Zionism: Movement into Modern World - Sample Essay

Zionism’s attempt to enter the world scene was braked down by several difficulties, of which its own remaining loyalties to the older religious vision were not necessarily the most important. The world without offered only grudging and fitful co-operation in the working out of the Zionist scheme, though its real partnership, based on complete mutual understanding, was indispensable to a messianic success.

Even in the midst of the realization of some of Zionism’s direst predictions, like the destruction of European Jewry, and greatest hopes, in the establishment of the state of Israel, it remained apparent that the Jew and the world had not yet — if they ever would — fully come to terms. The tangible successes of Zionism as a movement have not, therefore, been widely and unquestioningly accepted as proof of the validity of Zionism as secular messianism.

On the contrary, the last half century of Zionist thought has been marked by increased wrestling with the meaning of the Messiah ideal and by an ever-growing trend toward some kind of marriage between the religious vision and the need for Jewry to become, as best it can, an easily understandable part of the contemporary world.

Zionism came into the world announcing a break with the proceeding century of Jewish thought, for it was the archenemy of assimilation and religious Reform, the two Jewish philosophies which dominated the first half of the nineteenth century. And yet, like them, its basic problem is the tension between the internal life of Jewry and the wider life of society as a whole. Indeed, it is within Zionism that this conflict is formulated in the sharpest and most complex terms and the most radical solutions are proposed.

Zionism is the heir of immediate predecessors as surely as it is their foe; it is the attempt to achieve the consummation of the freedom the modern world promised the Jew as clearly as it is the symbol of the blasting of that hope; it is the drive of Jewry to be part of society in general as much as, or even more than, it is the call to retreat; and it is the demand for a more complete involvement in modern culture, at least as much as it is a reassertion of the claim of older, more traditional loyalties.

Post-Emancipation Jewish thought did indeed attempt to deal with the new legal equality and its corollary, the entry of the Jew into western society, as a gezerah. Yehudah Leib Gordon, the greatest figure and the summation of the Russian Jewish Haskalah (Enlightenment), reflects it in his version of the answer: “Be a Jew in your home, and a man outside” — and, in his slogan, he represented the essential meaning of the theories both of Reform and of cultural nationalism, which were the immediate sources of his thought.

In fact, there is considerable evidence that such a reaction to the mode of gezerah was the first, almost instinctive feeling of the Jewish masses when first confronted by the new equality after 1789. This attitude can explain the underlying reason of all the stresses of the last century and a half have not produced a schism in Jewry.

So long as it could be imagined that the new theories about Judaism and the newly secularized patterns of living were essentially defensive, that they were retreats before the outside world and not a real inner turning to an heretical ideal, Jewish feeling could ultimately allow them a considerably increased amount of the kind of latitude it had always reserved for its contacts with the non-Jewish world. But it was unmistakably evident that history was denying Gordon’s formula the kind of meaning he intended.

The “outside” was no longer a place for more or less regular sojourns by a few and enforced short visits by the many. It was, wherever emancipation was in process, the most of life, affecting the entire mass of Jewry, and all that could be hoped for was that the “home” would not be completely forgotten. So, radical a reversal in the ratio between the specifically Jewish and the general experience of even those “good Jews” who wished to be modern men could not really be understood in terms of political categories which were rooted in the past.