Israel's Coming Crisis Over “Jewishness”:
The Rebellion Against the Religio-Ethnic State
A tremendous piece of historical irony lies in the fact, reported by many observers, that the younger Israelis, the sabra generation, in their effort to repudiate the Diaspora past, tend also to repudiate the Jewish identity as it developed in that past, and seem to be seeking a new national identity. Should this tendency persist, it would not only undermine the Zionist movement, but cut off the Jews of Israel from most of their brethren who remain outside Israel. This would be a great threat to Judaism and Jewish survival. Ernst Simon raised this problem from the religious viewpoint in our pages in April 1953 (“Are We Israelis Still Jews?”). Here a pro-Zionist Christian, intimately associated with the life of Israel and fully conversant with Hebrew, reports on the situation from a more general standpoint.
It was surprising to me that Ernst Simon’s article “Are We Israelis Still Jews?” (in Commentary of April 1953) evoked so little response in this country. It could not be that American Jews are indifferent as to whether or not Judaism survives in Israel. Perhaps they neglected to read the article, thinking the question more rhetorical than serious, merely a dramatic device introducing a sermon that ended, “Of course we Israelis are Jews—good ones.” But Dr. Simon’s question was serious, and grew out of a serious, troubling situation.
Evidence of this was the reaction of the Israelis when Luach Haaretz published Professor Simon’s article in Hebrew early in 1952. It occasioned at least two public forums in Jerusalem, at which there was spirited debate between the supporters and the critics of Professor Simon’s views. The Israeli public, it was amply clear, whether agreeing or disagreeing, took these views very much to heart.
The Hebrew original of Simon’s article, as the editors of Commentary indicated, was much longer than its English version, and dealt in part with a small but very articulate sabra group in Israel which goes under the name of “Aleph” but whose members are often called “Canaanim” (Canaanites) by outsiders. Professor Simon remarks that, despite the smallness of their organization, the Canaanites reflect the thinking of many native-born young Israelis.
A relatively high percentage of Aleph’s members are professional writers, and the organization puts out a closely printed pulp-paper magazine whose cover bears the ancient form of the Hebrew letter aleph. Occasionally, it runs a cut picturing some art object from Israelite or pre-Israelite times, or a piece of contemporary sculpture by a sabra. This disregard for all art produced in between these epochs is symptomatic of Aleph’s ideology. The astounding fact about the ideology is that it is anti-Judaic if not anti-Jewish, and sees no other solution for the present impasse Israel finds herself in vis-à-vis her neighbors than the sacrifice of her Jewish identity.
The peoples of the Middle East, Aleph says, must find their unifying principle in a return to the days when eretz hayrat (the Land of the Euphrates—approximately the Middle East) was largely inhabited by Hebrew-speaking peoples, when no artificial national boundaries separated one section of the Middle East from the other, and when neither Judaism nor Islam had yet appeared to sow religio-ethnic enmity among all the bearers of “Hebrew culture.” The “internecine” hatreds that now divide the whole Middle East, the Canaanites affirm, can be resolved only if the present system of petty semi-”theocratic” states—among which Israel is still to be classed—is supplanted by a federation of peoples whose binding bone will be derived from the old, autochthonous, organic “Hebrew culture” of pre-Exilic days.
With the rebirth of Hebrew in the Middle East, and with the crying need for greater personal liberty that a breakdown of religious ethnicism would bring, Israel might be—nay, is—the one hope of leadership in the Middle East. Israel should proceed forthwith to ally herself with Lebanon, whose Christian minority is precarious, and where fear of Islam is almost pathological. She should then make alliances with other religious minorities in the Middle East, such as the Druses of Syria. With such groups relying increasingly upon Israel’s democratic friendship, the conservative Islamic forces would be compelled eventually to make peace with Israel and join in a larger confederation of eretz haprat. Helping in this process would be the pressure of Western civilization, which would continue to find its avenues of easiest penetration into the Middle East through Lebanon and Israel. The gradual adoption of “Hebrew culture,” however, would enable the East to respond creatively to the advance of the West, without losing its own soul. So goes the Canaanite thesis.
