The Long-And Largely Untold-History of Jewish Opposition to Zionism

By Brownfeld, Allan C. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 2008 | Go to article overview

The Long-And Largely Untold-History of Jewish Opposition to Zionism


Brownfeld, Allan C., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


WHILE MANY in Israel and in Jewish communities here and in other countries now promote the idea that Zionism and Judaism are, in effect, the same, and that opposition to Zionism constitutes "anti-Semitism," the historical-largely untold-fact is that, for most of its history, Zionism has been a decidedly minority movement among Jews throughout the world.

Since its inception as a political movement in 1897, both Reform and Orthodox Jews have rejected Zionism's basic premise of creating a Jewish state in Palestine and having Jews either emigrate to it or, at the very least, view it as "central" to their Jewish identity.

An overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews, unwilling to accept the restoration of a Jewish state in Palestine by means other than divine intervention, considered Zionism a false messianic movement. Most Jewish liberals and socialists, having accepted the ideals of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis in optimism, reason and progress, rejected Zionism as a reactionary philosophy. Acculturated Jews in Western and Central Europe who regarded themselves simply as members of a religious community, rejected the notion that their nationality was not English, French or German-but "Jewish."

Reform Judaism's position was quite contrary to that promulgated by Zionism. The most articulate spokesman for the German Reform movement, the distinguished rabbi and scholar Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), argued that Judaism developed through an evolutionary process that had begun with God's revelation to the Hebrew prophets. That revelation was progressive, with new truth becoming available to every generation. According to Geiger, the underlying and unchangeable essence of Judaism was its morality, and the core of Judaism was ethical monotheism. He considered the Jewish people a religious community, destined to carry on the mission to "serve as a light to the nations," to bear witness to God and His moral law. The dispersion of the Jews was not a punishment for their sins, in Geiger's view, but a part of God's plan whereby they were to disseminate the universal message of ethical monotheism throughout the world. Indeed, in a Reform prayerbook he edited in 1854 Geiger deleted all prayers about a return to Zion.

American Reform Judaism, in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, rejected Jewish nationalism. Its fifth paragraph declared: "We consider ourselves no longer a nation but a religious community."

On March 4, 1919 Julius Kahn, a Jewish congressman from San Fransisco, delivered to President Woodrow Wilson a statement endorsed by 299 prominent Jewish Americans denouncing the Zionists for attempting to segregate Jews and reverse the historic trend toward emancipation. It objected to the creation of a distinctly Jewish state in Palestine because such a political entity would be contrary "to the principles of democracy."

On April 20, 1922, Rabbi David Philipson, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, rejected the characterization of Palestine "as the national home of the Jewish people." He insisted that, "No land can be spoken of as the national home of the Jewish people, as Jews are nationals of many lands."

An important new book, A Threat From Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (available from the AET Book Club) by Professor Yakov M. Rabkin, professor of history at the University of Montreal, sheds significant light on Jewish religious opposition to Zionism. After completing his university education, Dr. Rabkin studied Judaism with rabbis in Montreal, Paris and Jerusalem. He brings a lifetime of study and experience to his subject.

Noting that "the rejection of Zionism is often interpreted as an act of treachery toward the Jewish people," Rabkin explains that "'Zionism' was an invention of intellectuals and assimilated Jews...who turned their back on the rabbis and aspired to modernity, seeking desperately for a remedy for their existential anxiety. …

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