Near the end of the nineteenth century, Theodor Herzl, the Viennese journalist who would wrestle with the plight of Jews amid the enticements and dangers of modernity, felt trapped. For his son’s sake he considered conversion to Christianity; to solve the vexing “Jewish Question” he even fantasized the mass conversion of Jews.
Yet Herzl also worried lest the freedom enjoyed by newly emancipated Jews lead to assimilation (as, indeed, it did for Herzl himself). In the end, he decided the solution could be found in Zionism, the nascent national movement that had begun to inspire handfuls of Russian lovers of Zion (known as Hovevei Zion) to relocate to Palestine and rebuild a Jewish community there.
The virulent French anti-Semitism that erupted in 1894 with the scandalous trial and conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus for treason convinced Herzl that Jews were “one people” needing a state of their own. “We have sincerely tried everywhere to merge with the national communities in which we live, seeking only to preserve the faith of our fathers,” he wrote. But, he concluded, “it is not permitted us.” Religion alone was insufficient.
Herzl’s The Jewish State, published two years later, was his plea for a Zionist solution to the Jewish problem. But Herzl was too much the assimilated Viennese gentleman to want anything other than an “aristocratic republic” (preferably modeled on Switzerland), which would become an “outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism” in the Middle East.
His dream of a Jewish state was conspicuous for its Jewish barrenness. Jewish history, for Herzl, was a burden from which emancipated Jews, even Zionists, must escape. Religion offended him: “We do not mean to found a theocracy,” he wrote, “but a tolerant modern civil state” in which “our clergy” would not have “even the slightest chance to assert their whims.” His Jerusalem would feature a grand Temple, emptied of Jewish content, and an Old City that would become “an international centre which all nations might regard as their home.”
In Herzl’s multilingual state “every man can preserve the language in which his thoughts are at home.” After all, he wondered, “Who among us knows enough Hebrew to ask for a train ticket?” Yiddish, the “stunted and twisted jargon” of Eastern European Jews, was a ghetto remnant deserving to be eradicated. Jewish culture must draw upon Enlightenment virtues: “justice, truth, liberty, progress, humanity, and beauty.” Herzl cared little about the location of a Jewish state; as between Argentina and Palestine he was indifferent.
Herzl’s call for the revival of Jewish nationalism proved equally offensive to the Protestrabbiner (as he labeled his European religious opponents) as it did to the enlightened and emancipated Jews of modernity. Because American Jews already stood on “freedom’s holy soil,” prominent Reform rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise declared, Zionism was nothing more than “a momentary inebriation of morbid minds.”
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Secular Zionists succeeded in creating the old-new land of Herzl’s imagination. Against seeming insuperable odds, Israel not only survived the murderous hostility of its enemies; it flourished. Finally, Jews could once again live as citizens in their own country and, if necessary, die defending it.
But neither the Zionist movement nor its ultimate fulfillment in Jewish statehood could resolve the underlying tension between competing Israeli and Diaspora visions of Jewish modernity: independence or assimilation. Jewish leaders in the United States were infuriated when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion appealed to young American Jews to make aliyah to the fledgling state. Then and ever since, the overwhelming majority of American Jews have preferred to remain where they are, ever more closely identified with the liberalism that has been their entry ticket to mainstream American society.
It might be said that American Jews have remained faithful to the teaching of Jeremiah after the Babylonian exile: “Build houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them.” Indeed, when Ezra led the exiled community from Babylon back to Jerusalem, he discovered an “unclean” land whose Israelites, hardly immune to the enticements of foreign cultures, had adopted their “abominations.” Exile, even then, might also occur at home.
The pursuit of normality, given the tragedies and horrors of Jewish history, inspired Zionism, and statehood was its astonishing – and historically unprecedented – achievement. But the tension between a normal and a chosen people, between secular liberalism and Judaism, would remain deeply embedded in the fledgling state. Indeed, Israel has long displayed its own Zionist version of the tale of two cities, with Tel Aviv as the apex of secular Zionist hedonism and Jerusalem as the sanctuary of Jewish history and memory.
