By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
This week Israel celebrates another anniversary of its founding as a modern Jewish country. It’s illuminating to turn back the pages of contemporary history to get a grasp of the origins of Zionism and how it brought about the spiritual alienation and moral decay that today threaten the tiny Jewish state.
Zionism emerged in the late nineteenth century in response to decades of anti-Semitic persecution in Europe. It was the appalling outburst of French anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus affair that first catalyzed the movement, convincing Herzl and his followers that the key to solving the Jewish problem was to rid the Jewish people of their statelessness.
Since being driven out of Eretz Yisroel over two thousand years ago, the Jews had wandered the globe. Without political autonomy or control over their fate, they had been dependent on hostile host countries which sometimes granted them brief periods of relative affluence and comfort, but more often exploited them as convenient scapegoats and deemed them second-class citizens with no legal rights.
For hundreds of years, Jews in one country or another were condemned to abject poverty, murder, pogroms, random rampages of violent religious persecution, and worse.
Through it all, the Jewish people, inspired and nurtured by Torah and mesorah in the face of every adversity, still flourished. Torah was everywhere, as was the sincere and meticulous observance of its laws and customs.
With the dawn of the age of Enlightenment in the mid- to late-18th century, and the lure of social acceptance of Jews into some Western European societies, a new challenge to the Jewish people emerged.
The Haskalah movement led a large percentage of Jews astray from their religious heritage. It promised them that by secularizing themselves and turning their backs on religious faith, the Jews of Europe would at last gain equal rights in their host countries. Yet, though they were now living secular, materialistic lives in the big cities, Jews still could not win full acceptance.
They were never allowed to forget their Jewish roots and continued to be excluded from the upper ranks of society. They were still despised, mistrusted and the first to be blamed whenever anything went wrong. In Eastern Europe, the bloody pogroms continued, and even in the most civilized societies of Western Europe, anti-Semitism remained deeply ingrained.
Haskalah spawned the Zionist movement which professed that if the Jews had their own country like every other ethnic people, and they became nationally strong and self-sufficient, anti-Semitism would become a thing of the past.
The historic Jewish mode of surviving by playing up to host countries and corrupt ministers would no longer be necessary, Zionism preached. For in the land of the Jews, a utopian existence ushered in by a socialist state would be established. Jews would cast off the shackles of the exile, finally free of the tyranny of governments, priests and rabbis.
Many Jews bought into the Zionist dream. The idea of returning to the land of our forefathers held emotional sway all over Europe. Jews were starving to death in many places. They were poor beyond our comprehension. They were tormented by their neighbors, landowners, and people in power.
They thought that this was, at long last, the answer to Jewish poverty and starvation, the end to the centuries of torment. Especially following the Holocaust, many Jews felt that a state of their own would solve so many problems and lead to the ultimate redemption.
Of course, in hindsight, we all know that it was a false hope, never to be fully realized. There were many rabbonim who foresaw that a secular Zionist state would solve few, if any, of our problems, and would create many more.
Those gedolim and askanim were shunted aside by the people in power and lost almost every power struggle in the new land.
Looking back over the past 60-plus years, one is struck by the many failures of the enterprise. Yes, they made the desert bloom. Tel Aviv is a cosmopolitan city. Israel has more companies traded on the NASDAQ than any other country besides the U.S. Israel provided a home for some Holocaust refugees, as well as hundreds of thousands more Jewish refugees chased from North Africa, a true ingathering of the exiles.
But at what price?
The Laborites who held onto power until Menachem Begin wrested it from them, robbed many of these newly arrived Jews of their religious heritage, a sin that can never be forgiven and whose repercussions continue to produce bitter fruit in our own day. They set up a state devoid of Yiddishkeit, seeking to substitute Jewish history, Hebrew language, nostalgia and Jewish ‘folklore’ for real Judaism and faith.
They created a state which, in many ways, was Jewish in name only, using the Jewish heritage as a convenient backdrop. They seized political control over the new country and purported to act and speak on behalf of the entire Jewish people.
The founders of the new state expected its religious community to quickly shrivel up and disappear in their new socialist Zionist utopia, but they were wrong.
Instead of withering, those devoted to Torah and Yiddishkeit were inspired by the Holy Land and breathed a religious flavor into the state. Torah took root, grew and flourished in the nascent country. The number of frum Yidden, as well as their intensity in learning and devotion to the observance of Torah, has multiplied many times over.
The prosperity of the Torah community sparked surprise and dismay in the children of the secular founders. A new generation has come of age, and many descendants of the early Zionists reject their parents’ Zionism. Yet, far from receding with the weakening of Zionism, contempt and hatred for religious Jews and a Torah lifestyle have increased in this land.
It’s possible to visit Israel and not see overt signs of this contempt. We travel to Yerushalayim and are overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and flavors the land has to offer. We pass chadorim, yeshivos and yishuvim, and our hearts skip a beat as we think of all the blood, sweat and tears that went in to reestablishing everything in the Holy Land. We go the Kosel, the Meoras Hamachpeilah and Kever Rochel and are overcome by the holiness and the communal memories of thousands of years of Jewish history connected with these sacred places.
