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Monday, February 06, 2006

The question of Zionism

At the turn of the century, Herzl’s Zionist congress met for the first time. It represented something that few had expected at the time. Namely, a move by enlightened secular Jews to restore the national life of the Jewish people. Reactions in the religious world were mixed. They ranged from open hostility to the congress to enthusiastic support. The debate as to how to relate to secular political Zionism and the state that was later to be established is continuing to this day.

Today, those who enthusiastically supported political Zionism and the state are in a very tough position. It seems like the very state that religious Zionists bled for is dead set on destroying all which the religious Zionist community holds dear. Everything from the educational institutions to the actual physical communities the religious Zionist community has built is being threatened by the state. What I would like to do here is attempt to analyze what has happened. How did the cooperation of the past turn into open hostility and in the end, perhaps give a suggestion as to where to go from here.

What does the land mean to a religious Jew?

The land of Israel is not just a piece of real-estate. To a believing Jew, the land is the eternal gift of Hashem to the Jewish people. The health of the land is seen as indicative of the health of our relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. When we are sinful, the land withholds its blessing. When we act righteously, the land responds in kind. But the land is more than a gauge of our compliance with Divine will. The land itself is an agent of our spiritual connection to Hashem. All the mitzvot were primarily designed to be performed in the land. More than half of the commandments of the Torah can only be fulfilled in the land and those which can be fulfilled anywhere are seen as being qualitatively better when performed in the land. The land represents our national mission – to infuse with holiness even the most mundane aspects of life. It is in this vain that the Chatam Sofer remarked that the very act of working the land in EY is a mitzvah. National presence in a land, however, can not exist in a vacuum. Institutions must be established which will allow society to function. An army must be established in order to defend the people and the land. An economic system must be created and regulated in order to ensure fairness and prosperity. In other words, a political state must be created in order to ensure and protect the nation’s religious mission of settling and land and serving Hashem through the land. The state, therefore, is also Holy. Not the same intrinsic holiness of the land but rather holy to the extent that it enables the Jewish people to accomplish its mission. The state, then, is holy to the extent that it defends the Jewish people from physical and spiritual harm.

What does the land mean to a secular Jew?

Secular Jews were in a difficult predicament at the turn of the century. The promise of the haskala movement to lead Jews towards acceptance by European society and subsequently towards equality and social justice seemed little more than a pipe dream. Anti-Semitism was on the rise and the enlightened social theories of the day seemed to offer little that would remedy the situation. Hertzl and those who followed him proposed to create a political reality for the Jewish people such that we would define our environment and social norms and thus we would be able to implement the teachings of the enlightened and modern world in a more perfect manner – without the old prejudices of the Europeans. The natural place to implement this experiment was in Eretz Yisrael, the historical land of the Jewish people. The land was not an ideal in its own right nor did it contain any religious meaning to these assimilated Jews. The value of the land was only so far as it provides the nation with physical security and independence thereby curing the social ills experienced in Europe. In other words, where for the religious Jew, the state is a response to the religious need to live in the land – for the secular Zionist, the land is simply a necessary component of creating a political state.

Cooperation or separation?

The rise of secular Zionism created a dilemma for religious Jews. The nature of the state proposed by the seculars was by no means the same as the one envisioned by religious Jews throughout the centuries. On the other hand, a state can be a tremendous force in helping create Jewish settlement in the land and can also be a source of physical protection and economic freedom for a people who sorely lacked such standard luxuries in other lands. Also, there was the fear among some that opposition to political Zionism in its secular form would be interpreted by many as opposition to the land itself. On the flip side of that coin, many feared that cooperation with the Zionists would be a secularizing influence on many people and would be interpreted as acceptance of a secular state as a religious ideal.

