The Meaning of Zionism for the Diaspora

By Hertzberg, Arthur | Cross Currents, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

The Meaning of Zionism for the Diaspora


Hertzberg, Arthur, Cross Currents


Jews in the multi-ethnic future will need to redefine themselves in the larger society, as Theodor Herzl did for political Zionism.

The modern Zionist movement has never been at peace with the Diaspora. In all of its versions, it has taken its measure of the Diaspora and found it wanting. I need hardly mention the most incendiary assertion of modern Zionism, the "denial of the Diaspora" - that is, the insistence that the Diaspora must now come to an end so that the Jews could become a "normal people." The cultural Zionists had their own troubles with the Diaspora. The most radical of them, like Micah Yosef Berdichevski and Yosef Chaim Brenner, wanted the "transvaluation of values" which would discard the many centuries of Jewish religion and culture as defined in the Galut. Even Ahad Ha'am, who wanted to preserve the Jewishness of the Diaspora, thought that its traditional culture was in its last days and that only a vigorous "spiritual center" in the land of Israel could furnish it with enough energy to survive. In sum, the Zionist doctors disagreed vehemently with each other about the future of the new Jews in the land of Israel, but all agreed that the Diaspora was sick, perhaps dying, and many even thought, with ideological vehemence, that it deserved to die.

I should like to suggest, in passing, that this was not a totally unprecedented set of judgments, even though the Zionist leaders and thinkers who advanced them thought that they were. Actually, these were replays, using modern rhetoric, of the relationship between the Jewish communities in the land of Israel and in the Diaspora that had prevailed for many centuries. By definition, the Jews who dwelt in the land of Israel had always felt they were living a more difficult life, but one much closer to Jewish authenticity. They were entitled to support from the Diaspora because they were doing holy work and living in great danger for the sake of hastening the Messiah. In fact, the Diaspora internalized this attitude. It accepted the judgment that its Jewish life was inferior to life in the land of Israel and that the truest Jewish wisdom could be attained only in the Holy Land. The traditional Diaspora accepted, much more universally than the modern Diaspora ever has, the notion that its destiny was to come to an end and be ingathered. On that miraculous day, those who were already in the land of Israel would deserve the honor of being in the front line to welcome the Messiah.

It was thus not difficult for the early Zionists to persuade themselves, and their followers, of their negative assessment of the Diaspora and of its culture. The question that does not seem to have been posed, at least not by the Zionists, is one that now seems self-evident. This uncreative and supposedly moribund Diaspora of one hundred years ago was the place in which Zionism in all its forms was fashioned. It was also the birth place of all the movements through which Jews have tried to define themselves in the modern era. It is in that supposedly uncreative Diaspora that the modern Yeshiva was fashioned in Lithuania by Chaim of Volozhin as an answer to the very beginnings of the age of doubt in the early 1800s. In Central Europe, a few years later, neo-Orthodoxy was defined by Samson Raphael Hirsch. Radical religious reform appeared in the middle of the century and it was soon followed by secular revolutionary movements within the Jewish community. Modern literature in both Yiddish and Hebrew arose in Central and Eastern Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century. The Jewish Socialist Bund and, for that matter, Simon Dubnov's dream of Jewish autonomy in multi-ethnic states, were creations of the Diaspora at the end of the nineteenth century, in the very years when political Zionism was created. It is simply not true that the Diaspora, in a sort of last gasp, imagined Zionism and then prepared to say some kind of secular Kaddish for itself. The very contrary is true. …

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