Is the Modern Zionist Movement “Universal”?

Dear Friends,


As we discussed previously, Torah, the Divine Teaching, is the “soul” of Zion, and through the Torah, we discover the raison d’etre of Zion. We have also begun to discuss sources which reveal the universal nature of Zion’s soul, and our discussion has focused on the following themes:


1. Humanity’s roots in Zion


2. Our mandate to establish a model society in Zion which will be a source of blessing for “all the families of the earth.”


3. The universal role of Zion during the messianic age of enlightenment and shalom


Our discussion in this letter will begin with the following teaching of King Solomon regarding Torah:


“Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23).


We, the People of Zion, are to walk by the Divine light of Zion’s soul, as the Prophet Isaiah proclaimed to our people:


“O House of Jacob: Come, let us walk by the light of Hashem!” (Isaiah 3:5)


The Vilna Gaon, in his commentary on this verse, reminds us that this light is not just for our sake, as the Prophet Isaiah also proclaimed to the People of Zion:


“Nations will go by your light, and sovereigns by the brightness of your shine.” (Ibid 60:3)


According to our tradition, we become a universal people when we develop our spiritual potential in order to give to others. From the perspective of our tradition, is the modern Zionist movement “universal”? The following information – some of which appeared in previous letters – can provide us with the beginning of an answer:


Zion has a universal soul; however, most of the leaders of the modern Zionist movement rejected the very soul of Zion. They sought to have “nationalism” replace the Torah as the raison d’etre of Zion, for they desired that we become a nationalistic nation like all other nations. An example of their approach can be found in the following statements of Jacob Klatzkin, a leading Zionist thinker, which are cited in “The Zionist Idea” by Arthur Hertzberg:


1. “Let us be like all the nations!” (Introduction)


2. “In longing for our land, we do not desire to create there a base for the spiritual values of Judaism. To regain our land is for us an end in itself – the attaining of a free national life.” (Part 5)


Klatzkin also pointed out that Zionism is opposed to those who believe that the basis for our life is “the eternal content of Judaism” and that we are to be a “priest people, a nation of prophets.” He wrote:


“Zionism is opposed to all this. Its real beginning is the Jewish State and its basic intention, consciously and unconsciously, is to deny any conception of Jewish identity based on spiritual criteria.” (Ibid)


The basic premise of Klatzkin was accepted by the World Zionist Organization when it passed a resolution in 1911 which stated, “Zionism has nothing to do with religion.” The W.Z.O. also developed schools and cultural programs which stressed a secular and nationalistic definition of the Jewish people.


Many Torah-committed Jews therefore resigned from the W.Z.O. and joined a new international organization, Agudath Israel, which was founded by the Chofetz Chaim and other leading Torah sages. The founding conference of Agudath Israel proclaimed that its goal was nothing less than “the solution of all problems facing the Jewish people in the spirit of Torah” (The Struggle and the Splendor). This spiritual perspective led Agudath Israel to engage in the renewal of Zion independently of the World Zionist Organization.


Rabbi Michael Ber Weissmandl was a leading activist in Agudath Israel, and he stressed that the nationalistic desire to become a nation like all the nations was opposed to the universal goal of Judaism. Rabbi Weissmandl was known for his dry humor, and in one conversation with a Zionist leader, he said, “You have exchanged a universal religion for a Paraguay!” (Torah-Judaism and the State of Israel by Uriel Zimmer)


Was the universal mandate to become a light to the nations totally forgotten by the leadership of the W.Z.O.? A few years after I started  Jewish day school, I read an article which described how new states in Africa and Asia were sending farmers to the State of Israel, where they would learn about Israel’s innovative agricultural methods which were causing the desert to bloom. The story had a quote from Israel’s Prime Minister and Zionist leader, David Ben Gurion, who said that Israel’s help to these developing nations was a fulfillment of the biblical vision of our becoming a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).


Although I thought it was admirable that the State of Israel was trying to help the developing nations, I asked myself the following questions: Was the teaching of agricultural methods to other nations the goal of our long and challenging journey through history? Was this what the Prophet meant when he spoke of our being a “light” to the nations?


My parents had instilled in me a passionate yearning for a caring and just world; moreover, my rebbes made me aware that our path to such a world is through developing a caring and just society in Zion through fulfilling the Divine Teaching, as in this way, we could serve as a righteous model for all the nations. The Prophet Isaiah therefore revealed to Zion that in the future, “Nations will perceive your righteousness” (Isaiah 62:2).


In the following prophecy, Isaiah describes how the spreading of the Divine knowledge will lead to universal shalom on earth:


“The wolf will live with the sheep, and the leopard will lie down with the kid; and a calf, a lion whelp and a fatling together, and a young child will lead them. A cow and bear will graze and their young will lie down together; and a lion, like cattle, will eat hay. A suckling will play by a viper’s hole; and a newly weaned child will stretch his hand towards an adder’s lair. They will neither injure nor destroy in all of My sacred mountain; for the earth will be filled with knowledge of Hashem as water covering the sea bed.” (Ibid 11:6-9)


The universal vision described in the above prophecies caused me to want Israel to be more than just a nation that would teach agricultural skills to other nations. I wanted Israel to teach through the power of its own example the spiritual skills which would enable all human beings to become truly human, so that the entire world will experience justice, unity, and shalom.


I therefore felt pain that the World Zionist Organization had abandoned our ancient universal vision, as well as the path which leads to the fulfillment of this vision. This led me to identify with the following prophetic proclamation:


“For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be still, until her righteousness emanates like bright light, and her salvation blazes like a torch.” (Isaiah 62:1)


Have a Shabbat Shalom and a Good Month,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Comments:


1. In a previous letter, we began to discuss Agudath Israel and its spiritual critique of the secular and nationalistic ideology that began to dominate the modern Zionist movement. An e-mail copy can be sent to you upon request, or you can access this letter in the archive on our website by going to the following link:


2. Most of the letters in this series appear in the archive on our website, and the recent letters have a larger font.

Hazon - Our Universal Vision