The Chareidi response

The chareidi world chose various degrees of separation. In large, it refused to cooperate directly with the seculars and any settlement activity was done separately from the official institutions of the Zionist movement. This has been both a blessing and a curse for the chareidi world. On the one hand, they have been protected ideologicaly from most of the negative influences of secular Zionist society. The lines between the pure and the impure are clearly drawn in the chareidi educational institutions. Chareidi children are not encumbered by having to integrate loyalty to the Torah on one hand and to a secular state (which is often hostile to Torah) on the other. However, the chareidi world has paid a tremendous hashkafic price. The ideal of settling the land of Israel - what was almost universally accepted in the religious world of the 19th century as a religious requirement and ideal – has been destroyed in large parts of chareidi society. The practical need to separate from secular institutions has become an ideal in and of itself. As a result of separation from the state came a separation from the land.

The Mizrachi response

The mizrachi world chose nearly unfettered cooperation with the secular Zionists. The mizrachi jumped at every opportunity to support almost all programs of political Zionism – even when these programs funded institutions dedicated to driving Jews away from traditional Judaism. Many of the great gedolim that supported the mizrachi were often ignored by grassroots mizrachists who refused to stunt their enthusiasm for the building of the new yeshuv. Slowly, the excitement over the political achievements of secular Zionism began to cause a merging of two sets of values in the mizrachi world. The distinction between the religious relationship with the land and the religious relationship with the governing body of the land began to get blurred. When the state was created, it was treated with the same reverence as the land itself. Serious moral and religious flaws were overlooked and those who challenged to the direction the state was taking were branded as semi-heretical. The state, since it enabled the settlement of the land – the building of Torah academies – and the physical defense of the Jewish people through the army and a vessel for the ingathering of the exiles, was seen as Holy and then seen as intrinsically holy. All this could be done because there was a tremendous common ground between the mizrachists and the secular Zionists. Both saw as an ideal the settlement of the land and the creation of a state. Which ideal was subservient to the other was a largely academic question. Sure there arose the occasional conflict between religion and state but usually a compromise was achieved. All was fine as long as there was no strain on the relationship between the land and the state.

The great split

What would happen however – if the ideal of settlement of the land and the ideal of a political state were to clash? For many years such a clash seemed impossible. The state supported almost all settlement activity – it bravely defended the Jewish people – and often stood up proudly to its enemies. However, the normalization of the Jewish people that was to have led to their acceptance by the nations never came. The world continued to view Israel as an anomaly and our enemies refused to acknowledge our legitimacy. The Zionist version of the haskalah's promise of acceptance went as unfulfilled as the promises of the haskala’s earlier versions. And so, while in the 19th century, Jews in desperate need of acceptance by gentile society assimilated on an individual level, secular Zionism started to assimilate on a national level. The state would submit itself to the most irrational international-political demands of the nations of the world. It would integrate the morality of the post-WWII world and become a beacon of the enlightened west. It would offer up its ideals of settlement and land on the altar of “peace” and economic prosperity. Any ideal that would be in opposition to these new ideals would be now branded as backwards and immoral. In other words, in order to normalize, the state would shun its former ideal of settlement and development of the land and adopt an ideal of economic materialism and hedonistic culture. This would be the new price that would be paid for acceptance by the nations. The settlement of the land thus became a hindrance to the secular and enlightened state.

Those left behind

The religious Zionist community was thus left to itself to bear the great ideal of the settlement and development of the land of Israel without the political power to fulfill it. It was also left behind with a loyalty to the institutions of the state that was quickly used against its interests. Great confusion ensued and still exists. Many continue to serve the state with a fascist like loyalty – even to the extent of serving in the very forces that expel their brothers and sisters from their homes. Others lose their faith and join the seculars while others still give up on their ideals of national life and join the chareidim. There are those of us, however, that refuse to give up on any of our ideals. We find ourselves in a situation where we still long for an ideal state that does not exist. We refuse to give up on the mitzvah of yeshuv haAretz and refuse to bow down to the secularizing forces of the state. It is not easy to be in this position, but I believe it is where we must be. So what are the answers? I believe that it is in the next generation – one which will not be burdened by misplaced sentimental emotions towards the state and which will raise the spiritual banner of the Jewish people up high. The future lies with Torah and those who adhere to its tenets. Everything else is like a passing shadow that can not last. May it be Hashem’s will that the spiritual revolution will happen quickly and painlessly in our days.