Part 1: How Zionism challenges the Jewish peoplehood that created it
By Andrés Spokoiny
Here is the story of how Zionism began, according to Mora Chava, my 6th grade elementary day school teacher: Theodor Herzl was a Viennese Jewish journalist covering the Dreyfuss trials in Paris. Dreyfuss, a decorated Jewish officer in the French army, had been falsely accused of espionage and condemned to prison. Herzl was shocked at the antisemitism that the trials exhibited and triggered, even in the country most known for equality. Jews in France had been given equal rights before Jews in any other European country, but even there they couldn’t find true freedom. Of course, Jews had always longed for the Land of Israel. So, Mora Chava explained, put both of these things into a cocktail shaker – two parts longing for the Land, two parts antisemitism – and voila! Herzl has an idea and the Jewish people has Zionism.
But with all due respect to Mora Chava, that doesn’t really add up. Both ingredients had already been agitating in the cocktail shaker for two thousand years without ever before sparking an active political movement of return to Israel. Longing for the land had been a constant, at least in theory. And as to antisemitism, there’s nothing unique about the time in which Zionism emerged. There had been many times in which hatred of Jews was more intense and bloody: the Crusades, which killed thousands; the expulsions from France, England, and Spain; the Chmielnitzky massacres of the 17th century, in which nearly 300,000 Jews were murdered. By comparison, the 19th century was a golden age for the Jews. Yes, there was Dreyfuss, and the pogroms of Kishinev and Gomel, but in most European countries Jews had been emancipated and had equality under the law for the first time in history. Jews had access to business and academic life and were achieving enormous success in both. The very existence of a Dreyfuss – a Jewish army officer – was an unprecedented phenomenon. What’s more, and unlike in many previous cases of antisemitic accusations, Dreyfuss was eventually acquitted due to public outcry. The French people rallied around a maligned Jew.
So why did the relatively mild antisemitism of the 19th century result in the Zionist movement when the much more virulent hate of previous centuries didn’t?
The answer is peoplehood.
In fact, Zionism wasn’t a response to antisemitism, but to modernity. The traditional world was organized mostly along religious lines. If one would ask a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim what differentiated Jews from the rest of the world, they’d answer in terms of religious belief and practice. Jews were different because they had a different religion. But the French Revolution and the Emancipation did away with religion as the main organizing principle of society and that opened a host of new opportunities for Jews. Yet the primacy of religion was replaced not by some universalist brotherhood but by the emergence of nations. In fact, modern liberal democracy is a conjoined twin with nationalism. One was not anymore, a member of a grand religious polity – Christendom, Dar al-Islam, Jewry – but a citizen of the nation, with rights equal to those of all other citizens.
The nation was the necessary framework for the exercise of the newly acquired individual rights. The average Frenchman, for example, was now defined by his belonging and loyalty to the French Nation, and the rights he enjoyed were French rights. The French People had a particular spirit and was the product of a historic continuum, real or imagined, that ran from the ancient Gauls to Napoleon to Clemenceau. The German idealists, mainly Herder and Hegel, created a conceptual landscape in which peoples had a unique spirit (Volkgeist) that included a shared origin and history, a set of values, a unique language, and cultural artifacts and traditions. In a religious era, it was clear for Jews and Gentiles that Jews were a religious group, but in a national era, who were they? There were not really part of the French People; they couldn’t trace their ancestors to the Gauls or Clovis. Jews received equal rights in Germany, but were they really part of the Deustcher Volk?
Antisemites started to see Jews in a different light too. In the middle ages, the hatred for the Jews was justified and expressed in religious terms. A Jew could escape antisemitism by simply converting to Christianity. In modern times, however, Felix Mendelssohn, Gustav Mahler, and Heinrich Heine converted. Yet they were still viewed as Jews. Both Jews and antisemites started to see an “essentialism” in the Jewish condition, something that can’t be erased by conversion or drowned in the melting pot of modern citizenship.
The era of nationalism created in the newly emancipated Jews a new set of identity dilemmas. The traditional world of the ghetto was rough, but it didn’t present the Jews with identity challenges; it was clear who they were and who they were not. Slowly, Jews steeped in the ideas of the 19th century (especially the secular among them) started to see themselves not as a religious community but as a nation. The Jews were not defined or held together just (or at all) by religious beliefs. After all, religion was now a private matter, if it was even relevant. Jews were now a Volk, a nation, held together by a culture, a common language, a shared origin, and a commonality of fate if not faith.
