Commentary Magazine

Forum: For the Problems of Zionism, World Jewry and the State of Israel

Unease in Zionism
Forum: For The Problems of Zionism, World Jewry and the State of Israel.
Number 1, December 1953. Jerusalem: Information Department of the Jewish Agency


It is still hard for us to realize just how remarkable the success of Zionism has been. Only fifty years separate the first Zionist Congress from Israeli independence, and Chaim Weizmann could live to be president of the republic he did not expect to see with his own eyes. In their improbable state Israelis learn mathematics and biology in Hebrew, they read about Hollywood in Hebrew, they run for office in Hebrew, they quarrel and are reconciled in Hebrew. We take all this Hebrew for granted, but Ernest Renan, a great Semitist as well as a subtle and learned mind, reproved the folly of enthusiasts yearning to do the impossible and restore life to a dead language. These successes, the political and the cultural, are unique in modern history.

And now, having been so successful, Zionism speaks in the accents of self-doubt. Does it have a continued reason for existence? What distinguishes a Zionist from another Jew who feels warmly about Israel and contributes to the United Jewish Appeal? Is the classical Zionist doctrine about the untenable position of the Jews in exile still valid? Is the United States exile? Does a Zionist have the duty of emigrating to Israel? Why do Israelis have so little respect for Zionism?

It is questions like these that the contributors to Forum ask themselves. The frankness of the questioning is remarkable in a review published under such official auspices, and can probably be explained by the Jewish Agency’s calculation that it had nothing to lose by admitting a crisis that was no secret and a great deal to gain by encouraging thoughtful and friendly discussion. The editors are Zalman Shazar, formerly the editor of the Histadrut newspaper Davar and the first minister of education and culture in Israel, and Nathan Rotenstreich, a lecturer in philosophy at the Hebrew University. Among the contributors are David Ben Gurion, the Oxford don Isaiah Berlin, and Hayim Greenberg, who until his recent lamented death was intellectually and morally the most imposing figure in American Zionism.



As always, the social scientists and philosophers are more interesting than the dogmatists or the rationalizers. Eliezer Seligman’s “Commentary on American Jewry” and Ben Halpern’s “The Problem of the American Chalutz”—especially when the latter is read together with a lecture by Halpern printed in a pamphlet entitled Penei ha-tziyyonut leän (“Where Does Zionism Go Now?”), which also was published in Israel last year by the Jewish Agency—are shrewd and fresh in their observation and quite free of the conventional pieties. Dr. Rotenstreich examines the relevance of Pinsker’s concept of auto-emancipation seventy years later. Professor Hugo Bergmann of the Hebrew University, like his colleague Ernst Simon in COMMENTARY, warns that the flight from Jewish tradition is particularly dangerous in Israel, where it can hide behind the Hebrew language; he sees no future for Jewish existence anywhere without a return to true religious feeling, which he is careful to distinguish from much of what passes for Judaism today.

But the real bravura comes from Mr. Berlin. He is the author of The Hedgehog and the Fox, and his paper in Forum is marked by the extended metaphors for which he is known. His title, “Jewish Emancipation and Slavery,” derives from Ahad Ha’am, but his basic outlook is closer to that of Arthur Koestler, without Koestler’s doctrinaire intolerance. At times he seems to share the traditional Zionist conviction that Jews cannot ultimately be at home in the societies with which they think they are identified. The argument is familiar. If it is true, and insofar as it is true, it is not true of the Jews alone—the Jews being, as Berlin reminds himself in another passage, like everyone else, only more so. Heine is Berlin’s supposedly typical case history of the predestined failure of emancipated Jews to strike root in Western society; but a Henry Adams, in his day, was to resent Jewish immigrants for being more at home in America than the grandson and great-grandson of presidents. To believe that Jews are alienated and others are not is to believe what has been called the Jewish myth of Aryan happiness. Berlin is too intelligent to believe it, but he sometimes yields to the temptation of making literature. He is also yielding to temptation when he offers us one of the most venerable Zionist chestnuts of all: “. . . the fact— and I believe it to be a fact—that the Jews of Israel, certainly those born there in recent times, are, whatever their other qualities and defects, straight-backed,” while everywhere else Jewish backs are not only stooped but actually humped. If the Israelis have straight backs, level heads, their feet on the ground, and all their other psycho-physical organs correctly proportioned and placed, why did so many of them see first in the Rosenberg case and then in the dismissal of Dr. Oppenheimer a signal that what had happened to the Jews of Germany was about to happen to the Jews of America? On the face of it this Israeli reaction was the sort of thing the old-time Zionist meant when he spoke of galut cravenness. And their eagerness for the largest possible immigration of Western Jews suggests that the Israelis do not always insist on a literal interpretation of the article of faith which affirms the slave psychology of the emancipated Jew.

