The Religious Basis for Zionism, and its Relevance for Today

After reading Brandon’s post on the historical context for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I was inspired to pen something similar, but distinct, on the same topic. Namely, the religious basis for Zionism.

I’ll start with a short textual primer. Religious Jews use a variety of prayerbooks, or siddurim, but the basic content of all of them remains the same: schacharit, or morning prayers, minchah, or afternoon prayers, maariv, or evening prayers, kabbalat shabbat, or “welcoming the Shabbat” (Sabbath), and if the siddur is full size, a variety of other prayers for religious holidays and festivals, explanatory bits about various prayers and songs, how to don the tallit (prayer shawl) or tefillin (phylacteries, little black boxes containing verses from the Torah). A cursory look through this book will reveal the various emphases the ancient authors placed on aspects of belief, and it reflects a decidedly post-Second-Temple Judaic outlook.

What does this mean? In the pre-morning prayer, which is said upon arising, after a variety of blessings bestowed on the creator and reminders to keep His commandments, Jews read a portion from the Torah detailing the korbanot, or offerings, and the ketoret, or incense, that were to be given and burned in the temple. Following this are descriptions of the priestly functions, various explanations and speculations on how these functions were fulfilled, and concluding with Talmudic rules on how to interpret the Torah. So, before a Jew even gets to his morning prayers, he has to do pre-morning prayers that remind him or her of the significance of the temple and exactly how it was constituted and run by the priests, and how common Jews would offer tribute there. Obviously, this has little practical significance – there is no temple, and so all of these commandments given in the Torah and subsequent Talmudic commentary  are irrelevant. If the temple is rebuilt that is a different story, of course.

So, why would the authors of the siddur put this information in? The most logical reason is that they wanted Jews everywhere, everyday to remember the temple, to remember their unity as a people in the historical Kingdom of Israel, and to never forget who and what they are: bnai Israel, children of Israel, a term with two meanings, the children of Yaakov (jacob, who gained the name Israel after wrestling with an angel), and the children of the land God promised them. This emphasis does not end with the initial prayers, but is found in the first paragraph of schacharit: “Remember the wonders He has wrought, His miracles, and the judgments of His mouth. O descendants of Israel His servant, children of Jacob, His chosen ones: He is the Lord our God; His judgments extend over the entire earth. Remember his covenant forever, the word which He has commanded to a thousand generations; the covenant which He made with Abraham, and His oath to Isaac. He established it for Jacob as a statute, for Israel as an everlasting covenant, stating, “To you I shall give the land of Cannan” – the portion of your inheritance, when you were but few, very few, and strangers in it” (emphasis mine).

Here, the emphasis continues on the historical Kingdom of Israel, but it is also broader, in line with the goal of unity and cohesion amongst all of bnai Israel. This is repeated  in numerous other places, but not simply in the morning prayer; the Amidah, the central prayer recited in the morning, the afternoon, and the night, ends with the words “May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our fathers, that the Beit Hamikdash [Holy Temple] be speedily rebuilt in our days, and grant us our portion in Your Torah.” The siddur is replete with such references, and if you wanted you could likely find hundreds within it – I merely wish to highlight their frequency, and elucidate their general purpose, to serve the aforementioned goals of religious cohesion. Further, they serve the goal of instilling a yearning for Zion amongst the Jewish people, a desire that their temple be rebuilt, and their holy rites reinstated.

What is the point of this discussion? According to My Jewish Learning, “the particular order of Jewish worship was established largely during the first four or five centuries CE, although the components of that worship were drawn from earlier periods and have continued to develop until modern times.” Religious Jews (and it should be important to not here, that such a term is relatively recent; in past times, there was no such thing as a non-religious Jew) said these prayers in some form for at least 1500 years, and likely for longer periods of time for the older prayers such as the Psalms (tehillim in Hebrew).  The passages referring to the temple and the restitution of Israel are obviously of a younger vintage, as they would only have been added sometime after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD by the besieging Roman general Titus.

That is, this yearning for Zion has been instilled in Jews on a daily basis for over 1500 years. The dream of a Jewish people reunited in the historical Kingdom of Israel has a clear and distinct theological pedigree that cannot be overstated. It is probably not too much of a stretch to claim that without this daily insistence, this daily urgency, that there would not be a state of Israel within its historical boundaries.

