Part Two: Jewish-Arab Relations in Old Jerusalem



In this letter, we will begin to discuss one of the reasons why tensions between Arabs and Jews greatly increased when the secular Zionist movement gained more power and influence in the Land of Zion.


Dear Friends,


As we discussed, most of the secular leaders of the World Zionist Organization wanted us to become a nation like all the other nations through having nationalism replace the Torah as the guiding spirit of our people. It is therefore not surprising that the following statement of Jacob Klatzkin, a leading activist within the W.Z.O., became a motto for many other activists within this organization:


“Let us be like all the nations!” (Cited in the introduction to “The Zionist Idea” by Dr. Arthur Hertzberg)


When some of these activists spoke about being like all the nations, they meant the nations of Europe, especially the nations of Western Europe. Their goal was to develop a state of Jews in Zion which would have a Western European culture and thereby serve as a bastion of western civilization among the non-western peoples of the Middle East and Asia. An early version of this view was expressed by Theodor Herzl, the founder of the World Zionist Organization. As Dr. Arthur Hertzberg explains in the introduction to his book, “The Zionist Idea,” Herzl viewed the Jew in Zion as someone who should culturally be a person of the “secular west.” Regarding the role of a future Jewish state in Zion, Herzl wrote:


“To Europe we would represent a part of the barrier against Asia; we would serve as the outpost of civilization against barbarism.” (From Herzl’s pamphlet, “The Jewish State”)


One does not have to be a sociologist in order to understand why the Arabs, who are rooted in the Middle East and who are very proud of their religious culture, were particularly offended by Herzl’s expression of western cultural chauvinism. This is a major reason why some Arabs began to speak of the modern Zionist settlement as a foreign western transplant in the Middle East.


This cultural conflict continued; in fact, after the State of Israel was established in 1948, the leaders of the state would describe Israel as a bastion of western culture. In addition, imitating western culture became the trend in secular Israeli society, and we cited examples of this trend in our current series. During this period, many Arabs continued to claim that the modern Zionist settlement was a foreign western transplant in the Middle East.


As we discussed in part one of this letter, there was some Arab prejudice against the Jews in Zion even before the secular-dominated W.Z.O. began to gain influence and power in the Land. In this earlier era, almost all the Jews in Zion were religious; however, these religious Jews were not accused by their religious Arab neighbors of being a foreign western transplant. This is because these religious Jews stressed that their spiritual culture was rooted in the Holy Land. In addition, the Arabs saw how the religious Jews of Zion fought against all attempts by their secular-oriented brethren to “westernize” them. To remind us of the struggle of these religious Jews to preserve their spiritual identity and way of life, we will review the following information about the debates between Dr. Chaim Weizmann, a major secular Zionist leader, and Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, a major spiritual leader in Jerusalem:


Not infrequently, Dr. Weizmann would leave his office and proceed to Rav Yosef Chaim’s home in the Old City where he would initiate heated and wide-ranging debates about the value of the secular Zionist ideology. In reply, the sage would emphasize the spiritual meaning of the term “Zion.” In the heat of one of these debates, Rav Yosef Chaim turned to Dr. Weizmann and said:
We pray that we should merit the return of the Shechinah (the Divine Presence) to Zion as it was in days of yore, before the destruction of the Temple. As stated by all the prophets, the main yearning to return to Zion must be to renew our spiritual lives in Zion – to return to lives of holiness and purity, as it was when the Kohanim and Levites stood at their posts and the populace absorbed Ruach Hakodesh (the Spirit of Holiness) and conducted itself according to the Torah. But to you who call yourselves ‘Zionists,’ Zion is merely a geographical, political, physical concept in which you seek to establish theaters and cultural institutions the same as all the nations, while severing ties with our glorious past. Is this to be called ‘Zion’? There is no greater travesty than this!”
Certain people came to Rav Yosef Chaim and asked him if it was not possible, in spite of all the difficulties, to join with Dr. Weizmann and the World Zionist Organization. After all, Weizmann was offering plans and financial resources for building up Jerusalem and establishing its residences on a surer footing.


