Book Review: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism

A Threat From Within – A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism.  Yakov M. Rabkin.  Fernwood Publishing, Zed Books. 2006.

By Jim Miles
PalestineChronicle.com

Most readers who are familiar with the Israeli/Palestine situation are aware that Israeli attitudes towards Palestine and the actions of the Israeli government are not without some internal controversy.  There are known Israeli peace activists who protest against the military actions, Israeli academics who write with historical accuracy about the establishment of the Israeli state and its depredations against the land and the people of Palestine, military personnel who refuse to fight against the Palestinian people, Jewish religious leaders who reject the Israeli actions in Palestine, and probably many others who are concerned about the injustice of Israeli actions without the security to voice their opinions.  At the national level, the many different political parties try to preserve the appearance of a Jewish and democratic state, but are only successful at the level of propaganda and not with the effectiveness of their actions.  Yakov Rabkin in  “A Threat From Within” focuses on what would normally appear to be a narrow slice of this controversy and splits it wide open, exposing the Zionist regime as being essentially anti-Jewish.  It is a powerful provocative book, exposing much of what western religious and political figures refuse to examine.

Zionism as anti-Jewish is a large concept to discuss and to provide evidence to support, but Rabkin succeeds admirably well in supporting his argument, using a combination of rabbinical, theological, and sociological concepts.  In sum, his position in as few words as possible is:  Zionism is a nationalist ideology that has usurped the language, concepts, and beliefs of the Judaic religion to create a secular state based on an aggressive Russian militarist ideology.
 
Zionism presents a travesty of Judaic beliefs.  In more familiar terms, Israel is not a Jewish state, never has been, and never can be.  It follows also that to criticize the Israeli state and Zionism is neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Jewish.

Criticism of Zionism has come from “an overwhelming majority of those who defend and interpret the traditions of Judaism”, a resistance to the “threat of Zionism” that has “changed little in the last 120 years.”  Central to the resistance is a “commitment to the Torah” and the “Torah commandments and values in their assessment of Zionism and Israel.”   The two main reasons for opposing Zionism arise from Jewish tradition: first is to “prevent desecration of the name of God,” and secondly “to preserve human life.”

Rabkov begins with “Orientations”, a brief outline of Zionist development and its conflicts with traditional Judaism.  Zionism developed its strongest ideals in Russia, paralleling the growing power of Bolshevik ideals – just as the Bolsheviks claimed to represent the entire working class, Zionism declared it represented all Jews.  History for the Zionists was a secular process, one that could be determined and acted upon by the will of the people themselves.  Jewish belief sees history as a moral lesson, as the will of God, history must instruct as within the Torah.  From that, Jewish tradition believes “all that happens to Jews is brought about by the actions of the Jews themselves”, inclusive of their exile and the shoah (the holocaust).  For Jewish prophecy to be fulfilled, the Messiah need return before the Jews return to the Land of Israel.  

The conflict between Zionism and Judaism then is on a grand scale, it is the very essence of Judaism itself, it is the “entire theological interpretation of Jewish history…what it means to be a Jew.”  Zionism created a new identity, using “Judaic terms familiar to the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe [mainly Russia] to facilitate the propagation of their ideology,” they kept “intact the social function of religion in order to unify the people” but “eliminated its metaphysical content.”  The nationalism espoused by the Zionists defied the traditional teachings of living in exile, of accommodating and working peacefully within whichever society they happened to find themselves living in – the Torah “must be free of territorial, political, or national considerations.”

The rifts and tears within the Israeli state arrive from that essential conflict.  It is reinforced by the “excellent” relations “between Arab and Jews…prior to the arrival of the Zionists.…the Arabs were a friendly hospitable people”, living in “relative harmony.”   Further conflict comes from the Diaspora, many of who refuse to accept the Zionist state as representing Judaism, and many others who have become estranged from Judaism because of the Zionist concepts but also their aggressive, hate filled military actions.

