Why religious anti-Zionism endures

The opposition to Zionism in the name of the Torah may exist as long as the Zionist enterprise itself.

29 november 88 (photo credit: )
29 november 88
(photo credit: )
How did Israelis observe November 29 - known in Israel as kaf-tet benovember? Most Jews were largely oblivious to the milestone, while some Arabs marked it with sadness. November 29, 1947 was when the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab entities - a decision hailed by many, though not all, Jews and bewailed by Arabs. While the Arabs rejected the establishment of a Jewish state anywhere in Palestine, the Zionists accepted the decision. One key Jewish group that did not join with the Zionists were the ultra-Orthodox. I recently spoke with Yakov Rabkin, author of A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism, about their opposition to the creation of Israel. Why remember 'kaf-tet benovember'? Thirty-three UN members voted yes to the creation of a Jewish state; 13 objected, including the Arab inhabitants of the region. Their hostility to the Zionist project has not subsided in spite of the recognition of Israel by several Arab states. What is less known is that many of Mandatory Palestine's ultra-Orthodox Jews objected to the Zionist project even more resolutely, and their opposition has also refused to go away. Inspired by major Jewish thinkers of the past century, they warned that a separate state for the Jews, far from becoming a safe haven, would provoke unprecedented hatred among the Arabs. Several haredi leaders had made their opinion known to the United Nations, and some had asked for protection from Zionist rule. This is why prime minister David Ben-Gurion had to placate at least some of the ultra-Orthodox Jews with concessions [IDF exemption, for instance] that keep irritating secular Israelis. However, neither these concessions, nor the Partition Resolution and the establishment of the State of Israel would undermine the theological bases of Judaic opposition to Zionism. How did you get interested in this? During a sabbatical year in Jerusalem I attended a fascinating seminar on haredi anti-Zionist thought. The spectrum runs from the vociferous, headline-grabbing Neturei Karta, who join Muslim anti-Israel demonstrations, to the wait-and-see quietism of the garden-variety contemporary haredi. In order to better understand religious Zionism, the seminar introduced us to basic texts of Jewish anti-Zionism, including the well-known Va-Yoel Moshe by Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum of Satmar. Practically all the participants in the seminar were graduates of Merkaz Harav, an important national religious yeshiva, and were committed Zionists; some had chosen to live in Hebron and other places beyond the 1967 armistice lines. At the same time, they were intellectually curious and respectful of the Jewish tradition, which warns us not to go against the nations of the world to establish a presence in the Land of Israel. Where would you place yourself on the spectrum of observant Jews? I want to do the will of the Creator and comply with His expectations and commandments. I don't fear contemporary culture, but am selective in embracing it. There are films, songs and novels that have become part of my life, but there are others I wouldn't dare touch. My children have noticed that I am trying to see everything through the prism of the Torah. In many aspects I am close to the haredim, in others to the modern Orthodox. I usually pray with the Sephardim, who have less-pronounced ideological divisions among them. Are you not afraid this book will play into the hands of anti-Semites? Quite the opposite seems to be happening. "Your book is a hymn to Judaism" wrote a non-Jewish reader from France. Another from Montreal wrote that the book "improves his view of the Jews and of Judaism." A Belgian cardinal believes that my book "removes the fuse from the anti-Jewish violence in Europe." I begin my work by asking: "How can the hassidic children of Antwerp or London - victims of terrorism - be held responsible for the actions of Israeli soldiers in Jenin or Ramallah?" Shedding light on crucial distinctions between Judaism and Zionism, my book explains the nature and historical circumstances of what the founders of Zionism called "the Zionist revolution." It is by recognizing this revolution - which created a new national consciousness, gave millions of Jews a new language and moved them to another part of the world - that one can understand why most of the spiritual and intellectual custodians of the Jewish tradition opposed it. This opposition to Zionism in the name of the Torah may exist as long as the Zionist enterprise itself. Even if many haredim today feel a certain sense of identification with the Zionist world view, that identification remains emotive and circumstantial: it lacks a theological basis. For them, the anti-Zionist ideas presented in my book have lost none of their authority. In the haredi context, it would be difficult to reject, or even to attenuate the authority of a Hafetz Haim or a Brisker Rov; of a Satmar Rebbe or a Lubavitcher Rebbe, all of whom categorically rejected the Zionist world view. What has Zionism done to Jewishness? Zionism and the State of Israel have transformed what it means to be a Jew. As I wrote, "Pious Jews were quick to take a stand against Zionism for one simple reason: Most of them saw in it a catalyst for the deliberate rejection of Judaism." Jewish religious opposition to Zionism has refused to vanish. Would you say the recent Israeli Supreme Court decision to recognize homosexual marriages performed abroad is an example of transforming what it means to be a Jew, and of the rejection of Judaism? There are religious and non-religious Zionists who say that decisions like this one have made them think twice about their Zionism. From my perspective, this decision relates to the civil status of the citizens of Israel, but has nothing to do with what it means to be a Jew. It is important to distinguish between the concepts of "Jew" and "Israeli." Those who confuse the two only confirm the prescience of the rabbis denouncing Zionism a century ago: The State of Israel has indeed replaced the Torah as the main pillar of identity for many Jews, both in Israel and elsewhere. The transformation of a community that for millennia was bound together by a commitment to the Torah into an ethnic nation defined by a state is one reason for the enduring Judaic opposition to Zionism. The hassidic (and haredi) Satmar movement has been a vanguard force against Zionism, hasn't it? Satmar's opposition is based largely on the writings of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the late Satmar rebbe and a major Jewish thinker of the last century. His writings are rational and grounded in mainstream Jewish sources. Within the framework of the Jewish tradition it is easy to grasp this sort of rationality. Like many other haredim, the Satmar hassidim object to the fact that it is a human initiative and not obedience to Divine Providence that has brought millions of Jews to the Land of Israel. They claim the persistent dangers facing Israel's Jews stem from the revolutionary nature of the Zionist project, which stripped the Jew of Torah and mitzvot. Tel Aviv University philosopher Joseph Agassi, neither Orthodox nor anti-Zionist, argues that "to recognize the legitimacy of religious anti-Zionism is crucial for an honest debate about Israel and Zionism - which remains stifled since the Zionists, both Jewish and Christian, deny all legitimacy to anti-Zionism." My hope is to open this debate. We need to realize why the idea of a separate state of the Jews has provoked so much opposition that endures to this day. Those who hide their past can only endanger their future. The interviewer is a Netanya translator and is a graduate of Stanford University and the Technion, Haifa.