Understanding the terms “Zionism” and “Zionist”

Introductory Note:


The modern Arab-Jewish conflict began in the era when the modern terms “Zionism” and “Zionist” emerged. This letter will discuss the meaning of these terms, and it will include a fascinating exchange between Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld and a sheik regarding the “Zionists” and their ideology.


Dear Friends,


The term “Zionism” does not appear in the classical sources of our tradition, and it was coined by Dr. Nathan Birnbaum, who became the Secretary General of the World Zionist Organization which was founded in 1897. (He later left the organization for reasons which are explained in the “Related Comments” section which appears at the end of this letter.) The term “Zionism” as defined by this new organization does not just mean a love of Zion, as the Torah-committed Jews in Zion who opposed the ideology of the W.Z.O. had an intense love of Zion; moreover, they were involved in the renewal of Jewish life in Zion even before the W.Z.O. was founded. Their urban communities and agricultural settlements were therefore known as the “Old Yishuv” – Old Settlement.


To understand the definition of “Zionism” according to the W.Z.O., we need to remember that the W.Z.O. sought to have nationalism replace the Torah as the guiding spirit of our people. The leaders who gained control of the W.Z.O. felt that “land” and “language” are what makes us into a nation, as they rejected the traditional Jewish view that our nation is to be defined by the spiritual ideals of the Torah and its path of mitzvos. Since our historic homeland was Zion, these leaders felt that our nation has no purpose without regaining a national home in Zion. They therefore used the term “Zionism” to refer to the ideology and goal of their movement, and the members of the W.Z.O. became known as “Zionists.”


Their Torah-committed opponents, however, viewed Zion according to the following traditional view:


Zion is the place where we are to develop an ethical and holy model society, so that the Shechinah – Divine Presence – can dwell in our midst.


This goal will be fully achieved in the messianic age; thus, the Prophet Zechariah proclaimed to our people the following Divine promise regarding this new age:


“Sing and rejoice O daughter of Zion! For behold, I am coming and I will dwell in your midst, spoke Hashem.” (Zechariah 2:14)


“I will dwell in your midst” – I will place My Shechinah in your midst. (Targum – the ancient Aramaic translation and commentary)


Our society will then begin to serve as a universal model which can bring the nations closer to Hashem; thus, the Prophet Zechariah adds the next part of the Divine promise: “Many nations will join themselves to Hashem on that day” (2:15).


The leaders who gained control of the W.Z.O. rejected this spiritual view of Zion, and they referred to their Torah-committed opponents who preceded them in Zion as “non-Zionist” Jews. Some of their Torah-committed opponents responded to this label by saying that they are the true Zionists, for they are loyal to our people’s traditional vision of Zion. Despite this argument, the term “Zionists” became a term for those who belonged to the World Zionist Organization, and in this letter, the term “Zionists” will be used in this context.


As we discussed in a previous letter, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, a major leader of the W.Z.O., often came to visit Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, a major leader of the Old Yishuv. Dr. Weizmann came to debate the issues and to defend the secular ideology of the World Zionist Organization. In one of his replies to Dr. Weizmann, Rav Yosef Chaim said:


“We pray that we should merit the return of the Shechinah 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 their spiritual values 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.”


We also discussed how Rav Yosef Chaim, who was involved with the renewal of Jewish life in Zion, developed a respectful relationship with various Muslim leaders. There were some Muslim leaders who did not oppose the renewal of Jewish life in Zion, including the renewal work of the Zionists from the W.Z.O.; however, there were some Muslim leaders who felt very threatened by the Zionists that had begun to arrive in the Land. They therefore began an ideological battle against the Zionists. In one of Rav Yosef Chaim’s dialogues with Muslim leaders, before the later outbreak of Arab violence, a certain Sheik who was against the Zionists turned to Rav Yosef Chaim and commented: “You know, you also oppose the Zionists. You too fight them, so we really have something in common! We both battle the Zionists!”


Rav Yosef Chaim retorted: “It is true, we both oppose the Zionists – but for opposite reasons! You hate them because of the Jewish elements of their ideology. We oppose them because of the non-Jewish elements of their ideology! And thus, there is very great difference between us indeed!”


Rav Yosef Chaim referred to the hatred of this particular Sheik for the Zionists, but in terms of his own opposition to the Zionists, he did not say that he hated them. As we discussed in previous letters, he loved them as individuals, but opposed their secular-dominated organization. Dr. Chaim Weizmann was aware of Rav Yosef Chaim’s love for all Jews, and he once acknowledged:

“It is difficult to fight against Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld’s brand of pure and objective truth, especially when it flows from a warm Jewish heart completely permeated with the love of the land and the People of Israel.” (Cited in “Guardian of Jerusalem”)


What did Rav Yosef Chaim mean when he referred to the “Jewish” elements of their ideology? Based on my study of his life and teachings, as well as my study of the history of that period, I would like to suggest the following answers:


1. Unlike those assimilated Jews in the West who were trying to escape their Jewish identity, the Zionists acknowledged that they were Jews.


