Jewish identity is problematic in the modern world as it was not in pre-modern times. In the Middle Ages and until the breaking-up of the ghetto in the 18th century, whatever the burdens of Jewish life might have been, a self-questioning skepticism about individual identity was not one of them. Jewry and Judaism were defined quite simply in that period as contrasts to Christianity and Islam. The political and social position of the Jew lay in the space granted him by those two rivals—a space that was at times suffocatingly minimal, at times more generous.

Within those confines the Jewish community survived, retained and developed its religion, and cultivated an entire civilization: law, language, folklore, memories of a common past, and expectations of a common future. It was, indeed, through these elements of traditional culture that the Jew of pre-modern times achieved identification with his community. Not that there was no such thing as alienation, or even the defection of individuals and groups to rival religions (as society was divided along the lines of religious affiliation, the Jew who left his own community had no choice but to join another through religious conversion). But what was not known, up to the middle of the 17th century, was a case like that of Spinoza, the case of someone surviving as a Jewish heretic without converting to Christianity.

All this changed in the course of the political and social emancipation of the Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries and the concomitant secularization of both state and society throughout the West. It is noteworthy that the very term used to describe the struggle for a new status—“emancipation”—is a term of celebration, connoting breakthrough and liberation. I do not mean here to pass judgment in retrospect on the question of whether celebration was, or still is, warranted, but to spell out the price that had to be paid for this achievement in the loss of individual identity. For, as the history of the generations succeeding the emancipation testifies, freedom from the constrictions of the ghetto did not lead automatically to integration into society at large. Nor did the loss of contact with ghetto culture lead easily to the acquisition of another culture. Though there were cases of successful assimilation, with or without conversion, collectively speaking the adaptation of emancipated Jews to their environment, and the adaptation of their environment to them, turned out to be a more complicated and painful process than the early champions of emancipation had imagined.

The problematic aspects of emancipation became obvious early on, even before modern anti-Semitism, which is the reaction to Jewish emancipation, had set in. It is difficult now, especially from the viewpoint of America, to imagine the pressures to which German and French Jews were exposed in the 19th century. They were asked to adopt the pattern of conduct prevailing in the surrounding society, to merge into the national culture, and to wipe out or at least cover over any Jewish features that may have persisted in their mental or even physical makeup. Virtually nowhere in Europe did the idea of pluralism, or anything remotely like it, take hold. Indeed, not even the official spokesmen of Judaism felt the need for such a concept. Having newly defined Judaism as a religious creed and only a religious creed, they considered that in all other respects Jews belonged to the general category of citizens. In reality, however, Judaism even in its post-emancipation version continued to represent an entire minority culture, and the Jews a conspicuous subgroup. The problem was that no ideology had been developed to justify or account for this state of affairs. The resulting burden of a split and confused identity caused terrible suffering among many Jews, whose very personalities were disfigured by the dilemma.

Zionism appeared to offer a solution—one can almost say salvation—to Jews caught in this predicament. For if, as Zionism held, the Jews were to be defined as a nation, with a collective past and a collective future, then Jewish “peculiarity” not only became intelligible but was worth preserving and cultivating. The problem of identity was of course not the only problem to which Zionism was a response—we need only mention such factors as the homelessness of East European Jews who had been compelled to emigrate to the West, the emergence of political anti-Semitism, and not least the impact of the new semi-secular messianism among Jews envisaging a revival of the ancient Jewish homeland—but still, many who joined the Zionist movement were indeed motivated by the belief that they would gain thereby a defensible definition of their group identity.1

The recently published correspondence of Martin Buber shows the liberating effect his message of Jewish nationalism had on some of the outstanding Jewish intellectuals of his day. Active in the cultural environment of Vienna, Prague, and Berlin, they still felt themselves to be different, set apart, but lacking the intellectual tools to account for that sense of difference and the ambivalence that went along with it. Buber’s conception of Jewish nationalism, with its claim to embody a unique set of spiritual values, was exactly the formula these intellectuals needed to come to terms with their situation.