Rav Yosef Chaim replied that the Torah communities needed to remain independent as long as Dr. Weizmann viewed the spiritual values of the Torah communities in Zion as a relic of the exile which must be uprooted, and as long as he therefore strove to rebuild Jerusalem along the lines of the cultural centers of “Paris, London and Berlin.” Rav Yosef Chaim added:


“We will go our own way and reiterate that the House of Israel is not like all the nations, nor is the Holy City of Jerusalem, palace of the Divine Sovereign, like other capital cities. There is no doubt that if we have been exiled from our land because of our sins, then we cannot possibly return with those same sins clothed in modern garb.”


The sage’s statement is based on all the warnings of the Prophets of Israel; moreover, this statement reminds us of the following collective admission which is found in the morning prayers of Passover, Shavuos and Succos, the three pilgrimage festivals:


“Because of our sins, we have been exiled from our land and sent far from our soil.” (Musaf Shemoneh Esrei)


With the help of Hashem, I shall discuss in future letters other causes for the growing tensions between Jews and Arabs over the Land after the W.Z.O. gained power in Zion. And I will also describe how Rav Yosef Chaim and his colleagues sought to alleviate these tensions. Through this discussion, we will understand why Rav Yosef Chaim published a call for shalom in both the Jewish and Arab press where he described the Land as, “the Holy Land, to which God affords special supervision, from which blessing emanates to the rest of the world, and in which God’s prophets foresaw the future happiness of all humanity.”
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Comments:


1. I would like to share with you some personal reflections that reveal the following insight:


When the leaders of the State of Israel fail to recognize our spiritual and universal raison d’etre in the Land of Zion, they not only distance themselves from our Arab neighbors; they also distance themselves from many spiritually-searching Jews.


The above insight is based on my personal experience as an educator and activist in the American Jewish community before I moved to the Land of Zion. As I previously mentioned, I began a dialogue with the spiritual searching Jews of my generation during the late 1960’s, and I continued this dialogue through my outreach work as the director of the Martin Steinberg Center for Jewish Artists which was founded in 1976 by the American Jewish Congress. I discovered that the majority of these Jewish spiritual seekers had an ambivalent attitude towards the Land of Zion. Although the amazing events of the Six-Day War had awakened within them an interest in Zion, there was no message going forth from the Zionist establishment in Israel that addressed their spiritual yearnings. The leaders of the State of Israel failed to project after the Six-Day War our ancient spiritual and universal vision regarding the Land; instead, they spoke about the State of Israel as a democratic bastion of modern western culture and as a nation that was militarily strong. It was therefore a vision of the Land of Zion without its “soul” – the inner Divine spirit that gives the Land its spiritual and universal purpose.

The same problem exists today. For example, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published an article by Ben Harris with the following title: “Ethnic identification is on the wane, spirituality rising among Jews” (March 31, 2009). The article described a new sociological study on the growing spiritual awareness of many American Jews, and I will share with you the following excerpt from this article which is particularly relevant to our discussion:


Taken together, the researchers conclude that ethnic identification is on the wane for American Jews, replaced with identification through spirituality, and that this trend will have significant policy implications.

“Simply asking Jews about raising money to give money to Israel or Jewish causes and expecting they'll do it just because they're Jewish is yesterday's thinking,” said Lawrence Hoffman, a professor at HUC who co-authored the report with the sociologist Steven Cohen. “Instead, they'll have to see some transcendent purpose of the Jewish people.”


2. Most of the information in the above letter is from “Guardian of Jerusalem” – the Life and Times of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld. The well-documented historical accounts in this book can help us to understand the roots of current conflicts and problems within Israeli society. For information on this highly recommended work, visit:  . Some of you may be interested in the original and larger Hebrew edition – HaIsh AlHaChomah – which has additional documentation.

Hazon - Our Universal Vision