The practical obstacles in the way of this vision’s realization are so obvious that it is small wonder few Israelis are really sold on it. The fact, however, that a not inconsiderable number of young writers who do not lack intelligence are interested in it indicates that the new generation has begun to despair of the old slogans of Zionism and socialism.
For Aleph, Zionism has become “public enemy number one,” and not only because it is the main agent of traditional Judaism. Zionism—Aleph holds—is a failure as a philosophy, because it cannot satisfy the youth of Israel; a failure as a practical solution of the Jewish problem, because it has failed to get the galut to immigrate to Israel—even those Jews who have come to Israel did so not out of Zionist convictions, but because they had no other place to go; moreover, the movement’s money has been largely contributed by non-Zionists (the old joke is still current in Israel: Zionism is “one Jew who collects money from another Jew to send a third Jew to Israel”). Nor is even the State of Israel conceded to be the outcome of Zionism: rather it is the product of an insurrection of the native-born—of the sabras who fought the British and then the Arabs—against foreign imperialism.
Aleph regards Israel as “theocratic” because her government is composed of old-line Zionists who, whether they know it or not, serve the interests of Orthodox Judaism. Orthodoxy is dying out, but its narrow Sabbatarianism and its ethnic conception of religion have been clamped on the young nation by the acts of the Zionists themselves. Orthodoxy’s power is seen in the legalizing in Israel of the old-fashioned Law of Personal Status, which preserves the outmoded Jewish religious community and prevents the amalgamation of all the elements in the country by making no provision for civil marriage, civil divorce, civil burial, or civil succession. Israel’s basic religio-ethnic bias is also seen in the Law of the Return, by which only a person who is called a “Jew” has an automatic right to settle in the country. Aleph admits that Israel is trying to develop genuinely democratic institutions but, because of her compromises with ethnic religion, the new state can be described at best as a “democratura,” or “democratatorship”!
Since Israel recognizes no other kind of Jew than the one represented either by Zionism (with its Judaistic components) or by Orthodoxy, Aleph concludes that Judaism itself is the main obstacle to a democratically united Middle East. Since Judaism appears to be absolutely intransigent and incapable of reforming itself, the only solution is to refuse to be called a Jew. Canaanites, therefore, prefer to call themselves “Hebrews”—a name to which they give a purely secular definition—or, insofar as they are necessarily members of a nation, “Israelis.”
The outside observer may be tempted to dismiss Aleph as an example of “typical adolescent rejection of parents”—which, indeed, it may partly be. But history is replete with “adult” underestimations of this kind. Professor Simon is not the first to note the failure of Zionism to hold the Israeli youth, but he has been among the first courageous enough to voice the fear that the new Israeli generation may be lost to any historic form of Judaism. The seriousness with which he regards the situation is expressed by the fact that he, though Orthodox himself and preferring a “Catholic” Judaism, feels obliged to project a “Protestant” Judaism for the near future, and a further separation of church and state in Israel. Without these interim conditions, he holds, the establishment—or reconstruction—of a “Catholic” Judaism in the eventual future will be impossible.
Awareness of the threat to Jewish survival inherent in the ideas of such groups as the Canaanites has not seeped through at all to most Jews abroad, among whom even the intellectuals are largely unprepared for such a revelation, as a scanning of any one of the leading Jewish periodicals outside Israel shows. It seems to be still taken for granted that if Judaism, or Jews, should disappear in galut, it, or they, will certainly survive in Israel. Professor Simon has not only shown that this is not certain, but he has even asked whether it is certain that Judaism is still effectively alive anywhere in Israel right now.
How has it come about that Zionism, apparently so successful in achieving the means to Jewish survival, seems now in danger of failing of the end itself?
One reason, undoubtedly, is that political Zionism, the Zionism of Herzl, has in the long run swallowed up every other kind. The cultural Zionism associated with Ahad Ha’am has been fighting a losing battle ever since Herd’s time. Ahad Ha’am is still read in Israel, but not taken seriously. The Ihud circle founded by the late Judah Magnes, which holds similar views, meets the same indifference.
