By: Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
Contrary to common narratives in political, media, cultural and even academic circles, the Zionist movement possesses a religious essence, even when it takes on a secular form, structure and leadership. Indeed, the Zionist personality encompasses overlapping secular and sacred elements. Furthermore, the early pioneers of the Zionist idea were primarily rabbis who preceded the later secular pioneers who established the World Zionist Organization. The Religious Zionist movement has been present since the organization’s early days and did not emerge at a later stage.
This article, originally published in two parts on the Arabi21 website, aims to clarify the relationship between secular Zionism and religious Zionism, particularly in light of the current rise of the religious Zionist movement and its endeavor to impose a Torah-based vision on the Zionist society in occupied Palestine. It also seeks to settle the Palestine issue based on its own perspective on its resolution.
First: The Religious Essence of the Zionist Movement:
Based on Jewish narratives, the Jewish religion includes the following foundational principles:
1. The belief that the Jewish people, or the Children of Israel, have been chosen by God and constitute an independent “nation.”
2. The belief that the Holy Land of Palestine was bequeathed to Abraham, peace be upon him, and his descendants from the Children of Israel, and is known as the “Promised Land.” According to this belief, Palestine was bestowed upon them through a Torah-based deed.
Irrespective of the ideological backgrounds of Zionist-affiliated schools of thought, the core of the Zionist idea itself rests on religious assertions. Indeed, Zionism is founded on the premise that:
1. Jews constitute a distinct race and an independent nation separate from other nations. This distinction is rooted in their religious essence rather than their national identity. To be sure, the main bond among Russian Jews, Yemeni Jews, Iranian Jews, Falasha Jews and others lies in their affiliation with the religion, regardless of their level of religious commitment. Zionism rejected the concept of assimilation and “citizenship” for Jews in their respective countries, offering an alternative to the failed notion of “Haskalah” or “Enlightenment” that advocated assimilation within the Jewish community. Zionism portrayed Jews as a transcendent “nation” or “people” who surpassed geographical and national boundaries.
2. The right of Jews to the ownership of Palestine also has a religious essence. Various interpretations exist among Jews regarding whether this right is based on a divine promise, a historical claim, a national entitlement, a cultural connection or a spiritual bond. Nevertheless, this idea is deeply ingrained in the Jewish “consciousness,” albeit it finds expression in diverse forms. Regardless of their national affiliations, religious, secular, communist and nationalist Jews, all agree on this assertion.
For them, the belief in this “right” holds significance beyond scientific debates or historical facts. It stems from their deep-rooted conviction. Thus, the ultimate recourse is to return to the religious foundation firmly embedded in their minds. Even the belief in the coming of the Messiah or Mashiach is intertwined with the religious Jews’ anticipation of their return to Palestine.
Abraham Isaac Kook (1868–1935), the first Chief Rabbi of the Jews in Palestine, held immense influence over the Jewish public during his time. As a founding leader of Religious Zionism, he believed that the Jewish national movement [aka Zionism] despite its outward secular tendencies, fundamentally embodied a religious movement. According to him, its origins lay primarily in a religious inclination that “sets Jews apart from other nations.” He regarded this nationalist movement as “purely spiritual, even if its leaders’ outward behavior did not overtly reflect religious sentiment.” Kook perceived their irreligious conduct as apathy stemming from a deficiency in understanding or perception, rather than disbelief, denial or deviation from religion. He demonstrated remarkable understanding, tolerance and positive social interaction with these seemingly negligent Zionists because he believed that the Holy Land or “Eretz Yisrael,” being an embodiment of all divine perfections, would spiritually guide and rectify the behavior of these individuals. Kook exerted significant influence over Orthodox Jews and made extraordinary efforts to persuade them to join the Zionist cause.
Second: Overlap and Similarity Between the Religious and National Aspects:
For Jews, the national sphere itself is intertwined with the religious sphere. In the Zionist context, the official definition considers Jews as individuals born to a Jewish mother, emphasizing lineage rather than solely relying on religious beliefs.
In contemporary times, Jews can be categorized into two main religious groups:
The first group comprises nationalist Jews, who identify strongly with their Jewish heritage based on racial affiliation. They perceive their Jewishness through their nationality, lifestyle and cultural and social heritage. This group constitutes a significant portion of the Jewish population, accounting for no less than half of the Jewish community in the US and former Soviet Union.
The second group encompasses Jews who adhere to various forms of Jewish doctrine. Within this group, three main divisions can be distinguished: Orthodox Judaism, which follows the Haredi or Talmudic tradition, and is the official formula adopted in Israel. The second is Reform Judaism, which emphasizes reason as the guiding authority in all matters, and strives to separate and reject nationalistic elements. The third is Conservative Judaism, which aims to combine elements of Orthodox Judaism with Reform Judaism. It maintains a belief in divine revelation to the Children of Israel and adopts a positive stance towards the concept of “return” and the establishment of a Jewish state. It also upholds the general structure of inherited rabbinical traditions, but retains the right to interpret and adapt them according to the needs and demands of the current era. Notably, Conservative and Reform Judaism have embraced the ordination of women as rabbis, recognized homosexuality, and allowed homosexuals and lesbians to become rabbis.
