– by Arthur Hertzberg
A hundred years ago, Theodor Herzl proposed a radical idea-that the Jewish people would find a “normal” place among the nations if it reorganized itself into a nation-state. That would be the solution to “the Jewish Problem.”
The nation-state was a dream, and an invention, of the 19th century” In its name many people won freedom from their oppressors. And it was this dream that provided much of the energy for the Zionist quest for Jewish “normalcy.” But it is now clear that the nationstate is not the permanent, lasting form of political organization” On the contrary, everywhere in the world political structures are under pressure to make room for ever more prominent, and prevalent, minorities.
More after the jump.
In many places in the world the price for the purity of the nation-state is still being paid in blood and terror. There is “ethnic cleansing” in former Yugoslavia, genocide in Rwanda and unending strife in Northern Ireland. Need I add to this list? But this is not the tide of the future. The economies of the most advanced, technologically adept societies are now interlocked in a global market. Those who work in this environment are ever more mobile. Americans and Europeans and Israelis are now being sent by business and research institutes for many years of work abroad. It does not matter what political doctrines of nationalism or xenophobia a society might invoke-they will inevitably be short lived, even if they are enforced with the tough-mindedness of the rulers of Singapore. The new “normalcy” will be the multiethnic, multicultural state or region.
Given its dedication to the nation-state, the modern Zionist movement has never been at peace with the Diaspora. Indeed, the Zionist doctrine of the “denial of the Diaspora” insisted that the Diaspora must come to an end so that Jews could become a “normal people.” Even the cultural Zionists had their troubles with the Diaspora. The most radical, such as Micah Yosef Berdichevski and Yosef Chaim Brenner, wanted the “transvaluation of values” that would discard the many centuries of Jewish religion and culture as defined in the Galut (Diaspora). Ahad Ha ‘am, who wanted to preserve the Jewishness of the Diaspora, thought that its traditional culture was in its last days and that only a vigorous “spiritual center” in the land of Israel could furnish it with the energy to survive. The Zionist doctors may have vehemently disagreed with each other about the future of the new Jews in the land of Israel, but they all agreed that the Diaspora was sick, perhaps dying, and many even thought, with ideological vehemence, that it deserved to die. The judgment that the Diaspora must come to an end was the most incendiary assertion of modem Zionism.
That was not a totally unprecedented judgment, however. It was a replay, in modern rhetoric, of the relationship between the Jewish communities in the land of Israel and the Diaspora that had prevailed for many centuries. By definition, the Jews who dwelt in the land of Israel had always felt that they were living a more authentic Jewish life, albeit a more difficult one. They were entitled to support from the Diaspora because they were doing holy work and living in great danger for the sake of hastening the Messiah. The Diaspora internalized this attitude. It accepted the judgment that its Jewish life was inferior to life in the land of Israel and that the truest Jewish wisdom could be attained only in the Holy Land. The traditional Diaspora accepted, much more universally than the modern Diaspora ever has, the notion that its destiny was to come to an end and be ingathered. On that miraculous day, those who were already in the land of Israel would deserve the honor of being in the front line to welcome the Messiah. Thus, it was not difficult for the early Zionists to persuade themselves that the Diaspora and its culture must be judged negatively.
The question that does not seem to have been posed, at least not by the Zionists, is one that now seems self-evident. How was it that this uncreative and supposedly moribund Diaspora of a hundred years ago was the place in which Zionism, in all its forms, was fashioned? The Diaspora was the birthplace of all the movements through which Jews have tried to define themselves in the modern era. It was in this supposedly uncreative Diaspora in Lithuania that Chaim of Volozhin fashioned the modern yeshiva as an answer to the very beginnings of the age of doubt, in the early 1800s. In central Europe, a few years later, neo-Orthodoxy was defined by Samson Raphael Hirsch. Radical religious reform appeared in the middle of the 19th century and was soon followed by secular revolutionary movements within the Jewish community. Modem literature in both Yiddish and Hebrew arose in central and eastern Europe at about the same time. The Jewish Socialist Bund and Simon Dubnov’s dream of Jewish autonomy in multiethnic states were creations of the Diaspora at the end of the 19th century, in the very years when political Zionism was created. It is simply not true that the Diaspora, in a sort of last gasp, imagined Zionism and then prepared to say some kind of secular kaddish for itself. On the contrary, precisely the opposite was true.
Every single Jewish movement, both religious and secular, that exists to this day in both the Diaspora and in Israel was created by Jews in the Galut in Odessa and Pinsk, in Warsaw, Berlin, and Vienna. This Diaspora was seething, but not dying. True, it was under vast pressure from the anti-Semites. Millions of Jews, especially the poor, were moving westward. But its culture was by no means sterile. All the Jewish modernities that we possess, including the very modernities that are vehemently critical of the Diaspora, were fashioned in the Galut.