Another reason, related to this one, lies in the very success of political Zionism, first in competing with other Zionist and neo-Judaic ideologies, and then outside the Jewish world. It was this Zionism which established the state. First, it won most of Jewry to its aims, and then it won the support of political powers that had no structural relation to religious Jewry. In Israel, at least, the effect of winning over world Jewry was to replace Orthodox Judaism with Zionism as the “faith” by which Jews affirmed their Jewishness. In Israel, again, the effect of success among the powers was to instil the conviction that these looked upon Israel as a purely secular land; if this was so, why shouldn’t the Jew in Israel think of himself as primarily a secular being?
A third reason for anti-Zionist feeling among the Israeli youth may be Zionism’s own surprise at the suddenness of its success in achieving statehood. There is some truth in Aleph’s contention that it was the native, “non-Zionist” reaction against the British that furnished the real drive behind the fight for independence; and that, to a certain extent, the Zionist leaders rode to power on the backs of sabras who were basically out of sympathy with their aims.
These, the more obvious reasons for the present Israeli discontent with Zionism, do not, however, explain the situation fully. For that, a deeper examination is necessary.
Like all relatively successful modern “solutions of the Jewish problem” that have been accepted by Jews and non-Jews, the power of Zionism lay in its analysis. Coming in the wake of Reform and developing at the same time as nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe, Zionism made a series of important discoveries or rediscoveries. The first was the deep ethnic relatedness of Judaism. Its second, and equally important, discovery was the apparently irrational nature of anti-Semitism. Zionism’s description of anti-Semitism did not have the benefit of the insights of modern psychology or anthropology, and therefore sounds somewhat naive today, but it remains relevant nonetheless. The third discovery was that much of European nationalism, too, was religious-ethnic—not, of course, in a sense like “Christian,” “Jewish,” or “Moslem,” but in the sense that it demanded the total soul of man. This last discovery—to some extent like that of the irrationality of anti-Semitism—was not a conscious one. Herzl saw and described nationalism; religious nationalism, he only felt.
Quite rightly, Zionism likened Jewish ethnicism (Herzl called it “nationalism”) to European nationalism. In Western Europe, which would not have agreed that its nationalism was “religious” (since obviously not “Christian”), Zionism found the going rough; but in Central and Eastern Europe, which even called its nationalism “Christian,” it found a readier understanding. There, Zionism appeared to be fully consonant with the kehillah conception of Judaism, and in this lay its power.
Fortified with these discoveries, Herzl early developed the distinctly Messianic category of “migration.” This doctrine, more religious than Herzl knew, became one of the dogmas of a kind of transformed Messianic Judaism. Political action took the place of the passive Orthodox expectation of divine intervention, but this did not mean that political action became non-religious. Individually, Jews were now invited to choose or not to choose their fate: to be “real” Jews they must go to Palestine. And, since to choose to “be” a Jew meant being a pioneer, another important religious ingredient was added—sacrifice. When later Zionists added to this the supranational, universal faith of socialism (or, sometimes, Communism), the structure was complete. Zionists had now acquired a supernational “church” of which Judaism was to be but one among many “national” denominations.
Now any trained theologian can detect what may be roughly described as a theology in all this. The Zionist doctrine of man pictures him as subject to the all-dominant group instinct, yet also as an individual with the power of choice. The Zionist doctrine of sin is both pessimistic and optimistic: original sin is anti-groupism (in the case of Jews, anti-Semitism), yet this sin can be overcome by the individual who “chooses” another, more harmonious nationalism than the one he is born into by accident of place. There is thus a soteriology: the “means of salvation” is migration and adjustment—“normalization.” There is also an ecclesiology, for the “saved” will be members of the Universal Church of Socialism, though they will express their faith through their own particular nationalism. There is even an eschatology, for the state is yet to come, and after it—or with it—will come kibbutz galuyoth, the Ingathering of the Exiles, which will bring all those “unsaved” who yet “will to be saved” into the fold. Then the Messianic age will set in and, being in their “right place,” Jews will have done their part in “bringing in the kingdom.”
