Zionist Divisions at the Turn of the Century
Kishinev exists wherever Jews undergo bodily or spiritual torture, wherever their self-respect is injured and their property despoiled because they are Jews. Let us save those who can still be saved!
—Theodor Herzl at the Sixth Zionist Congress, 19031
We entered upon the dawn of the Twentieth Century in high hope for our country, our Empire and the world,” Winston Churchill wistfully recalled in 1949. “The latter and larger part of the Nineteenth Century had been the period of liberal advance. In 1900 a sense of moving hopefully forward to brighter, broader and easier days was predominant.”2
At the turn of the century, many Jews shared Churchill’s optimism. The liberal advances of which Churchill spoke should have heralded a period of new opportunity for European Jews. And the First Zionist Congress in 1897, with its portending the Jews’ joining the family of nations, made the future appear even brighter.
Therefore, when these optimistic expectations were dashed and when the twentieth century opened with a paroxysm of violence against Jews, many Jews were shaken to their core. In Russia, it began with the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery of “minutes” of a fictional meeting in which Jews were alleged to have plotted to take over the world by manipulating the press and world economies. The Protocols were translated into numerous languages and disseminated across the globe.
Shortly thereafter, Russia’s hostility to Jews moved from words to violence. The attack that stunned them more than any other was the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. The horror began on Easter Sunday, April 19:
Initially, young people began hounding Jews to leave Chuflinskii Square, their cause gradually taken up by adults in an increasing state of holiday drunkenness. Late that afternoon, some twenty-five bands, averaging thirty-fifty each, simultaneously fanned out across the Jewish quarter of Bessarabia’s capital, teenage boys taking the lead in smashing the windows of houses and stores. Students and seminarists from the Royal School and the city’s religious colleges, iron bars and axes in hand, followed the hooligans; aided by looters, they plundered and demolished property. The local police made no attempt to interfere, Chief of Secret Police Levendal even exhorting the gangs on. . . . Passing through the streets in his carriage, Orthodox bishop Iakov blessed the mostly Moldavian attackers.3
Once it became clear to the mob that the governor was not going to intervene, matters got even worse. The wanton cruelty was virtually beyond description. What followed was
murder and massacre during the night. . . . 50,000 Jews (a third of the population) now fell prey to barbarism . . . a boy’s tongue was cut out while the two year old was still alive. . . . Meyer Weissman, blinded in one eye from youth, begged for his life with the offer of sixty rubles; taking this money, the leader of the crowd destroying his small grocery store gouged out Weissman’s other eye, saying “You will never again look upon a Christian child.” Nails were driven through heads; bodies hacked in half; bellies split open and filled with feathers. Women and girls were raped, and some had their breasts cut off.4
As the horror was unfolding, the St. Petersburgskiye Vedomosti later reported, the upper class “walked calmly along and gazed at these horrible spectacles with the utmost indifference.”5 It was only when the minister of the interior sent a telegram to the governor telling him to put a stop to the massacre that the troops were deployed and, by the morning of April 21, martial law went into effect.
The toll was horrific. Thirty-four men (including two babies) and seven women were murdered during the pogrom; another eight Jews later died from their wounds. There was massive property damage. A journalist who arrived in the town soon after the pogrom noted that the local non-Jewish citizens displayed “neither regret nor remorse.”6
SHORTLY AFTER THE POGROM, the Jewish Historical Commission in Odessa asked Chaim Nachman Bialik to go to Kishinev, to interview survivors and to tell the story. Bialik was a natural choice for the assignment. Ever since the publication of his poem “To the Bird” a decade earlier, his reputation had soared. By the time a collection of his poetry was published in 1901, he was widely considered one of the greatest—if not the greatest—Hebrew writers of his generation. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, another Zionist leader and himself a gifted writer, said Bialik was “the one poet in all of modern literature whose poetry directly molded the soul of a generation.”7
What Bialik saw and heard when he arrived in Kishinev shocked him. His literary response, the epic poem “In the City of Slaughter,” however, directed his fury not only at the marauding, raping, murdering mob, but also, surprisingly, at the Jews themselves. In the middle of the lengthy and complex poem, Bialik describes the basement of a house, where a gang of Cossacks rapes the Jewish women mercilessly, time and again. While the savage assault is unfolding, according to Bialik’s rendition, the Jewish men hide behind casks, unable to stop the attackers, too frightened to even try. These “sons of the Maccabees,” Bialik calls them with bitter irony, are the very symbols of what Bialik believes has gone wrong with European Jewry.
