Wishful Thinking About the Middle East

by Paul Gottfried

Although frank and open discussion of Zionist issues in a Jewish or any other circle is a good thing, it is not clear that Orthodox Jews show the strong, consistent opposition to Jewish nationalism that Sheldon Richman ascribes to them. According to the at least partly anecdotal tradition to which Sheldon appeals, one that is often reinforced by recalling the attitudes of one’s Jewish ancestors, Orthodox Jews were snookered into supporting Jewish nationalists and the State of Israel by "Jewish secularists." This selective history does incorporate a few isolated facts but also attributes too much importance to them; e.g., there was initial opposition in Eastern Europe among rabbinic leaders to the Zionist movement, particularly in its socialist form, and some Orthodox sects, such as the Satmar Chasidim and the Neturi Kartah, persist in opposing the present state of Israel, as a pre-messianic attempt to force God’s hand by creating a Jewish commonwealth without divine authorization. There is also grumbling from some Orthodox groups inside and outside of Israel that the government there does not do enough to accommodate the Jewish religious right. From the ultra-Orthodox point of view, Israel does not go far enough in being a truly Jewish state that rigorously enforces rabbinic law.

But none of these positions demonstrates that Orthodox Jews, with few notable exceptions, have been in the forefront of resisting Zionism or a Jewish state. By the time Israel was established, the Agudath Yisroel and other Zionist blocs representing Orthodox interests already existed and were quickly absorbed into the Israeli party system. From the beginning the Orthodox were given the power to decide who was a Jew and whom Jews could or could not marry. They have always been overwhelmingly associated with the Jewish nationalist right, although one can find exceptions, that is, self-described Orthodox Jews who have favored conciliation with the Palestinians. But the vast majority of the Orthodox here and in Israel sound very much like the editors and readers of the Jewish Press or the publications of Yeshiva University. In short, they would have no use at all for Sheldon’s attempt at an even-handed Middle Eastern politics.

Sheldon is right in noting the long-term resistance to Zionist projects by Reform Jews in Germany and later, in the US. Until the end of the Second World War the majority of American Reform Jews either opposed or were unenthusiastic about the creation of a Jewish state. When this position no longer commanded the majority it once did, the anti-Zionists withdrew and became known as the American Council for Judaism. A thorough and dispassionate history of these developments is available in Thomas Kolsky’s Jews Against Zionism: The American Council for Judaism, 1942-1948 (Temple University Press, 1992), which explains why the anti-Zionist Reform Jews lost out. What distinguished this group was ethnic and social as well as theological identity. The American Council was at least initially composed heavily of German Jews; and its members were typically found in Milwaukee, Galveston, or Montgomery, Alabama, rather than in New York City. (From my knowledge of the group, the second is still overwhelmingly true, while the first may be less so but is still relevant.)

Unfortunately for Sheldon’s argument, I find nothing to suggest that the anti-Zionist Jews are somehow more authentically Jewish – or that Jewish nationalism represents a radical break from the normative Rabbinic Judaism that preceded it. The fact that some of the Orthodox in Eastern Europe had viewed Zionists as a threat to rabbinical authority or that some of the ultra-Orthodox believe Jewish nationalists have jumped the gun by establishing a pre-messianic commonwealth does not mean that these dissenting Orthodox were or are not Jewish nationalists. What separates them from the Zionists is the purely strategic question of when it is permissible to create a Jewish national state, where Jews can live apart from the nations of the earth. The Orthodox and the Zionists have never disagreed over whether such a project is desirable.

Finally I would stress the futility of trying to present Jews as Eastern European Unitarians who allegedly stumbled into ethnic nationalism because somebody tricked them into this position a few generations ago. Having lived most of my life among Jews, I must blink in disbelief when I hear Sheldon or the American Council for Judaism describing most Jews throughout time as ethical universalists who would want no part of the supposed tribal narrowness represented by the Israeli right. As far as I can tell, the other kinds of Jews, the real ones, are highly noticeable and certainly could easily defend their sentiments by citing loads of rabbinic authorities going back thousands of years. In fact I’m at a loss to find what traditional Jewish sources the other side can muster to build its anti-Zionist version of Jewish religion.

Please note that I have nothing against those who imagine that their Jewishness equates with ethical universalism and I would chose them socially and esthetically over most of the vocal Zionists I’ve known. Their efforts to dissociate Jewish religion from Jewish nationalism are doomed to failure, because they are based on wishful thinking.

May 25, 2002

Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is professor of history at Elizabethtown College and author, most recently, of the highly recommended After Liberalism.

Copyright 2002 LewRockwell.com

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