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August 31, 2015 | 16th Elul 5775

The Zionist revolution III: returning to history

Galilee Diary #185;
June 13, 2004
Marc Rosenstein

In Israel, “politics as usual” is not at all usual. Beyond the common maneuverings of interest groups and seekers of power and profit, beyond the familiar conflicts between the views of human nature and social obligation held by “left” and “right,” between those who believe that the other side can be won over and those who believe that the other side only understands “the language of force,” there is a philosophical rift that cuts to the very root of Zionism.

The traditional Jewish understanding of history, as set forth in Deuteronomy and the prophets, sees all events as acts in the drama of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. Wars and disasters occur to punish us for our sins; power, peace, and prosperity are our rewards for keeping the covenant. If Babylonia or Rome prospers while we suffer – they are serving as God’s tools of our chastisement. Our mission in life is not to conquer land, not to maneuver in the field of international relations, but to study the Torah and live according to it. If we do, God will take care of our needs for territory, sovereignty, prosperity, etc. If not, then we know from experience what we can expect.

Zionism arose out of the currents of secularism, humanism, rationalism – and nationalism - that were sweeping through Europe a century ago. For the founders of Zionism, history was not a divine mechanism, but a record of the acts of nations, driven by needs, by will, by ideals – by human actions. Thus, in their view, the Jews had dropped out of history with the end of a sovereign Jewish state in 70 CE. The traditional view seemed to them pathetically passive, an acceptance of an unacceptable situation by ascribing it to God’s will. They aspired to “a return to history,” to the Jews’ recognition of their identity as a nation, to the Jewish people’s taking active responsibility for its own fate.

Hence, from the beginning, Zionism was rejected by most of the Jewish world: by the Orthodox who saw this secular humanistic cooptation of traditional messianism as dangerous heresy; and similarly by Reform, who insisted that Judaism was a religion, and that Jews were happy to wear the national identities of the nations in which they lived, with no aspirations to a restoration of a distinctive national identity of their own.

And then along came the 20th century, by the end of which Zionism was taken for granted as a dominant ideology of Jewish life, with only an “ultra-orthodox” minority still rejecting it as heresy. Along the way, many of us came to take for granted a new historical understanding, championed by those we call “Zionist Orthodox” but accepted consciously or unconsciously by most of the Jewish world: the human project of creating a Jewish state has been sanctified by God’s obvious support of the idea; moreover, the biblical prophecies of ingathering and restoration are being fulfilled by Zionism. How else can we explain the miraculous victories of 1948 and 1967? the “rising from the ashes” of post-Holocaust Jewish culture in Israel? the inspiring sagas of the immigration of whole communities like the Yemenites and Ethiopians?

However, seeing the rise of the state of Israel as evidence of the “finger of God” in history seems to me an unhealthy folding together of history and faith, that can too easily lead to the assumption that “God is on our side,” regardless of how badly we behave. Today in Israel there are powerful political forces that seem to have made that assumption the basis of their program.

The founder of “cultural Zionism,” Ahad Ha-Am (Asher Ginsberg) warned in 1897:

The secret of our people’s persistence is… that at a very early period the Prophets taught it to respect only the power of the spirit and not to worship material power… As long as we remain faithful to this principle, our existence has a secure basis, and we shall not lose our self-respect… But a political ideal which is not grounded in our national culture is apt to seduce us from loyalty to our own inner spirit and to beget in us a tendency to find the path of glory in the attainment of material power and political dominion, thus breaking the thread that unites us with the past…

We control only our own behavior – history moves according to its own rhythms. Believing we can understand and control the equations of history is an arrogant illusion that has brought us to grief in the past and is liable to do so again.

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