Chapter VII: Zionism as Religion

a group of people holding a sign
9 min.

A. The Romantic Base of all Zionists

Born out of Europe’s Romantic lapse and anti-Jewish pogroms, Zionism might have occupied itself entirely with the question of Jewish security. At its genesis and for a long time afterwards, Zionism did little else besides seeking the real estate wherein to set up refuge from the dim future it foresaw. There is no evidence in early Zionist writing of any concern with the kind of problems faced by the Reform movement, and in search of a solution of which, the movement was born. The first leaders did not think in terms of the problems science and modernity posed to the application of the laws of the Shulhan Arukh, which dominated Jewish observance and living since its codification by Joseph Karo in 1567. The whole problem of “religion and modernity” did not occupy them at all. The Zionists were men and women nursed culturally and spiritually by a secular Europe which has been weaned away from religion. They were as immersed in romanticism and secularism as their fellow Christians; and a number of them were in fact leaders of the movement in Europe. It was therefore natural that, once renewed persecution blocked their self-identification as European, the Jews would seek their identity in their tradition, and that they would do so under the only categories they knew, namely, those of European romanticism.

A return by the West European Jew to the letter of the Bible was forever closed by the ravages to the text of revelation that Biblical criticism had brought about. Based on feeling and will, romanticism provided an easy escape. With ease and readiness, it combined itself with the tendency to secularise to which most educated Europeans were prone, and it provided a stance from which even the letter of scripture could be reinstated as religiously significant. This stance – the romantic interpretation of religion and history – was buttressed by a modernist epistemology of relativist cultural intuitionism. All history, romanticism held, was a reflective mirror in which the author and his ethnic entity read themselves, their wishes and hopes; and there is no historical reality to be sought or established outside this figuration. History, in short, is a moment of self-reflection in the stream-of-the-manifold of group consciousness. Its products, the books of history, are interpretations, as it were by definition, whose veracity depends not on their correspondence with the past itself, but on the adequacy of their rendering of the blik of the generation in which they are written. Every generation, indeed every writer, may have his own blik from which to view the past, and every blik is legitimate. In accord with this theory, Zionism could afford to be literalist, accommodating the fundamentalist orthodoxy’s position by adhering to the verbatim validity of scripture while rejecting the doctrine of verbatim revelation in favor of the vague and woozy theory of the “God Who Acts in History.” Christian Protestant theologians had previously done so for the same reason. The Biblical scribe, the theory holds, was not a recorder of revealed text but the “redactor” of a vision experienced by his contemporaries and ineffably felt by them to be the truth of the moment of history in question. Hence, Zionists agree with the naive that every letter of scripture is true; but, unlike the naive, they hold its truth derivable from the reality of the feeling of those whose feeling it expressed.

This romanticism goes beyond the dispute between the religious Zionists such as Yehiel Pines and Abraham Kook, and the secular Zionists, such as Herzl, Jacob Klatzkin, Ahad Ha’am, Weizmann and Ben Gurion. Indeed it is the common ground on which all of them stand. For all of them are, properly speaking, romantics. Their vision envelops the whole past and future of the Jewish people. It is refined by the lessons they learned from Romantic Europe. The function of history, the relativism of truth, the roles of feeling and will, the Weltanschauung and its comprehensiveness; Volkstum and its place in culture, the Lebensraum and Blut und Boden mystique, the here-now populist salvation, the idealisation of nature – ail these lessons the Zionists have learnt only too well, for the insights they provided were to be utilised as a filter screen through which Jewish history and religion are to be seen and apprehended.

The “religious Zionists” looked upon Zionism as a program of socio-political, economic and military action designed for the purpose of actualising an essence which is the religious content of Judaism. Monotheism, the Law, justice and peace, a world order based upon them symbolically expressed by the restoration of the Jews within that world order but at its center, is their ultimate goal. The conservative orthodox Jews who rejected Zionism, did so not because they did not share the goal, but because they regarded it as eschatological, as something to be brought about by God alone, at His desire as well as by His efficiency, not those of men. The religious Zionists agreed with this, but held what appeared blasphemous to the non-Zionists, viz., that the miracle of God needed man’s work for it to happen. Religious Zionism is really religious nationalism, the will to preserve and promote the ethnic entity for the sake of the content of Judaism. Nationalism here remains the means; spiritual content of the religion, the end. Romanticism cemented the two, and made them interdependent. Its guilt in Islamic religious terms is exactly what the Qur’an has meant by “shirk,” or associationism, i.e. the associating of other beings with God as Ruler of Creation and hence, Maker of History.

