A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism

A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism

by Yakov M. Rabkin, published by Zed Press

There is a tradition of Jewish opposition to Zionism, but this book only deals with a section of it. There is a difference between Jewish opposition which includes sections of the Left and Judaic opposition – the conservative ultra-orthodox religious which never warmed to socialism. It is therefore somewhat strange that a progressive publisher should publish such a book about the latter. Perhaps the urge to endorse anti-Zionism trumped any desire to promote left wing causes.

Although the book is informative, this particular writer comes with a specific political agenda. There is little from primary sources and few references from Hebrew.  There is a real tendency to generalise and to lift quotations out of context. There does not appear to be a differentiation between the Israeli Right and the Israeli peace camp. Thus, the foreword declares that ‘the Zionists declare that all opposition to Zionism is antisemitic’. Of course, this isn’t the case. But can criticism of Zionism never be anti-Semitic? Moreover who are ‘the Zionists’?  The Peace Now movement which has long opposed the settlements on the West Bank does not disavow Zionism. Neither does Yossi Beilin, the architect of the Oslo agreement. Neither do members of ‘Courage to Refuse’ – those who refuse to serve on the West bank in the Israel Defence Forces.

Even the new historians are roped in to back the antipathy towards Zionism of part of the ultra-orthodox. Yet the doyen of the new historians, Benny Morris who has documented in great detail the plight of the Palestinian refugees does dissent from being labelled a Zionist.

The author retrieves some real gems from the Stalinist past such as ‘the complicity of several Zionist leaders’ with regard to the Holocaust. Yet there is no mention that some of the great Talmudic scholars and heads of academies in Lithuania in 1940 refused to move their institutions to Palestine despite the likelihood of Nazi invasion.

Zionist leaders are depicted as militarists with a passion for violence. For example, Vladimir Jabotinsky, a liberal conservative, is usually credited as the founder of the Israeli Right. Yet this does not mean that he sympathised with fascism as the author repeatedly attempts to infer. Jabotinsky was never an admirer of Mussolini as stated in the book and in fact ridiculed him in several writings in the 1920s. Jabotinsky’s article in which he exhorted his young followers ‘to learn to shoot’ – published in Yiddish in October 1931, not 1936 – was placed in the context of defensive military training. Palestinian Arabs had massacred Jews in Hebron and Safed in 1929 and Polish anti-Semitism was taking its toll of Jewish students. In this context, Jabotinsky told the Jews in effect to stand up for themselves, not to indulge in aggression and conquest. This is a good example of how both the author and many of Jabotinsky’s disciples such as Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir have cherry picked from Jabotinsky’s canon of writings to fit their own agenda. ‘The Iron Wall’, written in 1923, was a call for an armed force to defend the Jews in Palestine after the killings of 1921. It was not a call to build an army to conquer and suppress the Arabs. If Jabotinsky was a militarist, then why did he refuse to embrace Irish Republicanism? Yet Shamir lauded the IRA and called himself ‘Michael’ after Michael Collins. The author confuses Jabotinsky’s approach with that of his more radical acolytes such as Begin and Shamir. And this technique of telescoping and simplifying is true of many other Zionist leaders depicted in this book.

There are occasional passages when non-orthodox rabbis are conscripted to join the anti-Zionist ranks. The late John Rayner is depicted as a Reform rather than a Liberal rabbi and a rapid opponent of Israel, yet he supported many initiatives of the pro-Zionist Peace Now. The national religious, the religious Zionists, also come in for attack. They dress in modern clothes, serve in the army, work for a living – something many ultra-orthodox do not do.

Ultra-orthodox condemnation of Zionism was based on opposing human intervention in the coming of the messiah and the forcing of God’s hand. They was a great fear of secularism which they had seen emerge out of the European Enlightenment. Indeed, a century before, one sage preferred to support the Tsar who had terribly oppressed the Jews rather than welcome Napoleon’s legions as liberators. The French Revolution was seen as carrying the seeds of secularism and eroding the authority of the rabbis.

The ultra-orthodox were mainly centred in the anti-Zionist Agudat Yisrael party. Yet the Holocaust softened this approach and many came to terms with the existence of a state of Israel. Indeed, probably today over 5% of Israel’s citizens are ultra-orthodox. Members of Agudat Yisrael signed the Declaration of Independence of Israel in 1948 and went on to serve in its government.

Several Israeli writers such as Ehud Luz and Avi Ravitsky have written cogently about Judaic opposition to Zionism, but this is far more of a polemical and selective work. It is certainly not a guide for the perplexed.

Chartist September/October 2007

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