Regardless of whether individuals consider the Torah and Talmud as divine revelation, a cultural heritage or a collection of myths and legends, there is a common understanding among them that these texts have significantly influenced the collective consciousness of the Jewish people and played a crucial role in shaping their lives throughout history.
Jewish-Zionist thought emphasizes the intrinsic connection between God, the Jewish people and the land. Rabbi Sammuel Hayyim Landau stated that “the spirit of our people cannot express itself unless there be a national revival in our own Land, for ‘the divine spark can influence our people only in its own Land.’” Moshe Dayan, the former Chief of Staff and Minister of Defense and Foreign Affairs in the Zionist state, when asked about the religious and historical claims of the Zionists in occupied Palestine, asserted that these claims form the foundation of Israeli existence, alongside the Jewish people, the Holy Scriptures, and the land of the Jews. According to Dayan, when the Torah and the nation of the Torah unite, the land of the Torah must accompany them.
Whereas Islam’s foundation lies in monotheism (Al-Shahadatayn: lit. two testimonies), where affirming these principles leads a person to enter the religion, and denying them results in exiting it, the distinction between a Jew’s belief and disbelief is not solely based on their faith in God, the Torah or their religious commitment, but relates to their sense of belonging and loyalty to the Jewish community. Jews perceive the spirit of God to dwell within their people, embracing the doctrine of incarnation, which bestows sacred significance upon the Jewish people.
Chief Rabbi Kook said, “God dwells within the nation, saturating it with the spirit of God and the holy name,” and that the “land of Israel, the Hebrew language, the history of the Jewish people, and their customs are all vessels for the spirit of God. They are symbols of the national treasures of the Jewish people, and they are inseparable from the spirit of Israel.”
Rabbi Shachter affirmed that “Israel is a manifestation of the Jewish people’s rediscovery of its identity. And with this rediscovery of its identity, the Jewish people has also rediscovered its connection with God.” Rabbi Landau emphasized that the Zionist program revolves around a central idea, where all other values serve as tools for this absolute. He defined this absolute as the nation, representing the Jewish people.
On the other hand, not everyone who works for the benefit of their religion or “nation” is necessarily religious. Some individuals may serve the followers of their religion with national or cultural motivations, even though they may be considered “secular,” according to the religious standards of their community. To clarify this matter and illustrate the point, let us consider the All India Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, which sought separation from India and the establishment of an Islamic state. This endeavor, which succeeded in 1947, included a significant number of secular or non-religious members. While these members may have had a sincere sentiment to enable Muslims to establish their own state and manage their affairs, they were not particularly concerned with the implementation of Islamic Shariah (Islamic law) in Pakistan. Therefore, they established a secular system. A similar example can be seen in the “secular” leadership of the Muslim Malays in Malaysia, where nationalism intertwines with religion.
Third: Secularists but “Sacred Ones”:
The central idea in Zionist ideology is the complete fusion and intermingling of holiness and nationalism, which is expressed in individuals, places and times. One of its most important elements is the perception of the “sacred human” or the “sacred Jewish people.” This perception of Jews as a sacred people is reiterated in the statements of liberal figures such as Herzl, socialist leaders like Ben-Gurion, and even communist thinkers like Borochov, although it is often concealed under elusive disguises.
The Zionist movement presented itself as an extension of Judaism rather than a contradiction to it. Even the atheists among the Zionists used religious expressions and approached their Jewish religion with a more positive and open spirit compared to the secularists among Muslims and Christians. For instance, Max Nordau, a prominent Zionist leader (close to Herzl and chaired or vice-chaired a number of Zionist conferences) was considered an atheist, yet regarded religion as a source of complete constructive energy. Jabotinsky, another atheist, founded Revisionist Zionism and served as the spiritual inspiration for former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the Likud party. Jabotinsky spoke of himself as a builder contributing to the construction of a new temple for his God, which he referred to as “the Jewish people.”
Nachman Syrkin, a Zionist leader considered one of the founders of Labor Zionism (which governed Israel from its establishment until 1977), referred to the Jewish people as sacred, comparing them to prophets, martyrs and even a crucified messiah in his own words. Another Zionist leader, Moshe Lilienblum, initially a religious scholar who later became secular, emphasized the importance of the entire nation, stating that rigid divisions held no significance. According to him, believers and non-believers were equally sacred, as they were all part of the Jewish people. Despite his shift to atheism, Lilienblum still regarded himself as sacred due to his connection to the Jewish people, whom he considered a source of holiness!!
Zionist thinker Klatzkin attempted to clarify the matter by stating that Judaism’s essence lies in its form rather than its content. He asserted that the fundamental form is the liberation of the land by the Jewish people, while the spiritual and intellectual content may differ significantly. Katzkin argued that this did not matter, because the content of life itself becomes national when its forms take on a national character.