The most direct source for Zionism’s bad temper with the Galut was the major Jewish response to the Enlightenment from its very beginnings in the French Revolution. Those elements in the Jewish community who were most eager to be integrated into wider society wanted a radical change in the economic and cultural life of the ghetto. They wanted to make the Jewish poor more productive by teaching them to be farmers or artisans. They wanted to wrench them from the supposedly narrow and sick culture of the Jewish ghetto and bring them from its “darkness” into the “light” of Western culture. The Zionists were thus heirs to a century of Jewish response to the Enlightenment when they imagined that the new Jewish culture in the homeland should be radically other than the culture of the ghetto.
What has been less noticed is that the mass migration of Jews to the West, primarily to the United States, equally represented a revolt against the culture of the Galut. The early kibbutznicks in Palestine who proudly excluded all traces of religious piety from their lives had their parallel in turn of the century New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia where social dances were given by anarchists and the godless on Kol Nidre night in defiance of the solemn fast. More fundamentally, many of the immigrant generation in America consciously cast off their links with the European Jewish community and culture from which they came. Even most of the religious immigrants fought bitterly against recreating the kehillah, the overarching Jewish community structure, which could coerce individual Jews. They preferred the new American freedom of independent congregations controlled by their laities. In short, both the new American Jews and the secular Jews of the Second Aliyah in Palestine were fueled by large amounts of rejection, and even defiance, of the European Galut in which they had been born.
This attitude toward the European Galut was part of a larger vision that the new modern age was really the “end of history.” In the middle of the 19th century, those Jews who were “reforming” their religion were certain that the new age of equal rights was the messianic era, and therefore anything that the Jews might do to change themselves, even if it involved their eventual disappearance into society, was worthwhile because it would help bring about the final redemption of mankind. The revolutionary socialists, in all of their varieties, had no doubt that the Jewish community would take its noble contribution, to itself and to the world, by disbanding into the classless society that the revolution was going to create. In turn, Theodor Herzl imagined that the Jews would make their peace with the world by becoming normal: They would create a high-minded secular democracy, and they would erase the remaining, and troubling, Jewish minorities in the world through total assimilation.
All of these solutions to “the Jewish problem” were very radical. They required the Jews to make profound, even cataclysmic, changes, but they were prepared for such thinking by many centuries of hearing the tales of how radical and shattering the days of the coming Messiah would be. Now that the Messiah was making his appearance in the very processes of human history, radicalism was in vogue. Was not the new name of the Messiah the idea of progress?
Although some few resisted this hopeful mood and denied that the dawn of the world’s redemption had come, the dominant viewpoint of the century was one of optimism. In all of the 19th-century literature I have read, I have not found anyone among the optimists who for a single minute believed that the modem era would have any successors. This was not another phase in human history. This was its climax. The basic doctrine of Israeli historiography as enunciated by Ben Zion Dinur, the founder of Jewish historical studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was that Jewish history was to be simply explained in three phases: (1) The people Israel settles in its land; (2) it is exiled and keeps waiting to return; (3) it achieves the climax and resolution of its history by returning to its land. A seal would finally beset on the history of the Jews, who would live for all ages to come in quiet perfection in their own land, within their own culture.
Consider what we have lost in the denial of the Galut and what illusions we have created for ourselves by the notion that the messianic age is upon us. The clock of history has not stopped. In fact, we are living with the gray, unheroic realities of keeping the life of our people going in various forms in Israel and in the Galut. We must learn to live without the dangerous and often fatal illusion that the messianic era is almost upon us.
In the course of history our people has had a serious encounter with all the major civilizations and powers of Europe and the Middle East In age after age, two main motifs have repeated. A large part of our people has been attracted to the glitter and power of the majority. In midrash this truth is reflected in a folk memory that only a minority of Israelites left Egypt; the majority preferred to remain. Later, after 721 B.C.E., when the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Assyria, the ten tribes were sent into exile, they quickly disappeared into the native culture. Eight centuries later, so did the bulk of Greek-speaking Jews, who found Hellenistic culture too interesting and attractive to resist. We do not know how many Jews chose to become Muslim or Christian in the Middle Ages, but enough did so that we are aware of converts who made their mark in their new faith and new communities.
The loss of large numbers to assimilation is not a new phenomenon among Jews. Those who seek to make of it an unparalleled and unprecedented disaster are simply wrong. Modern-day society, in which Jews are more nearly equal worldwide than they have ever been and in which they can enjoy McDonald’s, Coca Cola, and, if they are successful, Bentley cars and chalets in the Alps, is merely the contemporary expression of the splendor in which some Jews lived in Hellenistic Rome or in “golden age” Spain. Such losses are the recurrent price we pay for being a minority, a small people, both in the Diaspora and in our own land, surrounded by the influences of other cultures.
