Skip to: site menu | section menu | main content

Chalav U'Dvash

Brandeis' Journal of Zionist Thought
Currently viewing: Chalav U'Dvash » Home

Volume 0, Number 0

Torah, Nation, and State

Crossing the Nationalist Rubicon

By David Fried


In our time, we are used to a religious Jewish community that shows overwhelming support for the State of Israel. Today, many who are actively involved with their Judaism proudly affiliate themselves with Zionism in one form or another. Of course, there are still those in the various ultra-Orthodox communities who do not, but they are by far in the minority. However, this was not always the case: in the early days of Zionism, a substantial and overwhelming majority of leaders in traditional Jewish communities were opposed to Zionism. There were Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook and a few others who chose to join the early Religious Zionist movement, but they were very much considered to be at the periphery of traditional Judaism, and were often ostracized for their beliefs. As Rabbi Yeshayahu Margolis, a leader of the Hasidim in Jerusalem in the 1920s and 1930s said, "[Rav Kook] takes the Lord's sanctuary and recasts it in the idolatrous image of their national revival."a

Why was there such staunch opposition to Zionism from traditional communities? These were, after all, the very same communities whose daily liturgy included fervent requests to return to Zion. These were the very same communities that frequently produced the most eloquent poetry on their love for the Land of Israel, a land they had never even seen. These were the very same communities from which, over the generations, numerous individuals had sought to travel to, and even live in, the land of Israel—often at great peril to their life and livelihood.

It is easy to dismiss religious opposition to Zionism as being based solely on the reality that the founders of the movement were not from within the religious community. Early Zionists were notoriously secular, and did not envision a major role for God in their state. It could be that the religious community opposed the formation of the Zionist state simply on the pragmatic concern that the secularist leaders of the state would not allow a flourishing Torah community there. While this may have been part of their reasoning, to conclude that lack of religion was the only factor really ignores the true breadth of their opposition. After all, their polemics were directed not merely against the secular Zionists, but also against the Mizrachi, the first major Religious Zionist organization, who certainly did envision a major role for Torah in the future Jewish State.

Different people opposed Zionism for different reasons, and to study every reason is more in the realm of a book, not an essay. One theme that does figure predominantly in anti-Zionist thought is an ideological opposition to the Zionist idea, and not merely a practical one. Zionism was viewed as being fundamentally at odds with a Torah worldview: the idea of Jewish nationalism was often referred to as avodah zarah (idol worship)—the harshest criticism one could give to an idea in Jewish circles. Rabbi Elhanan Wasserman, leader of a very separatist, non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox community in pre-World War II Europe, said it most explicitly. In his essay Ikveta De-meshiha, he wrote that "It is clear that this approach [Zionism] is considered to be idolatry according to the Torah."b He directed this charge even against the Religious Zionists, whose ideology he saw as nothing more than introducing an idolatrous element into true Judaism.

One could easily see why they took this viewpoint, given the nineteenth-century European nationalist models from which much of Jewish nationalist ideology was derived. At the time, European nationalism meant loyalty to the state above all else. A citizen was first and foremost a Frenchman, or an Italian, or a German, or a Russian; any other part of one's personal identity was secondary. The ideal citizen would have been loyal to his state as a matter of honor and pride, and would have fought to the death to defend her—no matter the circumstances. This mode of thinking led to World War I, and eventually devolved into ultra-nationalist movements such as Italian Fascism and German Nazism.c These movements were clearly guided by a principle of the ethnic superiority of their nationality and were determined to eliminate the polluting effects of outsiders. Obviously, Zionists did not see themselves as building a fascist enterprise—far from it! Given their socialist leanings, they were very wary of such tendencies, but such risks are inherent in any form of nationalism.