Then, Bialik turns his rage on the Jewish tradition itself. Bialik “describes” how after the attack, these men of priestly descent stepped over the broken bodies of their still-living wives and ran to the rabbi to ask, “Is my wife still permitted to me?”8
“That is what worries you?” Bialik virtually screams. The people you love are broken, wounded, raped, and lying on the ground, and all that concerns you is a question of Jewish law, the matter of whether your wives are still sexually permitted to you? What has happened to your humanity? What have you become?
It makes no difference, of course, whether the scene as Bialik describes it ever took place. He was, after all, a poet and not a historian. What matters was his horror, both at what Europe was capable of doing and—because of the passivity that Jewish tradition had fostered in them—at what the Jews could not do.
The exile of the Jew from his own land, Bialik claims, has more than robbed the Jew of his strength and his courage. It has eroded his capacity to feel. Exile has destroyed him. And the legal system of the Jewish tradition, which might once have created moments and spaces of purity and holiness in a spoiled world, now rots the Jew’s soul by turning his attention away from what really matters. The Jewish tradition, Bialik essentially says, is a cancer that has destroyed the Jew’s humanity.
For Bialik therefore, and for many of his contemporaries, the point of Zionism, of the return to the Jewish homeland, was not simply to create a refuge or to fix the “Jewish problem” in Europe. The reason that Jews needed to return to their land was that it was only there that the Jews could fashion a “new Jew.” It was time, he insisted, to re-create the Maccabees of old. It was time for the Jewish nation to be reborn.
BIALIK WAS FAR FROM the only Jewish leader for whom the events in Kishinev were transformative. To Herzl, Kishinev was simply further evidence that the Jews desperately needed a home—wherever they could create it. Because he was making little progress with the Ottomans, Herzl, who had earlier entertained the possibility of Argentina as a location for his state, had begun to consider places other than Palestine.
At the Sixth Zionist Congress, which began on August 23, 1903, he invoked Kishinev, insisting that Kishinev was not an event or a place, but rather a condition. “Kishinev exists wherever Jews undergo bodily or spiritual torture, wherever their self-respect is injured and their property despoiled because they are Jews. Let us save those who can still be saved!” he insisted.9 He wrote to his colleague Max Nordau that they should accept Great Britain’s offer of territory in East Africa. That offer, he reminded Nordau, “is the only one. . . . We must, in a word, play the politics of the hour.”10
Those “politics of the hour” were a proposal made by Joseph Chamberlain (the British colonial secretary), who—in response to Herzl’s diplomatic pressure—had suggested that instead of insisting on returning to Palestine, the Jews should take a piece of territory in East Africa. Herzl presented the option, which became known as the Uganda Plan (even though the land in question was technically in modern-day Kenya, an area that not long before had been part of the Uganda protectorate11), at the Sixth Zionist Congress. The ensuing debate, predictably, was vociferous. Those who supported the plan argued that “Uganda” would not be the Jews’ final destination; it would merely be a temporary stopover on the way to their permanent return to their ancestral homeland in Palestine. Surprisingly, some national-religious delegates, who as religious Jews might have been expected to insist on redeeming the Land of Israel, shared Herzl’s sense of desperation and voted in favor of the plan.*
But resistance to the idea was fierce. How many people would uproot themselves to move to a place that they would then have to leave soon thereafter? Jews would either not move to “Uganda” at all, many feared, or, if they did, they would not move once again should Palestine become a possibility. The Uganda Plan could derail the hope of ever returning to Palestine. Zionism was not only about obtaining a home for the Jewish people—it was about reestablishing a home in their ancestral homeland. Even many secular Zionists (who did not share a religious attachment to the land) voted against the proposal, insisting that “giving up Zion for even an hour seemed like a severe and elemental ideological heresy.”12 Some Russian representatives, “among them those from Kishinev”13 who should have felt more than anyone the urgency of finding a safe haven for the Jews, vigorously opposed the idea of a Jewish state in East Africa.
Herzl quickly realized that he had unwittingly unleashed a tempest he could not control. The Zionist congress—and the Zionist movement—were now deeply divided. There was nothing immediate that Herzl could do to undo the damage.
