Gregory Baum: Orthodox Jewish Hesitation About Zionism

Corrupt History II – Gregory Baum on Pre-Independence Zionism

  1. Orthodox Jewish Hesitation About Zionism

by

Howard Adelman

In my analysis of the claim that Christian churches supported the creation of the State of Israel because of “the historical guilt for the contempt they have shown to Jews and Judaism,” I tried to indicate that the Roman Catholic and prominent Protestant theologians a) expressed no such guilt in 1945-1947 and b) were not strong supporters of the creation of the State of Israel. In this blog, I want to go back earlier. Gregory Baum contended in his memoir that, “the distant cause of the seemingly irresolvable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is Hitler’s genocidal anti-Semitism and the Final Solution engineered by him. Before Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933, Zionism was a small movement in the worldwide Jewish community.” (p. 151) Was the rise of Hitler and his genocidal ambitions and practices responsible for the emergence of Zionism as the dominant ideology of the Jewish community in the 1930s and 1940s?

Though this position includes a sliver of truth, an examination of the various propositions making up this claim reveals a much greater distortion. The claim consists of eight theses which I first offer as quotes and then reconfigure as sub-claims:

  1. “Orthodox Jews had religious hesitations with regard to Zionism: the promised return to Jerusalem, they believed, would be a religious event, an act of God, not the result of a secular movement supported by political power.”
  2. “If there had been no Hitler and no Auschwitz, Zionism would have remained a small movement.”
  3. Further, a “few thousand arrivals…wanted to create a Jewish cultural community in Palestine.”
  4. Those few thousand “would have found a space there without gravely disturbing the local population.”
  5. “Because of Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, the self-understanding of Jews changed: looking upon their historical situation in the Diaspora as precarious, they now supported the aim of the Zionist movement – the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, a safe haven for Jews experiencing persecution in their country.”
  6. “Now Zionism attracted vast numbers of Jews to Palestine.”
  7. “The mass migration, supported by the international Jewish community, led to the creation of the Jewish State.”
  8. That mass migration led, “inevitably to the conflict with the Palestinian population.”

It is one thing to make erroneous claims about Christian support for Israel and its origins. It is a calumny for a non-Jew to rewrite history without empirical support when speaking of the dynamics of the Jewish community. These eight theses, briefly stated, summarize the conceit of liberal universalists critical of Zionism, criticism that goes well beyond any just criticism that the government of Israel has earned. These universalists may be religious or secular, they may claim to offer a “balanced” view, but the foundation of their critique is deeply rooted in their alternative history, history, while sometimes having a thread of truth, is ultimately devoid of substantive empirical support. The eight theses are as follows:

  1. The Orthodox Jewish (OJ) Thesis:

The non-support of Zionism by Orthodox Jews before the Holocaust.

  1. The Hitler/Holocaust (H/H) Thesis:

H/H were jointly responsible for the creation of Israel.

  1. The Few Thesis:

Only a “few thousand” Jews lived in Palestine prior to H/H.

  1. The Arab Opposition (AO) Thesis:

The local Arab population only opposed Jewish migration when there were large numbers.

  1. The Zionist Ideology Minority Thesis (ZIM):

Only because of H/H, did Zionism become prominent in the diaspora.

  1. The Zionist Majority Thesis (ZM):

The shift from a minority to a majority position led to large scale migration to Palestine.

  1. The Creation Thesis:

Mass migration led to the creation of the State of Israel.

  1. The Conflict Thesis:

Mass migration led to the conflict with the Arabs.

Quite aside from the distortions of history, there are several contradictions among these claims. For example, there is the claim first that Hitler and the Holocaust (H/H) were responsible for the creation of Israel and, second, mass migration was responsible for the creation of the State of Israel. One might argue that this contradiction is only apparent since if H and H were responsible for mass migration, therefore mass migration was secondarily responsible for the creation of the State of Israel. However, a historical examination quickly reveals that they are disconnected; the distortion in making the connection is revealing. We can examine whether this initially apparent causal contradiction can be overcome by empirical evidence.

If mass migration was responsible for both the creation of the State of Israel and the conflict with the Arabs, if mass migration was a result of H/H, then that mass migration must have taken place after WWII and, therefore, both the creation of the State of Israel and the conflict with the Arabs emerged only after WWII. This provides a key timeline for Gregory’s thesis as a stand in for a great deal of religious and secular anti-Zionism and the key events leading to the creation of the State of Israel. I will get to this point in subsequent blogs, but this blog will focus on the first thesis.

