There is a Crack in Everything
Updated: Aug 14
Jewish Opposition to Zionism
Many people know that the first Zionist congress was convened in 1897 in Basel. Fewer remember that Basel was chosen after major German Jewish community organizations petitioned the authorities to forbid holding the meeting in Munich. Thus, Basel, the birthplace of Zionism at the turn of the 20th century, points to a sharp conflict that this new political movement produced among the Jews. My book, which appeared in German in July 2020 1, presents a history of this momentous intra-Jewish conflict, which has continued to this day. It had to wait over a decade before appearing in German, its fifteenth language edition. The Hebrew edition came out a few years earlier, and it contributed to a lively debate in Israel’s secular and religious press about Zionism and the Zionist state.
Most articulate internal rejection of Zionism came from Jews, many of them rabbis who found this nationalist movement contrary to basic principles of the Jewish religion. The rabbis of the 'Liberal Jewish Synagogue' in London, clearly formulate the issue: “We seem to have to choose between loyalty to our people and loyalty to God. Did not the Prophets love their people? Yet they castigated its leadership. Did anybody ever love the Jewish people more passionately than Jeremiah? Yet he condemned their sins — and for that very reason — all the more passionately.”
Like any revolution, Zionism triggered opposition that refuse to go away. It so happened that at the time I arrived in Israel to promote the Hebrew edition of my book, over half a million religious Jews gathered at the entrance to Jerusalem protesting a new law that would oblige some of them to serve in the army. They live in the Land of Israel all the while refusing legitimacy to the Zionist state and its laws. There is no other issue that divides Jews as sharply as the question of Israel.
Why should this intra-Jewish debate, however fascinating intellectually, interest leftists in Berlin? Because of the widespread confusion between Jews and Israel. In the words of Chancellor Merkel, " the Holocaust fills us Germans with shame". Germany assumed its historical responsibility and chose to redeem itself by offering monetary compensation to individual survivors living in Israel and elsewhere. This compensation, which has helped the survivors rebuild their lives, constitutes a moral obligation that Germany has acquitted with generosity and good will.
But in the same speech, the Chancellor said that “Germany and Israel are and will always remain linked in a special way through the memory of the Holocaust.” Many Germans mean well when they confuse Jews - who suffered in the Holocaust because of their ethnicity - with the state of Israel, conceived as an ethnocracy for the Jews. This conflation of Jews and Israel leads Germany to treat the Zionist state as a collective survivor of the Holocaust and offer it automatic political, economic and military support. This exceptional support often appears at variance with basic moral values that German society embraced after the end of Nazism.
Hannah Arendt, a German Jewish refugee who fled the Nazis to the United States, firmly believed that murderous amorality is not limited to one nation or one ideology. Arendt, alongside with the physicist Albert Einstein and twenty-five other Jewish intellectuals, warned against the inherent danger of the Zionists’ exclusive ethnic nationalism. In December 1948, barely half-a-year after the unilateral proclamation of the State of Israel, in a collective letter to The New York Times they characterized the precursor of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud as “a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.” This letter, while it contains comparisons that may be illegal in today’s Germany, illustrates the fact that not only ultra-Orthodox rabbis rejected exclusive ethnic nationalism. In the wake of the Second World War, quite a few German Jews continued to espouse the idea of a democratic state for all inhabitants of Palestine, a state that would not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity and religion.
However, those who controlled the Zionist movement took a different path. They drew a different lesson from the Nazi genocide: for them it was a consequence of the Jews’ weakness. These Zionist leaders, having forged a new Muskuljude ('muscular Jew') led a successful military campaign, which squashed all egalitarian hope. They turned hundreds of thousands Arab inhabitants of Palestine into refugees and thus created space for a separate Judenstaat Herzl had prophesied in Basel. The Holy Land was thus plunged into incessant conflict.
The new nationality law adopted in summer 2018 unilaterally declares Israel to be the homeland of all Jews. Israel’s raison d’être is predicated on the belief that anti-semitism is universal and eternal. Many Jews do not share this belief. This is why, when given a chance, Jews, including quite a few Israelis, prefer peaceful pluralistic democracies to the Zionist state. Berlin is now reputed to have the highest concentration of Israelis in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of ex-Soviet Jews also chose to move to Germany at the turn of the 21st century in spite of opposition from Israel.
Moreover, Jews play a prominent role in political campaigns protesting Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, such as the world movement of BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions). The Bundestag’s decision in May 2019 to equate commercial boycott of Israeli imports with anti-semitism may also be rooted in the conflation of Jews and Israel. A non-violent political campaign protesting the way the dominant military power in the Middle East treats the Palestinians is wrongly associated with the Nazi slogan “Kauft nicht bei Juden!” (Do not Buy from Jews!) that targeted a small Jewish minority in Germany.
While Israel inspires extreme right-wing movements in Europe and elsewhere as a bulwark against Arabs and Muslims, one also often hears: “How can those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis treat the Palestinians so cruelly?” These expressions betray a profound misunderstanding of Zionism and the state that embodies it. The founding fathers of Israel were proud to foment a radical revolution in Jewish life, uprooting Jews not only from their countries of birth, but also from the Jewish moral tradition. This is a major focus of Jewish religious opposition to Zionism.
In January 2020 world dignitaries gathered in Israel for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The death camp was located in Poland and it was the Soviet army that liberated it, but the commemoration took place nearly three thousands kilometers away, in a West Asian state, which did not even exist at the time.
That august gathering embodied Israel’s success in acquiring political legitimacy as 'Judenstaat', the state that represents all Jews, dead or alive. It was then logical that several speakers asserted that anti-Zionism is a new form of anti-semitism. If this were true, this would make anti-semites out of hundreds of thousands of religious Jews who reject Zionism, whether they live in Jerusalem, in New York or in Antwerp. This is of course nonsense and exposes the intellectual fallacy of the conflation between Zionism and Judaism, between the State of Israel and the Jews.
But this conflation is not innocent. It is an effective political weapon used to delegitimize opposition to Zionism, a variety of European exclusive ethnic nationalism. Rapidly emerging from the margins of their respective nations’ political systems, ethnic nationalists in major European countries such as Germany, Italy and France admire Israel and envy the respectability of Zionism. Israel has become their inspiration and aspiration. And yet, the German president speaking at the event said in the same breath: “We resist the poison that is nationalism! We stand with Israel!”
In the face of such paradoxes, understanding Jewish opposition to Zionism can help to think more clearly about Zionism and Israel. To quote a song by Leonard Cohen (1934-2016), a Montreal-born Jew and a world known bard, “there is a crack in everything – this is how the light gets in”.
The author is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Montreal. His recent scholarly publications include What is Modern Israel? (Pluto/Chicago University Press) and Demodernization: A Future in the Past (Ibidem/Columbia University Press) as well as a chapter on science in the Middle East in the Cambridge History of Science. He is also often solicited to comment on international relations in printed and electronic media.
1 https://www.westendverlag.de/buch/im-namen-der-thora/ The English version is: A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism, Zedbooks/ Palgrave-Macmillan.