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The battle over the meaning of Zionism

As a form of Jewish messianism, the movement will always be torn between the political and the religious.

Israelis protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, in Haifa, March 27, 2023. Photo by Shir Torem/Flash90.
Israelis protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, in Haifa, March 27, 2023. Photo by Shir Torem/Flash90.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

At a moment when Israel is riven by domestic controversy and intense political division, it is worth contemplating precisely what everyone is fighting about.

It is about more than judicial reform. To an enormous extent, it is a battle over the meaning of Zionism.

I have written in the past about the essential strangeness of Zionism, which is, in many ways, sui generis. It is alien to both nationalism and universalism, and seeks to realize a vision of the future derived not only from modern ideals but also from the most ancient materials. To steal a phrase from Theodor Herzl, it is an “old-new” movement, and as such it can only bedevil conventional analysis.

The mystery of Zionism seems less inscrutable, however, if we view it solely on Jewish terms. That is, if we accept that Zionism is essentially a form of Jewish messianism.

Messianism is perhaps the most fraught and powerful aspect of Judaism, inspiring doomed revolts against Rome and mass movements of immense power such as Sabbateanism. The latter, in its extreme form, went so far as to vitiate Judaism itself, declaring the old law irrelevant to the new age of redemption.

In modern times, which for the Jews began with Emancipation, Jewish messianism took on two forms: Reform Judaism and Zionism.

The messianic nature of the former is, perhaps, less obvious than that of the latter. But just as the Sabbatians had done before them, the Reformers declared that a new age had begun and thus the halachah was now irrelevant. Judaism, they held, had to transform itself into a more or less purely spiritual religion. Reform Judaism meant to do what all forms of Jewish messianism have done: redeem the Jews by fundamentally changing their political, social, cultural and religious existence.

Zionism was no different in its ambitions. It also sought to harness the immense energies contained in Jewish messianism in order to forge a way for Jews to remain Jews in a world transformed by modernity and its discontents.

Where Zionism differed from Reform Judaism, however, was in its concreteness. While it did see many of the ancient ways as irrelevant, it also seized upon them in a paradoxical but Promethean manner. Zionism took such ancient messianic themes as the Ingathering of the Exiles, the Redemption of the Land, the utopian visions of the prophets, the creation of an independent Jewish kingdom free of its oppressors and the final defeat of the Jewish people’s enemies, and recast them in a new, political form.

This gave Zionism enormous power, which was necessary for it to succeed, but it also created a rift within the movement. All Zionists agreed that these concepts were both religious and political, but they disagreed very strongly on which of the two should be emphasized.

For secular Zionists, including those currently taking to the streets in protest, the emphasis was overwhelmingly political. Today, they believe, the ingathering of the exiles, the redemption of the land and the reestablishment of an independent nation have been accomplished. The question now is what kind of nation it will be.

Some, such as David Ben-Gurion, turned to the visions of the prophets for the answer, while others have looked to the Western universalist ideals that are at least partially based on those visions. Nonetheless, even on the secular right, which is generally skeptical of universalism, the emphasis remained fundamentally political.

Other Zionists, however, believe the emphasis must be a religious one. Zionism in general never accepted Reform Judaism’s messianic spiritualization of Judaism, but religious Zionists reject it outright. Israel’s deed to the Land, they believe, is rooted in the Torah alone. Thus, the political redemption of the Jewish people can only be accomplished through religious redemption.

So long as this religious redemption remains incomplete, political redemption will remain incomplete as well. For religious Zionists, a Jewish nation with a purely secular culture, a divided Jerusalem and a vacated Judea and Samaria cannot be anything but an amputated limb, sure to wither and die without the vital force of the Torah.

This division over the nature of Zionism and indeed the nature of Jewish messianism has only deepened in recent years, with the demographic rise of the religious community and the deepening resentments of the secular community at shouldering more and more of the national burden.

Today, the division is focused on the question of whether secular or Jewish law ought to play the predominant role in Israeli society. Tomorrow, it will very likely focus on something else, such as military service or civil marriage and divorce. What is certain is that the divide is inherent in Jewish messianism and thus in Zionism itself. It is not going anywhere.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein. His books can be purchased here.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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