Should the reader think this description applies only to Herzl’s ideas and those of the early Zionists, or that it is overly metaphorical in its description of Zionism as “theology,” let him consult Ben Gurion’s recorded speeches. The former prime minister is there presented as the leader of a college of cardinals presiding over the Messianic state; their missionary goal is the Ingathering of the Exiles; to this, these functionaries have individually and collectively sacrificed their lives through the labor movement, and for this they pray with all the fervor of their Orthodox forebears.
It is religion, and, to judge by appearances, it has become that of many Diaspora Jews as well as of the “saved” Zionists in Israel. But it seems largely a religion by proxy, at least for Jews in the Diaspora. Though many of these have faced anti-Semitism and known its irrational power, none have experienced migration; most of them know the state only “objectively,” and at a distance, and they certainly do not conceive of it as Messianic. As for world socialism and kibbutz galuyoth, the galut hardly knows them except as familiar phrases in a Zionist speech.
It is religion. And because it is religion, it has had a far greater appeal for Jews than any other kind of neo-Judaism since the days of Sabbatai Zevi. It is not Talmudic Orthodoxy, however. The “Rock” of Ben Gurion is not that transcendent God whose only mediator is the Torah, and who will send in his own time a personal Messiah to restore Israel. Ben Gurion’s Rock is not really identifiable apart from the socialist world church—or a sect of it.
This, both the Zionists and the Orthodox have understood. What neither has fully realized is that the socialist Rock is, like the gods of nationalism, dangerously near the demonic. Orthodoxy’s own inherent ethnicism compels it to accept as Jews all those who say they are, even though they may be socialists and agnostics too. And the very fact that Orthodoxy makes this compromise gives the agnostics added confidence in their own point of view and makes them think even less of Orthodoxy’s.
The youth of Israel are not less religious by nature than their forebears. Thousands of them were ready to sacrifice their lives for political freedom, and thousands did. Thousands joined Zionist youth groups, and other thousands joined the kibbutz movement, that socialist cult par excellence. Dedication, whether expressed in death for an ideal or life for an ideal, is religious. Nor do the youth lack a thorough Zionist indoctrination. The majority of the schools in Israel, until the recent unification of all “streams” of education, were frankly Zionist and, often, socialist. And almost all the “scout” and youth organizations were supported by political parties with Zionist ideologies. Why then are the younger Israelis deserting Zionism as a creed, just as their fathers once deserted Orthodoxy?
First of all, because some of the categories of Zionist theology have always been inapplicable to the native-born Israelis. What does anti-Semitism mean to the lad born in Tel Aviv or the girl born on Hadar Hacarmel? What does migration mean to the youngster born in the Holy City itself? How can you return when you never have been away?
Other categories, which used indeed to attract young Israelis, have lost their meaning as ideals turned into history. What had attracted young Israelis was the hope for a state, socialism as a universal faith, and, to a certain degree, the apocalyptic hope of the Ingathering. The emergence of the state realized the first hope and made it mundane. The anti-Israel line of the Labor government in England after 1945, and the brutal rejection of Zionism in Russia, have largely killed off faith in the socialist world church. Left only was the Ingathering, and that pathetic hope, too, has been largely blasted by Iron Curtain policies and the belief of American Zionists that “America is Zion too.”
These, then, are the reasons why young Israelis are deserting Zionism as a creed. The Jew of the Diaspora might suppose that in their disillusionment they will turn back naturally to some more traditional Judaism, just as he himself turns back when an anti-Semitic remark reminds him of his Jewishness. A few Israelis have tried to do so. But Zionism itself—and this is my point—has made such a return well-nigh impossible. For it has succeeded only too well in cutting off the younger Israeli Jews from the older Judaism by interposing itself as a substitute and more dynamic religion. The average Israeli today finds Orthodoxy utterly repugnant. He has been educated, by the Zionists themselves, to look on traditional Judaism as a weak and narrow creation of the Middle Ages—a servile ghetto faith. He tends to have much the same feelings towards the bearded Mea Shearim “types” (the disrespectful label he attaches to them) that the average Berlin Gentile must have had towards Jews in the days of Moses Mendelssohn—to him they are superfluous relics.