Built a century ago on sand dunes along the Mediterranean shore, Tel Aviv symbolized the Zionist repudiation of Jewish memory. With its back to the geographical cradle of Jewish history in the Samarian hills, it faced west toward modern sources of inspiration, at first Europe – witness the Bauhaus architecture in the old city center – and eventually the United States.
Tel Aviv became the fulfillment of Herzl’s dream in Altneuland: the secular, liberal repository of contemporary Israeli culture. It has always appealed to Israelis with little patience for divine command, historical claims, or spiritual yearning. The splendid beachfront, enticing café culture, and throbbing nightlife display its cosmopolitan and hedonistic aspirations.
Jerusalem, perched on Mt. Zion at the end of the road from Tel Aviv, remained isolated and insular. With the Jewish Quarter destroyed and the Old City inaccessible after 1948, it became a provincial town stripped of the holy places that symbolized its spiritual heart and soul. Its shtetl neighborhoods, pre-modern and enclosed, with their narrow lanes and shuks and religious customs, were not hospitable to outsiders. In its more elegant western European enclaves, life was refined, sedate and introverted.
But not twenty years after independence, following its swift and sweeping victory in the Six-Day War, Israel was transformed. As Moshe Dayan proclaimed, “We have returned to all that is holy in our land. We have returned never to be parted from it again.” Even soldiers from kibbutzim, the ideological stronghold of secular Zionism, could imagine that “we were inscribing a new chapter in the Bible, a chapter of miracles, wonders and greatness…. The whole of the Promised Land is ours.”
After June 1967 Israelis by the thousands and tens of thousands could finally roam across the biblical landscape. Their itinerary took them from Jerusalem to Rachel’s Tomb, outside Bethlehem, and to Ma’arat HaMachpelah in Hebron, the burial place of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs where no Jew had been permitted to pray for seven centuries. They visited ancient Jericho, biblical Shechem, and the hill country where the Maccabees fought for freedom from foreign rule.
The Old City was finally restored to the Jewish people. The Western Wall, the repository of Jewish sacred history and for so long the symbol of the timeless Jewish yearning to return, now became the site of its miraculous fulfillment. Despite its more garish recent sacrifices to modernity – the new entrance to the city, high-rise apartment buildings and luxury hotels, and a shopping mall – the contrast with Tel Aviv remains as sharp as ever. To some, Jerusalem can still seem too Jewish for a secular Zionist state.
Within a year an intrepid group of pioneering Israelis, who became known as “settlers,” seized the opportunity to restore Jewish life in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people. Using the classic Zionist strategy of settling the land “dunam by dunam,” they began to rebuild destroyed Jewish communities and, eventually, to build new ones.
First came Kfar Etzion, the cluster of kibbutzim just south of Jerusalem that Arabs had demolished on the eve of the Independence War. Then, after a decade in the new settlement of Kiryat Arba, Jews returned to Hebron, whose Jewish community had been viciously destroyed during the Arab pogrom in 1929.
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The sudden, unexpected and, to these religious Zionists, miraculous convergence of Zionism and Judaism was profoundly disturbing to secular Israelis committed to Western liberal values. For the young writer Amos Oz the Six-Day War brought tragedy, not triumph. The modern “marriage” of “the Jewish heritage and the European humanist experience” that previously defined Zionism would, he feared, be shattered by religious zeal.
The settlement movement eventually transcended its ideological origins in religious nationalism. Secular Israelis who could not afford Tel Aviv real estate prices moved to affordable new communities across the Green Line, within an easy commute to jobs and cultural pleasures. Inner city ultra-Orthodox Jews with rapidly expanding families, traditionally aloof from Zionism, relocated to settlements just outside Jerusalem.
But most Israelis, like most Diaspora Jews, do not seem eager to belong to a distinctive people that dwells alone. In recent years the venerable Zionist contrast between Israel and galut has receded. Israel’s cultural intermarriage with the United States is no less problematic than the 50 percent Jewish intermarriage rate in the American promised land.
Indeed, yeridah has replaced aliyah: there are more Israelis living in the United States than Americans in the Jewish state. They prefer the Silicon Valley and Los Angeles to Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean. That dismaying inversion of Zionist expectations is an ominous portent for the future.
