We are now facing a new phenomena in light of the recent row over anti-Semitism in the Labour party where members were suspended for anti-Semitic comments. In some cases such as Naz Shah, she has rightly apologised for her comments. In others, most notably Ken Livingstone, he has repeated his insidious remarks and made matters worse.
The Chief Rabbi Efraim Mervis recently wrote an article in the Telegraph and his point has also previously been said by former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks that Zionism and Judaism are inseparable and those who seek to make this distinction are far from qualified to engage in such an analysis of what the central components are of Judaism and Jewish identity.
It is not the role of non-Jews to dictate the role that Israel plays or should play in the lives of Jewish people. No one would accept if one were to challenge the significance of Jerusalem to Islam for example by suggesting that it doesn’t appear in the Quran. So too with the historic and religious connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel.
On May 10, 2016 an article was published in the Guardian with the signature of a number of British Jews objecting to Chief Rabbi Mervis’s article on anti-Semitism.
The article raised several points about the Bund and Jews who were not supportive of Zionism in the 1800’s in Russia and Eastern Europe in favour of Bolshevism instead.
What we are witnessing here is a new manifestation of the colonial nature of anti-Semitism. This is what the anti-Semites do today as a way of Jew washing their bigotry. They divide and rule, to them there are good Jews and bad Jews. The bad ones are those who associate with Israel, which is the vast majority of today’s Jews, and the good Jews who denounce Israel not just in terms of policy but its very existence, who are a minority.
This division of the good Jews from the bad Jews is nothing new. Before Israel was established the Bolshevik Jews were viewed not that differently to how the Zionists are treated today. The former British Prime Minister and proud supporter of the Zionist movement, Winston Churchill, wrote an article titled Zionism and Bolshevism. A struggle for the soul of the Jewish people, on who were the good Jews and who were the bad Jews. In his opinion the good Jews were the Liberal, Diaspora Jews in western countries as well as the Zionists, but the Communists and Bolsheviks were the bad Jews. He wrote that:
“It would almost seem as if the gospel of Christ and the gospel of the Antichrist were destined to originate among the same people; and that this mystic and mysterious race had been chosen for the supreme manifestations, both divine and the diabolical…
Duty of Loyal Jews
It is particularly important in these circumstances that the National Jews in every country who are loyal to the land of their adoption should come foreword on every occasion, as many of them in England have already done, and take a prominent part in every measure for combating the Bolshevik conspiracy. In this way they will be able to vindicate the honour of the Jewish name and make it clear to the world that the Bolshevik movement is not a Jewish movement, but is repudiated vehemently by the great mass of the Jewish race.”1
The good Jew is the fringe movement of the Jewish people. Zionism at this time had not enlisted the amount of support of the Jewish people that it has today, and the left wing, radical Bolshevik Jews were considered to be the evil offshoot of the Jewish people.
Today we see the opposite, Zionism is no longer a small fringe movement, it is one of the main movements influencing Jewish attitudes and concerns today, and it is Zionism which has become the movement that Jews are being asked to distance themselves from, to prove that Zionism is not a Jewish movement.
Once again, as Churchill did in the 1920’s when he called on Liberal Jews in the Diaspora and Zionist Jews to condemn and distance themselves from the Bolsheviks, today the smaller number of Communist Jews and the small pockets of anti-Zionist religiously observant Jews are branded as the ‘good Jews.’
However, this is just an observation of a pattern of how anti-Semitism operates, but it does not quite cut to the root of the allegations being made who point to Zionism’s initial unpopularity amongst European Jewry in order to argue that it is not anti-Semitic to be an anti-Zionist and by extension that Zionism and Judaism are two separate things.
The problem with this argument is that it conflates what people who are born Jewish believe and the beliefs of Judaism. There are Jewish people who believe in Jesus, this doesn’t make believing in Jesus a Jewish belief. As Melanie Philips once said regarding this issue, the majority of the Jewish people today do not keep Shabbat or keep Kosher for example, but that doesn’t make Shabbat not intrinsic to Judaism. So too is it the case with the centrality of Jewish peoplehood, its connection to the land of Israel and the Jewish yearning to return from exile, be redeemed and have their national independence restored. Philips said that Judaism rests on a three legged stool of “People, Book and Land.” Remove one of them and the whole thing falls apart.
Her words are the echo of Ahad Ha’am, the founder of cultural Zionism. Ahad Ha’am criticised both the Political Zionism espoused by Theodor Herzl and the Reform movement. The accused both of destroying Judaism, Herzl and the secular Zionists removed the Book from Judaism, the God aspect. The Reform removed both the People and the Land.
