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Opposition of Reform Judaism to Zionism - A History

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Opposition of Reform Judaism to Zionism - A History

August 12, 2005

Jews of 19th century Germany  founded the reform movement, rejecting the idea of a Jewish nation and proclaiming themselves "Germans of the Mosaic faith." The reform movement of those days was a compromise between total apostasy (assimilation)  and orthodoxy. Orthodox Jews often confounded Reform Judaism with assimilationism, but they are not the same. This brief essay does not explore the entire theological roots of the reform movement, past or present, and is restricted to examination of the past history of anti-Zionism in reform Judaism, in order to better understand how this history influenced current ideology of anti-Zionist Jews.

Reform Judaism was motivated by many different spiritual and practical factors. Indeed there was strong drive to "fit in" to modern society, taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the emancipation of the Jews in Europe, as well as an honest attempt to reconcile religion with the findings of science and rationality. Clearly Jews cloaked in the garb of the ghetto labeled themselves as different. At the same time, there was a wish to maintain a tie to an undefined or redefined Jewish identity. A part of the reform platform however, had nothing to do with modernization.

The nature of the Jewish  identity, whatever it might be  was not nationalist according to 19th century reform Judaism. For every other nation in Europe, modernization and nationalism went hand in hand. Yet just as every other nation was discovering its identity, reform Jews were trying to lose theirs, in the name of the same modern rationalism. They did not want to appear to be different, or to have their loyalty called into question because their allegiance might be to another people. The opposition of reform Jews to idea of a Jewish people and the centrality of Zion to Jewish life predated political Zionism by many years.  In the USA, in 1841, at the dedication ceremony of Temple Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina, Rabbi Gustav Posnanski stated that "this country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our Temple."

The Frankfort-on-the-Main Conference of Rabbis on July 15-28, 1845, decided to eliminate from the ritual "the prayers for the return to the land of our forefathers and for the restoration of the Jewish state."

American Reform Jews followed suit. The Philadelphia Conference of Nov. 3-6, 1869, adopted  the following among its principles: "The Messianic aim of Israel is not the restoration of the old Jewish state under a descendant of David, involving a second separation from the nations of the earth, but the union of all the children of God in the confession of the unity of God, so as to realize the unity of all rational creatures, and their call to moral sanctification." Similarly, at the Pittsburgh Conference of Nov. 16-18 1885 this was reaffirmed, in the following words: "We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community; and we therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning a Jewish state."

Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler, one of the instigators of the Pittsburgh Platform offered these opinions concerning the possibility of Jewish settlement in Palestine, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia  of 1911:

He repudiates the idea that Judea is the home of the Jew—an idea which "unhomes" the Jew all over the wide earth—and holds the entire propaganda a Utopian dream because even if Turkey were willing, none of the great powers of Christendom would concede the Holy Land to the Jew; that the high temperature of Palestine would no longer afford him a congenial and healthful soil; that Palestine has poor prospects of ever becoming a leading state and of attracting Jewish capital; that the incongruous elements of which a Jewish state would be composed would militate against a harmonious blending into one great commonwealth; and that so petty a commonwealth would be unable to cope successfully with the hostile forces arrayed against it.

Notwithstanding the evident fact that all of Kohler's predictions were proven to be laughably incorrect, anti-Zionist reform Jews still cite him as a major prophet of their movement. A major theme of Jewish and other anti-Zionist writings is the attempt to portray difficulties in acclimation of various immigrant groups in Israel as indicative of the disastrous failure of Zionism. An entire mythology has grown up concerning the supposed alienation of Jews from Arab and Muslim countries (Sephardic Jews) from Zionism. It ignores the fact that the vast majority of Sephardi Jews in Israel vote for militant right-wing Zionist parties, and that intermarriage among Jews of different origins in Israel is rapidly wiping out the distinctions that were evident in the early state.

Kohler proclaimed that he was not anti-Zionist, but that:

Judaism is a religious truth entrusted to a nation destined to interlink all nations and sects, classes and races of men; its duty is to be a cosmopolitan factor of humanity, basing itself upon the Biblical passage, "Ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." "The mission of the Jew is not only spiritual or religious in character; it is social and intellectual as well, and the true Zionism demands of the Jews to be martyrs in the cause of truth and justice and peace until the Lord is one and the world one."

This peculiar, almost racist, restatement of the "chosen people" idea has remained with many anti-Zionist and non-Zionist Jews, who curiously believe that in some way it is "progressive" to insist that only your religion knows the higher truth and is morally superior.

The American Council for Judaism which represents the modern anti-Zionist faction of reform Judaism writes:

For Reform Jews, the idea of Zionism contradicted almost completely their belief in a universal Judaism. The first Reform prayerbook eliminated references to Jews being in exile and to a Messiah who would miraculously restore Jews throughout the world to the historic land of Israel and who would rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem. The prayerbook eliminated all prayers for a return to Zion.  