One can easily see why traditional Judaism did not look upon nationalism favorably. As Rabbi Shalom Dov Baer Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe at the beginning of the twentieth century, wrote:

 In order to infuse our brethren with the idea of being a "nation" ... the Zionists must give nationalism precedence over Torah, because it is known that those who cling to Torah and the commandments are not likely to change and accept another identity.d

The early religious anti-Zionists stressed that one's primary loyalty must be to God—to the Torah and to the laws and values laid out therein. Loyalty to a government or nationality was secondary, and hinged upon that government acting morally. Nationalism, then, was elevating the state over God, and the elevation of any ideal over God would ipso facto constitute idolatry. The notion of mixing nationalism with religion, as the Mizrachi wanted to do, was simply impossible.

With opposition this strong, what then led to the drastic shift from overwhelming opposition to Zionism in the religious community to the overwhelming support it receives today? The simplest answer is the Holocaust. With the destruction of European Jewry came the realization that the State of Israel was necessary for Judaism to survive. In fact, several thinkers explicitly gave the Holocaust as their reason for changing their opinion towards Zionism. Rabbi Yishachar Shlomo Teichtal, product of a radically anti-Zionist European religious community, dramatically argues against the view he was brought up to believe in his book Eim Habanim Semeicha. Introducing this book, he writes:

With broken spirit, I speak of the destruction of my people which has befallen us in our days ... Furthermore, the sole purpose of all the afflictions that smite us in our exile is to arouse us to return to our Holy Land.e

Another reason that many religious Jews came to support the establishment of a Jewish State was simply its success. In a lecture to the Mizrachi convention in 1962, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik stated:

If I now identify with the Mizrahi, against my family tradition, it is only because ... the years of the Hitlerian holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel, and the accomplishments of the Mizrahi in the land of Israel, have convinced me of the correctness of our movement's path.f

However, if there was genuine ideological opposition to Zionism, one needs to wonder how much the Holocaust, which seems like a strictly pragmatic issue, could really override it. It could be that at the time there was simply no choice. The future of Judaism depended on a homeland, and in the face of such dire circumstances, there was little time to think about ideology. By the time the situation calmed down for long enough to consider the ideological questions seriously, too many of the next generation had already been brought up in a Religious Zionist mode of thinking. If this is the case, we must evaluate whether ideological problems with early Zionism have truly gone away in our time, or whether we are simply finding convenient ways of ignoring them.

As a Religious Zionist, I clearly do not think that Zionism is ideologically inconsistent with Torah, but it is important to be extremely careful when saying this. America has taught us that there can be more than one kind of nationalism—there are "left-wing" and "right-wing" formulations, to use modern political terminology. Right-wing nationalism is very similar to old-style European nationalism, where the state becomes the highest good. Protest is viewed as unpatriotic, especially during wartime. Burning the American flag is the worst act of treason, and the state must be protected—even if it means tearing up the constitution on which it is based. Left-wing nationalism is an entirely different matter. Patriotism is not loyalty to American government, but rather loyalty to the freedoms and values on which America was built and which it has come to represent. Therefore, protesting the government—if you believe its actions have deviated from true American values—constitutes the highest form of patriotism. Burning the American flag is not treason, for the flag represents none other than the freedom to burn it; and those who would sacrifice freedom in the name of security deserve neither.

Left-wing nationalism, where there is not blind adherence to a state, but instead adherence to a set of values that the state represents, is not fundamentally at odds with Judaism, provided the set of values is in consonance with those of Torah. Even a secular state, where a theocracy would not be practical, nor at this point in history even desirable, can institute universal Jewish values along with freedom for Torah institutions to exist in the best possible manner, as the values behind the state.

However, Religious Zionism is wholly incompatible with right-wing Zionism. Having made such a blanket statement let me elaborate on what I mean by right-wing Zionism. Right-wing Zionism comes in two forms: a pragmatic one and an ideological one. Pragmatic right-wing Zionism, which would probably be more likely termed center-right on the Israeli political spectrum, refers to Zionists who are more inclined to see the necessity of an active military component in a long-term solution than the mainstream Israeli Left. This is not what I am objecting to. In fact, this view is not far from my own. Ideological right-wing Zionism, on the other hand, believes that Israel is fundamentally justified in whatever it does, and should have absolutely no constraints on its military action.