Nor was Buber the only Zionist ideologue whose arguments appealed on the intellectual level. The Hebrew writer Ahad Ha’am proposed that Jewish intellectuals in the West were not free to speak their own minds because of an inner anxiety about being stamped as Jewish, and were thus inhibited from realizing their full creative potential. Zionism, he argued, with its promise of an all-embracing Jewish cultural environment, offered the Jewish personality the opportunity of unhampered and harmonious development. Other Zionist writers argued along the same lines, and their arguments were gratefully received by the class of intellectuals to whom they were addressed.



Did Zionism live up to its promise? The answer one gives will depend upon one’s notion of what constitutes a Jewish environment. Two extreme visions of such an environment were proposed in the early days of the Zionist movement, one religious vision and one secular vision.

Religious Zionists imagined that by a return to the Jewish homeland and the establishment there of an exclusive Jewish society, all the historic wounds inflicted on the Jewish psyche would automatically heal. In the seclusion of Palestine they hoped to rebuild a Jewish community untroubled by the forces of assimilation and religious reform. Thus, one prominent rabbi, Akiva Josef Schlesinger from Pressburg (Bratislava), despairing of the struggle against what he regarded as the absolute decline of Jewish life in Europe, left in 1870 for Palestine, where he aimed to establish a community that would be immune to the dangers of modernity. He conceived a kind of order self-supporting through physical labor, agriculture, and industry, but otherwise dedicated to the Orthodox way of life.

Schlesinger antagonized the leaders of the old religious community already resident in Palestine, whose ideal was the contemplative life, dedicated to prayer and the study of Torah, in return for which they expected to be supported (as indeed they were) by pious Jews around the world. This, however, did not deter Schlesinger or other religious Zionists from believing that the new movement, though apparently in conflict with some elements of the tradition, would lead ultimately to its rehabilitation. In the thought of Rabbi Yitzhak Ha-Kohen Kuk this belief was founded upon a veritable messianism. A great talmudic scholar and a genuinely creative mystic, Kuk conceived of the Jewish national revival as the first step toward the spiritualization anticipated by the Jewish tradition for the messianic age. Similarly, Rabbi Yehuda Fishman-Maimon proposed to reestablish the ancient judicial institution of the Sanhedrin, a proposal cautiously countenanced by Rabbi Kuk as well. Though seemingly of practical purpose, this suggestion was also prompted by quasi-messianic expectations, as it was felt that the restoration of Jewish society in the ancient homeland would be incomplete without the institutions which had conducted the affairs of the community in ancient times.

Quite apart from messianic stirrings like these, religious Zionists based their hopes for a regeneration of Judaism on their analysis of the effect of emancipation on the traditional religious loyalties of Jews. The price of political emancipation was assimilation, and assimilation meant a defection from traditional Jewish life throughout the West. In place of emancipation, the Zionists offered self-emancipation, a process of inner liberation that, in addition to restoring political self-respect to the Jews, would restore religious self-respect as well. Had not Theodor Herzl himself declared that the return to the Jewish land would have to be preceded by a return to Judaism?

Unfortunately, the Judaism to which Herzl or any other modern Zionist was ready to return was not the Judaism of the pre-emancipatory period, the deterioration of which was so much deplored by traditionalists. In fact, the traditionalist analysis was overly simple. Simultaneously with political and social emancipation, the Jewish community had become confronted with all the forces of modernity itself, and there was no way it could have escaped the dissolution of old patterns of life which was modernity’s legacy everywhere. The most the traditionalists could have hoped for through their program for a culturally self-sufficient society was that Jews would no longer disavow totally their cultural heritage. This, however, would hardly be tantamount to a reinstitution of religion in the life of the community.

If the expectations of the religious, then, amounted to a romantic longing for a lost past, the other extreme of the ideological spectrum, the secular wing of the Zionist movement, harbored similarly illusory ideas about the harmonious identity to be engendered by the new society. One-time Enlightenment intellectuals and socialists, strong critics of Jewish tradition, the secularists conceived of the return to the ancient homeland as an absolutely new beginning which meant leaving behind all that had attached itself to Jewish life throughout the long sojourn in foreign countries, including what the Jews themselves had created in the constraining circumstances of exile. Into this category fell not only the Jewish mode of life in ghetto and shtetl, but the whole of rabbinic Judaism. The only element of the past to be absorbed by the culture of the future was to be the Hebrew Bible, the creation of the national genius in its pristine state.