It is true, of course, that the old-line Zionist, born abroad, looks with much greater tolerance on the Orthodox, for he feels that they have played their part and now are going to their last rest, and that it would be unkind to needle the Old Man. A Mapai front-bencher does, at times, rail in the Knesset against an Orthodox speaker intent on “turning back the clock,” but to him the argument has long been settled, and this is but one of the last incidents of a family fight. The youthful Israeli watches the fight with an amused grin, but his respect for Zionism is not increased thereby—he only finds in this another reason to reject it. Like the early Jewish Christians he has come to the conclusion that the Law “neither he nor his fathers could keep” has been superseded.
This revulsion of the average Israeli against Orthodoxy and Zionism accounts, too, for the embarrassment he usually causes the galut community when he finds himself in a foreign land. Whether he appears as a member of an Israeli soccer team that has come to England to play an international match, or as a student at an American university, his “normal” discourtes towards an Orthodox or Reform invitation to attend services on the High Holidays is proverbial. He is likely to feel that the non-Israeli Jew is trying to “convert” him to Judaism. All he can remember as regards the synagogue is the—in his eyes—contemptible and ridiculous yeshiva bochur who walks down the street in Jerusalem blowing his tin horn to “warn” the Jewish goyim that Shabbat is approaching. Perhaps he sees his past in this “type” and hates it. At any rate he wants nothing of galut religion in any of its forms.
The founding of the state threw a further Zionist weakness into strong relief as far as young Israelis were concerned. The state came into existence so precipitously that Zionism was ill-prepared to adjust its partially fulfilled eschatology to the new situation. Ideal Zionism, despite the arguments for a “country in which Jews would be a majority,” really demanded a land all of whose inhabitants would be Jewish.
Now, in spite of the fact that the “Jews” (the accepted name for Hebrew-speaking Israelis) are a majority, there are still 175,000 “non-Jews” (largely Arabs, so-called) within the country’s physical borders. Quite in line with Zionist promises that Israel would be fully democratic, the Zionist leaders immediately granted voting rights to all the “minorities.” What the Zionists had not faced with sufficient insight, however, was the fact that “democracy,” particularly as interpreted in a Western country like the United States, did not recognize the civil existence of a religious majority—or minority. That, to some extent, the Zionists were conscious of this may be seen in the choice of the name “Israel” for the new state instead of, for example, “Judah” or “New Judea,” as some had wished in 1948. But this compromise could not hide the ethnic-religious intention of Zionism or its minimal (from, for example, an American point of view) definition of “democracy.”
All might have been well had such a situation come up a century or even fifty years ago, but Western leadership in the middle of the 20th century was American, not European. The point is that Israeli youth had for thirty years been influenced more and more by American ideals of government (though for “culture” they still tended to look to Europe), and so did not fail to see the discrepancy between what they had learned about democracy and the minimal realization of it that their elders presented to them.
The Israeli saw, knew, and felt that the Arabs were still in Israel. He could not help asking, “Why should they not be of Israel?” In other words, he asked himself, “How can we avoid treating ‘non-Jews’ in Israel as ‘second-class’ citizens if we continue to maintain the ethnic-religious barrier the name ‘Jew’ evokes?” To put the question this way was to side with that wider interpretation of democracy which the vast majority of intellectual Jews have held for a hundred years or more.
Given his keen sense of fairness, the Israeli was, theoretically, faced with only two possibilities of achieving the kind of unity that would make for a Western democracy. He had either further to define and re-define his use of the term “Jew” until it acquired overtones of a term like “American” or “British”—in which case the Arab Christian, the Arab Moslem, or the Druse living in Israel would automatically be called a “Jew”—or he had to confine the term “Jew” to a religious sect and use some other, “secular” term like “Israeli,” or “Hebrew,” as the unifying name of the political entity envisaged. The first alternative would deprive the “Jewish state” of any religious significance whatever, whether neo-Judaic or Orthodox. The second alternative would veil the Jewish state in a thin atmosphere of ambiguity like that which lends itself, in some quarters, to calling the United States “Protestant.”
