The Prophetic Vision of Zionism’s Jewish Critics

From the earliest days of Zionism, the philosophy which proclaimed that Jews were a distinct nationality, not a religious community, and should return to their ancient "homeland" in Palestine represented a minority view among Jews.

Religious Jews objected because they believed that the creation of a political state was heresy, an intervention that usurped God’s own redemptive plan. Even those Jews who faced prejudice and discrimination in their native countries showed no desire to emigrate to Palestine. Of the 3.5 million Jews fleeing Russia between 1880 and 1922, for example, only 85,000 went to Palestine.

For Reform Jews, the idea of Zionism contradicted almost completely their belief in a universal Judaism. In 1854, the first Reform prayerbook eliminated references to Jews being in exile and to a Messiah who would miraculously restore Jews throughout the world to the historic land of Israel and who would rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem. The prayerbook eliminated all prayers for a return to Zion.

In November 1885, a group of Reform rabbis met in Pittsburgh and wrote an eight-point platform that one participant called "the most succinct expression of the theology of the Reform movement that had ever been published in the world." The platform emphasized that Reform Judaism denied Jewish peoplehood and nationalism in any variety. "We consider ourselves no longer a nation but a religious community," it stated, "and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state."

In 1897, the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted a resolution disapproving of any attempt to establish a Jewish state. The resolution stated: "Zion…is a holy memory, but it is not our hope of the future. America is our Zion." In 1904, The American Israelite, edited by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the leader of American Reform Judaism in the 19th century, noted: "There is not one solitary prominent native Jewish-American who is an advocate of Zionism."

In 1912, when Zionists pressed for the promulgation of the Balfour Declaration, it was a Jewish member of the British Cabinet who spoke out against the concept of an exclusively Jewish state. Edwin S. Montagu, secretary of state for India in Lloyd George’s World War I Cabinet, declared that he had "striven all his life to escape the ghetto," to which he now faced possible relegation as a result of the proposed policy paper. He resented the Zionist effort to convince Jews that they were an "ethnic-racial" rather than a religious group. Montagu believed, as well, that there was an injustice involved in turning over control of a land to those who constituted only 7 percent of the population.

"What would a national home for the Jewish people" really mean? "I do not know what this involves," he wrote, "but I assume that it means that Mohammedans and Christians are to make way for the Jews, and that the Jews would be put in all positions of preference and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the way that England is with the English or France with the French, that Turks and other Mohammedans in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners…I assert that there is not a Jewish nation…It is no more to say that a Jewish Englishman and a Jewish Moor are of the same nation than it is to say that a Christian Englishman and a Christian Frenchman are of the same nation."

In 1919, a petition was presented to President Woodrow Wilson entitled "A Statement to the Peace Conference." Reflecting the then-dominant Reform position on Zionism and Palestine, it asserted that the opinions expressed therein represented those of the vast majority of American Jews. Among the signers were Rep. Julius Kahn of California; Henry Morganthau, Sr., ex-ambassador to Turkey; former New York Attorney General Simon W. Rosendale; Mayor L.H. Kempner of Galveston, Texas; E.M. Baker, president of the New York Stock Exchange; and New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs. President Wilson brought the petition with him to the Versailles peace conference.

The petition criticized Zionist efforts to segregate Jews "as a political unit…in Palestine or elsewhere" and underlined the principle of equal rights for all citizens of any state "irrespective of creed or ethnic descent." It rejected Jewish nationalism as a general concept and opposed the founding of any state on the basis of religion and/or race. The petition asserted that the "overwhelming bulk of the Jews of America, England, France, Italy, Holland, Switzerland and other lands of freedom have no thought whatever of surrendering their citizenship in those lands in order to resort to a ‘Jewish homeland in Palestine.’"

With regard to the future of Palestine, the petitioners state: "It is our fervent hope that what was once a ‘promised land’ for the Jews may become ‘a land of promise’ for all races and creeds, safeguarded by the League of Nations which, it is expected, will be one of the fruits of the Peace Conference…We ask that Palestine be constituted as a free and independent state to be governed under a democratic form of government recognizing no distinction of creed or race or ethnic descent, and with adequate power to protect the country against oppression of any kind. We do not wish to see Palestine, either now or at any time in the future, organized as a Jewish state."

Nor were the only critics of the Zionist enterprise those Jews who rejected the entire notion of a Jewish state. Many who were sympathetic to the creation of some form of a Jewish "homeland" were concerned about the rights of the present inhabitants of Palestine, rights which they saw as either being ignored or violated.

Unlike most of his fellow Zionists who persisted in fantasizing about "a land without people for the people without a land," Ahad Ha’am, for example, from the very beginning refused to ignore the presence of Arabs in Palestine. This Russian Jewish writer and philosopher paid his first visit to the new Jewish settlements in Palestine in 1891. In his essay, "The Truth From The Land of Israel," he wrote that it was an illusion to think of Palestine as an empty country: "We tend to believe abroad that Palestine is nowadays almost completely deserted, a non-cultivated wilderness, and anyone can come there and buy as much land as his heart desires. But in reality this is not the case. It is difficult to find anywhere in the country Arab land which is fallow."

