Thursday 28 July 2011

Lost Jewish Voices (part two)

This post follows on directly from 'Lost Jewish Voices (part one)'. It contains pre-1948 quotes from political writers, theologians, community leaders and historians who challenged the paradigm of Jewish nationalism and recognised its dangers to Judaism.

The views expressed are now considered, by the mainstream Jewish community, to be radical, dissident thinking. I hope they will inspire some to reconsider today’s unyielding paradigm that presents Zionism as central to the Jewish future. They also demonstrate how there was once a truely vibrant debate about Zionism within the Jewish community.

Arthur Hertzberg, a scholar of Zionism in all of its manifestations, set the scene well he wrote: “…the issue at stake…is not merely the correct understanding of Zionism…It involves the fundamental question of the total meaning of Jewish history.” Hertzberg was right, for Zionism is indeed a battleground and the battle began as soon as modern political Zionism emerged under the leadership of Theodor Herzl at the end of the 19th century.

We begin in the UK with Claude Montefiore, one of the founders of Liberal Judaism in England at the end of the 19th century. He was firmly opposed to Zionist thinking seeing it as a threat to the development of Judaism, a threat to the security of Jews in the lands in which they lived and, as many others would later comment, the mirror image of the very anti-Semitism which Zionism claimed to be countering.

And so he observed:
“Is it not, to begin with, a suspicious fact that those who have no love for the Jews, and those who are pronounced anti-Semites, all seem to welcome the Zionist proposals and aspirations.”
Both Zionists and anti-Semites saw no future for Jews in Europe and Herzl himself had hoped to enlist the financial support of wealthy anti-Semites to help fund his organisation. But it was the promotion of nationalism over religion that most disturbed Montefiore:

“Liberal Judaism holds that a national religion is an absurdity, or, at any events, an anachronism. Just as Buddhism, Christianity, Mohommedanism have adherents of many races, and by this very fact have shown their universality, so must it be ultimately with Judaism.”
“Zionism and Zionistic activities not only depress Judaism by putting nationality first and religion second, but they injure Judaism by combining religion and nationality.”
Some of the very earliest Zionists from Eastern Europe, having visited Palestine for themselves, realised the nature of the project they were undertaking. Here is Yitzhak Epstein in his report to the Zionist Congress in 1905:

“Can it be that the disposed will keep silent and calmly accept what is being done to them? Will they not ultimately arise to regain with physical force, that which they are deprived of through the power of gold. Will they not seek justice from the strangers that placed themselves over their land?”
With the Balfour Declaration of 1917 supporting the creation of a ‘Jewish homeland’ the Zionist leadership under Chaim Weizmann were playing politics with a major imperial power and believed they were making significant headway with their state building project. Considering their position today, it’s hard to believe that the Jewish establishment in Britain in the form of the Board of Deputies of British Jews were firmly set against all that Zionism stood for. The Board sent the following letter to the Times newspaper in May 1917 six months before ‘Balfour’:

“Zionist theory regards all the Jewish communities of the world as constituting one homeless nationality incapable of complete social and political identification with the nations among whom they dwell and it is argued that for this homeless nationality a political centre and an always available homeland in Palestine are necessary. Against this theory [we] strongly and earnestly protest.”
The letter goes on to recognise (with in hindsight painful prescience) the Zionist proposal to give Jewish settlers in Palestine: “special rights in excess of those enjoyed by the rest of the population…” For the Board of Deputies in May 1917 the danger was clear: “Any such action would prove a veritable calamity for the whole Jewish people. In all the countries in which they live the principle of equal rights for all religious denominations is vital for them.”

Much later, Arthur Koestler, author of ‘Darkness at Noon’ would describe the Balfour Declaration as:
“A document in which one nation solemnly promises to a second nation the country of a third nation.”

Asher Ginsberg (Ahad Ha’ Am – ‘One of the People’) was to become the leader of a movement known as ‘Cultural Zionism’ which was critical of the ‘political Zionism’ of Chaim Weizmann. Living in Palestine in 1922 he wrote these words after hearing that a group of Zionists had killed an Arab as a reprisal for anti-Jewish riots:
“…their inclination grows to sacrifice their prophets on the altar of their renaissance…”

Judah Magnes was the first President of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the leading proponent in the 1930s and 40s of a bi-nationalist approach to Zionism, with Arabs and Jews sharing political power as equals in one state. Sadly, he found little sympathy or support for his views in either the Jewish or Arab communities. He wasn’t wrong though. But he was a man who ideas are still ahead of his time (and ours?). Here he is writing to Chaim Weizmann in 1929, and like others, watching as two thousand years of Jewish religious development is jettisoned:
“The question is, do we want to conquer Palestine now as Joshua did in his day – with fire and sword? Or do we want to take cognizance of Jewish religious development since Joshua – our Prophets, Psalmists and rabbis, and repeat the words: ‘Not by might, and not by violence, but by my spirit, saith the Lord.’ The question is, can any country be entered, colonized, and built up pacifistically, and can the Jews do that in the Holy Land? If we can not (and I do not say that we can rise to these heights), I for my part have lost half my interest in the enterprise. If we cannot even attempt this, I should much rather see this eternal people without such a ‘National Home,’ with the wanderer’s staff in hand and forming new ghettos among the people’s of the world.”
If anyone managed in a few sentences to encapsulate the dangers of Zionism to Judaism it was Albert Einstein writing in the 1940s.

