The Judaism of Zionism

Ezra Margulies

The traditional historiography of Zionism sees Zionism as avowedly modern and secular: the reimagining of Jewish identity away from Judaism as religion, and towards Jewishness as nationality.

Yet this narrative of modern transformation creates a false binary, in which the role of Judaism as religion disappears entirely from Zionist thought, playing into a historiography that sees Zionism solely and exclusively as a modern construct. This excludes the numerous ways in which the rabbinical Jewish religion has influenced Zionism, and how, far from rejecting Judaism-as-religion outright, Zionism sought to adapt and reinvent Jewish religious tradition in the modern Jewish nation.

This begins at the very idea of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel itself. Careful scrutiny of Jewish thought throughout the centuries reveals, beyond any doubt, that sovereign existence represents a paradigmatic Jewish value. Historically, the idea of yearning for a home in Zion was affirmed by Jews in all eras and locations, with the singular exception of the Reform movement between 1820 and 1937. This hope was always intrinsically linked to the land of Israel and this longing accompanied the Jews through centuries of dispersion.

Yet until the ascendance of the Zionist movement, the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the Promised Land was conceived as messianic in nature. In other words, Jews envisaged the return to the land of Israel to occur under the aegis of the Messiah, with divine support.

Enter Zionism. The formation of a Zionist ideology occurred alongside the emergence of competing nationalist movements in late-19th century Europe. The same momentum which inspired Italian, German, Polish, or Ukrainian nationalisms affected the Jewish populations which resided in those countries. Whilst Jews previously defined their communal autonomy in terms of religious separateness, a new generation arose which re-interpreted this basic reality in terms consonant with 19th century ideologies. Zionists claimed that Jews represented a distinct nation in the modern sense of the term, and were thus deserving of sovereignty in a nation-state. Yet despite its modern context, Zionism did not have to invent anew the idea of Jewish sovereignty. Rather, it had to create a modern, secularized form of the messianic aspiration for sovereignty which Jews already harboured.

Conversely, it is worth noting that Jewish religious anti-Zionist groups, such as the Neturei Karta, Satmar Hasidim and the Edat ha-Haredim, found their conviction upon this same tradition. Evidently, the messianic era remains a distant hope rather than a reality. The Talmud also contains certain statements cautioning against a return to Zion conducted without divine approval. Yet these groups’ opposition to the modern Jewish state is living proof that sovereignty in Zion is a key premise of the Jewish religion. The anti-Zionism of these religious groups merely maintains the view that the expected restoration must be subservient to universal redemption.

The Judaism of Zionism cannot be reduced to the singular notion of sovereignty in the land. The competing streams within the Zionist movement each developed an entire system of values, hierarchies, and ideals which drew on Jewish religious sources. Micha Yosef Berdichewsky, for example, imagined Zionism would liberate the Jews from the shackles of the Jewish legal tradition and enable them to freely satisfy their sexual and intellectual cravings. Ahad Ha’am, in contrast, sketched out a vision of national renewal which would emanate from the Jewish spiritual centre in Palestine and overflow among Jewish populations in the Diaspora. Nearly half a century later, Eliezer Berkovits conceived of Zionism as a movement for Jewish religious rebirth.

These few examples illustrate the diversity of systems which developed within the Zionist movement, each of which expands well beyond the simple idea of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. There are innumerable differences between the Zionist visions of Herzl and Ahad Ha’am, Bialik and Brenner, Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Reines, Ben-Gurion and Begin, and even today, between Zehava Gal-on and Naftali Bennett. All of these figures identified and are affiliated with the Zionist ideology.

There is, however, one common factor across these numerous streams within the Zionist movement. Zionism, at every stage, communicated and engaged with Judaism. It absorbed, but also transformed, numerous motifs and values from the heart of the Jewish tradition. The “spiritual” Zionist vision sketched out by Ahad Ha’am hearkens back to the Talmudic account of Yochanan ben Zakkai’s escape from Jerusalem, whereas the socialist kibbutz movement celebrated the festival of Israelites’ release from Egyptian bondage during Passover as an epic national and class struggle. Early pioneers drew inspiration from the universalistic ideal of a “light unto the nations,” found in the prophecies of Isaiah, whilst large portions of the settler movement justify the occupation of the West Bank through biblical references to the Davidic monarchy in Judea and Samaria, and Nahmanides’ claim that the settlement of the land of Israel is a positive commandment incumbent upon Jews in all ages.

Zionism – like all nationalisms – is of course a modern construct. Yet just as it is entirely inaccurate to conflate it with Judaism, so is it misleading to sever it from its Jewish origins. The majority of the values and motifs at the heart of the Zionist ideology originate within the Jewish religious tradition. To dismiss this crucial part of Zionist history is to miss out an integral part of the Zionist story.