It surprises many to learn that Theodor Herzl, largely considered the father of modern Zionism, wasn’t the first activist to encourage the Jewish people to return to the Land of Israel. There were even Jews who preceded Dr. Herzl that had started spreading the message that it was time to create a Jewish state in the Land of Israel.
Before Herzl, there was Rabbi Yehudah Alkalai who worked alongside Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalisher to promote Zionism, even publishing about the need for the Jews to return to Zion. Herzl, whose grandfather was friends with Alkalai, was influenced by Alkalai’s writings. Even before Alkalai and Kalisher, there were the Baal Shem Tov and the Vilna Gaon; two rabbis who sent their students to settle in the Land of Israel.
Even before them, there was a famous religious community in Safed. While most of the leaders of the modern political Zionist movement weren’t religious, the Zionists that kept the Zionist ideology alive over the two-thousand-year Jewish exile were almost exclusively religious Jews.
Zionism was a revolutionary national liberation movement. Like many liberation movements, Zionism drew its inspiration from religious ideals. Unfortunately, many of these movements slowly gave up their religious idealism and turned purely secular. As purely secular movements they lost much of the meaning that drew the early adherents to the movement.
Zionism was inspired by the Jewish liberation movements of the exodus from Egypt and the Jews’ return to Israel from Babylonia. As Zionism evolved from a movement to a State government, it was unique in that it never gave up its religious inspiration.
There is a movement that tries to sever the religious roots in both idealism and people from Zionism’s start and success.
The link between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel throughout the two-thousand-year exile was sustained by Jews praying three times a day to return to Zion. These same Jews, whether they were in Tunisia, Shanghai, or America, faced Jerusalem when they prayed. At the end of these Jews’ Yom Kippur services and Passover Seder, they declared, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
When secular Zionists entertained the notion of founding a Jewish state in Africa, it was religious-minded Russian Jews who insisted on the Zionist state being founded in Israel. Zionism, as secular as it might have turned at times, was always anchored in religious values.
Zionist movement was built on religious values
THOSE WHO posit that Zionism was purely secular are being intellectually dishonest. They are trying to erase one of the most meaningful aspects of Zionism. Not only was the Zionist movement built on religious values, but many early activists in the Zionist movement were also religious.
Just because Zionism didn’t advocate a theocracy, didn’t mean it was completely secular. There is a well-known strawman argument that secular Jews were the ones to bring the Jews back to Israel, while religious Jews opposed Zionism and insisted on waiting until God sent the Messiah before returning to Israel.
While there were religious Jews who opposed Zionism and the Jewish return to Israel without a Divine mandate, there were also many religious Jews who partnered with secular Zionists to found the State of Israel. The notion that Zionism was a purely secular movement is factually incorrect.
The majority of early Zionists were secular Jews. These Jews found meaning in establishing a state of their people. They risked their lives and everything they knew for a dream. They changed the course of Jewish history forever, actualizing the Jewish right to self-determination in their homeland.
The connection between Zionism and secularism is one of the parents of Zionism, but it is very far from being its only parent. Zionism and religious Judaism both share the same values; in fact, Zionism took its values from traditional religious Jewish values. Zionism was successful not in spite of its partnership with religious Jews and religious ideology, but because of it.
In their actions and positions, Zionists rebelled against two thousand years of Jewish passivity. Religious and secular Jews together said to the Jewish people that they no longer have to live in exile, they can return home. They no longer have to face the persecution of the Gentiles. To those who believed in waiting for the Messiah, they said we can return to Israel without a Messiah.
Religious Jews called on their brethren to fulfill the mitzvah to settle the Land of Israel and to live on it. The unfortunate irony is that as Zionism succeeded, religious and secular Zionists didn’t graciously share the credit, they each claimed the credit for themselves. They should have celebrated their diverse partnership.
There is a significant difference between seeing Zionism as a secular movement and a secular takeover of the Zionist movement with a complete lack of understanding of religion and religious people’s contributions to Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel. There are multiple causes to Israel’s success, human innovation, investment and energy. They aren’t the only factors to Zionism’s success.
GOD’S PROVIDENCE can’t be overlooked. It is close to impossible to credit Israel’s military, economic and social success to just human ingenuity and luck.
God’s providence is perceived in Israel’s success. Former prime minister David Ben-Gurion said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles… Life is more than blind forces. There is something more than we can see or perceive, something behind, beyond, and inside man. Nobody can define God, He is beyond definition. He is boundless, infinity, and without end. If we understand religion as not just ritual, then this is religion, the fact that fate alone does not govern history or man, that there is a will that can be exercised, that life is more than a game played by blind forces.”
The Jewish people has always struggled within themselves. Internal strife and struggle is an unfortunate feature of the Jewish people. In fact, many people explain the name Israel to mean to struggle with God. From the Biblical stories of the division between Jewish people to the shocking divisions that plagued the warriors of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the Jewish people are plagued by infighting.
The tragedy of Zionism and Israel today is that with all of its success, the Jewish people are still divided and not ready to unite. We’ve even repeated the Biblical mistake of our ancestors and invited foreigners to interfere with our internal affairs.
The partnership between religious and secular Jews that created Israel and built the State of Israel is the model that the Jewish state should follow going forward. The answer to creating an even more successful Israel will not be found in erasing Israel’s history or trying to ignore the secular or religious aspects of the state.
Israel’s success to date has been the partnerships and compromises made between religious and secular Zionists. Israel’s future depends on ensuring the rightful place of all Jews, irrespective of their political and religious positions.
The writer is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. He is the author of three books and teaches Torah, Zionism and Israeli studies around the world.