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Zionism: Judaism by other means

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    Zionism - the continuation of Judaism by other means by Yael Lotan www.israelshamir.net Interesting and daring essay by an Israeli English-language writer Yael
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 2, 2005
      Zionism - the continuation of Judaism by other means
      by Yael Lotan

      Interesting and daring essay by an Israeli English-language writer
      Yael Lotan contradicts the well-meaning (but meaningless) mantra of
      'Judaism is not Zionism'. Yael was the editor of Arts in the socialist
      zionist newspaper Al Hamishmar I had a pleasure to write for, years
      ago. She lived for a long time in Jamaica, and now lives in Tel Aviv.
      (Israel Shamir, September 28, 2005)

      Anyone who wishes to discuss the phenomenon of Zionism immediately
      runs into the problem of how to define it. Unlike the European
      colonization of the Americas, for example, or the British domination
      of Kenya or India, the Jewish settlement in Palestine has been given
      various and contradictory definitions. The two commonest, and
      conflicting, definitions are: 1. «Zionism is the national liberation
      movement of the Jewish people;» 2. «Zionism is one of the
      manifestations of European colonialism in the 20th century.» I shall
      return to these definitions, their sources and limitations.
      I propose to show that Zionism is an essentially Jewish phenomenon,
      and cannot be separated from Judaism (in the religious-historical
      sense of the term), and therefore its resemblance to either national
      liberation or colonialist movements is morphological rather than
      taxonomic, and leaves various aspects of Zionism unexplained.

      What is Judaism?
      A prayer called Hamavdil (the Separator), said by observant Jews every
      Saturday evening as the Sabbath ends, praises God who «separates the
      sacred from the profane». Judaism is dominated by the idea of
      separation. What are the origins and rationale of this striking
      characteristic? - This question ought to be tackled with the tools of
      anthropology, psychology, history and sociology. There must be various
      reasons why Judaism has not been investigated with these tools, and
      why the few scholars who attempted to analyze the nature of Judaism
      tended to produce apologetics. One reason may be that some of the
      fathers of modern anthropology were themselves Jews (e.g., Franz Boas
      and Claude Levi-Strauss), and were unwilling or unable to tackle their
      ancestral culture with the same tools with which they tackled exotic
      ones. But then, neither did non-Jewish scholars apply to the religion
      which gave birth to Christianity the same analytical methods they
      applied unhesitatingly to alien cultures and religions. A rare and
      illuminating exception may be found in Mary Douglas' famous book
      Purity and Danger, in which she discusses the purity laws in the Book
      of Leviticus, placing them in a broad anthropological context.
      But this is a rare study, and it deals only with the primeval phase of
      Judaism. It can no more cover the subject of latter-day Judaism than a
      discussion of the early days of the American republic can cover the
      subject of the US today. It is time that someone applied the usual
      anthropological methods to the Shulhan Arukh - the all-embracing
      rule-book for observant Jews - in comparison with other old cultures,
      from the Hindu Brahmins to Papuan tribes. But even without all these,
      it is possible to outline some of the main features of Judaism.

      1. The Old Testament defines the Yahwist deity in terms of what he is
      not: Jehovah is not the god of other tribes; He does not share his
      dominion over his chosen tribe with any other deity; Being a deity of
      the upper air, the wind and the surface of the earth, he has no
      dealings with what lies under the earth, namely, the world of the dead
      and the chthonic powers - which accounts for such biblical assertions
      as «The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into
      silence,» and for the injunctions against the consumption of blood and
      necromancy; Jehovah requires from his followers to adopt signs to
      distinguish them from other people, e.g., circumcision, and the
      prohibition of work or lighting a fire one day a week. The Bible also
      lay down rules of separation between different kinds of field crops, a
      ban on yoking together an ass and an ox, on weaving fabrics with mixed
      animal and vegetable fibres, etc. In the course of time Judaism added
      more and more ritual separations, until it became totally dominated
      and obsessed by the business of keeping various categories of things
      apart - the pure and the impure, the sacred and the profane, kasher
      and taref (ritually clean and unclean meats), meat and dairy products,
      leavened and unleavened dough (during Passover), silk and cotton, men
      and women, adults and minors, and so on.