If we take Brandon’s analysis to be true, that the founding of Israel has a historic basis with the emergence of nationalist movements in Europe, this is not to say that a Jewish state would not have developed. Indeed, before the various Zionist movements coalesced around a firm demand for the historical land of Israel, there was talk of moving the Jews en masse to Uganda, and during the Nazi period, to Madagascar. It is conceivable that, without a strong connection to this specific land, Israel might have ended up in a different place, or not ended up at all (as was the case with other persecuted groups like the Roma, who to this day do not have a state of their own).

***

I should clarify here that I am not attempting to justify the establishment of the modern Israeli state. Many such arguments abound, many of them exploring the same terrain I have just traversed, using references in the Torah to Abraham buying a tomb for Sarah in Canaan, or God’s proclamation that Canaan was marked out for the Israelites, or referring to the voluminous archaeological and historical evidence of Jewish habitation in historical Israel, or whatnot. I am attempting to explain instead not reasons for, but reasons why – why was historical Israel a better choice than Uganda or Madagascar for instance? More importantly, why would the Zionist movement, which was predominantly secular, attach itself so strongly to these theological premises for Zion in Israel?

To answer these questions, we must return to some of the ground Brandon’s post went over: the historical and economic realities driving Zionism in late 19th, early 20th century Europe. In the late 19th century, what was a collection of principalities in Central Europe, united only by a superficially common language and a set of loose traditions, became consolidated under the rule of Prussia, with the Prussian ruler Otto von Bismarck being named Chancellor of a unified German state – the first Reich. In this nationalizing movement, the first articulation of what would be called the “Jewish Question” or the “Jewish Problem” was formed. How does one integrate a minority, non-German, non-German speaking, non-Christian group of transients into the new nationstate? There were a variety of solutions:

  1. Fully integrate them into German society – the ethnic over the civic identity.
  2. Integrate them into German society without assimilating them, allowing them their unique religious traditions, but subsumed within a broader Germanic citizen ideal – the civic over the ethnic identity.
  3. Expel them all.
  4. Kill them all (this was, of course, the Nazi answer to the Jewish Question, and why it has been called ever since the “Final Solution”)

What was ultimately settled upon was a track of full integration with assimilation, and what resulted was the greatest flowering of Jewish civilization until modern times. History’s annals are replete with Jewish expressions of genius, from music (Moses Mendelssohn) to science (Albert Einstein) to psychiatry (Viktor Frankl, Sigmund Freud), all of whom were nurtured within the cultural confines of Germanic civilization. Indeed, Jews were never more prosperous than at that time, when they abandoned most of their traditions and flocked to the banner of the rising German civilization.

What is wrong with this picture? In every European society, there was a current of anti-Semitism, varying in degree of severity from place to place. Germany was not particularly anti-Semitic relative to other countries in Europe, and indeed, the top contenders in this category were on either side of the German Empire: France to the west, with the Dreyfus affair, and Russia to the East, with numerous pogroms (organized destruction, rape, and murder of Jews and Jewish property by the non-Jewish population of a town or city), most notably in Kishinev. I recommend the work of Professor Zipperstein at Stanford to understand the far reaching implications of this one event, which are truly fascinating. While Germany cannot take the crown for standard bearer of anti-Semitism in this period, Germany may be distinguished from other European countries in the kind of anti-Semitism that flourished there. In Germany, anti-Semitism was bracketed within newly emerging racial categories, so that Jew was not thought of simply in religious terms, but in ethnic terms as well – a Jew was not a Jew because he practiced Judaism, but he was born and would always remain a Jew. Interestingly, this rhetoric is now dominant amongst many Orthodox groups such as Chabad-Lubavitch, and indeed the Nazi racial laws which defined a Jew from a non-Jew were adopted for the state of Israel’s immigration policy: if the Nazis considered you a Jew, the Israelis consider you a Jew. But, that is a different discussion.

With what seemed like a rising current of anti-Semitism, in stepped the figure of Theodor Herzl. I tend to be wary of overarching historiographical theories like the “Great Man” theory, but in this case it seems to fit the bill; it cannot be underestimated how important Herzl’s contribution to the Zionist movement was, how critical he was to its foundation, maintenance, and lasting success. Without him, there would likely be no Zionist movement. The story of his conversion from German assimilationist to Zionist leader is canonical, but it bears summarizing here. A correspondent for a German newspaper in France, Herzl witnessed the Dreyfus affair and was galvanized, Or, according to recent scholarship, a Viennese anti-Semitic demagogue inspired him. Regardless, in 1896 he published Der Judenstaat, which almost immediately caused all the existing Zionist groups, along with many new adherents, to join his cause. I have not read the book, but I have read descriptions of it, and within it he seconds the racializing element in anti-Semitism, stating that the Jews are a people with a distinct nationality, and all they were missing was a national homeland – according to Herzl, it ought to be in Argentina, or preferably historical Israel. These ideas eventually gained great currency, and in a long process from the publication of Der Judenstaat to the founding of Israel in the borders of the Kingdom of Israel, these ideas bore themselves out to fruition.

