Commentary Magazine


Zionist Ideology and World Jewry:
Reflections on a Conference

The complications and confusions in present thinking about the relationship of Israel to world Jewry, as mirrored in last August’s international gathering of Jewish scholars and spokesmen in Jerusalem, are commented on by a participant in the conference, Oscar Handlin, the well-known American historian and a regular contributor to these pages.

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I began to pull my thoughts together on the beach at Ascalon.

After almost a week of debate, in a hall heavy with emotional oratory, the Sabbath had come as a relief. We had driven across the hot Judean hills to the seashore. The young people had welcomed me—a stranger but a guest—into the intimacy of their friendship. As reserve and shyness melted, our conversation grew lively and un-self-conscious. We talked directly, about what they were doing and about what I thought; and we relaxed in the ease of mutual understanding.

I hadn’t brought my bathing trunks with me and had to sit in the shade while the young Israelis plunged gaily into the surf. I looked about me. There was nothing foreign in the teen-agers who posed for snapshots, in the families who had brought their lunches down from Tel Aviv. The understanding that had appeared to be out of reach around the conference tables came almost as a matter of course here. In the months that have since gone by, I have not ceased to wonder what obstruction back there at Givath Ram distorted the flow of our discussion so that we could not recognize one another’s words.

The “Ideological Conference” had been summoned to meet at Jerusalem on August 8, 1957, to discuss ideas. It had become entangled with issues emanating from the struggle for power. And it had drifted away from contact with reality. That, in substance, was the source of the confusion.

When the Jewish Agency called together a group of scholars and other intellectuals from many parts of the world, it asked them to consider certain broad issues arising “out of the unity of the Jewish people and our generation’s desire and duty to support the State of Israel as the central force of Jewish existence now and in the future.” It was concerned with “the place of Judaism and the Jewish people in the clash of world ideologies; the role of the State of Israel in Jewish life”; “the struggle of the free Diaspora centers to preserve Jewish cultural values and identity”; and the obligations of the individual to his tradition, his community, and to the State of Israel.

This certainly was a valid basis for discussion. For the Zionists, it reflected a significant interest, ten years after independdence and with the State’s existence secure, in the continuing question of its purpose. For the non-Zionists, these problems were also important. Accepting the fact that a common tradition and a common history gave Jews a sense of identity, they wished to preserve and diffuse the values and ideals of the group, but denied its political character. Accepting also the obligation to support the State of Israel as a new type of Jewish life, they questioned whether Israel actually was likely to become the central focus of Jewish existence. Instead they expressed the hope that relations among Jews of different countries would be mutually stimulating and fruitful. Here certainly was a basis for lively discussion. Yet the conference no sooner got under way than it became clear that vigorous cross-currents of a struggle for power would also have a part in the proceedings.

One aspect of that struggle was apparent in the physical disposition of the conference chamber. On either side of the platform were two rows of reserved seats. Looking out at the ideologues from the speaker’s left were the members of the Israeli government, while on the right sat the executives of the Jewish Agency. The two camps were clearly ready to do battle for the minds of the participants. They continued a conflict which goes back almost to the establishment of the State of Israel. At stake were the future of the World Zionist movement and the control of the channels of communication between Israel and the Diaspora.

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All along, the Israeli leaders have argued that the only true builders of the State were those who actually immigrated. Only they had the right to share in the decisions that would shape its future. Others of every shade of opinion might wish to help, and their aid was welcome. But so long as they themselves did not make the commitment of actual aliyah, they had no claim to participate in the formulation of Israeli policy. The veteran Zionist leaders of the Agency have long resented these efforts to confine them to a subordinate role in the movement to which they have given their lives. They are unwilling to be excluded from positions in which they can influence the course of future events in Israel; and they fear that the general devaluation of their role will diminish their status in the Diaspora as well. If they are not to be builders of the State, but merely helpers from without, their relationship to it would not differ much from that of the non-Zionists back home.

These considerations led to significant efforts, on both sides, to redefine Zionist theory. Ben Gurion led the Israeli government forces. In a lengthy and eloquent address, he launched a bitter attack upon Dr. Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Zionist Organization and of the Jewish Agency. The basic premise of his argument was the need for immediacy. Only those who resolved to migrate to Israel at once deserved the designation Zionist. Any contribution short of that was but the gesture of the sympathizer. This proposition was supported by two related chains of reasoning. First, life in “exile” inexorably threatened Jewish existence. With the possible exception of the United States—and even that was by no means certain—no country east or west of the Iron Curtain provided a soil for development of Jewish life. As in the past, Jews were doomed to lose their identity. Either assimilation would dissolve their unity in the surrounding culture, or anti-Semitism would exterminate them. In either case they were lost to the hope of survival.

Given these premises, there was only one logical Zionist program—immediate migration to Israel. Now was a time for decision. Men must choose either to be among those who labored to save themselves and the State, or remain behind in the fading light of the Diaspora. There could be no compromise.

