B’nai B’rith, 1897: “utter irrationality” of Zionism

In June of 1897, B’nai B’rith (later to be the Anti-Defamation League’s parent organization), responded to Theodor Herzl’s “The Jewish State”. It indicates what a radically different  course mainstream American Jewish thought has taken in the past 100 years. It also has a prophetic ring that is quite clear to us 100 years later.

THE HERZL-NORDAU MOVEMENTThe Menorah: a monthly magazine for the Jewish home
Vol. XXII JUNE, 1897 No. 6
B’nai B’rith, Jewish Chautauqua Society

Ever since the expulsion of Israel from the land where its bards sang the immortal hymns which enrapture the souls of the pious, where its prophets and seers moulded into form that wonderful structure of morals, ethics and divine worship, it dreamed of the restoration of its worldly glory and power, of the reconstruction of the State which the fanaticism of its sects and the internal feuds of its leaders had so undermined that the Romans had only to give it its coup-de-grace to destroy it forever.

The dream spun along these many centuries and its charm is as potent today with millions of Jews as it was in the Middle Ages when it fired the heart of Jehudah Halevi and inspired the genius of that galaxy of poets whose effusions charm and sadden us in the hymnology recited on the national fast-day. “For our sins were we driven from our country and have we been unable to appear before Thee and offer the prescribed sacrifices,” is the prayer recited with deep unction for the holy and penitential days and it is uttered by the faithful and devout Jews with the fervor and sincerity of the child imploring the forgiveness of the parent for the transgression of his commands. The Jewish State looked for and hoped for by the orthodox Jew is not a commonwealth that might wield great political power, relying upon the valor of its soldiers or the strength of its armaments, nor one that would offer the opportunities for the acquirement of wealth, but a State in which the religious element would be the great and only force which would bear testimony to the truth of the Divine promise by the mouth of His prophets, and in which God alone should be the Ruler and King—worshiped, as of old, by the offering of sacrifices in the prescribed manner.

All the events in history, in the eyes of true believers, point to the ultimate fulfilment of the Biblical forecasts; and all the achievements of civilization sink into insignificance against the hoped for glory of the restitution of the Jewish State. These hopes and that trusting faith have held up Israel during the ceaseless period of unparalleled martyrdom, have steeled its soul against the blandishments of the tempting missionary and the terror of the persecutors. Promises of worldly splendor have proved as impotent as the sword, the torch and the funeral pyre. And this hope is the rock against which the persecutions of the Russian fanatic and the anti-Semitic foe direct their attacks in vain. Nor is that hope in the restoration of the Jews to the land of their fathers entertained by Jews alone: the Protestant world, which rests its faith upon the Bible, shares it with the Jewish believer and looks to it as the ultimate realization of Jewish and Christian prophecy.

Is it surprising, therefore, that numbers of Jews, the world over, listen with bated breath if told of the feasibility of a restoration of a Jewish political nationality upon the soil which shone with the glory of David and the magnificence of Solomon, though the voice that proclaims that feasibility would ridicule the man who speaks to him of Divine interference, of the reinstatement of the High Priest, of the rebuilding of a Temple in which the blood of animals would be shed in honor of God, and the incense rising from the Altar ascend the nostrils of the Almighty? Of course, Herzl would laugh at such a puerile conception, as every educated and enlightened Jew, and, as for that matter, every educated and enlightened Christian, laughs at it. But the multitude of Jews that would follow that seven-starred flag which Herzl hangs out, as symbolical of a seven-hours working day, would have no other Jewish State than one under priestly direction and government. Either the old commonwealth or none, because any other would not be the genuine article. But they listen, and some of them warm up to Herzl’s idea and wax enthusiastic about it, because their enthusiasm has stifled their reason.

When Sabbathai Zevi hung out his flag and his hopes and announced himself as the expected Messiah, their reason ran away with many of the most learned and devout Jews of the world, and they seized at that straw of redemption, and there are some Jews today who pin their faith in him. It is not a great surprise, therefore, to see the effects of Russian barbarism and German-Austrian anti Semitism in turning the heads of some wise men, applauding and supporting the chimeric proposition of Herzl-Nordau, just as the best financiers of Europe endorsed the visionary schemes of Law and wrecked their own fortunes and the fortunes of thousands of credulous speculators.

If the pious and learned Jews were to study and ponder their literature a little more, they would soon enough see not only through the fallacy of this movement, but obtain a better conception of the mission of Judaism and the Jews. When Jochanan ben Zakkai had himself smuggled through the sentinels of zealots who guarded the gates of Jerusalem, causing his disciples to carry him out in a coffin, he had no regret to waste on the destruction of the Temple. His great mind recognized then the hand of God in the destruction of a material temple and in the extinction of a puny commonwealth that could not rise above the conception of tribal greatness, and pinned his faith to a Judaism which is superior to temple and locality and was bound to enter upon a career of spiritual power and dominion, which was only possible after shaking off the fetters of nationalism. Truly says Dr. Gudemann, the Chief Rabbi of Vienna, a man as conservative as he is learned, that “in realty the diaspora is one of the most glorious parts in the history of Judaism, in so far as it demonstrated its indestructibility and has furnished the proof that it is more than a national organism. True Zionism can not be separated from the future of humanity.”

Neither space nor inclination will permit us at this time to discuss the utter irrationality of a scheme which would bring about a conflict with the Christian and Mohammedan powers, who would not and could not, without risk of revolution at home, surrender to the control of a Jewish government the places so sacred to them as those of Palestine, but the thought of these considerations should enlighten those who are ready to grasp at any will-o’-the-wisp that appeals to their piety.

The matter, as far as the Jews of this country are concerned, hardly deserves consideration. If any delegates should appear at the Munich Congress claiming a mandate from American Jews, they can certainly speak for not more than an insignificant minority, and the matter would not be worth while discussing. But the matter has a serious side for the Jews dwelling in Europe. Though the movement does not in reality obviate loyalty to the state to which as natives and citizens they owe allegiance, nevertheless the Jews’ foes will make the most of it, it will be grist to the mill of anti-Semitism. The matter was, however, deemed serious enough by the Jewish ministers of this city, and, though we never questioned for a moment the possibility of any other conclusion, we are glad that they repudiated the movement for the establishment of a Jewish State, confining their approval to an appeal for an encouragement of agricultural colonies.

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