It is curious that while the writers who may be regarded as more or less official spokesmen for Zionism do not deride rival movements and ideologies for their failure, Berlin does. “There are still to be met among us the pathetic descendants of the old Bundists and Yiddishists, the modern advocates of ‘Galut Nationalism’. . . . [Their] sorry absurdities . . . would scarcely be worthy of mention, if they did not, by offering a totally unreal vision of what modern societies were or could be, succeed in deluding innocent persons, even at this late hour, to their personal doom. Against such blind leaders of the blind, Mr. Koestler’s most violent phrases hold good. They, if anyone, fully deserve the Russian Socialist Plekhanov’s bitter gibe at the Bundists as being in reality only ‘Zionists who are afraid of seasickness.’ Since all the horrors of recent history have failed to bring the truth home to them, they must be reckoned incurable.” For the historian’s propensity to imitate Dr. Pangloss by justifying victory and condemning defeat Morris Raphael Cohen’s illustration was an English scholar’s vindictive dirge over partitioned Poland: “Sedet aeternumque sedebit unhappy Poland!.”—“She is down and she shall forever be down, unhappy Poland!” If Cohen had lived to read it he might have chosen Mr. Berlin’s tirade instead.

Actually, Berlin’s matter is not so spectacular as his manner. He has a variant of the graceful-exit appreciation of Zionism, which holds that the Jewish state is valuable because, having lifted the siege, it allows Jews to leave Judaism and the Jewish community without feeling guilty of desertion in the face of the enemy. Although essentially he agrees with Koestler, he would moderate the rigor of Koestler’s command to emigrate or assimilate. It cannot apply to religious Jews, and as for the others, no one has a right to expect people to live according to the conclusions of an abstract logic. “For the fate of individuals, and even of individual communities, whether to stay or move, is now, morally at least, in their own hands, and each can settle it freely, as it wishes, as best it can, with as much wisdom and good fortune as may fall to its lot. In this sense the creation of the State of Israel has liberated all Jews, whatever their relation to it.” “This sense” is rather modest. The soup is not eaten so hot as it is cooked.



Even if he had not signed his name to it no one could doubt who wrote Mr. Ben Gurion’s contribution. Hebrew has no capital letters and English uses them sparingly, but Mr. Ben Gurion’s nouns really need capitals. Those he insists on, all but one of which appear on the first page of an essay that is not short, are People, State, Homeland, Nation, Vision, Destiny, Redemption, Resurrection. Being categories of religion as much as of politics, they do not encourage discussion. Mr. Ben Gurion has had a revelation once and for all, and his faith is abiding.

Jacob Amit, an opponent of his as an editor of the Mapam newspaper Al ha-mishmar, comes through with a fine example of ideology triumphant over the evidence of the senses. After everything that has happened in the Soviet empire since the Slansky trials Amit still says, and he apparently still believes, that “in the countries of the Socialist group [the Hebrew original has the more authentic “progressive” flavor: “socialist camp”] anti-Semitism is prohibited.” (To show how impartial Mapam is he remembers to express the old, cozy regret that “at the same time the Jewish National Movement is also prohibited.”) There is more Marxist than Zionist passion in his attack on the idea of Western, especially American, exceptionalism: “It is, therefore, now the duty of Zionism to make the position clear to those Jewish communities which are so calm and tranquil. No panic should be spread. [Perish the thought!] But it is our duty to open the eyes of Jews to see their position clearly. For exile is exile and its laws are the same, in every country and on every continent. If the miracle happens and Jews in capitalist countries are permitted to dwell quietly, to enjoy their prosperity, then finally they will be swept away by the processes of assimilation. . . . Yet will the Jews be permitted to dwell quietly with none to disturb them? Is it really necessary to wait until the actual earthquake begins, before the people see the danger clearly and begin to seek a refuge for themselves?” Perhaps the reason why people do not take this seismologist’s alarm seriously is that they have good reason to think he is a quack.



Hazut, the Hebrew version of Forum, includes three pieces that have not been translated into English: Mordecai M. Kaplan’s “The Responsibilities of Zionism to the Diaspora,” Simon Rawidowicz’s “Between Israel and Israel,” and a rejoinder to Professor Rawidowicz by Dr. Rotenstreich. Professor Kaplan’s article, which also appears in Penei ha-tziyyonut lean, is not one of his more impressive writings. “Only a world assembly,” he says, “which represents all sections of the people and all shades of Jewish faith and worship, and which meets in Jerusalem for long and exhaustive deliberation, will be in a position to provide world Jewry with the desired collective status, to define its content and to merit universal Jewish recognition. The proposed assembly must close with the signing of a document by which all the Jews of the world obligate themselves to nurture their feeling of unity by mutual aid in time of need and cooperation for Judaism and a Jewish religious culture.”

Professor Rawidowicz, who now teaches at Brandeis, is a disciple of Ahad Ha’am, and therefore dissatisfied with the Zionism of the majority. He warns that a fascination with the state may lead, and indeed already has led, to the explicit or implicit belief that Israeli Jews are apart from and superior to other Jews, and he fears that this in turn may lead to a breach in the unity of the Jewish people—a unity he apprehends not only in metaphysical but actually in mystical terms. Of that possibility he has a truly religious horror.

The unity our ancestors loved, which they would defend with their bodies at the stake, was the unity of God. Is it our fault or is it the spite of the times into which we were born that so many of the best of us can give their devotion only to a more profane love?



Displaced religious emotion may be at the root of the unease of Zionism in its hour of victory. To a movement that seemed powerless to win even a few worldly successes people attached hopes both practical and eschatological. The practical things have been won, but where is the Messiah?



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