The OJ thesis contends that among Orthodox Jews there was little support before the Holocaust. In our contemporary period, only a very small group of ultra-Orthodox Jews (Neturei Karta – Guardians of the City, originally, for a very short period, Chevrat HaChayim) maintain that the creation of Israel before the messiah arrives is a sin. The recapture by force of the Land of Israel is a violation of divine will. The members of Neturei Karta number less than 5,000; no more than two-three hundred, led by Rabbi Moshe Hirsch in Israel, partnered with Moshe Ber Beck in Monsey, New York, are active anti-Zionists. (Hirsch served in Arafat’s cabinet as Minister of Jewish Affairs.) What about the period before the Holocaust?

This sect is not rooted in Hasidism. Rather, its adherents follow the practices of the Gaon of Vilna and trace their roots to Lithuania and Hungary. Neturei Karta is a Litvish sect. Their arrival and resettlement in Jerusalem in the nineteenth century preceded the rise of Zionism. Rabbi Kook, a leading Orthodox rabbi, recognized that return to Israel was first promoted by disciples of the Gaon of Vilna. Nevertheless, very early on he endorsed political Zionism as a secular movement leaving it to the land to determine who was deserving of it.

The fundamental moral force hidden in [the Zionist movement] … is its motto, the entire nation. This nationalism proclaims… that it seeks to redeem the entire Jewish people. It does not concern itself with individuals or parties or sectors…. And with this perspective, it reaches out to the land of Israel and the love of Zion with a remarkable bravery and courage.

Most Orthodox rabbis at the time did not follow his lead. In 1937, Rabbi Amram Blau of Meah Shearim in Jerusalem, an activist in Agudat Israel (a political party of Orthodox Jews founded in Poland because of opposition to Zionism), left the latter movement because of its increasing rapprochement with secular Zionism. He was joined by Rabbi Aharon Katzenelbogen from New York. Together, they founded Neturei Karta in 1938. This clearly suggests that well before the Holocaust, only a tiny minority of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews opposed Zionism in 1937.

This did not mean that in 1937, Agudat Israel became Zionist. Rather, it moved from the anti-Zionist camp to become non-Zionist. The roots of Orthodox anti-Zionism, as does ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionism, go back to the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. In the late nineteenth century, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik was anti-Zionist. So was Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneerson of the Lubavitcher Hasidim. A number of prominent Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews were not simply hesitant about Zionism; they were strongly opposed to it at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In 1937, the Central Committee of Agudat Israel claimed an independent Jewish state would endanger Orthodox Jewry. It did not argue, as Neturei Karta did, that the return to Jerusalem had to await the messiah. Instead, it argued in terms of “pollution”; secular Zionism was a threat to Jews defined as a holy people. They offered to support the resurrection of the Jewish state only if its achievement was accompanied by Torah law becoming the foundation of the legal system in the state.

Agudath Israel in the Land of Israel rejects outright any attempt at despoiling the Land of Israel of its sanctity and considers the proposal to establish a secular Jewish state in Palestine as a hazard to the lofty role of the Jewish People as a holy nation. Agudath Israel in the Land of Israel declares that Orthodox Jewry could only agree to a Jewish state in all the Land of Israel if it were possible for the basic constitution of this state to guarantee Torah rule in the overall public and national life.

In the UN debate over partition, Agudat Israel urged the General Assembly to vote against partition. There is thus a thread of truth in the claim that Orthodox Jews, anti-Zionists and non-Zionists, opposed the creation of Israel and Zionism, even after 1937 and even during the UN vote for partition in November of 1947 after the Holocaust. With the creation of Israel, members of Agudat Israel became supporters of the government, but refused to take any seats in the cabinet lest the movement be perceived as pro-Zionist.

This has two implications. It means the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust did not convert this group of Orthodox Jews and the Hasidim to support Zionism. Secondly, if the followers of Hasidism and Agudat Israel constituted a majority of religiously practicing Orthodox Jewry, then Gregory would be correct about the OJ thesis even if incorrect about the H/H thesis. However, Ezra Mendelsohn in his essay, “Jewish Condition in Interwar East Central Europe” in the volume, The Vanishing World of Lithuanian Jews, noted that, “The vast majority of Lithuanian Jews, according to the census of 1923, identified themselves as Jews by nationality.” (81-82, my italics) It was in the 1920s and 1930s that Zionism was transformed into a political force, a force subsequently accelerated with the rise of Hitler. In spite of Agudat Israel and in spite of the anti-Zionist sentiments of Hasidism, the majority of Jews in Eastern Europe, led by the enlightened Orthodox leadership in Lithuania, supported Zionism. Even when Jewish socialists (Bundists) and communists were added to the mixture, supporters of Zionism possibly constituted the largest plurality amongst Jews in Eastern Europe.