It goes without saying that the secular Zionists were no more able than the traditionalists to live up to the consequences of their ideas. They certainly did not abandon the cultural heritage of post-biblical times. Even the revival of the Hebrew language, no doubt the greatest cultural achievement of the national movement, and an indispensable precondition of its success, could never have been accomplished on the basis of biblical vocabulary alone, as some purists would have had it. Modern Hebrew absorbed elements from every historical stratum the language had passed through—biblical, talmudic, medieval, and pre-modern—and drew upon every literary form in which it had ever been employed. Nor did secular education in Palestine—and later in Israel—forgo the study of the classic talmudic literature, or the Hebrew poetry of the Middle Ages. Selected portions of these have become part and parcel of the school curriculum on all levels in present-day Israel.

A similar divergence is evident in the study and evaluation of Jewish history. Theoretically, a self-sufficient society and an independent state would have no use for the history of a Diaspora people. Nor could a record of passive suffering serve as inspiration to a free people. As the novelist Haim Hazaz put it in a fictional dialogue between two early pioneers, there was no such thing as Jewish “history”; history was something made by Gentiles, of which the Jews had been merely the passive victims. Practically, however, both in the pre-state period and thereafter, an immense interest has been expressed in almost every aspect of Jewish history, and on almost every level, both scholarly and popular. It is true that the first generation of sabras had its difficulties identifying with the history of Jewish martyrdom or sympathizing with the proverbial passivity of Diaspora Jews. To them, biblical times and the saga of Jewish independence during the period of the Second Commonwealth seemed more “relevant,” and more real. But after the catastrophic destruction of European Jewry in World War II, the vanished world of the East European shtetl came to be idealized in the popular consciousness—a reversal so sudden and complete as to cast doubt on the depth of the previous estrangement.

The project of ignoring thousands of years of history and culture was utopian in any case. It had been the dream of the “Canaanites,” a group of young intellectuals, to create a locally based civilization related to that of the autochthonous population of pre-biblical Palestine. Reflecting the deep attachment of the Palestinian-born generation to its physical environment, these intellectuals aimed to transform that attachment into a basis of collective identity, while at the same time excluding everything their parents had tried to transmit to them of their Jewish and even their Zionist heritage. As such, the Canaanite ideology may be seen as the extension of the secular Zionist idea to its extreme limit of consistency.

Certain of the early political thinkers of Zionism, starting with Herzl, imagined that once the Jewish state had gathered to itself all those Jews who would not or could not find a place in their respective countries of origin, all the remaining Jews would assimilate and be absorbed into their environment. Left to its own devices, the Jewish state would then develop a separate identity by resorting to an early phase of Jewish, or even pre-Judaic, culture. Some such idea was expressed by Jacob Klatzkin, a scholar and philosopher, in the 1920’s, by Arthur Koestler in the late 1940’s, and by Georges Friedmann, the French-Jewish sociologist, in the 1960’s; it must be regarded as a fantasy. There was never a likelihood that the existence of a Jewish state would facilitate the assimilation of Jews in the Diaspora. What could happen was that the creation of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine would make a point around which the communities of the Diaspora could rally, and from which they could receive cultural inspiration to keep them going and keep them Jewish.

To what extent the state of Israel actually performs this role will be discussed below. But it is certain that the opposite conception—of an ever-widening gap between the Jewish state and the Diaspora—is mistaken, just as the idea that Zionism could recapture a stage of development fifty or sixty generations old was and remains a figment of the imagination.



Given the illusions under which both religious and secular Zionists labored, and given too the extreme polarization between them, it may seem a wonder that they were able to cooperate at all on a common program. The fact that they did so suggests a basic acceptance of mutual identification as well as an understanding of the real historical forces that were at work.

Jewry in the last third of the 19th century, when Zionism emerged, was confronting two such historical forces, modernization and secularization. The traditional definition of Jews as the remnant of biblical Israel, loyal to the mission implied in its name, had been undermined, with everything that entailed by way of a loss of collective identity. The political program of emancipation seemed at first to offer a solution to this dilemma—albeit one that implied the ultimate disappearance of the Jews as a special entity—but as this process was resisted by internal as well as external forces (Jewish social cohesiveness on the one hand, anti-Semitism on the other), a redefinition of Judaism became intellectually imperative. This redefinition had to account for the continuing existence of the Jews as a collectivity without rescinding the insights and commitments which had newly imposed themselves upon Jewish consciousness. The term that offered itself was the Zionist one of the “nation.”

