “a 19th century political movement” is simply parroting anti-Israel propaganda. A pamphlet titled ‘Palestine-Israel: the basic facts’ from the infamous Palestine Solidarity Campaign opens as follows:
“1897 A European Jewish political movement, the Zionist movement, has for some years been seeking to secure a national home for the Jewish people. After considering homelands in Africa and S America, the Zionist conference of 1897 settles on Palestine, then part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.”
Got it? In 1987, European Jews (who descended from Khazars, or maybe landed from Mars) suddenly decided they wanted a national home somewhere…
But what about Mr. Rocker’s claim that Zionism (the 19th century political movement) “was influenced by the secular nationalism of the times”? Well, that’s also a bit of parroting. Jewish thinking was of course influenced by ideas that circulated at the time among non-Jews – and in turn influenced those ideas. One can certainly talk about the rise of “secular nationalism” in late 19th century – and even more in the early 20th century. But that ‘nationalism’ had none of the pejorative connotations imparted to the term by today’s ‘liberals’. That was a time of people seeking emancipation, freedom from the yoke of empires, the right to determine their own future. The ‘nationalism’ that influenced Zionism was no different than the one that gave birth to Enosis and the Czech National Revival. It’s the nationalism of Gandhi and the Indian National Congress, not that of Hitler and his National Socialist Party.
It would seem that Rabbi Mirvis was right after all. As for those who are so desperately trying to whitewash (Jew-wash?) Far Labour’s antisemitism, they really need to procure some better paint. This one’s sooo pathetically transparent…