Reuven Spero

Finding Zionism after October 7

An idea that has made the rounds since the October 7 massacre is that the meaning of our army’s failure to protect our citizens is that Zionism has died.  The inability of Israel to shield Jews not simply from attack and death but from brutality equal to that of any we suffered during the long years of exile make a lie of the idea that the creation of a modern state can protect the most hated nation on the face of the earth. If the State of Israel was founded to fundamentally change an existential reality for the Jewish people, we’ve just learned that this reality can pursue us even here, in our ancestral homeland.

In case you need a review, which you probably don’t: there was the Kishinev pogroms that sparked the 2nd Aliyah in 1903.  Fifty were killed — it seems almost to disappear in what comes later – but the stories of cruelty and rape and multilation spread across the world, thanks to new forms of mass communication.  Less known are the approximately 100,000 Jews who were killed in pogroms in Russia and Ukraine between the years of 1918 and 1921.  University of Michigan professor Jeffrey Veidlinger of the University of Michigan wrote a book about it if you are interested.  “In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918-1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust,” chronicles some of the worst slaughters of that period, only 100 years ago.  I’m not even going to mention the brutalization of Jews during the Shoah, but you should not let the number 6,000,000 excuse you from reading the horrors that individual Jews experienced.

The massacre of the Jews in Hebron in 1929: if you read accounts of the violence, you could be excused for thinking you were reading quotes from survivors and first responders on October 7. Look at the two links below for more information. You’ll see that the motivation for these attacks was the rumor spread among the Arab leadership that the Al Aksa mosque was in danger – a theme that reappears during much of the violence Palestinians wage against Jews.  We see this in the 2nd Intifada and it was also listed as the the reason most Gazans believe Hamas undertook the attacks on October 7.

The Jewish state was to put an end to all of this.  Theodore Herzl believed that our abnormal status, as a nation with no country, marked us as foreigners wherever we were.  An enlightened and Enlightenment Jew himself, he struggled for acceptance into a world that by all rights should have been open and welcoming to him.  And yet, even in the most modern and advanced cultures he would hear the echoes of “hep, hep,” of “Juden raus!” of “down with the Jewish traitor” — in German or French or English.  

Herzl wrote:  Are we to get out now?  And to where?  Or may we yet remain?  And for how long…?

Herzl feared for the Jewish people were they to remain in Europe. The only solution to the Jewish Problem, in his eyes, was to physically remove the Jews from danger: create a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel and assist Jews to move there and make it flourish. In Herzl’s view, Zionism was to save Jews. 

Were that the heart and soul of Zionism, then I should agree with the formulation of Rabbi Daniel Gordis:  How and why October 7 was a violation of the promise that Zionism and Israel had made to the Jewish people (you can listen to his lecture on Substack). He explains, eloquently as always:

“[Zionism] was meant to change the existential condition of the Jewish people. And until October 7, everybody here thought it had. And by the time we went to sleep on October 7 night, we were forced to acknowledge that we’d fundamentally failed. The idea of the state had been fundamentally upended. And you can’t understand the massive military response unless you understand that this was not a bad day. This was a day that fundamentally Israelis went to sleep thinking the state just failed. The whole Zionist enterprise that started in 1897 with that Zionist Congress, it just got washed away.”

This is the point:  Zionism came to transform the Jewish experience from an existence that was provisional, lived in a context of fear of antisemitic violence; a fear that prevents trust in life, in Hashem, in a future.  If Zionism means anything, it means self-reliance and competence in the arts of violence that allow us to protect ourselves, our families, our homes, our people.  It means establishing a lived stability where we needn’t worry and the Cossacks raping our daughters, beheading our children, watching helplessly as barbaric twisted marauders perpetrate unspeakable evil upon all that we love.  If Zionism can’t do that, Rabbi Gordis asserts, then Zionism is a failure.  And our country has no future:

“The sense is, if you don’t destroy them [Hamas, I assume, not the Palestinians] this country is over not because they’re gonna come back over the border and capture Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but because nobody who has the ability to leave will stay. Why would you possibly stay with an enemy like that around who’s gonna gun for your kids and your grandchildren? And … the country simply understands that if we do not win – and win means obliterating them to the point that they don’t exist anymore – we may not make it. We may not be having this conversation in 20 years.”

I understand what he is saying.  I share his angst and his determination to “totally obliterate” our enemies, because it is the first and foremost responsibility of a government and an army to provide protection to its citizens.  

But it is not the whole story, not nearly.

It seems to me that this understanding of Zionism and its goals is quite narrow, specifically Herzlian approach.  The expectation that making us a nation like all others would solve antisemitism was no more reasonable in the early 1900s than when the people of Israel demanded a king from Shmuel, so that we could be a nation like all others.  As Jabotinski would aver, one constant in our history is that people hate the Jews.  We might not know why this is, but… it is what it is.  Just a few weeks ago in the Torah, we read Parashat Vayeshev, which starts out:  Ya’akov dwelt in the land of his forefather, in Eretz C’na’an.  Rashi glosses:  Ya’akov wished to live in peace and harmony… and then the troubles with Yosef fell on him!

I don’t like it.  I am not by nature a warrior, nor do I wish my children to be.  As a nation, we love peace, pray for peace: we want nothing more than to raise families, worship as we choose, study and learn, enjoy life, and win Nobel prizes. In our spare time, we can demonstrate against the government or fiddle with judicial reform. We should be happy when those are our troubles, yes? 

The primary purpose of a Jewish state  seems not that we should dwell in peace and harmony, but rather to enable us to live out and realize our unique national destiny.  I would say, to do our part in bringing the Mashiah but I am afraid that any such talk nowadays puts one into the category of ‘messianists,” Heaven forfend, and so I restrain myself.  In any case, I have virtually no idea what that might mean anyways, and although as a teacher I am often paid to talk of things I know nothing about, I don’t need to pretend here.  

I fear to return to that word, but it seems that only the Mashiah could ever bring peace to our people – perhaps that is why we pray for peace so much; it is at the same time a prayer for Mashiah.  If peace is a chimera, that does not mean that Zionism has failed.  It means we have to redouble our determination to live as if we deserve the Mashiah.  Like Kafka wrote, the messiah will arrive the day after he is no longer needed.  Maybe that is our national destiny: to aspire to live a national life on a level that expresses a Messianic “now.“  That is how I see Zionism and the meaning of the State of Israel.  The state and this land and this tradition, this history and this people all entangled in a chaotic mess, working it out as only our chaotic, entangled, messy, and inspired nation  could do, as an example to all the other chaotic, entangled, messy, and inspired peoples of the world.

Does Hamas worry me, does Iran?  Yes, of course!  And I agree, or at least might agree, that the violence carried out by Hamas and threatened by Iran is a threat to our survival.  But I read in yesterday’s paper that over 2600 people have made aliya since October 7.  We are also a stiff-necked people, it says so in black and white and shown time and again through our history.  It is that kind of stubbornness and determination and dedication that has seen us through, and please God, will continue to do so.

About the Author
Reuven is a refugee from Kentucky, where his family lived for 200 years. A teacher at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, Reuven and family are now rooted in the Land of Israel, living in Shilo.
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