      2. Judaism as we know it began to evolve in the time of the Second
      Temple, i.e., the fifth century BC. Thereafter, the principal
      separation, namely, between Jews and «Gentiles», became entrenched, as
      the religious leaders Ezra and Nehemiah forbade inter-marriage between
      Jews and other people. Even the Samaritans, who were their brothers
      from the northern kingdom of Samaria, were rejected. Jews who adopted
      some of the ways of the world around them were reviled and shunned by
      the traditionalists (known in the New Testament as Pharisees). A Jew
      who assimilated culturally and socially with the Greeks and later with
      the Romans was regarded as an enemy. The Hellenistic civilization of
      the Mediterranean and the Middle East, which was largely extinguished
      by Christendom until the Renaissance, was utterly rejected by the Jews
      who remained faithful to their tribal religion. Christianity, with its
      ambivalent attitude towards Judaism, which gradually turned into
      vicious enmity, made the separation that much easier.
      (It is important to distinguish between earlier examples of Jewish
      hostility to strangers - e.g., the story of Moses' Ethiopian wife -
      which reflected ordinary xenophobia, and the later isolationism, which
      was anchored in religious law. The historical books of the Old
      Testament show that up until the time of the Second Temple there was
      constant inter-marriage between the Israelites and their neighbours.)

      3. After the fall of Judea and the destruction of the Temple, in the
      year 70 AD, separateness became the hallmark of Judaism. Some other
      nations circumcized their sons, or worshipped a single god, sometimes
      even an unseen god (according to Tacitus, so did some Germanic
      tribes), or prohibited the eating of pigs, but these features did not
      lead to a spiritual or social alliance with the Jews. In later times
      Islam adopted the main tenets of Judaism, but was nevertheless
      rejected. The biblical verse «The people shall dwell alone and shall
      not be reckoned among the nations» became the motto of the Jews.
      Judaism adopted the Roman principle of descent through the female,
      since mater semper certa est - the mother is always known - and with
      it the notion that Jews are not only set apart by their religion, but
      are actually made of a different, purer, substance, which must not be
      defiled by mixed marriage. In a curious way, the religion and its
      rituals became almost secondary, because «A Jew, even if he
      transgresses, remains a Jew» - meaning, that even if he ate pork or
      lit a fire on the Sabbath, he was still a member of the chosen people,
      and could always return to the fold. On the other hand, a Gentile can
      be circumcized and observe all the numerous rules, yet he remains a
      goy, and every effort is made to discourage goyim from trying to
      convert to Judaism. Thus Judaism does not really claim to be a
      universal religion, like Christianity and Islam, otherwise it would
      have sought to convert everyone. This is the great paradox: that the
      universal deity the Jews believe in is not interested in the rest of
      the human race, and maintains a separate arrangement with a particular

      4. The Hebrew word Yahadut, which denotes both Judaism and Jewry,
      demonstrates that there is no difference between the faith and the
      people. The familiar Jewish saying that «It is not Israel who kept the
      Sabbath, but the Sabbath that kept Israel», is perfectly true. The
      religion, with its endless prohibitions and rules of ritual purity,
      preserved the distinctive identity of its adherents. That was its
      function. At the same time, it held out an eschatological vision
      according to which at the End of Days the entire world will
      acknowledge the supremacy of Jehovah and recognize Jerusalem as his
      abode and the Jews as his priests - «a kingdom of priests and an holy
      nation.» It does not suggest that all men will become Jews! The
      separation is therefore a cosmic phenomenon, and will continue even in
      the afterworld. In this it differs from the Brahmin caste - which
      resembles Jewry in having strict laws of purity and separation - since
      in the Hindu religion the individual»s caste-identity applies only to
      a single incarnation, and does not have a cosmic status.

