Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism

Jews in today’s Israel must reconnect to Jewish heritage before it was distorted by Zionism.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler

When the Zionist movement appeared in Eastern Europe in the 1880s, it found it very difficult to persuade the leading rabbis and secular Jewish thinkers of the day to support it.

The leading rabbis saw the political history in the Bible and the idea of Jewish sovereignty on the land of Israel as very marginal topics and were much more concerned, as indeed Judaism as a religion was, with the holy tracts that focused on the relationship between the believers themselves and in particular their relations with God.

Secular liberal or socialist Jews also found the idea of Jewish nationalism unattractive. Liberal Jews hoped that a far more liberal world would solve the problems of persecution and anti-Semitism while avowed socialists and communists wished peoples of all religions, not just the Jews, to be liberated from oppression.

Even the idea of a particular Jewish socialist movement, such as the Bund, was a bizarre one in their eyes. “Zionists who were afraid of seasickness” is how Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov called the Bundists when they wanted to join the international communist movement.

The secular Jews who founded the Zionist movement wanted paradoxically both to secularize Jewish life and to use the Bible as a justification for colonizing Palestine; in other words, they did not believe in God but He nonetheless promised them Palestine.

This precarious logic was recognized even by the founder of the Zionist movement himself, Theodore Herzl, who therefore opted for Uganda, rather than Palestine, as the promised land of Zion. It was the pressure of Protestant scholars and politicians of the Bible, especially in Britain, who kept the gravitation of the Zionist movement towards Palestine.

Map of colonization

For them it was a double bill: you get rid of the Jews in Europe, and at the same time you fulfill the divine scheme in which the second coming of the Messiah will be precipitated by the return of the Jews — and their subsequent conversion to Christianity or their roasting in hell should they refuse.

From that moment onwards the Bible became both the justification for, and the map of, the Zionist colonization of Palestine. Hardcore Zionists knew it would not be enough: colonizing the inhabited Palestine would require a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing. But portraying the dispossession of Palestine as the fulfillment of a divine Christian scheme was priceless for galvanizing global Christian support behind Zionism.

The Bible was never taught as a singular text that carried any political or even national connotation in the various Jewish educational systems in either Europe or in the Arab world. What Zionism derogatorily called “Exile” — the fact that the vast majority of Jews lived not in Palestine but communities around the world — was considered by most religious Jews as an imperative existence and the basis for Jewish identity in modern time.

Jews were not asked to do all they can to end the “Exile” — this particular condition could have only been transformed by the will of God and could not be hastened or tampered with by acts such as the one perpetrated by the Zionist movement.

One of the greatest successes of the secular Zionist movement was creating a religious Zionist component that found rabbis willing to legitimize this act of tampering by claiming that the very act itself was proof that God’s will has been done.

These rabbis accepted the secular Zionist idea to turn the Bible into a book that stands by itself and conceded that a superficial knowledge of it became a core of one’s Jewishness even if all the other crucial religious imperatives were ignored.

These were the same rabbis who after the 1967 War used the Bible as both the justification and roadmap for the judaization and de-Arabization of the occupied West Bank, including Jerusalem.

Extreme nationalism

In the 1990s the two movements — the one that does not believe in God and the one that impatiently decides to do His work — have fused into a lethal mixture of religious fanaticism with extreme nationalism. This alliance formed in the Israeli crucible is mirrored among Israel’s Jewish supporters around the world.

And yet this development has not completely eclipsed the very same Jewish groups that rejected Zionism when it first appeared in the late nineteenth century: those who are called in Israel the Ultra-Orthodox Jews — abhorred and detested in particular by liberal Zionists — and purely secular Jews who feel alien in the kind of “Jewish State” Israel became.

A small number of the former — for example Neturei Karta — even profess allegiance to the Palestine Liberation Organization, while the vast majority of the Ultra-Orthodox express their anti-Zionism without necessarily offering support for Palestinian rights.