“I should much rather see reasonable agreement with Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish State. Apart from practical considerations, my awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish State, with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power, no matter how modest. I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain - especially from the development of narrow nationalism within our ranks, against which we have already had to fight strongly, even without a Jewish State. We are no longer the Jews of the Maccabean period. A return to a nation in the political sense of the word would be equivalent to turning away from the spiritualization of our community which we owe to the genius of our prophets.”

Hannah Arendt wrote widely on the roots of totalitarianism in the 20th century but is best known today as the author of ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’. She grew up in Germany before the Nazis came to power and had been an enthusiastic ‘homeland’ Zionist in her youth. Later she was profoundly critical of Zionist thinking on the historical relationship of the Jews to Europe, the political ambitions of the Zionist leadership, and the dangers of a Jewish State tied to either Britain or America. Writing in a 1944 essay, ‘Zionism Reconsidered’, she ridicules the nonsensical thinking that Jews could ever separate themselves from the world around them:

“In the official Zionist conception, it seems, the Jewish people is uprooted from its European background and left somehow in the air, while Palestine is a place on the moon where such footless aloofness may be realised."

In the same essay, Arendt points to the origins of Zionism not in the Hebrew Bible but in 19th century German romantic nationalism:

“It is nothing less than the uncritical acceptance of German inspired nationalism. This holds a nation to be an eternal organic body, the product of inevitable natural growth of inherent qualities; and it explains peoples, not in terms of political organisations, but in terms of biological superhuman personalities.”

Another profound and inspiring critic of the mainstream state building project of Zionism was the philosopher Martin Buber, author of ‘I and Thou’ and many works popularising the Jewish Hasidic traditions of spirituality. Buber had emigrated to Palestine from Germany in 1938. In his essay ‘Hebrew Humanism’ written in 1942 Buber, like Asher Ginsberg before him, fears what Zionism will do to Judaism without extreme care. For Buber, Judaism’s project must be greater than mere nationalism.

“By opposing Hebrew Humanism to a nationalism which is nothing but empty self-assertion, I wish to indicate that, at this juncture, the Zionist movement must decide either for national egoism or national humanism. If it decides in favour of national egoism, it too will suffer the fate which will soon befall all shallow nationalism, ie, nationalism which does not set the nation, a true supernational task. If it decides in favour of Hebrew humanism, it will be strong and effective long after shallow nationalism has lost all meaning and justification, for it will have something to say and to bring to mankind.”

Let me end this survey of Lost Jewish Voices with Elmer Berger, a Liberal Rabbi, writer and activist in the United States before and after the Second World War. Towards the end of his book ‘The Jewish Dilemma’ written in 1945, Berger returns to where modern political Zionism began - the arrest for treason on fabricated charges of the French Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus in 1894. It was while covering the Dreyfus trial for the Vienna based newspaper, The Neue Freie Presse,  that Theodor Herzl underwent his conversion to Zionism believing that the Dreyfus ca  se was evidence that Jews would never be accepted even within emancipated states such as France.

Berger has a different take on this critical moment in Jewish history:

“Where, in the world, a century before, would more than half the nation have come to the defence of a Jew? Had Herzl possessed a knowledge of history he would have seen in the Dreyfus case a brilliant, heartening proof of the success of emancipation. A world that had treated all Jews as Pariahs for 1,500 years, had, within the space of a century, come to see half of a nation concerned to redress an injustice to one Jew. The Dreyfus case is history’s ‘Exhibit A’ to prove that Jews are stronger as integrated Frenchmen or Americans or Englishmen of Jewish faith, than if they stand segregated and apart.”

Congratulations if you have read this far!

There are many Jews today who are starting to question the version of Jewish history and religion presented to us by mainstream Jewish educators, leaders and communal institutions. By rediscovering these voices from our past I hope we can find new ways to see the Israel-Palestine conflict and recognise that a paradigm exists that must be challenged. To borrow from Asher Ginsberg's words: our collective narrative must shift if we are to avoid sacrificing our Prophets on the altar of nationalism.

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