We walk down the streets of Yerushalayim and marvel at the great miracle of the rebirth of our people. On Rechov Chazon Ish in Bnei Brak, we can’t help but visualize the holy Chazon Ish zt”l walking these same streets, dreaming of a city of Torah arising from the ashes of the Holocaust.
Wherever we go in the country, there are stirring reminders of the history of our people. In Beer Sheva, we are shown wells and walls which are dated to the times of Avrohom Avinu. If we travel around the country, we encounter Har Gerizim and Har Eivol, and the pesukim of the Torah reverberate in our minds. At Har Hakarmel, the pesukim in Nach come alive. The pools of Shlomo Hamelech can actually be touched. The palaces of Hordus, Ihr Dovid, the Beis Haknesses of the Ramban in Yerushalayim and the shul of the Arizal in Tzefas are all testaments to our glorious history in this land.
The graves of the ancients evoke shivers of awe, from Adam and Chava, to Avrohom and Sarah, and all the Avos and Imahos, to the kever of Shmuel Hanovi overlooking Yerushalayim, the kever of Dovid Hamelech, and all the historical figures whose Torah we study day and night.
It is so easy to be overwhelmed when visiting the Land of Israel.
But then you realize that so much of what touches you about this land has nothing to do with the modern state. It is the history and kedushah infusing the land that touches your soul and causes you to feel that you have found home.
There is much we don’t see when we go for a visit to Eretz Yisroel, and much they don’t show us. Were we to wander into Tel Aviv, we would be lost; we wouldn’t believe that Jews live this way in Eretz Yisroel. This is also true in Haifa, Eilat, and so many other places not on the Chareidi tourist map. If you happen to find yourself there, your heart breaks; you know that these are Jews, yet they inhabit a different universe. You cringe and you can’t wait to get out of there.
Yet, that universe is what the founders of the state set out to create. They weren’t interested in enclaves such as Meah Shearim, Beit Shemesh, Bnei Brak and Kiryat Sefer. They didn’t even want places like Bayit Vegan and other more cosmopolitan religious areas. They wanted the Tel Aviv nightlife, the beach in Eilat, and kibbutzim where families were separated from each other and all was bliss.
I hate to offer a negative retrospective and point out the downside and the sad parts of the state. Yes, there is what to be thankful for, but you can’t praise the good without noticing and examining what has gone terribly wrong.
Thus, it is with a great deal of ambivalence that the anniversary is marked. Obviously, Zionism didn’t cure the Jewish problem. Anti-Semitism is as ugly as ever, and much of it seems to be caused by the very state which was founded to get rid of it. Once again, Israel is in the news as a young American president appears to be beholden to a long discredited anti-Israel agenda.
We live in a world that seems drastically different from the world of 60 and 100 ago. Communism, once so terrifying in its global power and tyranny, has crumbled. Jews who live in the West experience freedom, enjoying the same rights as Christians to work, live and worship as they please. Pogroms are but a distant memory, something children learn about in school and old people talk about, but seemingly totally irrelevant to today’s world.
How about Israel? Is this country the great refuge and safe harbor for Jews that its founders envisaged? With so many rockets aimed at it and so many people bent on its destruction, it’s hard to see it that way. An entire country seems bent on attaining weaponry with which it can wipe Israel off the map while the entire world stands by and watches. Despite their bravado, Israel’s leaders seem powerless to do anything.
The country has been in a state of war since its founding. Its enemies are not interested in making peace with it or even officially acknowledging its existence. Miraculously, the army succeeded in fighting back the country’s attackers several times throughout the decades.
The country is aflutter with the revelation that a former prime minister faces new indictments on top of the charges he is already on trial for. The previous president was thrown out of office in disgrace. Ministers have been accused and found guilty of crimes of moral turpitude. Corruption is endemic to that country. It is an open secret that greasing palms is alive and well there and bribery is considered a natural way of doing business.
It is truly appalling that a country invested with so much hope, and which people still believe to be a harbinger of the Messiah, is led by people of low moral caliber.
The great debate whether there are still Zionists left anywhere continues to rage. I maintain that there are. It may be that we don’t meet them. When we travel to Israel, we generally stay in Yerushalayim where we meet and spend time with other like-minded English speakers. Most of us can’t speak Hebrew coherently and thus have no real interaction with Israelis other than superficial chit-chat. The Israelis we do converse with are Chareidim like ourselves. The only secular people we engage in conversation with are Arab waiters or rabidly right-wing Sephardic taxi drivers. It is unfair to judge an entire country based upon our interactions with those small segments of the population.
No matter what the secularists do, they cannot rob the country of its special chein. The very air of Eretz Yisroel is redolent with its history. No one and nothing can eradicate that. There is Torah everywhere. Wherever you go, there are people on a quest for teshuvah, people searching for a more spiritual life, people searching for the way back to the paths of their forefathers. Despite its flaws, the country serves as a modern, comfortable home for millions of Jews who feel free to live, grow and flourish there.
It is the land we pray towards three times a day. We pray for the people who live there. We direct so many of our charity dollars there. We hang pictures of its buildings in our homes. We are invested emotionally in its survival and success. And, as its anniversary is marked, we are reminded that we are still in golus and our physical existence is as precarious as ever. The country’s anniversary ought to remind us to increase the fervor of our tefillos for a hastening of the geulah sheleimah bimeheirah.