The Zionist community was now embroiled in deep and vituperative debate, and it would remain so—forever. The Uganda idea itself would fade and become irrelevant. But other issues would arise. Zionism, it was already becoming clear, would never be a simple political movement. Zionism was centered around the Jewish future and the subject of a Jewish national home—but precisely how those needs ought to be met would remain the subject of often messy and acrimonious disagreement. As much as it was a movement, Zionism was actually a complex and often feisty conversation.
Because everyone involved understood that a messy showdown would serve no one, the congress sought to dodge the Uganda issue and voted merely to investigate the viability of the proposal. Yet even that left some of the delegates incensed, and after the vote, Yechiel Tschlenow—who had led the opposition to the proposal—stormed out of the hall with 128 other opposition delegates in tow.
Herzl left the conference dejected. In poor health and plagued by the dire situation of Russia’s Jews, he had watched his prized congress come apart at the seams due to a divisive proposal that he himself had made. By the spring of 1904, he apparently realized the severity of his tactical error; at a meeting of the Zionist Executive, which would later be dubbed “the reconciliation conference,” he said that “for us a solution can only be found in Palestine.”14
As Herzl suspected would be the case, the Uganda Plan was ultimately rejected at the Seventh Zionist Congress in July 1905. But Herzl did not live long enough to attend that congress. Only forty-four years old, he died of heart failure on July 3, 1904.
Herzl had known since his youth that he had heart problems. Yet he had given the risk to his own life no consideration; he knowingly sacrificed himself in the pursuit of a dream that he believed could save his people. Jews recognized not only his sacrifice, but the enormous change in Jewish history for which he was largely responsible.
“Vienna,” said one writer, “had never before seen such a funeral.”15 Stefan Zweig, a Jewish writer who attended Herzl’s funeral, wrote:
It was a strange day that day in July, unforgettable to everyone who witnessed it. Suddenly, from every station, from every train, day and night, from every region, from every port, they arrived and came in their thousands. Jews from western and eastern Europe, Russian and Turkish Jews, from every district and every remote hamlet, they flowed into the city, the shock of the bad news still on their faces. And the truth that had been obscured for so long by dissents and gossip was now revealed to us in all its might—that this man who is now being laid to rest was the leader of a great movement. Suddenly, Vienna is learning that it was no ordinary writer or poet who has died, but one of those people who shape ideas, the like of whom appear so rarely on the stages of history. A terrible pain has cut through the hearts of an entire nation, and for the first time I have come to realize how much courage and hope this singular man has instilled in the world by means of his vision.16
It had been hundreds of years since the Jewish people had had such a leader.
HERZL AND BIALIK WERE hardly the only Zionist leaders for whom Kishinev was transformative. “The killing in Kishinev has completely filled my heart and I cannot think of anything else,” wrote Asher Zvi Ginzberg. He also agreed that the Jewish people needed to become something other than what they were. “It is a disgrace for five million human souls to unload themselves on others, to stretch their necks to the slaughter and cry for help, without as much as attempting to defend their honor and lives.”17
Born in 1856 in Ukraine (four years before Herzl’s birth), Asher Zvi Ginzberg took on the pen name Ahad Ha’am (“One of the People”), by which he is universally known. Recognized early for his sheer brilliance, Ahad Ha’am was born into a family deeply entrenched in the Hasidic world, where they expected he would remain. Like Bialik and others, however, Ahad Ha’am was drawn to the larger intellectual world that Europe and the haskalah offered. A pattern was emerging. Many of the most prominent Zionist thinkers of those days had been born into Orthodox families but to some degree or another left the world of Jewish tradition. Under their leadership, Zionism would become a fusion of profound Jewish knowledge and, at the same time, hostility to much of the tradition in which they had been raised.*
Unlike some of the others who left the traditional Jewish world, Ahad Ha’am retained a love for the spiritual world that had shaped him. Lore has it that his father warned him that he would no longer have access to his father’s library if he continued to read heretical texts. Ahad Ha’am was so nervous about this that he even once burned a book to hide his forays into this foreign literary world18; he would simply not risk being banished from his father’s library of Jewish classics.
In deference to his father, he even agreed to marry a wife from an appropriately religious background, and by the age of fourteen, was betrothed to a woman from a prestigious Hasidic family with whom he was not particularly taken.19 Somewhat surprisingly, the union lasted.
After his father fell upon difficult times (another biographical detail common to many of the early Zionist leaders), Ahad Ha’am decided to move to Odessa, the hub of the intellectual Jewish renaissance to which he was so drawn. The sole Russian city in which Jews were permitted to live, Odessa was home to a thriving Jewish intellectual milieu; many of Zionism’s greatest thinkers would emerge from there.