2. During the 19th century and early 20th century, there were Reform Jewish leaders who denied that Jews were a people and that they still had a bond with Zion. This was why many Reform Jews in Germany referred to themselves as “Germans of the Mosaic faith”; moreover, they stopped praying for a return to Zion, and a number of their leaders claimed that Berlin was now their “Jerusalem.” (The Reform movement later repudiated its original views on these themes.) The Zionists, however, stressed that Jews are a people and that they have a bond with Zion.


According to Rav Yosef Chaim, that particular sheik hated the “Jewish” elements of their ideology; in fact, there are Arab leaders today who deny that Jews are a people and that they have a bond with Zion. This anti-Jewish message is conveyed in many mosques, and it is also found in much of the Arab media, including the media of the P.L.O. led by Abbas.


What did Rav Yosef Chaim mean when he referred to the non-Jewish elements of their ideology? As we discussed, the secular leaders who controlled the W.Z.O. wanted us to become a nation like all the other nations through having a commitment to nationalism become the raison d’etre of our people; thus, the following statement of Jacob Klatzkin, a leading activist and editor within the W.Z.O., became a motto for many members of this organization:


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


According to Klatzkin, this was to be the goal of the Zionist movement, and Klatzkin defined this goal in the following manner:


“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.” (The Zionist Idea, Part 5)


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.”


When many of these activists spoke about being like all the nations, they usually 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 writes in the introduction to his book, “The Zionist Idea,” Herzl viewed the Jew in Zion as someone who ought to be “a man of the secular west.”


I will conclude this letter with the following story which serves as a reminder of Rav Yosef Chaim’s love for all Jews:


When Rav Yosef Chaim and his disciple, Rav Moshe Blau, were leaving the grounds of Shaarei Tzedek Hospital, a parade of boys and girls from the secular Zionist schools was approaching. Knowing that the anti-religious ideology of these schools caused his beloved rebbe great pain, Rav Blau gently suggested to Rav Yosef Chaim that they return to the hospital building until the parade passes by.


“No,” was his reply, “they are Jewish children, aren’t they?” As the children marched by, singing their songs, Rav Moshe noticed that Rav Yosef Chaim’s lips were moving steadily, as he murmured something softly to himself. Rav Blau moved closer and he heard his rebbe saying the following verses:


“May Hashem add upon you – upon you and your children! Blessed are you to Hashem, Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 115:14,15).


He repeated these verses of blessing over and over again, until the last child in that long procession had passed.


Be Well, and Shalom,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Comments:


1. In 1898, Dr. Nathan Birnbaum, the Secretary General of the World Zionist Organization, left the movement in order to become involved with a different group of secular activists who focused on strengthening Jewish communities in the Diaspora and who viewed the Yiddish language as the basis of Ashkenazic Jewish culture. He then went through another transformation, and he developed an inner awareness of the spiritual goal of the Jewish people. This inner awareness led to a journey of return to the path of the Torah. He began to challenge the modern paganism of his era, but he also challenged Torah-observant Jews to renew their commitment to the messianic vision of the Torah through developing holy and holistic communities. His activism became inspired by Torah, and he became the Secretary General of Agudath Israel, the international chareidi organization founded by the Chofetz Chaim and other leading sages. Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld was a major leader of the Jerusalem branch of Agudath Israel.


Dr. Nathan Birnbaum had previously dedicated his life to strengthening organizations that sought to secularize our people, and he now began to dedicate his life to strengthening an organization that sought to spiritually renew our people.


2. In 1975, after the infamous “Zionism is Racism” resolution was passed by the United Nations, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the President of Agudath Israel of America, issued a strong condemnation of the resolution. He said, “While we may have our own quarrel with secular Zionism, when Jews are libeled, their affiliation does not matter; our love for our brothers and sisters draws us to their side.” He also pointed out that the resolution denied our bond with “Eretz Yisrael” – the Land of Israel, and he stressed:

 “The U. N. resolution is aimed at all Jews, for it assails the historical Jewish right to Eretz Yisrael. The Torah bestowed that right, and any attack on it is an attack on Judaism and the Jewish people.”

3. The story about Rav Yosef Chaim’s sharp retort to the sheik appears in the book, “Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld on the Parashah” complied by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld. The story appears on page 126. This book contains insights of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld on the weekly Torah portion. For information, visit: www.artscroll.com  


4. Some of the above information is found in the book, “Guardian of Jerusalem” by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld. For information on this book, visit: http://www.artscroll.com/linker/hazon/ASIN/YCPH  .

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