Joseph Mintz

Why Zionism

In 1791, in the wake of the Enlightenment, revolutionary France emancipated its Jewish population, granting them full citizenship and supposedly equality. Some hundred years later, in 1894, Theodor Herzl, a Jew from Budapest, covered the Dreyfus affair as a journalist. Herzl himself stated that hearing the chants from the Parisian crowds of ‘Death to the Jews’, was one powerful element in developing his belief that only their own state could free the Jews from antisemitism. A state which Herzl, more than anyone, worked to bring in to being.

The French revolution, emancipation, Dreyfus, political Zionism – these are, of course, all well known to us. Yet perhaps, in the wake of October 7th we have forgotten something of their significance. In modern Israel, the start-up nation, the idealism of the chalutzniks, of the original waves of Aliyah, seems quaint, almost outmoded. At the same time, the mass media of the 21st century world has amplified the message of our enemies that Zionism is an evil racism, so much so that in England a court can proclaim that anti-Zionism is a protected belief worth of respect in a democracy. As Ben Freeman has pointed out, it’s hard for any of us to not, even in some small way, internalize this as self-hatred.

The protestors calling for ceasefire on our streets and on our campuses don’t cease in telling us that it’s only Zionists they hate, only Zionism that needs to be destroyed. Jews, they love. As though Zionism and antisemitism have no possible connection. This is how they gaslight us, and on some level, we believe them. This is the lesson of Herzl, which we have forgotten. That after thousands of years of persecution, even the veneer of equality could not stop the crowds in Paris shouting ‘Death to the Jews’ in 1894. Just as it could not stop them shouting it at the Sydney Opera House in 2023. Herzl’s message was that only our political independence in our own nation state offered us any chance of an escape from the antisemitism ingrained through the world.

Herzl and the Zionist pioneers did not expect such a world to grant them a state with love and happiness. The Ottomans, the British, the Americans, the world as a whole, fought hard against Zionism, and only lent support when it suited their own interests. It was our determination as a nation that brought the state about. The pioneers who fled the persecutions of Russia and Poland, the remnants of Jewry after the Shoah, and those expelled by the Arab states, did not expect their state to be loved by the world. They expected to have to fight for it and fight for it they did, because they knew, viscerally, as Herzl did, that only in their own land, could they be free from antisemitism.

Some say that this political Zionism is divorced from the religious Zionism of our ancestors. It is not the way of the Torah. Yet I am reminded that Rav Moshe Feinstein (z’tl), the 20th century Torah luminary who was the last to have his halachic authority accepted across the Jewish world, said, interpreting an ancient saying of the sages, that ‘…just as halacha never changes, so also Esau’s hatred of Jacob never changes. Even in those nations that behave well toward Jews, their hatred of Jews is actually strong.’ This means that the biblical hatred of Esau for Jacob serves as a forerunner of the hatred of the nations for the Jews.

Of course, there many individuals who do not conform to such a pattern. Our history is replete with myriad examples –take say Emile Zola’s brave defense of Dreyfus. However, the tradition of the sages that Rav Feinstein commented on, if I may be so bold, was in a sense a truism. Jews, whether religious, secular or otherwise did not need their rabbis to tell them that antisemitism was always there. Like Herzl, they, and we, see it before us with our own eyes. The motivation of political Zionism, that antisemitism is eternal, and that our place is in the land of Israel, is not something new. This has been the foundation of our prayer for two thousand years, that G-d will rebuild the throne of David in Jerusalem and gather in the exiles.

Zionism is and always has been a response to the world’s hatred of us. For us to stand proud as a people, to reject the world’s oppression, and to claim our autonomy and our tradition in our own land, is an amazing miracle. It is a miracle that we are all so incredibly privileged to have as an inheritance. Sadly, October 7th and the reaction to it across the world has shown us that the idea of equality for Jews in the 21st century is just the same as it was when Herzl listened to the chants in Paris – a mirage. Zionism has been our brave response to the world’s failure to treat Jews with the fairness we are entitled to. Whether in the diaspora or in Israel we need to reclaim the message of Herzl and our birthright as proud Zionists.

About the Author
Joseph Mintz is Associate Professor in Education at UCL Institute of Education. He engages in research on inclusion, special educational needs, teacher education for inclusion and has led research projects funded by government and national agencies. He has written for the Jewish Chronicle, the Algemeiner and Times Higher Education. He regularly presents on issues of inclusion and special education in a range of national and international forums. Follow him @jmintzuclacuk His views are his own and do not reflect those of his employers.
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