Actually, when the name “Israel” was chosen, the first alternative automatically vanished. “Israeli” became the national name, “Jews,” for the time being, the religio-ethnic name of the majority of the citizens of Israel. The long Zionist struggle to “redeem” the “name” from oblivion had succeeded only in preserving the same sort of kehillah Judaism that Jews had known in the Pale of Settlement. The youthful Israeli was quick to sense—if not articulate—that he was right back where his East European grandfathers had been, the only difference being that he now had civil Sabbath observance, instead of Sunday, and that the religious holidays were being observed as national ones too. Furthermore, since the adoption of the Jewish Sabbath and religious holidays was obviously somewhat discriminatory towards the non-Jewish population, he felt inwardly that this was another instance of the chauvinism he had been taught that his fathers had tried to eradicate.
From the youthful Israeli’s point of view this turn of events was little short of tragic. He began to think: “Being a Jew is not quite what my Zionist teachers told me it was. They told me I could be a good Jew simply by being the citizen of a Jewish state. They said that the only difference between me and a Frenchman or an Englishman would be one of nationality. Now I see that this is not so. To be a Jew, even in Israel, I am going to have to have a religious connection with Judaism. But in that sense I don’t feel Jewish at all!”
So the young Israeli has chosen the second alternative: to purge the term “Israeli” of all Zionist and Orthodox connotations. To do this, as he sees it, he must complete the separation of church and state. Theocracy must go. The non-Jewish Israeli must be no less an Israeli than the Israeli of “Jewish origin.” And he feels there is no alternative to this end but to reject his own identification with the term “Jew,” which is to be used exclusively to denote the members of a specific religious sect.
It is here that we find the reason why Professor Simon could ask in all seriousness, “Are We Israelis Still Jews?” This is also the reason why he must project a “Protestant” Judaism as the only “hope” for Judaism in Israel.
For world Jewry the implications of such a development are, of course, enormous. Unless organized Zionism outside Israel breaks radically with its past, it is doomed to steady, if not rapid, dissolution. As long as Israeli Zionism maintains its present composition and its leadership in Israel it will continue to appeal to world Zionism, and the economic needs of Israel will constitute at least one vital link with the Zionism of the Diaspora. But when these needs no longer exist, old-line non-Israeli Zionism will dwindle to a romantic memory.
It is hard to think that American Zionism, in its present defensive mood, will have the moral power to make a thoroughgoing teshuvah—turning. What is just as likely is a final break with Israeli Zionism in which the latter takes the initiative, its hand forced by Israel’s younger generation. The inner crisis has existed since the last Zionist Congress, and if the break should come, non-Israeli Zionism will lose its reason for existence.
This situation threatens the revived ethnic definitions of Judaism, as represented in such movements as Reconstructionism, almost as much as it does Zionism. Though these movements are likely to lose ground more slowly than Zionism because their roots are grounded in semi-Orthodox Judaism, their widely recognized ideological inconsistencies, combined with their lifeline concept of the relation between Israel and the Diaspora, will still leave them easy victims of what may in the near future be called the “Jewish Dunkirk,” when the Israelis decide finally that they constitute a new and separate people. Such groups make the mistake of supposing that their own sentiment for Israel is reciprocated in Israel; but Israeli Zionism trained the young Israeli to expect the dissolution of galut Jewry and thus destroyed any desire in him to create “values” or new “national” rituals to sustain the Diaspora.
Orthodoxy, too, which has been fighting a losing battle since Emancipation, is unquestionably in for a hard time of it, though perhaps not as hard a time as some of the others. Orthodoxy in Israel, like Zionism, has both succeeded and failed. It succeeded in preventing the secular Zionists from redefining the term “Jew” secularly. This it did even before statehood by modifying itself through the organization of religious kibbutzim and by having itself represented in the predominantly secular Jewish Agency.
