Religious Zionist Anti-Nationalism

Portrait of Martin Buber from Wikipedia
Portrait of Martin Buber from Wikipedia

In 1948, on the eve of the War of Independence, Martin Buber wrote in an essay entitled Zionism and “Zionism,” that he feared that a Jewish victory in the war would spell the downfall of authentic Zionism. The “Jewish” nation-state which would emerge from the war, Buber feared, would embody a

collective selfishness which acknowledges no higher standards…This sort of “Zionism” blasphemes the name of Zion; it is nothing more than one of the crude forms of nationalism, which acknowledges no master above the apparent (!) interest of the nation. Let us say that it is revealed as a form of national assimilation, more dangerous than individual assimilation; for the latter only harms the individuals and families who assimilate, whereas national assimilation erodes the nucleus of Israel’s independence [A Land of Two Peoples, edited by P. Mendes-Flohr]

By “Israel’s independence,” Buber does not mean the independence of a nation-state called “Israel” but the supra-national spiritual and moral ideal signified by the Hebrew word ישראל / Yisrael. For Buber, and I believe for all authentic Judaism, Israel is not merely a religion or a nation but a purpose; a calling; a path to God embodied in people-hood, land, language and culture. The purpose is embedded in these forms but they are vessels for God’s spirit; never ends in themselves.

Thirty years ago, I fell in love with the humanistic nationalist teaching of Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn. I wrote my doctorate at Hebrew University about his synthesis of Torah and democratic ideals. Rabbi Hirschensohn, who I still regard as my Rebbe in a deep sense, offered a robust Jewish nationalism. He envisioned a state so Jewish that upon being elected to its democratic parliament one would become invested with smicha — the ultimate Torah authority — passed down from Moses to Joshua and the elders. While the chain of smicha had been broken in Talmudic times, Rabbi Hirschensohn believed that it would be renewed alongside the resurrection of the Jewish body politic in Eretz Yisrael in our time. Rabbi Hirschensohn, who died in 1935 and thus never saw the actual State of Israel, envisioned a Jewish nation-state that would be the perfect fulfillment of both liberal democratic ideals and Torah Judaism.

Rabbi Hirschensohn’s Torah is a magnificent example of religious-Zionist midrash whose roots go back to the writings of the Rabbis of Hibat Tsion – the love of Zion – such as Alkalai and Kalisher. This form of Jewish theology and hermeneutics is characterized by interpreting tasks traditionally understood as prerogatives of God, such as returning the People of Israel to the Land of Israel, as now to be accomplished through naturalistic this-worldly human effort. In other words, instead of just praying for the in-gathering of the exiles, these Rabbis taught that you should buy a ticket and learn how to farm. Rabbi Hirschensohn applied the principle of Zionist midrash to another task traditionally thought to be dependent on God alone: Achieving the prophetic vision of global justice. For Rabbi Hirschensohn, the Zionist movement would return the Jews to Eretz Yisrael and they, reborn as a nation in their old-new Jewish nation-state, would redeem the world.

I still deeply identify with Rabbi Hirschensohn’s Zionist midrash. I did buy a ticket. And while I still don’t know how to farm, I’ve made my life, together with my family, here in Eretz Yisrael. I also believe in Rabbi Hirschensohn’s ideal of practical human assistance to the divine goal of achieving global justice. And, yet again in his footsteps, I understand the practical struggle for human rights as the embodiment of faithfulness to that divine task.

But I no longer identify with Rabbi Hirschensohn’s ideal of a Jewish nation-state. Three decades of witnessing by beloved country victimize the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the name of “Judaism” and “Zionism” has shifted my allegiance on this issue from Rabbi Hirschensohn to Martin Buber, who already in 1921 understood “the nationalistic crises in Judaism”:

…[W]e hoped to save Jewish nationalism from the error of making an idol of the people. We have not succeeded. Jewish nationalism…[has] yielded to the delusion of regarding the horizon visible from one’s own station as the whole sky. It too is guilty of offending against the words of that table of laws that has been set up above all nations: that all sovereignty becomes false and vain when in the struggle for power it fails to remain subject to the Sovereign of the world, who is the Sovereign of my rival, and my enemy’s Sovereign, as well as mine…it proclaims the nation as an end in itself…[it is] a group-egoism which disclaims responsibility.

In our reality of discriminatory home demolitions, family evictions, massive theft of public and private land, systematic legalized institutionalized discrimination – all perpetrated against the ethnic-national minority (Palestinian-Arabs) and all in the name of “Judaism” and “Zionism” – I feel bound to recognize the absolute contradiction between the idea of the Jewish nation-state as it is manifest in reality and the divine purpose of Israel.

Authentic religious Zionism – the practical naturalistic this-worldly movement to embody in the world the divine spirit which moves in Israel – is diametrically opposed any force which would wield the power of the modern state for the advantage of an ethnic-national majority at the expense of the minority. If we define nationalism as harnessing the state to the interests of an ethnic-national group, rather than serving the well-being of all its residents, then authentic religious Zionism must take the form of an anti-nationalism which pits all its strength against the ugly group-egoism of systematic ethnic-national discrimination; it strives for מדינת כל אזרחיה / a state for all its citizens, and not merely a state for Jews.

In this regard, authentic religious Zionists have an important chapter to learn from the profoundly anti-Zionist sage Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, who explained the Abrahamic mission in his commentary to Breshit 12:2 –

All others strive, not להיות ברכה to be a blessing, but להיות ברוכים, to be blessed. The honesty, humanity and love which one still demands from individuals is regarded as folly in the relation of national to nation, have no meaning in diplomacy and politics. Deception and murder which in individuals lead to prison and gallows, if exercised on a grand scale in the “interests of the state” are crowned with laurel and medals. The Abrahamic nation is to know nothing of these national institutions, is to have no national politics and no political economy…In the midst of a world of men who stamp נעשה לנו שם [“we will make ourselves a name” said about the Tower of Babylon] as the motto of all their endeavors, and self-aggrandizement and ruthless extension of their own well-being the deciding goal for all their efforts, the People of Avraham, are, in private and public life to follow the one calling היה ברכה to become a blessing. To dedicate themselves with all devotion to the Divine purposes of bringing happiness to the world and [hu]mankind, thereby as models, to re-establish [Hu]man[ity] to its original pure calling of אדם ADAM…

A “Judaism” or “Zionism” which abuses the power of the state to empower Jews and victimize Palestinians represents the repudiation of the authentic mission of Israel in history; the ultimate rejection of אורחא דמהימנותא / the way of faith. Those Jews who see the Jewish nation-state’s West Bank regime for the moral monstrosity that it has become, but who will not abandon the way of faith – who remain faithful to Israel’s mission – must take moral responsibility for the shape of Jewish identity in our generation. I’m not sure what that will look like. Only now, I believe, have liberal Jews and liberal Judaism begun to awaken to the grim reality of our discriminatory West Bank regime. We  – the humanistic forces of the Jewish world – must come together to redefine who we are and what we stand for in Israel/Palestine. This preliminary exploration of a religious-Zionist anti-nationalism is perhaps a step along that path.

About the Author
Shaiya Rothberg lives in Jerusalem and teaches Jewish Thought and Kabbalah at the Conservative Yeshiva. He's also a human rights activist focused on resisting the abuses of Israel's discriminatory West Bank regime. Shaiya holds a PhD from Hebrew University in Jewish Thought and a B.A. in Jewish Philosophy and Talmud from Bar-Ilan. He made aliyah in 1988 and served as a soldier and officer in the I.D.F. from 1990-1993 in the military government of the Gaza strip. The opinions in his blog are his own and do not represent any institution.
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