Meanwhile, some of the secular Jews try to relive the dreams of their European and Arab grandparents in the pre-Zionist era: that group of people made their way as individuals, and not as a collective, in the various societies they found themselves in; more often than not injecting cosmopolitan, pluralist and multicultural ideas if they were gifted enough to write or teach about them.

This new, and I should say inevitable, religious-nationalist mixture that now informs the Jewish society in Israel has also caused a large and significant number of young American Jews, and Jews elsewhere in the world, to distance themselves from Israel. This trend has become so significant that it seems that Israeli policy today relies more on Christian Zionists than on loyal Jews.

It is possible, and indeed necessary, to reaffirm the pluralist non-Zionist ways of professing one’s relationship with Judaism; in fact this is the only road open to us if we wish to seek an equitable and just solution in Palestine. Whether Jews want to live there as Orthodox Jews — something that was always tolerated and respected in the Arab and Muslim worlds — or build together with like-minded Palestinians, locals and refugees, a more secular society, their presence in today’s Palestine is not by itself an obstacle to justice or peace.

Whatever your ethnicity is, you can contribute to the making of a society based on continued dialogue between religion and secularism as well as between the third generation of settlers and the native population in a decolonizing state.

Like all the other societies of the Arab world this one too would strive to find the bridge between past heritage and future visions. Its dilemmas will be the same as those which are now informing everyone who lives in the Arab world, in the heart of which lies the land of Palestine.

The society in Palestine and present-day Israel cannot deal with these issues in isolation from the rest of the Arab world, and neither can any other Arab nation-state created by the colonialist agreements forged in the wake of the First World War.


For the Jews in today’s Israel to be part of a new, just and peaceful Palestine, there is an imperative to reconnect to the Jewish heritage before it was corrupted and distorted by Zionism. The fact that this distorted version is presented in some circles in the west as the face of Judaism itself is yet another rotten fruit of the wish of some of the victims of nationalist criminality — as the Jews were in central and Eastern Europe — to become such criminals themselves.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam are what believers choose them to be. In pre-Zionist Palestine, the choice was for living together in the same towns and villages in one complete existence. In the turn of the twentieth century, it was even moving faster towards a more relaxed way of living. But alas, that was the path not taken.

We should not lose hope that this is still possible in the future. We need to reclaim Judaism and extract it from the hands of the “Jewish State” as a first step towards building a joint place for those who lived and want to live there in the future.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misattributed the quotation “Zionists who were afraid of seasickness” to Leon Trotsky rather than Georgi Plekhanov. It has since been corrected.

The author of numerous books, Ilan Pappe is professor of history and director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.




My only nag is with calling Zionism "nationalism". It has nothing to do with even the most extremist nationalism, but Zionism is the colonialism pure and simple. No one called pieds noirs "nationalists" as far as know.
I also could add that when in 1903 Bund told Russian social-democrats :we could organize Jewish workers and you - Christian ones, Lenin got mad and said "we do not know any "Christian" workers organizations".


Zionism = Colonialism !

"Zionism = Nationalism" can only happen after colonializing Palestine "P

Howard Zinn :
"I think the Jewish State was a mistake"
"It was probably the worst thing that the Jews could have done"
"What they did was join the nationalistic frenzy, they became privy to all of the evils that nationalism creates"
"Jews were known as kindly, talented people. Now Israel is contributing to Anti-Semitsm"


What in the world makes you think Jews would ever agree to live in this "Palestine" state? What makes you think they would trust palestinians that much as to hand out their sovereignty to them?


So, nothing to "hand out". Some French stayed in Algeria while not being colonizers, and why not at least some Jews in Palestine could nicely ask Palestinians for permission to stay as equal, not as "sovereign" i.e. master race. More than that, folks like Neturey Karta are perfectly OK to stay in Palestine as "protected minority" - as Jews lived under Muslim rule in the historical ME.


What in the world makes you think Jews have the right to hand out or withhold sovereignty to Palestinians?