Israeli Orthodoxy failed, however, insomuch as it was compelled by Zionism to compromise many of its principles and was unable to make of Israel a true theocracy. Until Zionism, Orthodoxy had believed that the Return would come under the leadership of a personal Messiah; Zionism changed all that and left Orthodoxy with a record of embarrassing compromise. Again, the ancient Pharisaic reformulation of Judaism had left rabbinic Judaism knowing only a residual form of nationalism: ethnic and kehillah-like existence as a special community within the larger, Gentile state. Orthodoxy knew national theocracy only in theory. When the secular “sons” pulled the “father” into political assertion, Orthodoxy broke with a significant part of its past and attempted to return to the ancient pre-Pharisaic theocratic formulation. Here it met Israeli Western-type nationalism head on. Theocracy failing, Orthodoxy fell back on the kehillah formula—which is no less uncongenial to Western nationalist patterns.
What might help galut Orthodoxy is the possibility of teshuvah. Presumably, Orthodoxy still believes that its God transcends its own mistakes, and in the strength of this conviction it may be able to confess its errors of compromise and judgment. Yet this can hardly help in the eyes of the majority of present-day Jews. The Orthodox record of compromise and weakness vis-à-vis secular Gentile power makes the Israeli, and the Diaspora Jew, think the way of Orthodoxy a blind alley.
Reform, still outwardly flourishing in some lands, but inwardly languishing, could, just possibly, make the great confession and return to the love of its youth. It alone, among modern Jewish movements, has a history which can understand the youth of Israel, but it would have to cover itself with sackcloth and ashes for a time and see more clearly than ever before what ethnicism and the abandonment of proselytism has meant to Jewish history. Reform once believed that Judaism could not find expression in a national movement and tried hard to modify Jewish ethnicism by making it easier to reintroduce the proselyte to Judaism. Some of the representatives of Reform even saw that the complete transformation of Judaism required an active program of proselytism among non-Jews. Reform failed when it at last decided to confine its active mission to Jews, and defined its Gentile mission in terms of “influence”; in the end, having made this mistake, it succumbed to Zionism. In criticizing secular Zionism, Claude G. Montefiore once wrote: “. . . the conception ‘Jew’ is so inextricably mixed up with religion that it is extremely difficult to free it from any religious connotation.” Were Montefiore living today he might well write: “. . . the conception ‘Jew’ is so inextricably mixed up with ethnicism that it is extremely difficult to free it from any ethnic connotation.”
Neo-Orthodoxy is in somewhat better shape than Orthodoxy as such, for it has come to view the failures of the individual Jew as philosophically as the failures of the individual, concrete man. It too, however, is likely to find some, at least, of the attitudes such men as Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber have expressed toward the Jewish state embarrassing. Despite Rosenzweig’s earlier criticisms of Zionism, he came eventually to believe that it would produce good Jews in the end. On his death bed he wrote to a Reform rabbi: “Among the Zionists I find, whatever the theory may be, better Jews than among us.” Martin Buber’s identification of Zionism with the “true Jewish spirit,” particularly as expressed in the kibbutzim, is well known.
An important consequence of the Zionist failure and the cultural Drang nach Westen of young Israel could, of course, be the salvation of Judaism itself. It is at least possible to see in the youthful Israeli reaction a challenge in responding to which Judaism could make itself again respectable in Israel. Milton R. Konvitz has neatly pointed out that the doctrine of free will in historic Judaism surely means that every person should be free in a Jewish state to believe and practice his faith as he sees fit—which means without the restraints of an Orthodox theocracy. Martin Buber has come to the same conclusion from a different point of view: he sees the true meaning of Israel (the people) as a free response to an Electing God. Simon assents to this point of view, realizing that no “Catholic” Judaism could be moral, since the people of present-day Israel are not prepared to enter freely into a reaffirmation of the Covenant of Sinai.
If a real “Protestant” Judaism could come into existence and be as successful in reinterpreting the meaning of Judaism for the new generation in Israel as was Zionism in doing the same for the older generation, Judaism could then claim to be moral and, therefore, acceptable. This, as he indicates in the Hebrew version of his article, is Professor Simon’s “hope.”