Dr. Nahum Goldmann responded for the World Zionist Organization. Ben Gurion’s attack had been personal as well as organizational; the Prime Minister had openly taunted Goldmann for his unwillingness to surrender his American passport and throw in his lot with Israel. Goldmann retorted in kind. His reply was delivered in Yiddish, which not only gave him a more extensive armory of invective than Hebrew, but also suggested a continued loyalty to Jewish life outside Israel. He made the obvious points: not everyone could move at once, the new country could not absorb them all, and not all were equally ready for aliyah. It might take a hundred years or more before all the scattered remnants were gathered together. Meantime it was expedient that some Jews should, for the moment, remain where they could use their influence to sustain the State. Otherwise Israel might sink to the status of a tiny Levantine country without control over its own destiny and without effect upon the rest of the world. Toward the end of his address, the flow of his rhetoric swept Goldmann toward an impassioned defense of the Diaspora, though he did not repudiate the Zionist ideal of an ultimate return to the homeland. Rather he emphasized the distant, long-term character of that return and seemed to be groping for some philosophy that would justify Zionist life in exile. Hence the importance of the pragmatic argument which defended the utility of an indefinite sojourn in the Diaspora, on the grounds of its utility for Israel.

But it was precisely on this point that the Prime Minister would not compromise. He announced that Israel was ready to absorb all Jews who wished to “return”—including those in the Soviet Union. There could be no better security for the State than to triple its population forthwith. That practical considerations might stand in the way he categorically refused to admit. Time and again Ben Gurion has pointed out that if Zionism had been swayed by practical considerations there would have been no state at all. His faith seems grounded in and sustained by his Bible reading. Let there be an end to the cautious calculations of the ghetto and a return to the heroic daring of the Tanach!

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The veteran Zionists of the Agency were dismayed by this stand. They could not escape practical considerations. They, after all, would have to raise the funds. It required $10,000 to settle each family. Where would the money come from? The Agency executives furthermore had some inkling of the dangers inherent in an announcement that the loyalties of Russian Jews were attached not to the Soviet fatherland but to Israel. Who would be responsible if the Kremlin were to revive the accusation of cosmopolitanism? They also seemed conscious of the effect on the Arabs—fearful of “Zionist imperialism”—of any suggestion that Israel might triple its population.

Ben Gurion’s line attracted wide popular support, but within the conference hall there were Israelis who took issue with him. The logic of his exposition raised issues that involved deep disagreements. The dialogue with Goldmann was quickly transformed into a general debate among the Israelis.

Thus, Ben Gurion’s predecessor in office, Moshe Sharett, made a moderate, scholarly attempt to find a middle ground between the Prime Minister and the Agency. On the other hand, Ben Gurion was also criticized by more extreme Israelis, who used the occasion to attack the government. From the left, a dissident member of Mapai found Israel too subservient to the United States. He agreed that rapid immigration was essential, but American Jews would never come, so that hope lay in aliyah from Russia; and that called for a rapprochement with the Soviet Union. From the right, Hillel Kook demanded that the State recognize that it was indeed a Mediterranean country and follow a vigorous independent line.

A more disturbing challenge to Ben Gurion’s position came from religiously oriented critics. Political elements were involved here too; while the conference met, there were fierce debates outside it over the laws for Sabbath observance. But considerations of another order moved Martin Buber and Dr. Shragai, a former mayor of Jerusalem, to attack Ben Gurion’s position. These speakers resented the implication that the establishment of the State had ushered in the Messianic age. They were uncomfortable in the face of the Prime Minister’s mystical veneration of the Tanach; and they insisted that the task of spiritual reconstruction involved the traditions of the past two thousand years—even though those traditions were the products of Diaspora.

The skillful mediating efforts made by Professor Nathan Rotenstreich of the Hebrew University could not bridge the gap. Indeed on only one point did the Israeli participants agree—in their deep underlying resentment of the Diaspora, particularly of the United States, the home of the world’s largest Jewish community. With memories of Suez still fresh, there was a disposition to blame all Israel’s difficulties on the country’s excessive dependence on America. And that dependence, Professor Yehudah Leibowitz pointed out, had too often been cultural and spiritual as well as economic and political.

A unifying theme ran through the indictment of American Jews: they had chosen to sit among the fleshpots; they left their television sets only to ride in their big cars to their country clubs. Even their religion had become corrupt. All the talk in America of the Judeo-Christian tradition was but an aspect of “public relations,” stripped of authentic values. The swimming pool had become the center of the synagogue. Meanwhile, blinded by the appearance of prosperity, the Jews were unaware of the dangers of anti-Semitism. The task of Zionism, it was agreed, was to build ghettos to isolate the Jews from the life of exile, and to prepare them for the day when they would at last become aware of their destiny.

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The visitors were dumbfounded. They had no feeling that they were personally under attack; there was too much warmth in the hospitality extended to them. What concerned them was the thought that the prevalent misunderstanding would cut off any profitable exchange of ideas.