***

At this point, we should be ready to answer why Zionism sought a Jewish state in historical Israel, and the impetus for why that idea gained currency at all. For centuries, as was stated above, the Jewish people yearned for a reestablished Israel. Yet, they made no concerted efforts to make this state a reality. To understand why this is, we must return to theology, this time to the concept of Jewish messianism. The basic tenets of this are derived from various prophetic texts, outside the scope of the Torah itself, which is generally circumscribed to the Five Books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Some of the claims of what the messiah, or moschiach, will do are listed below:

Isaiah 1:26: “And I will restore your judges as at first and your counsellors as in the beginning; afterwards you shall be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City.” Some Jews interpret this to mean that the Sanhedrin will be re-established.”(Isaiah 1:26)

Once he is King, leaders of other nations will look to him for guidance. (Isaiah 2:4)

The whole world will worship the One God of Israel (Isaiah 2:11-17)

He will be descended from King David (Isaiah 11:1) via Solomon (1 Chronicles 22:8-10,2 Chronicles 7:18)

The “spirit of the Lord” will be upon him, and he will have a “fear of God” (Isaiah 11:2)

Evil and tyranny will not be able to stand before his leadership (Isaiah 11:4)

Knowledge of God will fill the world (Isaiah 11:9)

He will include and attract people from all cultures and nations (Isaiah 11:10)

All Israelites will be returned to their homeland (Isaiah 11:12)

Death will be swallowed up forever (Isaiah 25:8)

There will be no more hunger or illness, and death will cease (Isaiah 25:8)

All of the dead will rise again (Isaiah 26:19)

The Jewish people will experience eternal joy and gladness (Isaiah 51:11)

He will be a messenger of peace (Isaiah 52:7)

Nations will recognize the wrongs they did to Israel (Isaiah 52:13-53:5)

The peoples of the world will turn to the Jews for spiritual guidance (Zechariah 8:23)

The ruined cities of Israel will be restored (Ezekiel 16:55)

Weapons of war will be destroyed (Ezekiel 39:9)

The people of Israel will have direct access to the Torah through their minds and Torah study will become the study of the wisdom of the heart (Jeremiah 31:33)

He will give you all the worthy desires of your heart (Psalms 37:4)

He will take the barren land and make it abundant and fruitful (Isaiah 51:3, Amos 9:13-15, Ezekiel 36:29-30, Isaiah 11:6-9)

These beliefs account for two things: first, a Jewish eschatalogical account for how the world will end, and what will occur when it does, who will bring this about, and more importantly for this post, a strong theological basis for Zionism; and second, why the rest of the Western world cared about Zionism at all.

The first factor accounts for the broad theological basis for “why Israel,” and it also brings to light certain long-standing divisions in the Zionist movement. For example, many groups of Orthodox Jews such as the Haredi Naturei Karta reject Zionism and call for the dissolution of the state of Israel. Indeed, they are so vocal about this, a group of Naturei Karta rabbis was invited by then-President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a conference of prominent anti-Zionists and Holocaust deniers. Naturei Karta is so vehement on this point because, technically speaking, only the messiah is able to return to refound Israel, create the Third Temple, usher in world peace, et cetera. And this is why, historically speaking, Jews were content to wallow in galut (exile) until the future coming of the Messiah, who would bring them back to Israel. Tangentially, it also accounts for much of the religious suspicion, embodied in Natueri Karta, towards the Zionist movement; during the early modern period, many Messianic movements emerged under the charismatic demagogues Joseph Frank and Sabbetai Tzvi, who lured many Jews into their movements before failing spectacularly, the former converting to Christianity, the latter along with his flock converting to Islam somewhere in Anatolia (the story of Sabbetai Tzvi does not end there, for his followers thereafter became known as the Donmeh, many of whom were instrumental in the Young Turk movement. But that is a different story).

The religious pushback against Zionism simultaneously accounts for the strong religious appeal of a Zionism that takes Israel as its logical terminus: not only does it attract secular, assimilated Jews with nationalist rhetoric, it attracts religious Jews who would see in the foundation of Israel a fulfillment of the eschatological prophecies, and perhaps an ushering in of the age of the messiah.