      Modern Times and the Enlightenment
      In the 19th century the impact of the Enlightenment began to undermine
      Jewish isolationism. In Europe, where the majority of Jews lived,
      religious observance was visibly weakening and assimilation was
      increasing. As the surrounding society grew more secular and open,
      abandoning the identification of individuals by their religion, more
      and more Jews came to feel uncomfortable in their isolation. But for
      the violent crises which rocked European societies during that period,
      it is possible that most Jews would have assimilated, leaving only a
      few small Orthodox communities to cling to their traditional way of
      life. But the upheavals in Europe in the late 19th century exposed all
      the ethnic and religious minorities to existential dangers, and Jews
      were traditional targets of popular discontent and frustration. At
      this time, antisemism, whose origins were religious and whose roots
      went back to the Crusades, took on a secularized and racist quality.
      It has been argued that Jewish separateness provoked antisemitism, or
      at least exacerbated it. Even if so, it may not matter any longer.
      What is certain, however, is that the violent outbreaks of European
      antisemitism stimulated the mass emigration of Jews to America and
      other distant lands.

      At the start of the 20th century, when assimilation was spreading from
      Western Europe to the more tradition-bound Jewish communities in
      Central and even Eastern Europe, there were three options for the
      preservation of Jewish identity. The first was the time-honoured
      Orthodox way - namely, the strict observance of the ritual laws, which
      amounted to a physical barrier to assimilation, since you cannot
      assimilate among people with whom you cannot share a meal or a drink,
      or pass your leisure time, let alone marry them. The second option was
      to preserve Jewish identity by means of «cultural autonomy», as
      promoted by the Yiddishist movement known as the Bund - namely, by
      encouraging the distinctive Jewish culture in Yiddish language and
      literature, in music and various traditions. This popular movement
      could join the progressive current, support radical ideologies, and
      even adopt an anti-religious stance, for if there was a distinctive
      Jewish culture, it could help preserve their separate identity, even
      if the walls it built around them were not as impregnable as those of
      Orthodoxy. Finally, there was the territorial option - namely, Zionism.

      Territorial Separation
      What Zionism offered was a way of maintaining Jewish separateness in
      the most natural way: by a physical separation from the rest of
      mankind. In a Jewish State it would be possible to preserve the tribe
      without having constantly to resist assimilation. Moreover, it would
      be possible to achieve a «normalization» of the Jewish people - while
      living apart, it would be «a nation among nations», and like the
      others it would consist of different classes - workers and
      capitalists, religious and secular people - who would all be Jews.
      Furthermore, if masses of Jews gathered from all over the world to
      live in one place, their existence would be more secure than as
      minority communities in alien and sometimes hostile societies. But for
      this plan to succeed it had to be located in a place which would not
      only be empty of «Gentiles», but would also have specific Jewish
      associations - namely, the «Land of Israel» (the traditional Jewish
      name for Palestine). All attempts to create a territorial solution in
      another location - e.g., in the Argentine pampas, in Uganda or
      Birobidjan - were not Jewish solutions and remained ideologically and
      numerically insignificant.

      During the first third of the century the Zionist option did not enjoy
      much success. The Orthodox option was still well entrenched, and
      progressive Jews were more attracted by the cultural, quasi-secular,
      option of the Bund. The rest were people who were not averse to
      assimilation, who regarded Judaism as a burden which any sensible
      person would prefer to drop. There is no doubt that but for the rise
      of Nazism and its consequences, Zionism would not have become in the
      latter half of the century the success story that it is.