Ahad Ha’am threw himself into the hotbed of Jewish culture that was Odessa, but unlike some of the Zionist thinkers who did the same, it was not without inner conflict. He retained an instinctive commitment to the aesthetics of the Hasidic world. In an uncharacteristically revealing article, “Ketavim Balim”(“A Tattered Manuscript”), he wrote in 1888:
During those long winter evenings, at times when I’m sitting in the company of enlightened men and women, sitting at a table with tref [nonkosher] food and cards, and my heart is glad and my face bright, suddenly then—I don’t know how this happens—suddenly before me is a very old table with broken legs, full of tattered [sacred] books, torn and dusky books of genuine value, and I’m sitting alone in their midst, reading them by the light of a dim candle, opening up one and closing another, not even bothering to look at their tiny print . . . and the entire world is like the Garden of Eden.20
That unabashed love for the world he had chosen to leave set him apart from some of his other Zionist counterparts. What the Jews needed, he insisted, was not sovereignty. Jews, he believed, had an innate sort of spirituality, different from that of non-Jews. Gentile nationalism, he argued, is rooted in power, while in Judaism, the spirit is meant to triumph over material power. “A political ideal which does not rest on the national culture,” Ahad Ha’am wrote at about the same time, “is apt to seduce us from our loyalty to spiritual greatness, and to beget in us a tendency to find the path of glory in the attainment of material power and political dominion, breaking the thread that unites us with the past.”21 Zionism, he thought, should focus on creating a spiritual center in Palestine, not a state.
Ahad Ha’am was particularly incensed by the fact that there was nothing distinctly Jewish about Herzl’s vision. “It would be better if the Jewish people were to disappear from the face of history,” he wrote, “than to find itself trapped in the meaningless power mongering of a small state populated by individuals of Jewish ancestry but which would otherwise not be a Jewish state.”22
Herzl may have been trying to save the Jewish people, Ahad Ha’am believed, but he thought Herzl’s plan terribly misguided:
Not only did he fail to take culture into account, but in his style of politics he represented a sharp, sinister break with Jewish history: his cultivation of the masses (which Ahad Ha’am immediately denounced as demagoguery) coupled with his promise of rapid redemption conjured terrifying comparison with messianic pretenders of the past. . . . He went so far as to charge Herzl with heresy.23
Ahad Ha’am had an alternate proposal. Rather than working to create a state, he thought Jews ought to establish a “colony” in Palestine. Populated by the elites of the Jewish world, this spiritual center would enrich the Jewish spirit everywhere.24 “From Zion shall go forth Torah,” the biblical prophet Isaiah had proclaimed optimistically thousands of years earlier.25 Ahad Ha’am clearly thought Zionism ought to fulfill the prophet’s prediction.
To his mind, the Jewish future would rest not solely on Jewish fortunes in Zion. Since Jewish sovereignty was not critical for him, he was open to the idea of different kinds of Judaism flourishing in multiple places. And, he was convinced, Jews could also flourish in America. “To Eretz Israel(the Land of Israel) or to America?” he asked. “The true answer . . . is: to America and to Eretz Israel. The economic side of the Jewish question needs to be answered in America, while the idealistic side . . . it is only in Eretz Israel.”26
After the publication of Herzl’s Altneuland in 1902, the battle between Herzl and Ahad Ha’am (who was by then Herzl’s most vociferous critic) grew even uglier. But just a year later, the pogrom in Kishinev led even the apolitical Ahad Ha’am to back off—everyone understood that the Jewish people needed to set aside differences and to prepare a way to escape Europe. But he never dropped his objection to Herzl’s plan for a Jewish state. Statehood, he was convinced, would be an enormous mistake for the Jews.
Ahad Ha’am lost that battle with Herzl, of course, for Zionism did go on to establish a state. Yet his ideas continued to resonate in the Zionist world and continue to do so to this very day.
Among Ahad Ha’am’s earliest devotees was a group of intellectuals in Palestine who established Brit Shalom (the Covenant of Peace), an organization that sought to promote peace between Jews and Arabs, primarily by advocating that the Jews give up their quest for statehood. Brit Shalommembers were convinced that since a Jewish state would forever be in conflict with the region’s Arabs, Jews would be better served by creating a binational state of Jews and Arabs. There was no reason that Jews and Arabs could not share the region, and even neighborhoods, living in utter harmony.
