“Secular Zionism”

17 07 2010

In a recent article in Haaretz, Anshel Pfeffer argues against fasting on Tisha B’Av. It is his opinion that the exile has clearly been brought to an end by the establishment of the State of Israel, that the only Jews who now refuse to return to the land are doing so for personal, hypocritical reasons, and that secular Zionists need abandon the fast days that commemorate the putative destruction of our two temples.

To underscore his point that we are living in a unique age, Mr Pfeffer asserts that ours is the first time in history to witness a majority of Jews abstaining from participation in a Jewish state. This is a fatuous assertion, considering the fact that history has not furnished us with any examples of Jewish states in “the Land of Israel” since the Hasmonean dynasty, and I doubt that the author of this article is capable of producing demographic evidence that the majority of Jews were in Judea and Samaria at that time.

Whether or not we are living in a novel age, antipathy towards Jews who do not live in Israel is of great antiquity. The Babylonian Talmud is peppered with anecdotes that relate both to this antipathy, as well as to the contempt in which Palestinian rabbis were held by their Babylonian counterparts. Mr Pfeffer, who thinks he is terribly clever and new, is condemned by virtue of his own ignorance to repeating many of the things that have been said by so many before him.

Personally, I won’t fast on Tisha B’Av either, but not because I think that “the exile” has come to an end. I won’t fast because I am not of the opinion that there was even an exile in the first place. The traditional belief that such a phenomenon occurred is one that derives from a selective reading of early Jewish and Christian literature, and one which – like many beliefs – cannot be substantiated with empirical evidence. I have no problem with people who choose to adopt it (whether they think that it is continuing or whether they think that it is now over), but to adopt this faith and to then criticise all manifestations of it that are contrary to your own is the sort of disingenuous drivel that has become such a hallmark of polemic discourse. The irony here is that the author of the article in Haaretz, despite his acute awareness of the faults of other people’s faiths, seems immune to an appreciation of the nature of his own.

Allow me to burst his inflated bubble. “Secular Zionism” is an oxymoron. If religious people are calling themselves “secular”, it is because they think that “religiosity” means living like the people from the Eda haHaredis. On the contrary, anybody who imagines that history possesses a cultural narrative, brought full circle by the development of a new movement and the concomitant establishment of a state, ending a two-thousand year exile and ushering in an era of liberation, is anything but secular. In centuries to come, scholars will see Zionism in a way that “secular” Zionists today cannot: a new form of messianic Judaism, predicated not on Talmudic halakha but on Enlightenment conceptions of nationalism instead.




3 responses

14 08 2010

Interesting argument. Clearly there was a heavy ideological emphasis on Jewish ‘normalization’ in Zionist ideology, which I suspect has its roots in the conflict with the Bund, but the idea of redemption in the Lurianic sense seems to me a very strong undercurrent.

24 10 2010
Mark Symons

…I am not of the opinion that there was even an exile in the first place. The traditional belief that such a phenomenon occurred is one that derives from a selective reading of early Jewish and Christian literature, and one which – like many beliefs – cannot be substantiated with empirical evidence…

Simon, could you elaborate on this?

1 11 2010
Simon Holloway

The whole institution of being in exile (like the whole institution of belonging to a nation state in the first place) exists only in the mind. We choose to subscribe to these forms of identity and, in so doing, we build our communities around these beliefs. This is precisely how Judaism was formed in the first place: a community, structured around the belief that they were descended of Judeans, living in a form of exile, but preserving (to the best of their ability) the customs and mores of their Judean ancestors.

To what extent, however, was their exile ever more than theological? Despite what some of the literature says, the overwhelming majority of the Judean population was not taken into exile by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. We know this from detailed studies of the biblical evidence, itself contradictory, and from the Babylonian evidence as well. From historical sources at our disposal and from the archaeological record, we also know that the Romans took virtually nobody into exile half a millenium later, but this is all beside the point. One doesn’t need to leave their homeland in order to be exiled, and those who remained in a state of powerlessness, in a wrecked and ravaged landscape, were in a form of exile of their own. What is more, the original post-exilic literature was composed by those who had been exiled to Babylonia, and it was the terminology that they employed that was to define the contours of the faith. The conception of a Babylonian exile informed future developments within Jewish theology: despite Jews being possessed of an autonomous monarchy yet again, Hasmonean-era literature still speaks of the “Hellenistic exile”. Despite a large number of Jews living in the land, Mishnaic literature composed in Palestine speaks of the “Roman exile”.

The fact that we are still in the Roman exile today is the result only of a poor imagination when it comes to the application of an old four-exile schema onto real history. Some rabbinic scholars have spoken of additional exiles, like the Satmar Rebbe who spoke of the current exile under those who had cast off the yoke of Torah: “the exile of the freethinkers”. Others have spoken of exile at the hands of Ishmael in the Arab lands, which only goes to demonstrate that “exile” has come to denote any form of oppression at all. Are we ourselves now responsible for “exiling” others? Best not to go there.

Every year on the 9th of Av, Jews weep and mourn for the Holocaust loss of the two temples. Clearly, we are taught to believe, their destruction was the worst thing that ever happened to us. If only they had never been destroyed, we might still be slaughtering goats and oxen today! Instead, we were cast out into the world, where we had little to do except write the sixty-three tractates of the Mishna, compose copious reams of Talmudic analysis, become scholars and practitioners of the law, and enter every major intellectual sphere that the world had on offer.

While our history has occasionally been fraught with immense tragedy (although nothing quite so devastating as what more recent events have led us to retroject), this is less the result of a deuteronomic motif than it is the product of a complex combination of factors, and one that is not “solved” by the reinstitution of a monarchy and the resumption of sacrificial offerings.

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