Zionism Versus Messianism in the Land of Israel
In establishing "a state of Jews," we have merely relocated Jews from one shtetl or ghetto to another. Albeit, with an air force.
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Judaism in some respects is a spiritual and intellectual response to catastrophe: bondage, exile, persecution.
Each assault, pogrom, or rejection — such as in Spain or Poland — provoked a reaction in which introjection was accompanied by introspection. Jewish thinkers concluded, as the historian Simon Dubnow would summarize, that our plight was “to think and to suffer.”
The destruction inspired the writings of Ezekiel and Jeremiah envisioning a new world in which man would develop a “new law engraved on the tablets of the heart.” This world would witness the radical transformation of humankind. It would be a world of peace and fellowship so that, in the metaphor of Isaiah, “the wolf and the lamb would dwell peacefully.”
Jews have practically sanctified trauma, transforming it into the foundation of our faith, which begins in the trauma of self-doubt and conflict; Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, man and the serpent.
Our national history begins in the trauma of slavery, of homelessness, of persecutions. Had it not been for Pharaoh, Moses would not have led history’s great rebellion. Had it not been for the Holocaust, one may seriously doubt that modern Israel would ever have made it to the world stage.
In many respects, Zionism is merely a neologism, a new expression, for an older word: Messianism. The idea of the Messiah came from the Biblical ceremony of anointing the king. In other words, the Messiah is a political leader like Moses, Saul, or David.
Isaiah envisioned a national rebirth under the leadership of a great leader. Humiliated by the destruction of Jerusalem, a movement began based upon the notion of redemption. This Messianic movement understood that political restoration of the Hebrew kingdom was contingent upon a spiritual revival of the nation.
Hence, prayer, ritual observance, Torah study, and moral rectitude would lead to national redemption. But, prayer and mystical devotions apparently were insufficient to bring about any change in the Jewish condition.
Zionism as we know it today was modified over the course of the 19th century and under the political leadership of Theodor Herzl. It began to deal in the politics and realities of European national emancipation. Rather than integrate Messianism, Zionism replaced it, becoming an amalgam of European socialism and nationalism sprinkled with some Jewish sentimentality.
Many Jews no longer understand the connection between the Messianic vision and the Zionist idea. Consequently, they have allowed our enemies to drive a wedge between the idea of Zionism and Judaism.
Some Jews do not even realize that Judaism is more than a religious denomination; it is a civilization. These assimilated Jews have come to believe that Zionism is an alternative to Judaism, rather than the articulation of the most primary element of our faith.
The Exodus narrative declares that the ideal of redemption is actually homecoming. The Exodus writer understood that bondage is both political and spiritual. Liberation, therefore, is not only political.
One misunderstanding about the nature of Zionism is that it is a solution to a social problem. During the 19th century, Jewish thinkers developed the notion that Zionism was an answer to antisemitism. Many Zionist thought leaders were enchanted by the spell of the social sciences. Science would save mankind. During the 19th century, Jew hatred became antisemitism.
The new name implied an almost anthropological categorization of the Jews. Indeed, one anti-Jewish mantra was “go back to Palestine.” Zionism agreed. The social aberration of antisemitism could be remedied by relocating Jews. The Zionists believed that once Jews were relocated to the land of Israel and became farmers rather than tailors, they would become like any other nation in the world.
But, without the deep intellectual and theological foundations of Messianism, Israel, even in the minds of many Jews, was merely a refugee camp along the Mediterranean coast — always vulnerable.
We discovered that being like everyone else, merely “a nation among the nations,” was an illusion that ignored something very important. We had overlooked one of the fundamental questions about who we were. Historians could trace our origins to Mesopotamia and Egypt. Philologists could isolate our language by revealing its roots in Ugaritic. But, Zionists forgot to ask what Aristotle called the teleological question: What is our purpose, our destiny?
One could only answer that question by understanding our history. Zionism in setting out to create the “new Jew” ignored the fact that traditions and rituals constitute significant bonds among Jews and between them and their ancestors. The fact remains is that Israelis, although trying to define Israeliness as opposed to Jewishness, appear to be Jews after all.
How do we know? Because they suffer from the same sense of anomie that their shtetl-dwelling ancestors endured. Israelis more than any other people remain rootless. What we used to call yeridah, emigration from the land, remains the most glaring symptom.
Many Israelis, like their European forebears, chose to live wherever they can “make a better living.” They remain, if I may paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, like their ancestors more loyal to their income than to their land. They remain wandering Jews.
Further, the Jew haters have reworked the old canards to meet the age of wokeism. We no longer use blood to bake matzah, but we still murder little children in Gaza. We are no longer accused of deicide. Now its is genocide. The attack is no longer against Judaism; it is against Zionism.
The sense of alienation that accompanied Jews all over the world has not been alleviated. On the contrary, if you are an Israeli, you are in the same physical danger that Jews always experienced. The yellow star has been recommissioned.
The response of Zionism to the trauma that we experienced was proactive. The response of Messianism, however, to trauma was first of all reflection and introspection. Messianism sought explanations of the Jewish condition within rather than outside.
For example, Isaiah saw Assyria as God’s instrument; his wrath at a sinning nation. In other words, Messianism did not blame the non-Jews. Jews were responsible for their national troubles. In the eschatology of Isaiah or Ezekiel, the Messianic vision called for a radical transformation of the Jew. His destiny was actually based upon his uniqueness.
The Jew was supposed to be different. Messianism insisted upon Jewish ownership of the sorrow we experienced. Our tragedies were not incidental; they were essential to our self-understanding and evolution. We were and would always be “a nation that dwells alone.” This aloneness was the incubator of our spiritual greatness.
The foundations of modern Zionism were erected upon the faulty sociological assumption that creating a state would solve the Jewish problem. So far it has failed to do so. In establishing a state of Jews, we have merely relocated Jews from one shtetl or ghetto to another; albeit, with an air force.
The original vision was to actually create a Jewish state. The difference between a Messianic vision and a Zionist vision is the character of that state. The Zionist state (medinat hah-yehudim in Hebrew, a state of Jews) is about real estate and demographics. The Messianic vision (medinah yehudit, or Jewish state) is about character.