The movement never had more than about a hundred members, but its influence far outstripped its numbers. Prominent members included Arthur Ruppin, an economist who held a senior position in the Jewish Agency; the philosopher Martin Buber; and Gershom Scholem, the world-renowned philosopher and historian. Albert Einstein never joined the movement but was supportive; so, too, was Judah Magnes, an American Reform rabbi and pacifist who by virtue of his role in shaping the culture of Hebrew University (he was the university’s first chancellor and later its president), was able to influence the thought of generations of Israeli students and scholars. Subsequent generations of American Jewish leaders were at the very least deeply influenced by Ahad Ha’am, and his followers, especially in Israel’s early years, wondered aloud whether in pursuing a state, Zionism did not make a critical strategic blunder, unwittingly leading the Jews astray.
What both the statist and nonstatist visions had in common was that for either to be realized, no small number of Jews would have to pick themselves up and move to an Ottoman province. In that regard, at least at this stage, the realization of either vision seemed entirely unlikely.
OTHER IMAGES OF ZIONISM were also emerging during this time. Max Nordau, a highly regarded public intellectual, had become wrapped up in the Zionist cause at around the time of the Dreyfus affair. Nordau had been born into an Orthodox family in Pest, was a correspondent in Paris for the Vossische Zeitung, a liberal German paper based in Berlin, and had left the Jewish world to become a German intellectual. He even changed his name from Südfeld in an attempt to distance himself from Jewish heritage.
Nordau, in some sense, had foreseen Kishinev. As early as the Second Zionist Congress, he advocated the creation of the Muskeljuden, “muscle-Jews.” The new Jewish state that the Zionists were anxious to create, he argued, needed to be populated by the new Jew—a strong, empowered figure for whom the yeshiva was a distant memory.
For too long, all too long have we been engaged in the mortification of our own flesh. . . . Or rather, to put it more precisely—others did the killing of our flesh for us. Their extraordinary success is measured by hundreds of thousands of Jewish corpses in the ghettos, in the churchyards, along the highways of medieval Europe. . . . In the narrow Jewish street our poor limbs soon forgot their gay movements; in the dimness of sunless houses our eyes began to blink shyly; the fear of constant persecution turned our powerful voices into frightened whispers, which rose in a crescendo only when our martyrs on the stakes cried out in their dying prayers in the face of their executioners. . . . Let us take up our oldest traditions; let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.27
Nordau was hardly alone in feeling that Zionism needed to usher a new era of overt physicality into the consciousness of the Jewish people. The Kishinev pogroms shook no one in the Zionist establishment more than Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky.28 Born in Odessa in 1880, the secular, somewhat assimilated Jabotinsky (who later used the first name Ze’ev) spent his early years as a journalist and foreign correspondent in Europe and in the Russian Empire.
Jabotinsky was delivering a lecture to the Jewish literary society in Odessa on Pinsker’s Auto-Emancipation when he received the news of the Kishinev pogrom. Though horrified by the news, he, too, was not entirely surprised. Even before the massacre, rumors had been circulating about an impending pogrom, and Jabotinsky and a few others started gathering pistols and spoke of both the legality and importance of self-defense.
Over the course of his career, Jabotinsky would increasingly lock horns with the Zionist establishment, particularly as he became convinced that the Zionists were too weak and passive in the face of opposition—first from the Ottomans and then the British—to ever accomplish their goals of creating a Jewish state. He hoped to “revise” mainstream Zionism’s accommodating and gradual approach to acquiring land and building on it; so he founded a splinter movement, Revisionist Zionism.
In theory, Revisionist and mainstream Zionism were not all that different. Both believed in the “establishment of Jewish settlements in Palestine, the right to a Jewish armed force, and free Jewish immigration to Palestine, all accomplished through diplomacy with the British.” Both of them also endorsed Jewish settlement of the entire Land of Israel as outlined in the Bible, including both sides of the Jordan River. Where they differed was in the degree to which they might be willing to use force—if needed—to achieve their goals.