There was nothing artificial about the use of this term, which in fact had long been present in the traditional conception of Jews and Judaism as well. Theological Judaism posited the existence of a Jewish nation, with a long and peculiar history related to the possession of its land of origin, a land to which Jewry was destined to return in an undefined but never doubted future. The elements of this nationalism are akin to those of European nationalism; and it is beyond doubt that the emergence of nationalist movements in the 19th century encouraged the full articulation of a Jewish parallel. The difference lay in the fact that other peoples already possessed the concrete elements of nationalism: they lived on their national ground, at least some of them spoke the national language, they were a compact (if politically oppressed) society.

In the case of the Jews the concrete elements of nationalism were still embryonic or dormant. The destitute communities of the Holy Land fulfilled a symbolic role as representatives of the Jewish claim to the country, but offered a limited foundation for a national movement. The rest of the prospective national body lived scattered among the nations of the earth, partly assimilated and thus shorn of obvious “national” qualities, partly still moored in the patterns of traditional life and thus unlikely to participate actively in the shaping of a national future. That in spite of these impediments the national movement succeeded in mustering the resources for a pioneering effort of resettlement, for the creation of a new society, and finally for the establishment of an independent state, will long remain a marvel—to anyone, at least, who believes that describing facts in chronological order is not tantamount to explaining them.

One of the forces propelling the Jewish national movement was the tradition of Jewish messianism. This force had erupted over and over again in earlier centuries with the appearance of so-called false messiahs, demonstrating the never-fading faith of the Jewish masses in the ultimate termination of the Exile through miraculous redemption. The emphasis, however, was on the word “miraculous.” According to tradition, redemption would take place through divine decree, the hastening of which, if possible at all, could be brought about by spiritual means alone. This traditional conception was transmuted in the modern period not only by secular thinkers, but also by some Orthodox rabbis, who, impressed by the events of political emancipation, concluded that the divine will demanded of the Jews that they take their destiny into their own hands.

The unwillingness to regard the present conditions of society as final—an attitude characterizing many Jewish reformers and revolutionaries in our time—has often been ascribed to the residues of a specific Jewish mentality, even in the case of individuals who have severed all conscious ties with their community. Though not easily demonstrated, the proposition deserves to be taken seriously. That the crumbling of the ghetto walls and the shedding of traditional restrictions released a tremendous amount of pent-up energy among Jews, an energy that astounded and at times frightened the surrounding world, is an observable though sometimes unwelcome fact. What the Jewish national movement accomplished was the channeling of a good part of this energy into the realization of the secularized messianic vision.



Secularization is often understood as the mere extraction of certain domains of life from the restrictive sphere of religion. Such extraction indeed occurs, but the most significant effects of secularization are to be seen when the emotion once directed at a religious term, image, or entire world-vision is transferred to its secular counterpart. The outstanding Jewish example of this phenomenon is the way in which Zionism retained the traditional and religiously sanctioned goal of a return to the ancestral homeland, attributing to it as well all the desirable features of a wholesome national existence: political independence, economic self-sufficiency, the return to nature and physical work, as well as the establishment of a society based on equality and justice. All these objectives were conceived by Zionism as inherent in the old Jewish idea of redemption, prevented from realization on account of the conditions of exile. True redemption—the establishment of a society free from the shackles of the Galut—would liberate the forces latent in the Jewish mentality and produce the miracle of the regeneration of Jewish life.

Utopian as this vision may have appeared to anyone who did not share it, whatever has been accomplished in its name—and this has been considerable—is due, paradoxically, to this utopian quality. The more tangible factors—pogroms, anti-Semitism in the West, and the resultant economic and political insecurities—were responsible in an immediate sense for the desire on the part of Jews to seek out new prospects and new vistas. Yet these pressures by themselves elicited only the accustomed response of escape through emigration. The majority of those uprooted by the anti-Jewish measures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries went to countries where they hoped to find a better situation, leaving the problem of their identity to the exigencies of chance. It was just this abandoning of the fortunes of Jewry and Judaism to the hazards of chance that the Jewish national movement attempted to combat. In adopting its vision of national reconstruction, it wished to erect a secure framework for the inevitable process of modernization, without incurring the loss of Jewish identity.