The second factor explains the broad gentile appeal for a new Jewish state. What initially separated Christianity from Judaism was the belief among Christian Jews that Jesus was the messiah ordained in these foregoing passages, and the contrary belief amongst non-Christian Jews that he was not. Over time, this sectarian difference widened to the point that Christianity diverged from Judaism, probably some time in the post-Second Temple era. However, the common Christian belief that Jesus came to fulfill and, in time, supersede the Jewish prophecies has remained current throughout history, and profoundly influenced non-Jewish support for Zionism.

Indeed, much of the British and American community that supported the Zionist cause did so on explicitly religious grounds, conceiving of the Jews as the historical inheritors of the ancient Israelite religion, and by extension to the Holy Land itself. Coupled with the predominant historical arc of nationalism, just then winding its way through European society, you are left with the perfect confluence of factors – a certain benevolence towards the Jews on religious grounds, along with an assent to the basic premises of nationalism that provided the impetus for the initial Zionist movement.

This is why Zionism fixated on Israel, and this is why secular Jewish leaders such as Herzl, and later Weizmann, would so strongly advocate for a Jewish state in historical Israel. The theological undercurrent was so pervasive amongst Jewish people, so universally recognized, and so compelling – especially to religious Jews – that to choose any other geographical area would likely have torn the movement apart. Indeed, this happened in the period between 1903 and 1917, when Herzl introduced the British plan for Jewish settlement in Uganda, causing an immediate split between the anti-Uganda and pro-Uganda segments of the World Zionist Organization. This rift was not fully healed until 1917, when the Balfour Declaration was published, and the pro-Uganda segment fizzled into irrelevance.

***

So what we have here are two broad trends, as I said above, the theological undercurrent of messianism and “yearning for Zion,” which was wedded at just the right time to a dominant discourse of ethnic nationalism, which can be seen as the birth of Zionism.

Further, this did not have significance for the Jews only, but garnered great sympathy amongst non-Jews, which was crucial for certain guarantees such as the Balfour Declaration to have any currency. Without the movement, which was not explicitly theological but nonetheless tapped into theological ideas at its core, I do not believe that Zionism in the form we know of it would have emerged. Furthermore, without the theological underpinnings, if I may extend the argument further, the Jewish people would not even exist – there would be coherence amongst the Jewish people, over such broad geographic distances, without the theology that had united them or almost two thousand years between the dissolution of historical Israel and the foundation of the new state of Israel. But, that is another discussion.

The reader, if he has followed me up to this point, may be wondering why I took the time to outline my idea of the development of the Zionist movement. “What relevance does this have for today?” he may ask. First, it is a small inference to make that if the state of Israel can owe a large part of its foundation to theology, it owes a large part of the form of its existence to that same theology. Settler colonialism in the West Bank is driven by many factors, many of them economic in nature, but it is indubitable that many settlers have an explicitly religious vision – the conquest of the entire historical Israel, comprising not just the West Bank but parts of Jordan, Syria, and Egypt as well. Further, the debate over the future of Jerusalem is not just political – how could the Jewish people split their historical capital, where their temple stood, where the Sanhedrin met, where thousands of years of Jewish history took place? Furthermore, how could any part of historical Israel be split off?

There is much to be discussed about the religious significance behind conflict in Israel today, but my goal in this post was simply to trace a path from theology to nationalism and to its synthesis in Zionism, which could not have taken shape without both movements. Further, I want to impress upon you that Zionism would never have gotten off the ground without the good will of non-Jewish friends in high places, those Christian philanthropists and statesmen who shared the messianic vision that Zionism used as a core tenet of its ideology. Thus, while many nationalist movements can be explained with reference to economic and social factors only, Zionism seems to be unique in that religion played such a pivotal role in its foundational story and its raison d’etre.

One thought on “The Religious Basis for Zionism, and its Relevance for Today”

  1. “…many groups of Orthodox Jews such as the Haredi Naturei Karta reject Zionism and call for the dissolution of the state of Israel.”

    I spent my sabbatical last year at the Institute of Advanced Study at Hebrew University. I was shocked at the number of anti-Zionists in Jerusalem. It was interesting just to look at the different neighborhoods along the bus route to campus, all of a sudden every window & balcony would have an Israeli flag, then 2 blocks later they were nowhere to be seen. I see that the controversy over national service is still bubbling along as well. There is, of course, a concentration of Haredim in Jerusalem compared to Tel Aviv or Haifa et cetera but I was still surprised at the deep and emotional rift.

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