Let me give an example to illustrate this. A frequent charge against Israel from its Western critics is that it is practicing "racism" and "apartheid." The mainstream Israeli would respond to this charge by endeavoring to show how ridiculous the charge is. Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East, the only state in its region with freedom of religion. Arabs and Muslims have more rights in Israel than they do in any of the neighboring Arab or Muslim countries. Any comparison with the former apartheid regime in South Africa is utterly baseless and most likely motivated by anti-Semitism.g The ideological right-wing Zionist, on the other hand, would likely accept the charge as accurate and try to rationalize why racism and apartheid are in fact justified, sometimes going so far as to justify the practice in the former South African regime. These are the people who display slogans like "Ein Aravim, ein piguim" (meaning, "If there were no Arabs, there would be no bombings"), essentially calling for the genocide or forced exile of Israel's entire Arab population. In these circles, peace has become a dirty word, and Palestinian human rights an anathema. It is as if the Palestinians represented some kind of subhuman population. They would object to any sort of judicial review of the actions of the state, which for them has become a self-justifying end.

Fortunately, this sort of ideological right-wing Zionist makes up a fairly small percentage of the Israeli population. Unfortunately—especially following the disengagement from Gaza—an ever-increasing number of Religious Zionists seem to be identifying with this camp. Though many strands of Religious Zionism existed in the early days, the one that has caught on most prominently is focused on Messianism. When you see the state as the inevitable first step towards the realization of an ultimate eschatological vision, it is clear why you would want to protect it at all costs. This is a major problem, because there is no place for racism within Judaism. It is true that there is a distinction between Jew and non-Jew, but even this is not an essentialist one; it merely reflects an added responsibility the Jews have been given by God.h Judaism's guiding principle is that everyone was created in the image of God,i and Jews therefore have an obligation to show an appropriate level of respect to all people, even Palestinians. In addition, the Torah commands us to be kind to strangers,j help the poor,k and feel compassion for the less fortunate.l Worse than simply failing to apply these mandates to Palestinians, many who identify as Religious Zionists have begun ignoring them altogether. So great is their enmity for the Palestinians, that they begin to view any principle that would stand to help them as fundamentally flawed, even when applied to other groups of people in other countries. Consequently, many in the right-wing Zionist camp have started adopting more general attitudes of political conservatism, regardless of the country in which they are voting—attitudes which, for the sake of the state, neglect some of the basic principles held most dear by religious Jews for generations.m

To be sure, Judaism is not consistent with extreme left-wing Zionist ideology either. As Jews, we are commanded to protect our lives. A pacifist ideology dictating that nearly all military action is fundamentally wrong, implicitly stating that the enemy's lives are more important than ours, is not a Torah viewpoint either. We have an obligation to stop those who would seek to kill us.n However, we may not kill people who are not themselves threatening our lives in order to protect our lives. I don't refer to collateral damage here. Any war has collateral damage, which is regrettable but unavoidable. The terrorists themselves become liable for deaths of collateral damage by hiding out in civilian population centers. However, not all Palestinians are terrorists. There are many who are not terribly concerned with politics, who merely wish to live a simple life, free from obstructions, who are victims of the corruption of their society, and powerless to change it. Israel must be sensitive to the needs of these people, and for the most part, it has been. Attacks on terrorists have been very narrowly targeted in an attempt to avoid civilian casualties. The route of the security fence has been altered several times to limit inconveniences to Palestinian farmers. Yet, for each of these instances, there has been someone on the extreme Right denouncing it.o Religious Jews need to remember that when defending Israel, they must do so in a way that preserves the values for which Israel stands. The evils of the terrorists do not permit us to sink to their level. As the Israeli Supreme Court wisely put it: "A democracy must sometimes fight with one arm tied behind her back."p To put that idea into more religious terminology: if there is a choice between the Land of Israel and the Torah of Israel, we must choose the Torah every time. Jews are only entitled to the Land of Israel as our God-given inheritance when we are following the Torah. We must not forget that the Jews were twice exiled from the Land for not following the Torah, and there is no divine assurance that it will not happen a third time.