B. Secular Zionism

Secular Zionism defined the religion in terms of nationalism, claiming that the religion is merely an expression of the nationalist spirit. “Judaism is nationalism,” it exclaimed, and it sought to reduce the religious dimension of Judaism to phenomena of a subjective group consciousness determined by its own vision of itself. As the living condition of a subjective consciousness, Jewish nationalism does not depend upon sharing of the content of religion. It is perfectly possible even among committed atheists. It rests on the objective fact — consciousness predetermined by past Jewish history — and an act of willing to continue to be part of the Jewish People. Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft are at the same time its twin bases, and both have nothing to do with religion except a loose, accidental and severable association. Jewishness, according to the secular Zionists, depends upon “form,” not “content;” not whether God is worshipped and what law is observed, but how religion is practiced. “Form” as a constitutive modality is of the essence of romanticism. Secular Zionism agrees fully because under this modality it can give priority and preeminence to the political will, and relegate to unimportance the God and Torah of Israel in which it does not believe anyway, but to which it can nonetheless assign a useful function. Repudiating the classical content-definition of Jewishness as belief in God and observance of His Torah (law), secular Zionism redefined it in terms of “form.” What makes a Jew Jewish, it maintained, is neither his belief in God nor observance of His law, but how he lives his Jewishness. The only “how” secular Zionism recognises as fulfilling its ideology is the “territorial-political definition of Jewish nationalism” by which it does not mean the possession of a base for national life, but the be-all and end-all of nationalism, for “living on the land is ipso facto the national life”.1

Obviously, God and Torah are superfluous here and can be dispensed with, though they can do no harm if they exist. The masses, always naive and “religious” may even need them. Henceforth, they are to become symbols expressing the only facta romanticism holds dear: soil, blood, and the feeling of community and destiny. Obviously, too, God and His law are here dethroned and the ethnic entity has replaced them. It is to the thought of Martin Buber that Zionism owes this theological transformation. In his view, revelation is not what God has given, but what an individual man has experienced and communicated to his fellows who have understood and appreciated. This makes revelation equivalent to lived group experience in which God, the prophet and the revealed content are all instruments of an ethnic entity’s coming into self-consciousness. Indeed, for Buber, revelation is history and history is revelation. But he has the Hegelian temerity to call this “humanity touched by the divine.” Indeed, he regarded the ethnic identity convertible with God Himself (sub??nahu wa ta??l? ?amm? yushrik?n!). The “Song of Deborah” he regarded as the perfect mirror of this thought of his because it “expresses a fundamental reality by repeatedly alternating the name of this God with the name of Israel, like a refrain.” To make things still worse, i.e., to dispel any spiritual understanding of the concept “Israel” so as to make it in any way include all the righteous members of humankind besides the Jews, Martin Buber, the most “spiritual” of the Zionists, claims that Israel is itself impossible without the rocks, sand and water that are Palestine. For, he asserts, the very “being” of Israel lies in “the holy matrimony of land and people.” With still greater bravado, Buber goes on to claim for this connection of “real estate” with Israel “a unique category…touching the universally human, the cosmic and even of Being itself”.2

Buber’s case is not one of simple shirk or association of other beings with God. It is a sin unknown to the pre-Islamic Arabs, a sin condemned so vehemently by the Old Testament itself, namely, the identification of God with nature, of the Creator with the creature; the predication of transcendence to nature. The Ancient Egyptians, the Philistines, Canaanites, Assyrians and Babylonians, and finally the Greeks and Romans, were condemned by Judaism, its prophets, or scripture for doing precisely this. Modern time is witness to the Zionist Jews perpetrating identically the same sin a la Georg Friedrich Hegel.

C. Zionism: A Strictly European Experience

Evidently, both the religious and the secular Zionists share the Romantic Weltanschauung and do not differ from each other except in degree. Both of them equally hold to the view that feeling, or subjective consciousness, is the ultimate determiner of reality, that the ultimate category in this determination of reality is the ethnic entity, whether dis-enlandised but in process or re-enlandisement, as in religious Zionism, or imperfect and inexistent until enlandised, as in the secular variety.

Evidently, Zionism, the consequence of European persecution and European romanticism is an experience of European Jews alone. Only reluctantly one might yet accept the claim that American and Russian Jews are heirs to European history and share in it, though the former have known no persecution But one cannot accept this predication of Russian Jews. For. they have known neither real enlightenment nor extensive emancipation until the Communist Revolution. In another direction, no one in his senses would accept the predication of such experience to non-Western Jews, whose history and experience have known neither persecution, nor mass pogroms, neither enlightenment nor romanticism, neither the French Revolution nor Hegel. Of these, the Jews of the Muslim World who have produced the Golden Age of Jewish thought and philosophy, of Hebrew literature and linguistics, and did so under the aegis of Islam, are especially remarkable. That Zionism had by agitatation, luring appeal or subversion, attracted two million of these Oriental Jews, uprooted them from their traditional homes and brought them as refugees to Palestine, can in no way be ever condoned. For, the experience out of which Zionism was born, and to which it came as the answer; the Romantic cultural phenomenon under the aegis of which it was conceived, and under which the Zionist reinterpretation of Jewish religion, culture and identity has taken place – all this is foreign to them. It is anything but justice to impose this “Europeanism” upon them. And it is a sinister crime to “re-educate” and “acculturate” — or better, to “Westernise” — them into it. It contains all the important elements of a spiritual genocide. The wonder is all the greater that this is happening under the guise of “restoration”, of “religious messianism.” If Western Jews may be entitled to their own disease, a fortiori Oriental Jews must be entitled to their own sanity. The Islamic atmosphere in which they have lived for centuries which encouraged and helped nourish their notion of divine transcendence and of election as morality and righteousness, should continue to do so if Judaism is to remain a member of the Semitic family of religions.

From CHAPTER VII: “Zionism as Religion” in Isma’il Raji al Faruqi, “Islam and the Problem of Israel”, Islamic Council of Europe (1980)


  1. Jacob Klatzkin, “Boundaries” in The Zionist Idea, pp. 318-319 ??
  2. Israel and Palestine, p. x ??