In calling attention to the possible failure of Zionism to effect its principal purpose, the survival of Jewish identity, we need not, however, say that Israel, or Zionism, has failed to create a “new people.” At least that much has happened.
The success and failure of Zionism may be like that of Puritanism in America. The Puritans succeeded in transferring a considerable body of themselves to a new land. They failed, however, to make their way of life a final form for American life in general. We present-day Americans concede our debt to Puritanism, but we do not call ourselves Puritans. Young Israelis may one day concede their debt to Zionism and Judaism, though they may not call themselves either Zionists or Jews.
In some such way, when the smoke and the fog will have disappeared, Judaism through Zionism may also make a lasting contribution to the Middle East as a whole. The Middle East is a vast conglomeration of religious minorities. These minorities, whether Christian, Moslem, Druse, Circassian, Yusairi, Kurd, or Jewish, are all hopelessly ingrown ethnic religious communities. Americans and the West as a whole fail to appreciate this fact. Alfred Carleton tells of the time he crossed the border between one Arab state and another and was asked by the customs official, “What is your nationality?” He replied, “American.” “No, no,” said the official, “I did not ask your citizenship. I asked what your nationality was.” Eventually Carleton learned that what the official wanted to know was his religion! In other words, the Middle Easterner is the “national” of his religious community, and only the “subject” of his political state.
Of all the Middle Eastern countries, Israel is the nearest to the Western solution of this problem of religio-ethnic “communities.” If the West succeeds the East in the Middle East, these age-old religious “communities,” possessing what the West calls “civil” powers (the laws of Personal Status), are destined to break up. Aleph’s contention that the destiny of Westernized Israel is to aid in this adjustment of the Middle East to Western civilization is, therefore, plausible, though their conception of the part Hebrew “culture” should play in it is clearly irredentist. Israel—if she succeeds in breaking with her own exclusive religio-ethnic pattern—will unquestionably influence the whole Middle East in the direction of a Western solution of religious ethnicism. If Israel does not break with this pattern—if she remains Jewish and nothing but Jewish—she is destined to become, from Aleph’s point of view, just one more Levantine state—a state where “nationality” means “religion” and therefore means “ethnic minority,” even if in this case the “minority” happens to be in literal terms a majority. Both Orthodoxy and Zionism would seem to want to make this kind of state of Israel. Many of the youth of Israel have a different desire, a desire which—paradoxically enough—is the product of the indoctrination of the political Zionists themselves.
It is probably Utopian to expect American Jews, American Christians, American statesmen, and just plain Americans to look at Israel as she really is, and to work to make her a land unlike the other petty states of the Levant. All these groups are still laboring under the delusions of an ideal which is no longer a practicable reality. But what such groups are unwilling to do, the youth of Israel will try to do on their own. Perhaps they will succeed.
Should they succeed, the gain for Israel and the Middle East may be very great indeed; nothing could be more valuable than to give to the Middle East a sense of nationality in the Western sense, and eventually a sense of citizenship to go with it. Yet the cost to any historic Judaism will probably prove exorbitant, for with the failure of Zionism to transform the Jewish ethnicism of the Diaspora into a Jewish nation-state where culture, religion, and citizenship could be one, no form of Judaism will be left that knows how to maintain itself in terms deeper and broader than Diaspora ethnicism.
On the other hand, if the youth of Israel do not succeed in turning the country in this Western direction, the results may be no better: in Israel, traditional Judaism would then probably continue to find expression in a semi-theocratic state that would be at odds with the West because it was too Oriental, and at odds with its neighbors because it would still be the product of Western assertion. Such a state may effect a kind of local Middle Eastern Jewish survival, but it could hardly increase the possibilities of the survival, much less the growth, of Judaism in the Diaspora, for it cannot provide the Western Jew with that source of religious and cultural replenishment he so greatly needs.
The two sides of this dilemma express the moral conflict which Israel faces today.