Jabotinsky began by organizing Jewish self-defense units across the Russian Empire, placing a heavy emphasis on the youth. Several years later, in 1923, Jabotinsky established a Revisionist youth movement, Betar, named for the last standing fortress of the Bar Kokhba rebellion against the Romans in 135 CE. Betar was designed to teach military tactics and to physically train the youth of Europe. As Jabotinsky explained in his essay “The Idea of Betar,” the aim of the movement was
very simple though difficult: to create that type of Jew which the nation needs in order to better and quicker build a Jewish state. . . . The greatest difficulty is encountered because, as a nation, the Jews today are neither “normal” nor “healthy” and life in diaspora affects the intelligent upbringing of normal and healthy citizens.29
Betar spread throughout Europe, building chapters in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Palestine. In a decade, the movement would come to include seventy thousand members.
Unlike Ahad Ha’am and Brit Shalom, Jabotinsky was no pacifist. If the Jews wanted Palestine, he warned, they were going to have to go to battle. While other Zionist camps often felt that military prowess and the use of force were somehow at odds with Zionism’s fundamental ethos, neither Jabotinsky nor the Revisionists who would follow him would apologize for being willing to fight when Jewish destiny demanded it.
Jewish destiny, they believed, would periodically require the use of force. Sadly, history would prove Jabotinsky and the Revisionists prescient.
If Nordau and Jabotinsky thought that physical power should be key to the essence of the new Jew, for others, the new Jew needed to focus on an entirely different form of physicality. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the Kishinev pogrom and the failure of the Russian Revolution forged a deeply ideological wave of immigrants, whose primary spokesperson was Aaron David Gordon (almost always referred to as A. D. Gordon).30 A devotee of Ahad Ha’am’s philosophy, Gordon would become the philosopher of Labor Zionism. He agreed that it was time for a new Jew. But for him, the new Jew would emerge not from discarding the past, not from a deep otherworldly spirituality, nor from Jews building their physiques. The new Jew would emerge from working the land.
Born in 1856 in Podolia, a small village in the Ukraine, near the modern-day border with Moldova, Gordon spent most of his life managing the estate of a wealthy relative. In 1904, at age forty-seven, Gordon, ignoring the advice of others, decided to head to Palestine. He left his wife and two children with whatever money he had, hoping that he would soon be able to bring them over. A white-collar worker his entire life and no longer young, physically weak but undeterred, Gordon was determined to be a laborer on the land. He succeeded. Whether at the wineries of Petach Tikvah, in the Galilee, or, finally at Degania (the first kibbutz* of the Labor Zionist movement), he worked the land until he was essentially spent. He became seriously ill in 1921, but disregarded his health and continued working until—like Herzl who had preceded him—he died.
Yet Gordon left a legacy that would inspire generations of Jews in the Yishuv* and later in Israel, particularly in the early kibbutz movement. His new Jew would be sustained by a “religion of labor”:
Labor is not only the force which binds man to the soil and by which possession of the soil is acquired; it is also the basic energy for the creation of a national culture. This is what we do not have—but we are not aware of missing it. We are a people without a country, without a living national language, without a living culture. . . . A vital culture, far from being detached from life, embraces it in all its aspects. . . . Farming, building, and road-making—any work, any craft, any productive activity—is part of culture and is indeed the foundation and the stuff of culture. 31
Jews needed to return to nature and to working the land with their bare hands; for too long, Gordon felt, they had relied on their intellect for their livelihoods. This had distorted their national soul (an accusation with which Bialik and Ahad Ha’am would certainly have agreed). For Gordon, the remedy was to be found in the land; it was time for the Jews to return to a life of labor. “Labor has afflicted us,” Gordon said, “and labor will heal us.”32
It is impossible to exaggerate the degree to which Gordon’s worldview would profoundly shape the first decades of renewed Jewish life in Palestine. The centrality of agriculture to the early kibbutz movement, the image of Jews resettling the land as farmers (though even at the peak, only a very small percentage of Jews worked in agriculture), was in a large measure the result of the power of Gordon’s image. The pride that early prestate Zionists took in what might have seemed to some menial labor was also a reflection of Gordon’s influence. The commitment to avodah ivrit(“Jewish labor”), which persists in some circles, is an evocation of A. D. Gordon’s sense that genuine Jewish spirituality would come from calloused hands caked with the dirt of the Land of Israel.