This may be one of the statements most likely to send me into speechlessness. The constant talk of Israelis and their blind supporters of "handing Palestinians their sovereignty" (I assure you they have it anyway!) and "we gave Gaza back", etc.
Israelis should be quite clear that whatever happens, the land was NEVER theirs, except perhaps land that was purchased. Full stop. They took it using deception and force and that is how they keep it. Now they are an illegal occupying force. Without US support they would be lost in the bed of their own making. Only if they come to their senses can they save themselves from one kind of disaster or the other, and I am talking about self-destruction, not being destroyed by others.


More like recognized by the International community? For 65 years and counting? Well, if you want, you can close your eyes and wish really really badly Israel never existed as a sovereign nation. I can't guarantee that'd work tho!


Recognized by the international community? Rather, forced on the international community, after receiving too few votes for partition and having to lobby, bribe and threaten, the vote being postponed several times until they could scrape through, and then acting with arrogance that most can't stand, talking about "giving" things to the Palestinians.
Take a good hard look at exactly how the Israeli government scorns international and human rights, then ask yourself why decent people turn away. The question is, how can Israelis bear to 'keep' anything under such conditions?


Yes, Israel is a recognized sovereign nation, and can do what it likes within its declared and recognized sovereign borders. Yet most Israelis and their supporters believe the carefully created myth that 'Israel has never declared its borders'. The truth is that Israel declared its sovereign borders on 14th May 1948, and they have never been changed since. They are those specified in the UN Partition Plan. Look up a map, and you may be surprised. The territory Israel captured in the 1948-49 war, as well as the territory it has occupied since 1967, are all outside the sovereign borders of Israel.


Was that really a "War of Israeli Independence" (independence from who?) in 1947-48, or the Ethnic Cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians?


At 24:00 on May 14, 1948, all of Palestine became independent of British rule, because the Mandate had been terminated. One minute later, on May 15 at 00:01, the Declaration of Establishment of the State of Israel became effective, with its declared borders being those of the UN Partition Plan. Because states only exist if they are recognized by other states, Israel did not actually come into existence until 10 minutes later, at 00:11, when it was recognized by the USA. From that moment on it was an independent sovereign state. Overnight, forces of the Arab states entered Palestine,"in order to restore law and order, and to resist Jewish aggression against the Arab population". Jewish forces were already operating in Palestine outside the borders of the State of Israel, "to prevent these areas being used for aggression against Israel, and to protect Jewish settlements outside the borders of the State". Israel maintains that the real aim of the Arab states was to overthrow the government of Israel and re-unite Palestine by force. I do not think enough is known about the actual battle plan of the Arab forces to say whether that is true or not. But if so, Israel would be be justified in calling it 'a war to maintain its independence'. What we do know for certain is that Israel's war aim was to aggressively acquire territory outside Israel's declared borders, and to reduce the Arab population, because this is what happened.


Thank you for the detailed reply. I recommend Ilan Pappe's book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, for an account, using recently-released Israeli documents, of the takeover of Palestine in 1948.


somehow all the religious problems - the biggest chunk of problems in the world - are all related to Abrahamic religions .. I think it is this way because the whole basis of these religions is a top down approach - the all knowing Messiah coming down and only he (its always a he) knowing the truth while others have to taught the truth ..Its high time we get rid of such flawed ideas - and went back to our true religions - something built from ground up - by all of us. Unique and diverse - as only the human race can be..


I have the greatest of respect for Ilan Pappe, hence my surprise at this article. Religions, all religions, change and Orthodox Judaism changed. Neturei Karta is a marginal group and always will be.

Just a few points of correction. It wasn't Trotsky but Plekhanov who described the Bund as Zionists with sea-sickness! Likewise the statement that Herzl opted for Uganda, rather than Palestine, because he recognised the contradiction between Zionism as a secular movement and its use of the religion is wrong. Uganda/Kenya was a promise of Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain and Herzl & Nordau described it as a night shelter, a temporary stop on the way to Palestine. Herzl in any event preferred Argentina as a destination to Palestine [the Jewish State] but recognised it didn't have the same pull.