It is too early to say whether the Gaza withdrawal was a good idea, but no matter what, the decision must be made on strategic grounds and not spiritual ones. Perpetual war is not desirable, and Israel cannot indefinitely occupy millions of people against their will. Furthermore, Israel has no divine assurances of victory. The philosophy that Israel should not cede one inch to the Palestinians, or ever accept the idea of a Palestinian State, as advocated by Meir Kahane, represents the same mentality as the Mapilim. In the Torah, after the report of the spies in the desert, it was decreed that the Jews of that generation should not enter the land of Israel. The Mapilim tried to go in anyway, without God's command, and were all killed.q Without a prophet, Israel can never be assured of its own righteousness or success, and must act only in ways that make sense under normal, natural circumstances.

There is nothing sacred about the 1949-1967 borders; they were just an arbitrary armistice line. Israel is under no moral obligation to use those as the border of any future Palestinian State, but Israel must stand ready and willing to compromise. Messianic aspirations can only become a reality through genuine repentance and a return to God. If our goal is to bring the Messiah for its own sake, and not for a higher ideal, then our actions are not the sort that would bring the Messiah in our time.

The Zionist movement has come a long way since the early days. Gone is the ardent anti-religious character, so prevalent among the early secularists. Upon the ashes of the Holocaust, Israel has become a place where Jews of all religious variations can thrive and flourish. More religious Jews than ever feel a connection with the secular state, and even see it as an important part of their Jewish experience. Judaism has much to gain from Zionism. Under the right circumstances, it has been demonstrated that there need not be any contradiction between the two. Used properly, the State of Israel may even be able to function as the first flowering of our final redemption. However, we must remember that God bid our first loyalty be to Torah, and we cannot compromise its values for the sake of the state. Rather, we must work to ensure that Israel is a Jewish State, and not merely a state of Jews. In doing this, we must be rational and pragmatic, and not so self-assured as to think that God will protect us, no matter what we decide. The minute the state becomes a self-justifying end, we have proven our critics right: we have proven that Torah, Judaism, and Zionism fundamentally cannot coexist. When Religious Zionists in Israel become ideological right-wing Zionists and when those outside of Israel begin to support more generally right-wing causes and candidates in the name of supporting Israel, they have made Zionist nationalism into the form of idolatry that its earliest opponents always warned it was.

Works Cited

Berman, Paul. Terror and Liberalism. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003.

Just, Richard. "Divest Fest: The Campus Left's Misguided Crusade Against Israel." The American Prospect Online. 4 Apr. 2002.

Lazaroff, Tovah and Dan Izenberg. "PM Accepts Ruling." Jerusalem Post. 9 May 2004.

Leiber, Isi. "Religious Zionists in Crisis." Jerusalem Post. 11 Oct. 2005.

Ravitzky, Aviezer. Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism. Translated by Michael Swirsky and Jonathan Chipman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Soloveitchik, Ahron. Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind. Jerusalem: Genesis Jerusalem Press, 1991.

Soloveitchik, Rabbi Joseph B. The Rav Speaks: Five Addresses. Jerusalem: Tal Orot, 1983.

"Supreme Court Judgement Regarding The Security Fence." Independent Media Review Analysis. 30 Jun. 2004. <>.

Teichtal, Yisachar Shlomo. Eim Habanim Semeichah. Jerusalem: Kol Mevaser, 2000.

The Chumash: The Stone Edition. Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1997.

White, Gayle. "Christian Zionists Win Jews for GOP." Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 9 May 2004.

© Copyright  Chalav U'Dvash

Chalav U'Dvash: Brandeis' Journal of Zionist Thought (Print ISSN 1559-1069, Online ISSN 1559-1077) is an independent forum for discussion relating to Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish People and is a recognized club by the Brandeis Student Union. We publish a journal twice per semester, and copies are available free-of-charge to Brandeis students. Contact us to request copies.

Chalav U'Dvash has no ideological or political bias. We give our writers the opportunity and freedom to express their opinions and viewpoints within a well-researched and factual framework, and so any bias within Chalav U'Dvash is strictly that of our writers and not the journal itself.

© Copyright 2005, Chalav U'Dvash. All rights reserved.