Moreover, the behavior of Jewish settlers toward the Arabs disturbed him. The Arabs understood very well what Zionist intentions were for the country and, he warned, "if the time should come when the lives of our people in Palestine should develop to the extent that, to a similar or greater degree they usurp the place of the local population, the latter will not yield easily…We have to treat the local population with love and respect, justly and rightly. And what do our brethren in the land of Israel do? Exactly the opposite. Slaves they were in the country of exile, and suddenly they find themselves in a boundless and anarchic freedom, as is always the case with a slave who has become a king; and they behave toward the Arabs with hostility and cruelty."

Jewish ethics were the heart and soul of Ahad Ha’am’s brand of cultural Zionism, and to the end of his life he denounced any compromise with political expediency. In 1913, protesting against a Jewish boycott of Arab labor, he wrote to a friend: "I can’t put up with the idea that our brethren are morally capable of behaving in such a way to humans of another people, and unwittingly the thought comes to my mind: If this is so now, what will our relations to the others be like if at the end of time, we shall really achieve power in Eretz Israel? And if this be the Messiah, I do not wish to see him coming."

The American Council for Judaism

As Reform Judaism nevertheless embraced the Zionist idea, the American Council for Judaism (ACJ) was created in 1942 to maintain the older idea of a universal, prophetic Judaism shorn of nationalism. In his keynote address to the June 1942 meeting in Atlantic City, Rabbi David Philipson declared that Reform Judaism and Zionism were incompatible: "Reform Judaism is spiritual, Zionism is political. The outlook of Reform Judaism is the world. The outlook of Zionism is a corner of eastern Asia."

Rabbi Morris Lazaron, an early ACJ leader who served from 1915 to 1946 as rabbi of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, originally was a supporter of cultural Zionism. He later altered his views, however, as he slowly discovered that Zionist nationalism was not different from other forms of nationalism: "The Jewish nationalist philosophy of separateness as a people who would always and inevitably be rejected because they were Jews, boldly asserted itself. The idea seems to have been to break down the self-confidence and opposition to Jewish political nationalism…Behind the mask of Jewish sentiment, one can see the specter of the foul thing which moves Germany and Italy. Behind the camouflage of its unquestioned appeal to Jewish feeling, one can hear a chorus of ‘Heil.’ This is not for Jews–”Reform, Conservative or Orthodox."

Speaking at the January 1937 annual convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in New Orleans, Lazaron declared: "Judaism cannot accept as the instrument of its salvation the very philosophy which is leading the world to destruction. Shall we condemn it as Italian or German, but accept it as Jewish?"

In an article about the role of the American Council for Judaism in opposing Jewish nationalism and maintaining the view that Judaism is a religion of universal values–”and that American Jews are Americans by nationality and Jews by religion, in precisely the same manner as other Americans are Baptists, Catholics or Muslims–”New York Times religion columnist Samuel Freedman declared in the paper’s June 26, 2010 edition that events in recent years have made the Council "look significant, even prophetic."

Indeed, Judaism as a religion has become increasingly corrupted and politicized. Jewish religious bodies, ranging from the Orthodox to the Conservative to the Reform, have embraced the notion that the State of Israel–”not God–”is, somehow, "central" to Judaism. In its 1999 Statement of Principles, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) went so far as to declare that, "We affirm the unique qualities of living in the land of Israel and encourage aliyah [immigration to Israel]."

From Israeli flags in synagogues, to "Birthright Israel" trips sending young Jews on free visits to Israel, to a host of Jewish organizations focused on influencing U.S. Middle East policy–”the center of attention within the organized American Jewish community has been not the traditional Jewish religious commitment to God, but something far different. It should be no surprise that more and more American Jews, particularly young people, are increasingly alienated from this enterprise.

More and more thoughtful Jewish voices–”in Israel, the United States and around the world–”increasingly are using the term "idolatry" to describe the elevation of the State of Israel to the "central" position in Judaism.

It is time for a serious consideration of the many prophetic Jewish voices who warned against Zionism from the very beginning of the movement. In his 1929 critique of Zionism, Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamaret wrote that, "Judaism at root is not some religious concentration which can be localized or situated in a single territory…Neither is Judaism a matter of ‘nationality’ in the sense of modern nationalism, fit to be woven into the famous three-fold mesh of ‘homeland, army and heroic songs.’ No, Judaism is Torah, ethics and exaltation of spirit. If Judaism is truly Torah, then it cannot be reduced to the confines of any particular territory. For as Scripture said of Torah: ‘Its measure is greater than the earth…’" (Job ll:9).

It is this vision of a universal faith of ethical values for men and women of every background which the Prophets preached and in which generations of Jews believed. Zionism, as its Jewish critics proclaimed, was a rejection of that tradition and would have serious negative consequences. History has proven them correct.