      Since the establishment of the State of Israel, the two definitions of
      Zionism quoted at the beginning of this article have been prevalent,
      not only in Israel but wherever the subject is raised. Secular Jews
      describe Zionism as one of the national liberation movements which
      arose around the turn of the century, and therefore define every
      Jewish community the world over as part of the Jewish People, or the
      Jewish Nation; we shall come back to the problems of this definition.
      Jews and non-Jews of Marxist background usually describe Zionism as a
      colonial manifestation, but this definition is not quite satisfactory
      either, as we shall see.

      Zionism as a Movement of National Liberation
      Zionism, then, offered to solve the problem of Jewish separateness by
      territorial means. Unfortunately for it, it turned out that the
      autochthonous inhabitants of Palestine, which the Zionist leadership
      had described as a handful of Ishmaelite nomads who could be ignored
      or driven out, were in fact a nation. Ben Gurion recalled how, when he
      disembarked at the port of Jaffa in 1906, he looked around him and
      grew alarmed: «What are all these Arabs doing in my country?» - Did
      not Zionism promise to spare the Jews from having to build walls of
      separation?! This was the start of the Middle East conflict. And not
      only the conflict between Jews and Arabs. In the first decade of the
      century Zionist leaders bemoaned the fact that Jewish agriculturists
      in Palestine were employing «Ishmaelite men and women» in their
      orchards and homes. What was the point of immigrating to the Land of
      Israel, they said, if there too they had to mingle with goyim, and
      «Gentile» women worked in their kitchens and looked after their
      children? The solution proposed was to bring Jews from the Yemen -
      known from their communities in Jerusalem as deeply religious - and
      employ them instead of Arabs in the orchards and houses. This was in
      fact done in 1906 - the settlement called Sha'arayim was created near
      Rehovot, and populated with a Jewish community imported especially
      from Yemen. However, where the Ashkenazi families in Rehovot had
      received four acres each, the Yemenites received only one acre per
      family, thus ensuring that they would be unable to support their
      families by agriculture, and would have to go to work for their
      Ashkenazi neighbours.

      But the definition of Jews as a nation is extraordinarily problematic.
      It's perfectly obvious that the only common denominator between
      European and Yemenite Jews, or between, say, a Jew from Cochin and a
      Jew from Romania, is religion. (It is true that after two or three
      generations of living together in Israel something resembling an
      Israeli nation has come into being, just as an American nation and an
      Australian nation emerged in their time. However, the periodic
      flooding of Israel with masses of new immigrants hinders the
      crystallization of an Israeli nation; but this lies outside the
      present discussion.) And indeed, in Israel, after a century of local
      history, religion remains the framework of society. Israel cannot
      cease to be a «Jewish State», or a «State of the Jews». An editorial
      in the secular Israeli daily Haaretz expressed it thus: «The State was
      established to provide a national home for the Jewish people, and so
      it remains on the threshold of the 21st century. The Jewish people is
      a unique ethnic-national entity, combining religion and nationality...
      The rules governing the political scene in Israel are derived from the
      axiom that this is a Jewish State... This position is anchored in
      Supreme Court rulings and in the laws concerning the Knesset, which
      determine that "a party may not compete in the general elections for
      the Knesset if its aims or its acts oppose, openly or implicitly, the
      existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people»
      (12 February 1996). The formula «The Jewish people is a unique
      ethnic-national entity, combining religion and nationality,» rests on
      premises which cannot be rationally sustained. What kind of «ethnic
      entity» can contain both Russian and Iraqi Jews? Can the term
      «nationality» do so? - Clearly not. The one and only common
      denominator is the religion, and with it the tradition, or myth, of a
      shared origin thousands of years ago. Where religion fails, Zionism
      sustains the myth of ethnic continuity by various other means -
      archaeology, the swearing of soldiers in Massada or at the Wailing
      Wall, and so on.