The repeated answer that Jews have devised from the time of the prophets is to urge their fellow Jews to choose to remain with their otherness and uniqueness. Always and everywhere, a saving remnant has chosen to be loyal. So it will be in the next century. despite all the losses that Jews are suffering to contemporary consumer society, with its denial of any ultimate moral values.
Contrary to the prevailing cliche, however, those Jews who remain will not consist primarily of Lubavitcher Hasidim waiting for the rebbe to reappear as the Messiah. Our future will not be situated in B’nei Brak or Borough Park. In age after age, the lasting energy of that saving remnant has expressed itself in a variety of forms and beliefs. Those who survived the expulsion from Spain in 1492 did not lock themselves up in some new ghetto. On the contrary, they were a varied and creative group of people who made signal contributions to mercantilism, to philosophy, to literature, to poetry, indeed, to all the fields of human endeavor. So it will be in the future.
Let me take my courage in both my hands and deny another cliche, almost a sacred mantra, of contemporary discussion: the uniqueness of the Holocaust. I need to raise this painful theme because the Holocaust is often invoked to prove that we have indeed been living in a unprecedented age, an age in which a horror without parallel was inflicted on the Jews. It therefore follows (so it is argued) that Jewish history in this century, especially the creation of the State of Israel, represents a unique climax in Jewish experience. I insist that even the Holocaust belongs within, and not outside, the recurring pattern of the history of the Jews. The Holocaust was indeed unique in one respect, and in only one-that the Germans used the most modern technological means with which to murder the Jews. What was not unique was the total attack on Jewish religion and culture. That has happened over and over again.
Jews have faced totally destructive anti-Semitism many times before. My teacher Salo Baron maintained that after the Crusades no more than ten thousand Jews were left in Europe north of the Pyrenees. They and their descendants rebuilt Jewish life. We have proved time and again that we have the capacity as a people to rise from the ashes. In this century, we have proved it as never before, for the greatest achievement of the Jewish people since the days of the Maccabees the reconstitution of Jewish independence in the State of Israel.
The visionary Herzl launched that modern Zionist movement because he knew in the 1891 that the life of mankind would be different in the next century. He was right. Now, one hundred years later the world is again changing. We must devise new ways of surviving as a people amidst the complexities of today’s world. The responses to modernity devised by Herzl, and others, will have to be recast.
It is now clear that the nation-state is not the “end of history.” We, the Zionists of this day will have to do what Theodor Herzl did a hundred years ago. He redefined the Jewish people in an age of nationalism. We must redefine it for an age that has already dawned, an age of multiethnic states. Both in Israel and in the Diaspora, the Jewish people will have to face the deepest question of the next century: What does it mean to be a Jew within the context of the new multiethnic world? What values does this creative and passionate small people, the Jews, represent?
We are beginning to understand that what unites us are our religion and our culture. What we have most deeply in common are our learning and our history. We still disagree on what to make of this tradition. Every element of the Jewish people worldwide is offering its own ideological answers. Although we no longer share the same religious commitments, all kinds and conditions of Jews must study and know the same texts so that our debates and even our disagreements will be conducted in Jewish terms and in Jewish rhetoric.
In the past, Jewish unity has been sustained by religion and culture, but that happened in believing times. We do not know if it can be made to work in a more secular age, but we must try. We have no other choice. Israel and the Diaspora will not willingly let go of each other, and most Jews everywhere want to continue, somehow, to be Jewish. Perhaps we can even learn to be more tolerant of each other.
There is, of course, an obvious alternative to integrating into a new, pluralistic world order. It is to dig in our heels and become isolationists. This is being tried before our eyes by some religious elements in Israel and the Galut, who are creating high walls around themselves. It is not an accident that the ultra-Orthodox, who were vehemently anti-Zionist until very recently, are now mostly partisans of right-wing Zionist nationalism. The basic emotion is the same: We have a right, even a divine right, to our nation-state on our own terms. The trouble with this isolationist vision is that it cannot last, if only because it leads to the terrible prospect of unending terrorism by Arabs. This war will not be limited to conventional explosives, for much more deadly weapons are becoming available in forms that can be used by suicide bombers. The politics of defiance can lead only to horrors not yet imagined.
Zionism as we know it was the necessary response to an age of human history that is ending. We must now redefine it for an age that has already dawned-the time of the multiethnic society.
Originally published in the February 1998 issue of Moment.