Hebrew was thus revived as a colloquial language, because if Jews are a nation, they need to go back to their “original” national language instead of “hybrid” concoctions of their exile. And if Jews were a people, their history can be told like the history of any other people. Nowadays, we take the study of Jewish history as a given, but Jewish history as a discipline is a 19th century phenomenon. In yeshivot nobody studies history as such. There’s ritualized collective memory linked to the religious calendar, and some history is gleaned in between the lines of the liturgy. Now, however, for Jews and Gentiles, history as such is a vital element for the self-awareness of the people. The national future is now anchored in a rediscovery of its historical past – and sometimes in a radical reinterpretation of it.
For Zionism then, Heinrich Graetz – the first “modern” Jewish historian – was as important as Herzl. Without Graetz, and others who crystalized the self-image of the Jews as a nation, the Zionist idea would have been as ludicrous as trying to build a national home for Christendom.
So, it’s eminently fitting to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Israel with a reflection on peoplehood. Without peoplehood – that is, without defining Judaism as a national identity – there couldn’t be Zionism or Israel.
Peoplehood and Zionism, then, built a codependent relationship. Peoplehood created Zionism, but the tribulations and glories of the State of Israel, especially after the trauma of the Shoah, reinforced the commonality of destiny between all Jews. It provided peoplehood with texture and passion and gave us a secular mythology that could replace the ancient religious one.But 70 years later, the State that was created by peoplehood presents new and unprecedented challenges to that foundational idea. First, although Jewish nationalism evolved on the model of 19th century European nationalism, it doesn’t really fit that mold so neatly. Providing a national consciousness to the inhabitants of France was one thing; creating a state for a people dispersed around the world is quite another. The dynamics of the relationship between the nation-state and the people are, in our case, unique, for no national movement has done what ours did. The French national movement, for example, wasn’t created by French Canadians seeking to return to France.
In the codependent relation between people and state, there were tensions, contradictions, and ambiguities. The trauma of the Shoah, the miracle of Israel’s creation and survival, and the wars and achievements of the State somehow dulled those contradictions. They were there, lurking, but we had more urgent things to attend to. There was, from the onset, a less-than-perfect overlap between peoplehood and statehood, and the tensions between these ideas grew while we weren’t looking. For decades, the story of the Jews of Israel has run on a path that is essentially different from that of Diaspora Jews. 1948 was a fork in the road and the two branches started to travel on bifurcating paths. True, before Israel, a Jew from Morocco was extremely different from a German Jew, but they both shared their condition as a minority deprived of collective political sovereignty.
Can we talk about a single Jewish People or is the Israeli experience of Jewish political sovereignty so different from the Diasporic ethos that we are already, in fact, two different peoples? Is there an Israeli people that is different from the Jewish people? Are Arab Israelis a part of the Israeli people? And are they then, by extension, members of the Jewish People? And didn’t Zionism try to create a “new Jew” in opposition to the Jew of the Diaspora? Did they succeed?
The idea of the “Jewish People” has always included a degree of ambiguity. The concept of peoplehood borrowed from the notion of “klal Israel,” the Jewish Collective, which emerged organically and, in the absence of political power, functioned perfectly well without clear boundaries. With a state, however, even minor ambiguities about peoplehood and citizenship become a problem. The state, any state, needs to determine clearly who is a citizen and, in our case, that necessitates determining who is a Jew. For the first time, we have the power of the state to define the parameters of peoplehood, and that’s a recipe for tensions and confrontations.
Thus, we reach today’s paradox: the magnificent success of the Zionist enterprise – based on peoplehood – may threaten the idea that Jews are one people at all.
Of course, that is not a foregone conclusion. Israel has, in the past, reinforced the notion of peoplehood and can do so in the future. But for that to happen, those of us who believe in Jewish peoplehood and Zionism need to radically reinterpret the concepts of Jewish nation and Jewish state. What makes us today a people? Do we have a purpose as a people beyond our mere survival? What does our being a people mean for us Jews, and for the world? How do we navigate the unique complexities of peoplehood and statehood when the overlap between them is not complete? How does our conception of peoplehood impact issues of governance and political power in the State and around the Jewish World?
Discrete programs of exchange between Diaspora and Israeli Jews to “bridge the gap”; educational programs to teach Israelis about Diaspora Judaism; Birthright and “Mifgash,” etc., are all useful, but they can’t replace an in-depth – and difficult – process to answer these questions.
[Part 2 can be found here.]
Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO of Jewish Funders Network. A Jewish communal leader of long standing with a history of leading successful organizational transformations, his previous positions include CEO of Federation CJA in Montreal and Regional Director for Northeast Europe for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).