As a South African-born secular Jew who has chosen to make his home in the United Kingdom I feel that I should explain why I regard a rabbi who dedicated his life to the Zionist cause as one of my heroes. Shmaryahu Levin’s rabbinical status is the least significant aspect of his identity. It simply tells me that he was steeped in the culture, traditions and learning of the Jewish world in which he lived. He was a politician first and foremost, admired as an orator and respected as a Zionist activist.
Many years ago I came across his book, ‘The Arena’, published in 1932 as the third volume of an autobiographical trilogy. Reading it, I learnt about the system of patronage which flourished in the nineteenth century in which wealthy Jews, the notables or shtadtlanim, took it upon themselves to represent their community to the Russian establishment. The system grew out of the helplessness and passivity of Russian Jewry and mirrored the corruption which prevailed in the wider society. Levin witnessed the beginnings of a revolt against this capricious and iniquitous system in the form of the Jewish labour movement and the Jewish national movement, both symbolic of the break with the medieval past.
The former saw itself as making common cause with the Russian masses while the latter, political Zionism, concentrated on the development of a national identity and had no direct link with the struggle in Russia itself. Levin threw his weight behind the Zionists and joined a small group of activists known as Bnai Moshe, led by Achad Ha-Am, who believed that the task ahead lay in the preparation of Jews through education and the acquisition of practical skills for the reclamation of their historic homeland in Palestine.
Levin describes the tension between the idealists, who could only dream of the land as a place offering salvation from the misery of their present world, and the realists, who foresaw that preparation and hard work were needed to overcome the inertia which was burdening Jewish communities throughout Eastern Europe. Many were daunted by the effort and discipline required and Levin refers disparagingly to them as ‘sympathisers’ but he also acknowledges his own vacillation between realism and idealism.
Levin drew inspiration from Achad-Ha-Am, who believed that what was called for was a spiritual drive from within rather than having to wait for a response from the masses. Leadership would come by example, from the few dedicated souls who could invigorate Jewry by developing Hebrew as a spoken language and promoting settlements within Palestine where Jews could exercise their new-found agricultural and technical skills. ‘The Bnai Moshe’, writes Levin, ‘purified the national ideal from chauvinism and from the ancient disease of blind adoration of tradition’.
Nowhere in ‘The Arena’ is mention made of encounters with communities other than Jewish who had also made their homes in Palestine. The conflict which was to engage Jew and Arab for decades to come had yet to enter the Zionists’ field of vision. In Levin’s day the Jewish world had been shaken out of its stupor by the pogroms. The Holocaust was still in the future. By the end of the Second World War the pressure to establish a national homeland for those Jews who had survived the Holocaust had become irresistible. Many Jews, my own parents and grandparents included, who had found safe haven in prosperous Western countries, kept the Zionist torch burning from afar even though they saw no reason to abandon their comfortable lifestyles and commit themselves to a life of hardship in the beleaguered State of Israel. The idealism drained out of the Zionist movement and was replaced by a hard-bitten pragmatism in which military power and technological prowess were seen as the antidote to the new existential threat posed by a resurgent Palestinian Arab nationalism.
I imagine that Shmaryahu Levin would have regarded me as one of the ‘sympathisers’ who had fallen by the wayside, an armchair Zionist and a ‘cosmopolitan’ who had thrown in his lot with the non-Jewish world. He would have been right. But how would he have responded to the emergence of an ultra-nationalistic leadership in Israel itself? And how would he have reacted to the dominant role played by orthodox religious leaders in upholding that leadership? My guess is that he would have rejected both as alien to the Jewish spirit.
My admiration for Shmaryahu Levin stems not just from his brand of Zionism – he was, after all, a man of his time – but from his espousal of values which transcend all political ideologies: self-discipline, education and respect for one’s fellow human beings.