Why American Jews Consider Zionism Undesirable

By Dr. Samuel Schulman
(Rabbi of Temple Beth-El, New York City)

[The Outlook, January 5, 1916]

Zionism is officially defined as a movement to procure a publicly and legally assured home for the Jewish people in Palestine. This is the body, the practical activity. The soul that animates it is Nationalism—the claim that all the Jews to-day make a homeless nation, that their individuality cannot be perpetuated without a national center, and that wherever the Jews are they must cultivate a national consciousness.

We object to this because, logically carried out, it is destructive to Judaism as a religion. We are also opposed to it because we do not desire the creation of a new nationality within the American people. America is a democracy that deals directly with the individual, irrespective of his racial descent or religious profession. America is not organized on the basis of race, but on great moral ideas. Therefore American nationality has no room within itself for the cultivation of an alien national consciousness on the part of any group.

To understand this question we must envisage it as a philosophy of life for all Jews. Those who oppose Zionism or Nationalism lack not sympathy with the oppressed coreligionists in other lands. They refuse not to contribute to the amelioration of their condition. They have not even refused to contribute to the work on behalf of some Jews who have gone from lands of oppression to Palestine. But Zionism, by its definition, seeks to commit all Israel to the doctrine that it is a nation, that its only real home is in Palestine. Nationalism says, Jews are a nation like others, and are not to be regarded merely as a religious community, willing to enter the life of the countries in which they dwell, provided freedom and civil rights be given them.

This neo-Nationalism grants the European anti-Semite's contention that the Jews are, and must always remain, an alien and foreign element in the national body politic of the countries of their birth or adoption. It is a perversion of the spirit of Jewish history. Even in ancient classic times Israel was never a nation in the sense of a modern nation to-day. It never existed for itself. Israel always existed for God. Writers have described the ancient Jewish polity as a theocracy. In the course of the development of Israel's thought the religious idea grew ever more dominating, until at last Israel was transformed and outgrew every trace of nationality and became that which it is at last designated in rabbinical literature, a "Keneseth Yisrael"—a Congregation of Israel. And when history put an end to the Jewish center in Palestine this Congregation of Israel was fully equipped to live the life of the synagogue, a witness unto God among the nations. Thus it has lived for the last two thousand years.

The fourteen million Jews in the world to-day, despite geographical distribution, despite differences of nationality and subjection to various rulers, despite differences in language, culture, customs—aye, even physical appearance—are united by that only which the child learns as soon as it learns to speak, the words: " Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One"—by religion. Into this religious body a Jew, it is true, is born, because Israel's religion is one of family tradition. And the most indifferent Jew is numbered, potentially, a Jew. Only if he adopts another church for himself does he cease to be a Jew, according to Jewish canon law, and loses the rights and privileges of a Jew. But, conversely, any non-Jew who, in good faith, desires to accept the Jewish religion is admitted to the household of Israel with all the rights and privileges of a Jew, including the right to marry one of Jewish faith. This has been the law for two thousand years. Before Christianity arose many Romans and Greeks joined the Jewish household. Later the Church at times had to forbid by councils a conversion of Christians to the Jewish religion, which shows that there were those in Christendom who were attracted by Judaism. To-day Judaism accepts those who wish to adopt it. Therefore, as a matter of history, it is an established fact that the Jews form a religious body to-day and nothing else. Judaism is a religion to be classed with Catholicism and Protestantism, and is not the expression of a national aspiration.

Zionism or Nationalism wishes to undo this whole history. It says that the Jews are a nation and not a religious community. Individual Zionists or Nationalists may be religious, but the movement itself is essentially non-religious, and in some of its representatives irreligious. It seeks to dethrone God as the central idea in Jewish consciousness and to put in his place the idol of Jewish self-sufficiency. It is very significant that many leaders of Zionism have no affiliation with the synagogue. Jewish religion does not appeal to them. Many of the neo-Hebrew writers speak of a Hebraism as distinguished from Judaism. Some of them openly deplore our whole past development. They regard the Thorah as a misfortune. They spurn religious values. They would make the Jews a nation like other nations. It is entirely a new and secular movement. For the first time in Jewish experience the religious idea is eliminated entirely. As such, this movement proves itself to be a thing un-Jewish. It is only an adoption of the racialism and nationalism that have dominated European thought for the last forty years. And that itself is a reaction against the democratic, humanitarian, and cosmopolitan ideals of the first half of the nineteenth century. Such a Nationalism every Jew who knows wherein the Jewish soul consists must reject. Such a Nationalism belies the claims of Jews in Western lands for the last one hundred years. The Jews have claimed and have obtained recognition as members of the national life of many countries. They feel themselves to be whole-souled Germans, Frenchmen, Englishmen, as the case may be, while they are Jews in religion. And they are proving their nationality by their readiness to lay down their lives in the present terrible war.

From the point of view of America, Zionism or Nationalism as an ideal for the Jew is undesirable. Till now there has been no hyphen between Judaism and Americanism. In matters of nationality we felt ourselves to be completely Americans. In matters of religion we were completely Jews. This new movement does not appeal to the Jew on grounds of Jewish faith, on grounds of Jewish religious ideals to be translated into life, but exclusively on grounds of race and nationality. And it deliberately says that we should foster as a group Jewish national feeling. To accept it would make us a hyphenated group within the American people. The practical evil of this movement is a twofold one. It will retard the Americanization of the immigrant. The natural attitude of the immigrant before Zionism arose was to adapt himself as quickly as possible to the new environment. He preserved his religion, his Judaism. He felt immediately his Americanism. No immigrants become so quickly American in spirit as immigrants of the Jewish faith. To-day Zionism artificially arrests this process of adaptation by waving before the immigrant the blue and white flag of Zionism, by telling him that he belongs to another nation, that he has a flag besides the American flag which shelters and protects him. Furthermore, if Jews are not to find in religion the specific difference which alone spiritually distinguishes them from other elements in American life, and yet, as the Zionistic leader in this country asks of us, we are to maintain a vivid group-consciousness, then Jewry in this country will become a political entity, based on the shadowy remains of a great religious community and upon a racialism deliberately emphasized, fostered, and intensified. This is certainly an undesirable thing in American life.

To sum up, we oppose Nationalism as a philosophy of the Jew in the world because we believe that Judaism is a religion and not the expression of a national life. As a religion Jews can profess it everywhere, and at the same time share in and contribute to national culture everywhere. We oppose Zionism as Americans, because, while we belong to the "Keneseth Yisrael," we are whole-souledly, and with no divided allegiance, members of the American Nation.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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