Zionist beliefs are intrinsic to Judaism. The Amida, one of the most central Jewish prayers that is said three times a day in the set prayer services, includes eighteen benedictions. The tenth known as Galuyot (“diasporas”), asks God to allow the ingathering of the Jewish exiles back to the land of Israel. The fourteenth known as Bo’ne Yerushalayim (“Builder of Jerusalem”) asks God to rebuild Jerusalem and to restore the Kingdom of David.
In the case of anti-Zionist Jewish adherents of Communism or assimilationists in Western Europe who were opposed to Zionism, this was not because they espoused an authentic continuation of the Jewish tradition. Those who deny Jewish peoplehood and the centrality of the land of Israel and the concept of the ingathering of the exiles have departed from what was a universally established Jewish belief prior to the Enlightenment. The Zionists in this respect represent the heirs of this tradition.
In the case of Orthodox rejection of Zionism, they never denied these principles of Jewish peoplehood and a yearning to return to the land of Israel. The opposition came primarily due to the Secular membership that dominated the Zionist movement, and like the Bolsheviks, their putting their faith in modern philosophical ideas and ideologies like Socialism and Marxism.
The majority of the Orthodox world made its peace with Zionism and even embraced it by adding to it a religious expression that came from an authentic tradition based on Jewish sources as opposed to the atheist, Socialist or Utopian visions, deemed heretical, that dominated the movement in its early years.
The early Reform movement did the opposite, it abandoned the central component of the land of Israel and Jewish peoplehood to Judaism in favour of transforming Judaism into a faith, by omitting all the references to Israel and Jerusalem. Berlin was the new Jerusalem, Shabbat was moved to Sunday so as to be more convenient. However, these changes were too eventually abandoned and the movement returned to more traditional practices and beliefs including acknowledging the state of Israel and the development of a Reform Zionism.
The allegations by anti-Zionists is that Zionism is a modern secular, political ideology that has nothing to do with Judaism. We now come to the next problem with this allegation. Zionism is not a monolithic movement and never was. There are secular strands and religious strands of all different types. There is a left-wing Zionism and a right-wing Zionism. They represent different visions of Judaism and different models for what kind of Jewish state Israel should be, differing on matters such as religion and state, what degree should Jewish religious law should play in public and national life, to disagreement over the borders of the state in the land, and very diverse views on how to address the conflict with the Arab world.
All however, share in common a belief in the right for Israel to exist as a Jewish state. The idea of Zionism as a political ideology divorced from Judaism that is so often cited is really an anachronistic claim. World events have changed Jewish attitudes towards Israel and Jewish identity in general.
Most Zionist Jews (particularly in the diaspora), unless they, like me grew up in classical Zionist youth movements are in fact quite ignorant of the atheist, political Zionism and Socialist Zionism. Or of those who sought to break from Jewish history and negate the diaspora. This sort of Zionism is almost dead today. Whether it be due to the Arab worlds vilifying Israel with Medieval anti-Semitic blood libels and ongoing incitement against Israel with classical anti-Semitic imagery, the UN singling out Israel for condemnation of human rights violations with hundreds of resolutions or the success of efforts for Jewish, religious or national revival. More Israeli’s see themselves as Jews first rather than Israelis.
Jewish communities throughout the world have worked hard to stem the tide of assimilation and in many instances been very successful, this has led to a strengthening of Jewish identity, engaging with the Jewish community, sometimes increased religious observance, as well as a closer connection to Israel and Zionism.
When todays anti-Zionist/anti-Semites attack Zionism as an ideology that highjacked Judaism, the reality is the opposite. Many of these accusations come from the hard-left, pointing to the Jewish communists of their political heritage. It is these modern ideologies that enticed the Jewish people away from the Zionist component of Judaism. This includes sectors within the Zionist movement as well that rather than pulling them from the Jewish connection to the land, pulled them away from religious rituals, traditions and belief in God.
The Bundists accused the Zionists of particularism, whereas their vision through communism reflected the universal Jewish values of justice. However, this is another aspect of Jewish belief, it is both particular to the Jewish people and at the same time is universal, not one or the other.
The fact that there are Jews today or were Jews one hundred or more years ago who didn’t believe in a Jewish state does not mean it is not inherent to Judaism. There is much to be found in the words of many of the early Zionists that one could argue is a departure from Jewish belief. The ingathering of the exiles, the restoration of independence in the land of Israel, and other beliefs such as waiting for the messianic era and the coming of the messiah are Jewish beliefs that have been held for thousands of years and continue to be held by traditional Jews in every era. To suggest that these are part of an alien ideology that has usurped true Judaism is a complete distortion.
If people want to make such an argument, they will have to do better than this. There are many people today of Christian heritage who do not really believe in Jesus, it would be absurd to suggest that these people can speak on behalf of Christianity and its central beliefs.
- Churchill, W (08.02.1920) Zionism and Bolshevism. A struggle for the soul of the Jewish people, Illustrated Sunday Herald.