Rabkov continues with an exploration of the ideas of the Land of Israel, the traditional view being that “settlement in the Land of Israel will be brought about by the universal effect of good deeds rather than by military force or diplomacy.”  Further, the establishment of a political state is “alien to the idea of salvation in Jewish tradition.”   Zionism however played into the hands of the anti-Semites by proposing that Jews “were not a religious group”, they “could never integrate into the country in which they lived” and the only “solution to the Jewish problem was for them to leave.”    Tradition rules against hastening redemption and “no surprise…also rules out the use of force to hasten deliverance…no human action could possibly replace “messianic expectations.”  For the reader, familiar with the violent force used to establish the state and the continued violence of occupation and settlement, it becomes obvious that there is a serious conflict between what Judaism is traditionally and the manner in which the Zionists have usurped its fundamentals for their own purposes.

Jewish strength is viewed as its pacifism, not seen as a weakness, but a strength able to resist violence, to accommodate for a mutual better future, a strength vested in the ability to control egotistical and violent impulses.  Zionism’s roots are in the violence of the Russian empire; the new motives became honor, pride, the thirst for power and revenge: “militarism was a feature of many nationalist ideologies of the twentieth century; Zionism was no exception.”  The policy of political assassination and terror grew along with the rising nationalism.  The Russian influence is heavily emphasized, Rabkov saying “the Russian dimension of Zionism cannot be overestimated…”, they make “up not only a majority of the founders of the State of Israel, they also became the most influential group within its military.”   Rabkov effectively examines these Russian roots and how they follow through into the violent empire of the State of Israel today, supported, ironically, by that stalwart militarist state that denied any credence to anything Bolshevik or evenly slightly socialist, the United States. 

The Russian legacy can be summed up as one of secularism, militarism, assassination, terror, and ironically, in full contradiction of establishing a safe homeland for the Jewish people, a lack of security for a people now concentrated in a hostile environment.

The biggest twist in all this has been the creation through propaganda of Israel and the Jewish people as the victim of external aggressions.  Philosophically that defies the Jewish tradition that it is their own transgressions that have created the problems for themselves, that they cannot blame others for their persecution, exile, or lack of a homeland.  In realpolitik, the propaganda defies the knowledge that Zionism entered a peaceful land fully capable and intent on using violence to ‘redeem’ it.  The continual fallback on the shoah as a justification for the establishment of the State of Israel defies Jewish tradition, and panders to the collective memories from the German atrocities.  Rabkov explores the Zionist interference in allowing Jews to emigrate from Germany and other European countries before the war, allowing them only to immigrate to Palestine, creating an impasse in assisting the Jewish Diaspora to relocate from imminent danger.  The Zionist leadership was “much more concerned about the future of the state than the fate of the Jews in the extermination camps.”

Several times, the Jewish connection to Christianity is mentioned, both historically and currently.  The main argument revolves around the American evangelical Christians wishing to hasten the arrival of their messiah by promoting the establishment of the Zionist State of Israel over all of Eretz Israel.  Both groups, Zionists and Zionist Christians, are more than willing to use the utmost violence against their opponents, up to and including the use of nuclear weapons, to hasten their prophecies.  As messianic Christianity dictates that it will ultimately triumph over the Jews, that support could readily be accepted by the secular Zionists who deny the Jewish traditions. 

A contemporary voice sums up the conflict between Zionism and Judaism: “By burning the Israeli flag, we are symbolically declaring that the Israeli state…is not representative of the Jewish people.  In fact, its denial of our faith and its brutalization of the Palestinian people, renders it antithetical to Judaism.”  The new state uses religious symbols to support its identity and give itself validation, but in the eyes of the orthodox Jew it is “an indigestible concoction of symbols and practices borrowed from Judaism,” depriving it “of its central core: subordination to God.” 

The concepts involved in Rabkin’s discussions are obviously not new, but they are revealed in a new light, a clearer light, a view that is seldom explored, especially in western media and political-religious discussions.  It would seem apparent from this work (supported by other recent works) that Israel is neither a Jewish nor a democratic state.  For it to become democratic, it must open itself up to the rights of the Palestinians living there, making the Jewish people ‘exiles’ in the land of Palestine, working peacefully and cooperatively with the Arab Palestinians.  From my understanding developed through reading “A Threat From Within”, Zionist Israel can never be a Jewish state, democratic or not – a very thought provoking read that should be mandatory for anyone considering what the future of the land of Israel/Palestine might be or should be. 

-Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor of opinion pieces and book reviews to Palestine Chronicles.  His interest in this topic stems originally from an environmental perspective, which encompasses the militarization and economic subjugation of the global community and its commodification by corporate governance and by the American government.

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