BIALIK AND AHAD HA’AM never lost their love for traditional Jewish texts and the world that those texts evoked, and each wove their influence into his writing. Some Zionists, though, felt that Zionism was not only about transforming Judaism, but about moving beyond it altogether. Perhaps the best-known exponent of this position was Russian scholar Micha Josef Berdyczewski (pronounced Berdichevsky), who famously opined that Zionism needed to be a complete revolt against Judaism.33 It was time for Jews to free themselves of the dogmas of Jewish tradition, history, and religion, and essentially to reinvent themselves. He said, “We can be the last Jews or the first Hebrews.”34
It is therefore not at all surprising that if many of the Zionists rejected traditional Judaism, much of the traditional Jewish world also rejected Zionism. Though there were religious Jews among the Zionists, for many others, religious commitments were an explicit reason not to join the movement.
The reasons dated back millennia. A much-discussed passage in the Babylonian Talmud* refers to three oaths to which Israel and the nations of the world committed themselves. The nations of the world swore that they would not oppress the nation of Israel excessively, while Israel swore not to enter the Land of Israel by force and not to rebel against the nations of the world.35
Over the course of centuries, this brief text became the bedrock of those who argued that Jews should not return to their ancestral homeland until God returned them. It was clear to most that any return to the land was going to require at least some force, which they had sworn not to do. Ironically, religious anti-Zionists and largely secular pacifists like some members of Brit Shalom both opposed Zionism because it would inevitably involve using force.
Those oaths, though, were hardly the central issue. The real issue at the heart of religious anti-Zionism was deeper. Over the centuries of dispersion, Jews had come to see their world as composed of two spiritual states—exile and redemption.36 Implicitly evoking Jeremiah’s sense that the Jews would return to the land when their Creator decreed that it was time, Jews, particularly those in eastern Europe, felt they had a religious duty to remain in exile until God redeemed them. To them, Zionism—which sought to place history and the fate of the Jews in human hands—was a violation of the essence of Judaism. The fact that most of the movement’s leadership was not only fiercely secular, but rabidly antireligious, just confirmed their sense. They railed against the Zionists and would have nothing to do with them.
Yet there were also religious Zionists. Not opposed to Zionism in principle, as were the ultra-Orthodox, they had no compunction about the Jews taking history back into their own hands. Still, they had a different vision for Jewish revival from the secular mainstream. There had been faint strains of a religious Zionist movement even in the late 1800s, but it was in 1902, when the Fifth Zionist Congress stated that Zionism would focus on Jewish culture, that Mizrachi, religious Zionism’s first significant organization, was founded. Culture alone could never sustain Judaism, the religious Jews who founded it insisted. God and the observance of the commandments had always been the heart of Jewish life. Ever since the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, fealty to Jewish law had been the key to Jewish survival. Nothing could ever change that. If Zionism was to have any merit, they said, religion needed to be at its core.
The Mizrachi met for its first world convention in what is today Bratislava in 1904, a year after Kishinev and the year of Herzl’s death. Largely alone, they rejected both the anti-Zionism of the religious eastern Europeans as well as the antireligious sentiments of many in the Zionist world. They would remain relatively peripheral but dogged until 1967, when they would suddenly change Zionism and Israel forever.
ZIONISM HAD BECOME a series of unresolved debates. Some (Herzl) sought a state while others (Ahad Ha’am) insisted that statehood would lead to spiritual bankruptcy, so the Jews should seek only a spiritual center. Some (Bialik) thought religion was the cancer that had destroyed the Jew (though Bialik retained a love for Jewish religious texts), while others (religious Zionists) saw in religion the only hope for sustaining the Jewish people. Some ignored the Arab issue so consistently that they seemed to imagine a Palestine in which there were simply no Arabs. Still others (Herzl), not that different, hoped that the progress Jews would bring to the region would earn them the respect and admiration of their Arab neighbors. Others (Jabotinsky), however, thought those views foolish and said that if Jews were not willing to fight, they had no future in Zion. Some (Nordau) imagined a Jew redeemed by a new physicality, while others (A. D. Gordon) insisted that the physicality had to be rooted in working the land. Zionism was a movement, but it was also a collection of competing dreams.
A Jewish state was still a long way off; decades would pass before the Jews would actually establish the state about which they were already disagreeing. When Zionists ultimately succeeded in creating a state, however, all these rival factions would have to live together in what would become a hastily declared and built country. As much as they disagreed with one another, they would have to live, love, go to battle, build a country—and die—together. Israel’s fractious politics and turbulent political life are, in many respects, the result of these early, unresolved Zionist debates. When it eventually arose, the Jewish state would be one that Jews were constantly struggling to learn how to share. As the great Hebrew writer and early Zionist Yosef Brenner put it, Zionism was in some ways “forced to put forth branches before it [had] time to strike root.”37