      Zionism as a European Colonial Movement
      People with a Marxist background apply to Zionism the terms they
      regard as universal, i.e., those of materialism, economics and class.
      And indeed, Zionist history as a whole resembles that of European
      colonialism. The early Zionist leadership was predominantly bourgeois
      European, and had strong links with the bourgeois European governments
      of the time. Moreover, it enjoyed the crucial support of powerful
      capitalist elements, such as the Baron Rothschild and others. Looking
      at the history of Zionism, from the imperialist «Balfour Declaration»
      of 1917 to the present Western support for aggressive Israel, it is
      easy to draw parallels between it and, say, the French colonization of
      Algeria or Indochina. All the same, it is a different story. Between
      the 1920s and 1940s there was a popular Zionist slogan that often drew
      fire from the progressive wing: it was a call for «Hebrew Labour» -
      i.e., «Employ Jews, not Arabs!» But though it expressed indifference
      to the needs of the Arab labour force, it could not be defined as
      racism in the usual sense of the term, for we have seen that Yemenite
      Jewish labourers, who were not «European», and did not differ
      «racially» or culturally from their Moslem neighbours in Yemen, were
      actually imported to replace local Arab labourers. (The Jewish
      credentials of the Yemenite community were never in doubt. On the
      contrary - rabbis, cantors and radio announcers of Yemenite background
      were highly prized for their vast knowledge of Hebrew and its
      heritage.) But if not racism, what did the call for «Hebrew labour»
      signify? - Quite simply, the traditional Jewish separation from the
      goyim, an application of the same principles Jews have lived by
      throughout the world for centuries.

      By contrast, the European colonists in the Americas, Africa and Asia
      were attracted by the availability of a cheap labour force. People
      migrated from Europe to various parts of the world in order to enrich
      themselves by exploiting the natural resources of those countries by
      means of the local labour force. The Zionist settlement in Palestine
      from the late 19th to the mid-20th century was a different enterprise.
      Before World War II, most of the Zionist settlers came to Palestine of
      their own will, not so much driven by circumstances as impelled by
      ideological fervour, often leaving behind them far better conditions
      than those they encountered in the «Promised Land». Those Jews who
      wished to better their condition materially emigrated to the Americas,
      to Australia and South Africa. As for the money that Jewish
      capitalists invested in the Zionist settlement - this was
      characteristic Jewish philanthropy (i.e., dedicated to Jewish causes),
      enlivened with sympathy for the new ideology. When these capitalists
      looked for profits, they invested in far more promising enterprises
      than the Jewish settlement in Palestine; (though they probably did
      hope that eventually there would be a self-supporting Jewish community
      in Palestine, that might in the fullness of time even become profitable.)

      It is hardly surprising that the Zionist movement conducted itself in
      some ways like other European colonial movements, since the political
      thinking of its central leadership stemmed from the European worldview
      of its time. Even when these leaders proclaimed progressive views,
      they continued to identify with Western colonialism. (We must not
      forget that in those days even progressive people in the West believed
      in the superiority of European civilization.) Certainly, as far as the
      Zionists could see, colonialism was the only viable scenario, and all
      other strategies must have seemed totally unrealistic. Zionism rode on
      the skirts of European imperialism, and cooperated with it in order to
      win its support. When Britain was the dominant power in the Middle
      East, Zionism collaborated with it. Nowadays, when the dominant power
      is the United States, Israel serves American interests because they
      serve her own. Yet the aim of Zionism has been to serve not the
      interests of Britain or the United States, but the age-old Jewish goal
      of a separate existence.