Modernization, of course, involves change, which is why the dream of a new society constructed according to some ideal religious or secular image turned out to be utopian. The society of the early pioneers and of the Mandate period, no less than the society of present-day Israel took on all the features of modernity, including the modern tension between tradition and innovation. This tension was and still is evident in many walks of life, especially in areas connected with religion. The utopians who, if they were religious, hoped to restore national unity by reinstating the primacy of religion, or, if they were secular, hoped to eliminate it altogether, would both have reason to be disappointed.

Religion does loom large on the Israeli public scene, not only insofar as the state takes cognizance of religious values, but also in that one section of Jewish religious law—the section dealing with matters of personal status, especially marriage and divorce—is included as part of the Israeli legal system. But it would be hasty and incorrect to conclude from the quasi-official status of the Jewish religion that Israel is a theocratic society. The retention of rabbinical jurisdiction over one facet of life is not only an anomaly by the standards of Western secularized countries, it contradicts the basic rule of Israeli society as well—the rule that the individual is free to choose whether and to what extent he will subscribe to religious practice and accept religious teaching.

But if the contradiction between religion and modern life remains, in some domains, in full force in Israel, in other respects tradition has been transformed into viable modern patterns. The recurring festivals of the religious calendar, for example, are celebrated at least by a minority in strict accordance with ritual law, and this fact alone lends them an air of antiquity and authority. In the initial stages of national reconstruction, attempts were made to divest the ancient festivals of their religious character and to turn them into mere national commemorations; this tendency has now receded, and public celebrations, as in the army, are for the most part traditional in character. Though the arrangement leads at times to conflict between religious zealots and the non-observant—with the former trying to impose strict observance on the latter—on the whole, the traditional celebration of festivals fulfills a unifying function. By assimilating them into the national consciousness, Israelis also demonstrate their ties to Jewry and Judaism—just as, conversely, the celebration of Israeli national holidays (Independence Day, Memorial Day) has become a regular part of the calendar for most Jewish communities abroad.



Finally, where it was once predicted that the divergence between Jewish and Israeli identity would increase over time, it has actually diminished. This is the result of an internal Israeli development, but one which has had a parallel in the Diaspora. Outside Israel there was the expectation, or rather the apprehension, that the overwhelming focus on helping Israel and the preoccupation with Israel’s military crises would divert energy and attention from the needs and potentialities of the Diaspora communities. Tension and competition between Israel and the Diaspora have indeed arisen on both the material and on the spiritual levels, but in the final reckoning the ascendancy of Israel has elicited in the Diaspora forces and energies of an unexpected magnitude, and a great deal of the resulting benefit has redounded to Diaspora life.

At the same time, the utopian expectations associated with the emergence of Zionism and the creation of Israel have failed to materialize. What has evolved is a kind of collective Jewish destiny, beyond the decision of individuals and groups. To become or not to become a Zionist was at one time a matter of free choice for Jews, and many declined the Zionist option. Thus, Hermann Cohen, the distinguished German-Jewish philosopher, when asked why he, though a committed Jew, was not a Zionist, answered: “Those people wish to be happy.” For Cohen, the Zionist desire to extricate the Jews from the duality of life in the Diaspora would have entailed the elimination of precisely the most intriguing element of Jewish existence. This little anecdote took place before the Balfour Declaration of 1917, before the Holocaust, before the struggle for the survival of Jewry and Judaism in an independent Jewish state. Today, the situation is reversed: it is those Jews who declare themselves non-Zionists or anti-Zionists who display the longing for happiness. Were it not for Israelis and Zionists, they seem to be saying, we could live in happiness and peace. Yet happiness of that sort, alas, seems not to be the lot of the Jew. His real choice, which is a moral choice, is whether to ignore his situation or confront it with a full sense of the responsibilities it entails.

1 This thesis is argued with particular reference to German Zionists in a new book by Stephen M. Poppel, Zionism in Germany 1897-1933: The Shaping of a Jewish Identity (Jewish Publication Society).

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