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September 20, 2014 / 25 Elul, 5774
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Zion Without Judaism

Significantly, the excessive Magyar patriotism of Hungarian Jews brought down upon them unanticipated — but all too characteristic — consequences. It earned them the enmity of the Austrian rulers of the country and Austrian anti-Semitism. The non-Magyar minority groups in Hungary resented the attempt by the Jews to enlist in the Magyar nationalist movement, and anti-Semitism was fanned among the Serbs, Croats, Rumanians, and other non-Magyar elements in Hungary. And Jews were blind to the growth of Magyar anti-Semitism.

Meanwhile, much of the Hungarian Jewish Reform movement was so extreme as to endorse de facto adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Jews, and many leading Hungarian Reformed Jews did in fact convert. Other segments of the community embraced Orthodox rejectionism of modernism.

Attempts to substitute fashionable political causes for Jewish identity have generally failed. They have often resulted, not very surprisingly, in full assimilation. In the United States, for example, much of the Jewish community declared that political liberalism was its new form of modern “religion,” in which Jewish identity would be subordinated to the pursuit of “social justice” goals.

Such Political Liberalism as Religion manifests itself in a general disregard for less fashionable forms of Jewish tradition, and generally restricts itself to a shallow appeal to “Tikkun Olam,” suitably misinterpreted, and empty nostalgia for the Ethics of the Prophets as expressed in such trendy things as the struggle for affirmative action, gay marriage, and the environmentalist agenda.

After two generations in which this new political orthodoxy has dominated the non-Orthodox segments of the American Jewish community, intermarriage rates have passed the 50% mark, total assimilation is commonplace, and the non-Orthodox forms of Judaism in North America are in imminent danger of disappearing altogether in another generation or two.

Modern Orthodoxy, Secular Zionism

That leaves us with two other attempts to merge Judaism with modernity: secular Zionism and Modern Orthodoxy. But before turning to secular Zionism, a brief word is in order about the Modern Orthodox, who generally see no conflict between science, technology, and Judaism. In an important sense, Modern Orthodoxy is the least unsuccessful of all the attempts to resolve the dilemma that concerns us. It is a thorough integration of traditional, that is, halachic, Judaism with modernity. Moreover, its practitioners are the least likely to assimilate and leave Jewish frameworks and institutions, and certainly the least likely to intermarry.

The failure of Modern Orthodoxy has been its inability to attract larger numbers of Jews, especially those who have otherwise resolved the dilemma by abandoning Orthodoxy altogether. The Modern Orthodox in the United States are a small minority among Jews, a somewhat larger one in Israel and certain other Diaspora communities. There is, of course, always a stream of ba'alei teshuva, or returnees to Orthodoxy, among some Jewish secularists, though in recent years they have gravitated more often than not to the haredi and mystical/chassidic variants of Orthodoxy.

But as an alternative that resolves the dilemma between modernity and tradition for the bulk of modern Jews, Modern Orthodoxy has not been embraced and is unembraceable. People who do not believe in G-d, or who cannot bring themselves to believe in traditional Jewish doctrines, are unlikely to become Modern Orthodox Jews, although I suppose one should not automatically dismiss the possibility that some of their offspring might.

In sum, it's fair to say that the aforementioned attempts by Jews to adjust to the new reality — staunch patriotism, radical religious reform, Orthodox rejectionism — ended in total failure. Indeed, each in its own way prevented Hungarian Jews from migrating to safe havens, such the United States or Palestine, before World War II. And in the end the super-patriotism and Magyarization did not prevent the Hungarian nationalists from joining the German Nazis in exterminating five out of every six Hungarian Jews in the Holocaust.

One of the greatest ironies of Jewish history is that the secular Zionism of the nineteenth century was formulated precisely for the purpose of offering an alternative to the assimilationism and “self-hatred” of the Diaspora. It arose as a response to both assimilationism and

anti-Semitism. Who then could have dreamed that it would itself magnify anti-Semitism, in time giving birth to a particularly malignant form of Jewish anti-Semitism within the Jewish state itself, leading to a bizarre form of Israeli “Post-Jewish” assimilationism in Zion?

From Jewishness To ?Israeliness'

Until very recently, it was widely presumed that the one unqualified success in resolving the dilemma between Jewishness and modernity was achieved in Israel. Secular Zionism represented a blending of modernity with Jewishness that involved neither the assimilationism of the radical reformers nor the rejectionism of the fervently Orthodox. It achieved this in the formation of “Israeliness,” which was a new phase of identity for Jews who lived in their own Jewish state. Israeliness was ever-so-modern, with high-tech industries cropping up everywhere, with European standards of living and lifestyles, with prestigious universities and scientific institutions, not to mention a military of legendary prowess. All this in a state whose raison d'etre was its Jewishness, its serving as a national home for Jews.

About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.


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