Some of the foreign participants therefore devoted their talks to explanations of conditions in their own countries. Professor André Chouraqui spoke of France; Professor Cecil Roth, of England; and this writer, of the United States. Professor Salo Baron gave a thoughtful analysis of the history of the Diaspora, emphasizing its potentialities and questioning the inevitability of an anti-Semitic debacle. Professor Roth stressed the tradition of universality among Jews, as an Am Olam spread among the nations. The Yiddish poet Halpern Leivick condemned the derogation of the Galut and proudly described its achievements. It was significant that despite the great range of difference among these speakers they were united in rejecting the estimate Israelis made of the Diaspora. Some went beyond self-defense to point to shortcomings in Israel. This tendency was particularly striking among such American delegates as Professors Mordecai Kaplan, A. J. Heschel, and Robert Gordis, who are concerned with Israel as a factor in the revival of religious Judaism in the United States. Professor Kaplan indeed was optimistic enough to bring with him a project for a formal covenant to signal that relationship. Unhappily, the comments made by prominent Israelis revealed that they thought these speakers as inaccurate in their judgment of Israel as the visitors on their part considered the Israelis inept in their judgment of the Diaspora.

What accounted for this mutual incomprehension? At first it seemed as if ignorance were responsible. Many Israeli intellectuals still carry about stereotypes of capitalist society inherited from East European socialism. They really do not know what the United States is like, and see it through the spectacles of a diluted, but still old-fashioned, Marxism. But there is a more stubborn obtuseness among those who condemn the United States as “materialistic.” In all those days of discussion, there was never a reflection on what the world would be like if America in the past two decades had acted only in response to its own immediate interests. Mrs. Golda Meir, who certainly knows this country, spoke with emotion of the solicitude of Israeli youth for the fate of Jews elsewhere, as if that were a sentiment unique to them. Clearly it was not want of information that kept her from realizing that since the war it has been the Cadillac-riding members of country clubs who have assumed the immense burden of reconstruction in Israel and throughout the world, and that they did so not from a desire to prepare a future place of refuge for themselves, but out of Ahavath Yisroel, the love of their fellow men.

At one point Mrs. Meir commented that “Jewish youth singing about the Negev in New York and Boston will not build up our wastelands.” True, but she might have added, “Neither will Jewish youth in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.”

The intellectual and political elite of Israel consists of dedicated men and women who made enormous personal sacrifices to bring an ideal into being. But they themselves do not find the same spirit extending on through the oncoming generations. Some years ago Ben Gurion went off to labor in the desert, as a model to Israeli youth, but the young people did not follow. They preferred the cities, and the new settlements are now being filled with immigrants who have no choice as to their destination. Thoughtful Israelis are troubled by forebodings as they reflect upon the decline of pioneering, the growing desire for material comfort. There is a kind of consolation, therefore, in thinking of the greater guilt of Jews abroad, particularly in America. The responsibility for the failure of those who have not migrated is magnified by the degree to which the comforts of New York are superior to those of Tel Aviv. The Galut thus becomes a vast distorted counter-image in which Israelis see exposed the deficiencies they are unwilling to examine in themselves.

Some of the critical comments on Israel by Americans were motivated by the same tendency to seek in the other community compensations for one’s own shortcomings. Thus the talk about the role of Israel as a source of religious and cultural inspiration for the Jews of the United States was wide of the mark. It reflected an awareness of the poverty of American resources, rather than an appraisal of the actual situation of Israel, which will find it difficult enough in the next few decades to maintain present standards. When Robert Gordis and Mordecai Kaplan, among others, assigned to Israel the task of generating spiritual inspiration for export, they expressed an American need rather than an Israeli hope.

The tendency on the part of Jews outside Israel to think of it as existing to remedy their own weaknesses—like the obverse tendency of Israelis to judge the Galut by the standard of their own desires—is at the heart of the misunderstandings that plagued the conference. Until that tendency is dispelled, it will be difficult to undertake any kind of meaningful exchange of ideas.

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On the beach at Ascalon, the misunderstandings seemed to fade away, and the argument became irrelevant. The mothers and their children, the boys and their girls, were not abstract symbols, but people. Their impulses to thought and action emanated from their own situation, not from a role created for them by the needs of others. When I told them of the talk in the conference hall at Givath Ram, they stared at me in blank incomprehension. What did all that have to do with them?

Later, after I had myself spoken in the conference debate, a young man in the audience, whom I did not know and whom I never saw again, slipped me an eloquent note. He asked me not to judge Israeli opinion by the “ideological imperialism” of those over fifty. The Zionist issues that occupied their elders no longer had much meaning for the youth of Israel, who were tired of platitudes and current conventional fictions. They were more interested in a freer exchange of ideas outside existing institutional channels.

There are encouraging indications that this is not the isolated expression of an eccentric individual. A good part of Ben Gurion’s popularity with youth comes from his willingness to challenge the clichés of the official Zionist line. In any case, this is the most promising basis for deepening the understanding between the Jews of Israel and those of the Diaspora. Only by accepting the fact that Israel and the Diaspora exist for their own sake and not to redeem one another, that they are to be judged in their own terms and not by extraneous standards, will we arrive at a mutually fructifying interchange of experiences.

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