Israel’s cultural intermarriage with the United States has the potential to undermine Jewish distinctiveness in the Jewish state. The price of normalization, for which Herzl and his secular Zionist disciples yearned, could yet become exorbitant.
After sixty-five years of wars and intifadas, and the encircling threat posed by militant Islam, it is entirely understandable that many – perhaps most – Israelis would yearn for peace now, peace in our time, peace at almost any price. That might be possible if only Israel were like other nations. But Jewish history, ancient and modern, suggests otherwise.
Will Israel continue to pursue Herzl’s dream, becoming a liberal, individualistic, post-Zionist replica of the United States? Or will it find ways to deepen and strengthen its identity as a Jewish state? To be sure, secular and religious Zionists share a bedrock conviction. Unlike Herzl, they will not settle for Argentina. But galut, in the end, may be less a geographical location than a state of mind.
Answers are most likely to be found in the future of Jewish settlements in biblical Judea and Samaria. There is a widespread perception, indeed it is a staple of Jewish liberalism and secular Zionism alike, that settlements are the overriding obstruction to any prospect for peace and the primary source of internal conflict in Israeli society. But any attempt to uproot 300,000 Jews from their homes, in effect a brutal plan for ethnic cleansing, could bring Israel to the precipice of civil war.
Many settlers, like the Israelis who were evicted from Gaza in 2005, surely would obey government decisions and military orders for evacuation. But religious Zionists, clinging tenaciously to the ancient promised land on which their homes are built, are unlikely to surrender their dreams. What then? Will the Israel Defense Forces – with its growing proportion of religious soldiers and officers – obey orders to expel Jews, with force if necessary, from the biblical homeland of the Jewish people? No more chilling scenario is imaginable.
As long as tens of thousands of Israelis, despite the risks and dangers, remain committed to living in more than one hundred settlements, the convergence of Zionism and Judaism will retain its vitality. As I was once reminded by Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, one of the founders of the restored community in Hebron after the Six-Day War, the largest Jewish settlement in the Middle East is the State of Israel. In that sense, every Israeli Zionist is a settler.
To be sure, there are occasional excesses of zeal, always widely publicized as an attempt to undermine the entire settlement movement. Recently some young settlers were indicted for attacking an army base to protest the impending evacuation and demolition of their tiny outpost, consisting of two caravans and several families. But these young firebrands are hardly representative of the settlement movement, no matter how insistently their political enemies assert the contrary.
Far more consequential are the incessant demands, inside and outside Israel, for two states for two peoples, Jews and Palestinians, west of the Jordan River with Jerusalem once again divided. On the left fringe of Israeli politics, journalism, and academic life there are even those who advocate one state for two peoples, in effect sacrificing Jewish national sovereignty for the mirage of bi-national peace and harmony.
The obsessive, seemingly universal, preoccupation with a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tends to obscure an even more urgent question: What kind of state will Israel become? The opening words of its Proclamation of Independence provide as good a reminder as any: “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and national identity was formed.” But Jewish identity in the Zionist state remains a problematic work in progress.
One year ago UNESCO affirmed Hebron as “an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories.” Now that “Palestine” has been voted into this anti-Zionist appendage of the United Nations, Me’arat HaMachpelah, along with other ancient Jewish holy sites (Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem and Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem) may become “World Heritage Sites” under Palestinian control. That, of course, means that they would also become Judenrein.
Zionism and Judaism are the essential twin components of Jewish statehood and survival. Judaism without Zionism met its tragic fate in Europe during World War II. Zionism without Judaism threatens to obliterate the historic distinction between homeland and exile. That is why the attempted removal of Jewish settlers from the biblical homeland of the Jewish people by the government and army of the State of Israel would convert the Zionist dream into a Jewish nightmare.
More than a century after the publication of Altneuland, Herzl’s vision of a Jewish state has been fulfilled. But Israelis still remain deeply conflicted over its Zionist identity and the terms of reconciliation between Zionism and Judaism.
Jerold S. Auerbach, a frequent contributor, blogs at www.jacobsvoice.tumblr.com.
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