It wasn't the pressure of Protestant scholars 'especially in Britain', who kept the gravitation of the Zionist movement towards Palestine. It was the 6th Zionist Congress in 1903 which revolted at the idea, led by Menachem Ussishkin.

The contradiction that Ilan refers to between Zionism as a secular movement based on a god they didn't believe in was resolved in favour of the Orthodox by Ben Gurion, when he chose to go into coalition in 1949 with the NRP rather than Mapam.. Today it is the cause of a greater contradiction between Israel and the diaspora.

Even if there had been no Zionism there is no social or economic basis for Judaism today. Zionism has become a poor substitute, hence why the no. of Jews in the diaspora is decreasing.

But don't glorify Orthodox Judaism. In Eastern Europe the rabbis were tyrants when they could be. They opposed Emancipation and preferred Jews to be kept in ignorance. Their 'study' of the Talmud, which they excised of anti-Gentile comments did not increase the sum of human knowledge one iota. The Jewish religion tended towards Zionism. Not only rabbis like Kalischer supported it but remember the false messiahs.


It seems that Larasky and Shiv both agree that it is a question of 'the Jews' and the right to hand out sovereignty. Sometimes it is better to recognise reality.

Israel is there as a Zionist state. So-called international law is powerless because it has no mechanism of implementation, except when the US chooses it should.

There is little comparison with the Pied Noir. There are about 6 million Israeli Jews and an equivalent no. of Palestinians. The Israeli state is not, unlike the Whites in South Africa, in danger of losing the military battle or being forsaken by the US - at least not yet.

The question therefore is what solution we should aim at and a unitary, democratic and secular state has always seemed the best to me. However the Palestinians won't achieve victory other than in the context of a successful Arab revolution in the Arab East. Israel has forged a de facto alliance with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Sheikhdoms. That is a fact. Imperialism in the Middle East doesn't just rest on Israel's shoulders although it is qualitatively different.

And is Zionism colonial? Not in the same sense as the British in India who never had more than 100,000 British in India. The ZIonists settled the land, hence why it is settler colonialism. Was it nationalist? Yes, in the same way as the Nazis were German nationalists but in the context of the Jews not being a nation (just as t here wasn't an Aryan nation). Go think


I know this is not what Ilan Pappe was writing about, but in reply to Tony Greenstein's last comment I want to correct one big misunderstanding. The whites in South Africa didn't lose the military battle in South Africa - though they suffered a decisive defeat in Angola - and the US did not withdraw support until it was clear the regime was doomed. The people who actually brought down South African apartheid were: 1) the black South African workers, who by 1985 posed a serious threat of overturning not only apartheid, but South African capitalism itself. The threat was serious enough to provoke the Anglo-American Corporation, the single most important company controlling the mining industry, into meeting with the ANC in Lusaka in 1985 to discuss the future of a post-apartheid society. 2) the students, whose 1976 revolt in Soweto led them into the wider struggle. And 3) all those who made the townships ungovernable in the 1980s. In other words, it was the mass popular struggle which by the late 1980s the regime could not control, which brought it down. The US - and Britain - continued to support the regime until almost the last moment. There was a brutal wider regional war in Angola, Namibia, and Mozambique but the military struggle, inside South Africa, was never much more than armed propaganda.


I don't disagree with much in Greg Dropkin's article. Clearly the mass campaign in South Africa itself was crucial but the overthrow of white rule in Zimabwe and the defeat of Portuguese colonialism in Mozambique and Angola, where as Greg admits, the South Africans did suffer a humiliating defeat, also played their part. Indeed it was victory in Namibia by SWAPO, which was both military and political, that convinced South African capitalism and the right of the Nationalist Party (which de Klerk represented) that their days were up.


"Nations don't have 'rights' [e.g." right to exist as a Jewish state"]
People have rights [e.g. the Bill of Rights].
Nations have interests. "
--Phyllis Bennis
Institute of Policy Studies