It is also proud to report:

For Isaac Mayer Wise, the leader of American Reform Judaism in the 19th century, Zionism was an anathema. He rejected both the premise and conclusion of Zionism that anti-Semitism was an absolute condition in all nation-state’s where Jews were a minority and that a separate nation-state for Jews was thus a necessity. Writing in The American Israelite, Wise declared that, ". . . The Herzl-Nordau scheme appears to be about as important to Judaism as was Pleasanton’s blue grass theory to science or as is ‘Christian Science’ to medicine. Pleasanton’s empiricism was at least harmless, but Herzl-Nordau’s is so fraught with the possibility of mischief . . . it becomes the duty of every true Jew to take an active part in efforts to destroy it."

(both citations are from Zionism at 100: Remembering Its Often Prophetic Jewish Critics  Allan C. Brownfeld 1997)

The author does not seem to realize that Pleasanton's blue grass theory is forgotten, but Zionism was not.

The great opposition to Zionism was not really religious or ethical, but rather a fear that Jews would once again be singled out as "different" and therefore subject to persecution:

Adolf Jellinek, who became known as the greatest Jewish preacher of his age and a standard bearer of Jewish liberalism from his position as rabbi at the Leopoldstadt Temple in Vienna, deplored the creation of what he called a "small state like Serbia or Romania outside Europe, which would most likely become the plaything of one Great Power against another, and whose future would be very uncertain." This, however, was not the real basis for his opposition. He argued that it threatened the position of Jews in Western countries and that "almost all Jews in Europe" would vote against the scheme if they were given the opportunity. He stated: "We are at home in Europe and feel ourselves to be children of the lands in which we were born, raised, and educated, whose languages we speak and whose cultures constitute our intellectual substance. We are Germans, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Hungarians, Italians, etc. with every fibre of our being. We long ago ceased to be genuine full- blooded Semites in the sense of a Hebrew nationality that has long since been lost."  
(Zionism at 100: Remembering Its Often Prophetic Jewish Critics  Allan C. Brownfeld 1997) (emphasis added)

Before any Jewish state could threaten Jellinek's precious Austrian identity, his notion that Jews are at home in Europe was to be destroyed in the Holocaust. He may have thought he was a German or a Hungarian "in every fibre" of his being but the SS and Gestapo would find many non-Aryan fibers in Austrian Jews, and their being would come to an end.

The Balfour Declaration, in which Britain promised the Jews a "national home" in Palestine, alarmed British Jews, who exerted great pressure on the British government to alter or retract the document (see Edwin Montagu - Opposition to the Balfour Declaration).

The rise of Nazism brought an end to a central illusion of reform Judaism, that it was possible to become citizens of the "Mosaic faith" who would dwell in safety in a secular European society, in which they could be  "Germans, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Hungarians, Italians, etc. with every fibre of our being." At the same time, it was evident that the heat of the holy land had not been so harmful to the Jewish body and soul as Rabbi Kaufmann had predicted, and that a vibrant, if struggling Zionist community had formed there.  The Columbus Platform of 1937 repudiated the Pittsburgh platform, stating:

In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.

The conversion of reform Judaism to Zionism was effected slowly thereafter. It gradually became apparent to most reform Jews as well as to other skeptics  that Israel had become a major part of Jewish identity and center of Jewish culture. By 1999, the Reform movement had adopted the following wording regarding Israel at their Pittsburgh convention:

We are committed to  (Medinat Yisrael), the State of Israel, and rejoice in its accomplishments. We affirm the unique qualities of living in  (Eretz Yisrael), the land of Israel, and encourage  (aliyah), immigration to Israel.

In fact, some reform Jews now took the lead in supporting the Zionist cause, most notably perhaps, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver.

Not everyone agreed. A dissident group formed the American Council for Judaism (ACJ), in 1943, which remained at the center of Anti-Zionist incitement and initiatives for many years. In 1945, for example, the ACJ submitted a memorandum to to President Truman, outlining a plan for a secular Palestinian state. ACJ remains hypercritical of Israel, but in recent years seems to have reconciled itself to the idea that it is possible for some reform Jews to be Zionists. However, a large portion of the ACJ still considers that the Columbus Platform marked the end of "classical reform Judaism."  Despite the fact that nearly 6 million Jews live in Israel, and that most Diaspora Jews are ardent supporters of Israel, ACJ insisted in 1997:

Now, as celebrations commemorate Zionism’s 100th anniversary, what has been largely forgotten is the fact that it was at its beginning a minority view among Jews and that at the present time it still remains a minority view.

( Zionism at 100: Remembering Its Often Prophetic Jewish Critics  Allan C. Brownfeld 1997)

The remnant of anti-Zionist reform  Jews consider that the reform movement was "infiltrated" by Zionists, rather than taking into account the possibility that reform Judaism's program for an universalistic super-anti-nationalistic Judaism was unrealistic.

Ami Isseroff

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