      Israeli Zionism
      It is natural that the Zionist movement could contain various
      currents, because they all flowed to the same destination - namely, a
      Jewish state, in which separateness would be automatic. (Today even
      secular Zionists are capable of describing the process of Jewish
      assimilation and inter-marriage in the Western world as «a demographic
      Holocaust»!) Many people believe that in a few generations the only
      Jews in the world, other than a handful of ultra-Orthodox communities
      who maintain their identity in the old, well-tried way, will be the
      citizens of the Jewish State. The rest will assimilate and disappear
      among the «Gentiles». That is why Zionism remains the common programme
      of nearly all of the political parties in Israel, from Moledet on the
      extreme Right to Meretz on the Left. Its principal tenet is that there
      must be a separate Jewish political entity, and the only question left
      is by what means this may be achieved. Right-wingers believe that it
      is possible to suppress and perhaps expel the non-Jews living in
      Palestine, either gradually by driving them to emigrate, or by more
      violent means; at the very least they seek to confine the Palestinians
      to some scattered, closed, supervised reservations. At the other end
      of the scale, the most committed members of the peace camp voice a
      preference for a very small Israel, within the pre-1967 borders or
      even smaller, provided it is «all ours» - meaning, without any Arabs,
      or only a tiny minority as a testimony to Israeli democracy. In this
      they closely resemble the white Afrikaner movement in South Africa,
      which, since the fall of Apartheid, has been clamouring for a separate
      white state in Natal Province.

      The realization that Zionism is a continuation of Judaism by other
      means helps to explain how it can resemble European colonialism and at
      the same time differ from it in important ways, and also resemble
      national liberation movements in some aspects and be quite unlike them
      in others. The Holocaust provided Jewish isolationism with a
      retroactive, if paranoid, vindication, and is therefore never absent
      from Zionist propaganda and apologetics. (I say «paranoid», because
      there is no reason to regard the Nazi extermination policy as an
      ongoing threat, any more than African-Americans are threatened with a
      return to slavery.) And, as stated before, today there is little
      point in arguing whether or not Jewish separateness itself provoked
      antisemitism. Even if it did, then - as in cases of rape - the victim
      is not to be blamed.

      Today it is difficult to digest the paradoxes of the Israeli situation
      unless one considers the aim of Zionism. It is difficult to understand
      why in South Africa the reverse process is taking place - from
      Apartheid to unification, despite all the problems and obstacles -
      whereas in Israel even the popular peace-camp slogan, «Two States for
      Two Nations», whose motives are ostensibly enlightened, strives
      towards the same goal as the Orthodoxy. There is, of course, a basic
      difference between the two main Zionist camps, but it may be
      illustrated by the following metaphor: the hawkish Right wants Israel
      to remain a thorn in the flesh of the Middle East, and prefers a state
      of hostility over a peaceable solution, whereas the dovish Left seeks
      to heal the inflamed wound and turn Israel into a kind of implant in
      the Middle East, something like a cardiac pacemaker or plastic
      hip-replacement - an essentially benign, non-infective foreign body.
      There is no point in giving good and bad marks to history. The
      question is not whether the aim of separateness is good or bad, but
      what it signifies and where it must lead. Because the supra-national
      empires of Europe fell apart in the early years of this century,
      people often speak of our time as being the «era of the nation state»;
      but in reality we are living in an era of non-nation states. The
      dominant power in the world today, the United States of America, is
      not a nation state, nor is there such a state anywhere in the Western
      Hemisphere, from pole to pole. Similarly, Australia, Great Britain,
      India, China, Russia and Indonesia, are not nation states, and the
      same holds true for most of the African states. As time goes on, there
      are fewer and fewer countries whose inhabitants predominantly belong
      to a single ethnic-cultural group. The mass migrations of the past
      century have greatly eroded the national pattern, which was never as
      static as some people imagine.

      In reality Zionism, though based on the concept of a «Jewish nation»,
      gave birth to a state based on religion, while at the same time trying
      to maintain a modern, quasi-secular, quasi-democratic guise. Yet
      though there are today some vigorous theocracies and semi-theocracies
      - chiefly in the Moslem world - they do have ethnic-cultural
      foundations to sustain them, which cannot be said about Israel, as any
      visitor soon perceives. People who believe that it will be possible in
      future to maintain a «Jewish State» in Israel are deluding themselves.
      Not only the Palestinian Arabs, but all of human reality will prevent
      this dream from materializing. The question remains, how dearly will
      the inhabitants of this land still have to pay before a solution is



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