David Ben-Gurion, the actual founder of the Zionist state and the first Prime Minister, did not concern himself with the question of whether the grant of the land of Canaan to the Jews by God was a divine reality or not. What mattered to him was that this “myth” was deeply rooted in the consciousness of the Jewish people and should continue to be so, even if it were proven otherwise. Ben-Gurion believed that the source of legitimacy was not necessarily divine revelation but rather the people themselves, claiming that the divine spirit resided within them. As long as the people were convinced of this, it would be considered legitimate and unquestionable, according to Ben-Gurion.
The subsequent discussion about Herzl’s existentialism and strict secularism, which even led to his deliberate violation of Jewish rituals during his visit to Jerusalem, Max Nordau’s mockery of the Torah, describing it as “childish as a philosophy and repulsive as an ethical system,” or Chaim Weizmann’s occasional taunting of rabbis regarding kosher food allowed by Jewish law—all of these instances should be viewed within their limited context. Ultimately, these individuals served the religious aspirations of the Jewish community in Palestine and sought to save and elevate them and establishing a state for them. The Zionist movement they spearheaded encompassed both religious and non-religious currents, and the Zionist state they established later accommodated these diverse currents, allowing them to freely express themselves and participate in political leadership, with their influence reflected in the weight of their voices within the “democratic” electoral system.
Therefore, the communism or secularism of these individuals was not “exclusive” or “eliminatory,” but rather coexisting and integrated with others. The service of the “sacred people” remained the bond that united them. Hence, the Israeli government, since the establishment of Israel in 1948 until now, has always included ministers representing religious parties, who hold sensitive ministries such as the Interior and Education.
Fourth: Rabbis Pioneering Zionism:
Many researchers studying the Zionist organization focus on its secular identity, emphasizing the behavior of Herzl and his fellow founders. However, they overlook the roots that nourished its formation and the early pioneers who contributed to its intellectual and ideological emergence, as well as their contributions to proposing programs, roadmaps and implementation methods. The Zionist organization greatly benefited from them and owed them a lot. These pioneers were none other than rabbis!
Shabbetai Tzvi (1626–1676) was one of the earliest figures to advocate for the renewal of the “Temple” in Jerusalem. Born in Izmir (present-day Turkey) and living in the Ottoman State, he claimed to be the awaited Messiah of the Jews. He advocated for breaking the chains of humiliation and decay, occupying a worthy place among the nations of the world, and establishing a committee representing Jews in 15 countries. This committee would make decisions to implement the project, which all Jews would be obligated to accept and submit to. He called for coordination with France, and the land he sought to “reclaim” was Palestine and the northern coastal region of Egypt. He urged Jews to spare no means or sacrifice to achieve this goal; to return to their land where they can live under their own laws. However, the Ottoman State imprisoned him, and despite publicly converting to Islam, he remained loyal to his Jewishness. His followers became known as the “Donmeh Jews” (Dönme: Turkish: convert).
Judah Alkalai (1798–1878), born in Sarajevo (the capital of Bosnia under Ottoman rule), envisioned in 1843 that the practical solution for “retrieving” the Holy Land lies in calling for a grand general assembly of Jews and establishing a national fund to purchase land, along with another fund for collecting taxes from Jews. He also called for the gradual and deliberate “return” of all Jews until the land is prepared and ready. These views were later adopted and implemented by the Zionist movement. Alkalai also called for the formation of a council of sages that could enforce obedience and respect of him among Jews.
Zvi Hirsch Kalischer (1795–1874), a Prussian (present-day Germany) rabbi, emerged as one of the prominent pioneers of Zionism. Residing primarily in Thorn, Poland, he published Derishat Zion (Seeking Zion) in 1862, making it the first book in Eastern Europe to delve into Jewish agricultural settlement in Palestine. Kalischer asserted that Jewish redemption begins through human effort and the attainment of international approval to gather Jews in the Holy Land. He emphasized the sacred nature of laboring in the Holy Land and actively encouraged settlement in Palestine, advocating for the establishment of an overseeing organization.
The associations of Lovers of Zion serve as notable political precursor that laid a broad and solid foundation for the World Zionist Organization in Eastern Europe, particularly. The initial Lovers of Zion association, founded in 1882 by Rabbi Samuel Mohilever (1824–1898), rapidly expanded its branches. Mohilever assumed the presidency during the inaugural conference in 1884 and led the general conferences in 1887 and 1889. Mohilever, a prominent figure in religious Zionism, played a foundational role in the World Zionist Organization. These Lovers of Zion associations predominantly focused on supporting the Jewish settlement movement in Palestine, promoting immigration and establishing settlements. These associations were religious in character. When the World Zionist Organization was established in 1897, it welcomed 260 branches from these associations, providing a substantial enrichment and immense impetus to the Zionist project.
Therefore, it is arguable that Shabtai Zvi could be considered the foremost and most influential pioneer of Zionism (preceding Herzl by approximately 350 years), while Judah Alkalai holds the distinction of being the first pioneer in the nineteenth century. Zvi Hirsch Kalischer’s Derishat Zion and Moses Hess’s “Rome and Jerusalem” appeared in the same year, in 1862, Hess being a pioneer of secular Zionist philosophy. Herzl and his companions owed a debt of gratitude to Mohilever and his movement for spreading Zionism among the Jewish community, particularly the Orthodox, and the practical settlement program.
Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 16/6/2023