Two figures in Jewish thought make especially clear the artifice involved in the creation of Jewish nationhood — Dr. Solomon Schechter and Israeli historian Shlomo Sand.
Despite their wildly different backgrounds and eras, they both name the startling function that Zionism serves for an otherwise heterogeneous population of Jews spread across many parts of the world.
American Jewish educator Schechter (1847-1915) with reluctance yielded his support to Zionism as a movement that would protect Jewish people in galut — exile — from assimilation.
For ex-Israeli (and self-styled ex-Jew) Shlomo Sand (1946-), author of The Invention of the Jewish People, Zionism is a distorting and alienating delusion that has led Jews to do harm to Palestinians, precisely due to the same mechanisms Schechter counted on to preserve identity.
Among founders in the modern Zionist movement, many major figures embraced Zionism to unify the atomizing population of Jews in the world, especially the Jews of the west — for tribal as much as literal survival.
Much as an unhappy child may fantasize he is adopted, and imagines a set of “real parents” much better than the ones he’s dealt, it was a brilliant strategy to imagine restoring a glorious state — for Jews beset by persecution, temptation, or both.
In 1906, Schechter said that he feared assimilation of Jews, loss of identity, “even more than pogroms.” He wrote that in the Jewish “exile,” the Zionist project could form “the great bulwark against assimilation… an opposing force.”
It is a tragic comedy that much of Palestinian agony can be said to originate in an American Jewish identity crisis. Major funding and skilled organizing of the Zionist project came from American Jews.
(For some American Zionists, such as Henrietta Szold and Judah Magnes, the unifying function of Zionism never came to mean hostility to the rights of non-Jews living in Palestine.)
Shlomo Sand wrote a letter July 23, 2017, to Emmanuel Macron (objecting to Macron’s equating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism):
The Israeli Interior Ministry counts 75% of the country’s citizens as Jewish, 21% as Arab Muslims and Christians and 4% as “others” (sic). Yet according to the spirit of its laws, Israel does not belong to Israelis as a whole, whereas it does belong even to all those Jews worldwide who have no intention of coming to live there.
If our gaze and thoughts can encompass both Solomon Schechter and Shlomo Sand, what was first imagined and what we’ve done, we see that much of the advocacy of Zionism is of the secondary-purpose variety — to “Zionize” Jews so they keep cohesion as a people — with Palestine as much a utopia as a place in reality.
Paradoxically, acceptance is perceived as the twin menace to Jews of the menace of bloody hostility, “eternal Jew hate.” In a sense, the present situation of the State of Israel is that the State ensures that its Jewish citizens are “safely hated.”
What does it mean that Zionists managed to re-create the feeling of separateness that the Enlightenment and modernity endangered?
Max Nordau complained at the First Zionist Congress, of 1897, that the embrace of the human rights of Jews by the French revolution was loveless, with the formula, “Every man is born with certain rights; the Jews are human beings, consequently the Jews are born to all the rights of man.”
In this manner, the emancipation of the Jews was pronounced, not through a fraternal feeling for the Jews, but because logic demanded it. Popular sentiment rebelled, but the philosophy of the Revolution decreed that principles must be placed higher than sentiments. Allow me an expression which implies no ingratitude. The men of 1792 emancipated us only for the sake of principle.
The French emancipation was of Jewish individuals, weakening Jewish communal identity and authority on personal status issues such as marriage and divorce. Comte de Clermont‑Tonnere’s formulation was, “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation but granted everything as individuals…”
It’s rational to ask, What — if anything — could gentiles have done that would satisfy Nordau? Nothing — only Jews making their own place would satisfy.
The anxiety to only make “Jewish” decisions has consequences. Theodor Herzl’s “discovered truth” was that no matter how civilized the society, Jews would always be the resented outsider, resentment exacerbated when they had success.
However, to the extent that galut Jews are not devoted to the principle of the centrality of Jewish sovereignty, in the Zionist scheme, such as it has evolved, they are defective.
For Schechter, fostering Jewish national feeling should be a reminder of Torah, not in substitution of it.
Israel is not a nation in the common sense of the word. To the Rabbis, at least, it is not a nation by virtue of race or of certain peculiar political combinations. As R. Saadya expressed it, “Ki umateinu eynenah umah im ki betorateinu.” “Because our nation is only a nation by reason of its Torah.” The brutal Torah-less nationalism promulgated in certain quarters, would have been to the Rabbis just as hateful as the suicidal Torah-less universalism preached in other quarters. And if we could imagine for a moment Israel giving up its allegiance to God, its Torah and its divine institutions, the Rabbis would be the first to sign its death warrant as a nation.
Schechter believed that the “brutal Torah-less nationalism” that would come with Zionism could be shed:
All this is a consequence of preaching an aspect of Nationalism more in harmony with Roman and similar modern models than with Jewish ideas and ideals. However, nightmares are fleeting and evanescent—the vision as a whole still remains glorious.
The aberrations will, let us hope, be swept away quickly enough as soon as their destructive nature is realized by the majority of the Zionists whose central ideas should and will remain, God and His people, Israel.
For Sand the rebel, Israeli life now in toto is fairly identical with that nationalism Schechter anticipated.
I am aware of living in one of the most racist societies in the western world. Racism is present to some degree everywhere, but in Israel it exists deep within the spirit of the laws. It is taught in schools and colleges, spread in the media, and above all and most dreadful, in Israel the racists do not know what they are doing and, because of this, feel in no way obliged to apologise. This absence of a need for self-justification has made Israel a particularly prized reference point for many movements of the far right throughout the world, movements whose past history of antisemitism is only too well known.
The logic of nationalism, once begun, is by its nature victorious over softness, respect, or accommodation to the Other. Enemy or vassal are the roles available.
Included in the Herzlian revelation is considerable cult-like contempt for the Jews of the pre-Zionist past. American Rabbi Stephen S. Wise said, “It is not too much to say that when Herzl first loomed upon the Jewish horizon the weak-kneed, the morally inept and the infirm were the masters of Jewish life.”
Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) firebrand Wise’s 1929 conception of Zionism as Judaism with dignity, contrasts with someone like Shlomo Sand today — a child of the dream-made-reality that developed who very much wants to separate Jews from Zionist doctrine.
The purpose of Zionism was to accentuate the Jewish identity of diaspora Jews as much as it was a place to go to or be “from.” The world-wide network of Zionist youth organizations are more to make nationalist Jews than to make Israeli immigrants.
For Jews of the galut, in consequence of the Israeli treatment of Palestinian Arabs, the meaning of Jewish identity and its common symbol, the star of David, is causing angst that is welcomed by Zionists, reinforcing the order of the world as Jews versus gentiles.
If Herzl’s premise is that the world is against Jews, maybe the premise is wrong-headed, to the extent that premise pits Jews against the world.
Palestinians and the world are not dealing with a nation, the State of Israel, in any normal sense. They are dealing with a project that aspires to organize how Jews in galut interact with the world. From the Maccabiah Games (“Building Jewish Pride Through Sports”) to Zionist youth camps and lobby organizations, the intent is to encourage a national feeling of Jews, not just Israelis.
Once the idea is established, that an American Jew (for instance) is, while not an Israeli, a member of the Jewish nation, an important mechanism is installed for future use.
The fact that this has become normalized should not blind us to the fact that this was a change engineered in Jewish life. This is a clarifying point about the use of Jewish identity for nationalist purposes. (As long as deep in the heart, The soul of a Jew yearns…)