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Zionism Was A 19th Century Dream Which Must Be Redefined, Rabbi Declares

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
January-February 1998

The Zionist idea of creating a "normal" place for the Jewish people in a nation-state of their own, writes Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg in Moment (Feb. 1998), represented a 19th century dream which may not be relevant to the multiethnic world of today.

Rabbi Hertzberg is Bronfman Visiting Professor at New York University, and is now in the final stages of preparing Jews: The Essence and Character of a People, with co-author Aaron Hirt Manheimer.  

He writes: ". . . it is now clear that the nation-state is not the permanent, lasting form of political organization. On the contrary, everywhere in the world political structures are under pressure to make room for ever more prominent, and prevalent, minorities. In many places in the world the price for the purity of the nation-state is still being paid in blood and terror. There is ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the former Yugoslavia, genocide in Rwanda and unending strife in northern Ireland . . . But this is not the tide of the future. The economies of the most advanced, technologically adept societies are now interlocked in a global market . . . The new ‘normalcy’ will be multiethnic, multicultural state or region."  

Because of its dedication to the nation-state, Hertzberg declares, Zionism "has never been at peace with the Diaspora. Indeed, the Zionist doctrine of the ‘denial of the Diaspora’ insisted that the Diaspora must come to an end . . . The judgment that the Diaspora must come to an end was the most incendiary assertion of modern Zionism."  

Among the questions the early Zionists never asked, Hertzberg notes, was: "How was it that the uncreative and supposedly moribund Diaspora of a hundred years ago was the place in which Zionism, in all its forms, was fashioned? The Diaspora was the birthplace of all the movements through which Jews have tried to define themselves in the modern era . . . It is simply not true that the Diaspora, in a sort of last gasp, imagined Zionism and then prepared to say some kind of secular kaddish for itself. On the contrary, precisely the opposite was true."  

Zionist leaders, in addition, failed to understand that emigration to the U.S., as much as emigration to Palestine, represented a rejection of the status of Jews in Eastern Europe: "The early kibbutzniks in Palestine who proudly excluded all traces of religious piety . . . had their parallel in turn of the century New York, Chicago and Philadelphia . . . Even the most religious immigrants fought bitterly against recreating the kehillah, the overarching Jewish community structure . . . They preferred the new American freedom . . . In short, both the new American Jews and the secular Jews of the Second Aliyah in Palestine were fueled by large amounts of rejection and even defiance of the European Galut in which they had been born."  

Beyond calling for major changes in Zionist thinking, and noting that the Jewish future will be found as much in the U.S. and other Western countries as in Israel, Hertzberg is critical of those who speak in terms of a "crisis of continuity" in the U.S. "The loss of large numbers to assimilation is not a new phenomenon among Jews," he writes. "Those who seek to make of it an unparalleled and unprecedented disaster are simply wrong . . . Always and everywhere a saving remnant has chosen to be loyal. So it will be in the next century . . ."  

Opposing those who urge Jewish isolationism of one form or another, he concludes: "Zionism as we know it was the necessary response to an age of human history that is ending. We must now redefine it for an age that has already dawned — the time of the multiethnic society."  

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