In addition to Agudat Israel, most Haredi ultra-Orthodox Jews were opposed to Zionism, and were opposed well after the creation of the state of Israel. Since 80% of Haredi Jews perished in the Holocaust, one might argue that this could imply that the majority of ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews opposed Zionism. That thesis seems to be reinforced when it is recognized that Ahavath Zion, a pro-Zionist Orthodox party, never made any inroads with the Hasidim. In the nineteen twenties, the party was also opposed by the majority of Orthodox leaders. However, it garnered a significant following among rabbis and the populace in smaller communities. By the time of the accession of Hitler to power in 1933, excluding the ultra-Orthodox, the majority of sentiment among the Orthodox community in Eastern Europe favoured Zionism.

What about the prominence of Zionism among Jews in North Africa and in the Muslim states of the Middle East? The immigration of Jews from Yemen in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and in 1911 preceded large-scale migration of Arab Jews to Palestine, though the majority would only arrive with Operation Magic Carpet in 1949-1950. The first evidence of Zionist activity in North Africa can be traced to Tunisia in 1902; Ahavat Zion was established there in 1913. About the same time, stirrings of Zionist activity began in Morocco. It is true that Zionism never became a majority movement among traditional practicing North African Jews until after WWII, and even then only after the creation of the State of Israel. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that in 1933, a majority of North African practicing Jews sympathized with Zionism, in spite of the fact that Zionism was a European ideology and almost all its leaders were of European origin. The shift to identification with, as distinct from sentiment for, Zionism may have begun with the Holocaust, but it only became reified with the creation of the State of Israel based on sentiments already widespread in 1933.

The same pattern was evident in the Middle East. In 1928, young Jews may have joined Maccabi sports organizations, but the Chief rabbi in Baghdad and the Jewish establishment opposed Zionism then. Even though sentiment among the masses began to shift in favour of Zionism, only a few thousand Iraqis migrated to Palestine in the 1930s under the auspices of the Jewish Agency. Many more came on their own. However, there is a record of an official shift even before the Holocaust in 1941-1942 before the Holocaust, though it took the Holocaust for the European leadership in Zionism to pay significant attention to Jews in the Middle East and then only with a condescending eye and “segregationist” policies, but that is another story.

What about Jews in America? Reform Judaism is the largest denomination in North America. They came very late to the table. Initially, Progressive Reform Judaism rejected Zionism as a nationalist ideology at odds with its ethical universalism. When they came around, it was not after the rise of Hitler. It was not after the Holocaust. It was not even immediately after the creation of the State of Israel. It was only after the sixties when the consciousness of the Holocaust became imprinted among Jews. Further, only in the Miami Platform of 1997 was this made official as Reform Judaism celebrated the rebirth of Am Israel, the Jewish people in Israel. But even then, it was conditional upon self-determination being exercised on universal principles of human rights, respect for minorities and preservation of democracy and the rule of law.

I have not even counted the Jews of the Soviet Union. It is not difficult to see that among worldwide Judaism, Zionism was indeed a minority movement among Jews in 1933. But so was Marxism. So was Bundism, secular socialism. So was Reform Judaism itself which was only predominant in North America. There was simply no majoritarian ideology then among Jews.  However, Zionism was not a small movement in the worldwide Jewish community in 1933. There is great deal of difference between not being a majority movement and being a small movement.

Further, Orthodox Jews in Europe opposed to Zionism in 1933 were not just hesitant in their support for Zionism. The establishment part of the Orthodox movement in 1933 was openly opposed. This was true of virtually all Hasidic sects. However, by 1933, among the Orthodox populace in Eastern Europe, a majority sentiment identified with Zionism, with many also supporting competing ideologies at the same time. Even then, although the establishment was still officially opposed, only a very small minority among them based opposition to Zionism on requiring the messiah to return as Gregory claimed.  Gregory was and remains wrong in each of the particulars of this thesis.

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One comment on “Gregory Baum: Orthodox Jewish Hesitation About Zionism

  1. Matt McLaughlin says:

    i have many refrences (Rabbi Rabkin for one) stating physical Zionism is Protestant and not the will of world’s Jews, 1917.

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