Gush Emunim: A False Messianism by Yigal Elam

Gush Emunim—A False Messianism


Yigal Elam


The Jerusalem Quarterly

Number 1
Fall 1976

ZIONISM WILL NEVER AGAIN be what it was. With the creation of the State of Israel, it entered a period of petrification, encased in rhetoric. It was almost irrelevant to the business of developing the new State. But there was a need to re-examine the relationship between Israel and the Jewish communities in the Diaspora, especially in the United States, and to consider the relationship between the Israeli citizen and the State. It seemed pointless and old-fashioned to talk of Zionism and the subject was virtually dropped; even in the schools its study was an awkward formality. After the Six-Day War the word "Zionism" came to mean for certain segments of the population not "Israel" but annexation of the "whole Land of Israel." This new ideology was embodied by Gush Emunim, the group of largely religious Zionists who, in opposition to Israel government policy, have made repeated attempts to set up settlements in the territories administered by Israel since the Six-Day War.

If Zionism is to be revived, it is essential to reconsider its inception at the turn of the century, when the true primary motives of Zionism were defined. Moreover, no serious attempts to deal with the problems of Israeli and Jewish existence in our time is possible without a clear know ledge of its origins.

For the founding fathers, the priorities were clear. Their Zionism did not start from the notion of the return to Zion, but rather the reverse was true. The return to Zion was the natural answer to the question of re-establishing the Jewish people in its birthplace, where it would realize its political, social and cultural identity. Jewish historical and religious consciousness would flower in the Land of Israel.

When Zionism emerged in the nineteenth century the Jewish physical presence in the Land of Israel was small and insufficient to constitute a claim for local self-definition like the national liberation movements in Europe. The continuity of Jewish presence in the Land of Israel is cited in claiming a historical right. This concerns Jewish consciousness, not existence in the Land of Israel. Yet precisely because Zionism grew out of Jewish consciousness, and not from Jewish physical existence in the Land of Israel, was it so heavily charged with associations and emotions which had accumulated in the collective memory, able to nourish the whole complex of feelings and aspirations bound up in the notion of national revival.

This made it difficult to distinguish between Zion—the Land of Israel, and Zionism—the national revival movement of the Jewish people. Conceptually, however, it was clear that the primary motive for Zionism did not arise from the attachment to the Land of Israel, and certainly not from religious attachment, but rather from the urgent need for a solution to the problem of Jewish existence in the modern period. This solution was to comprise a revolution in the Jew's image of himself and his way of life, through building a new Jewish society and culture—the revival of a Jewish sovereignty.

This complicated relationship between the Land of Israel and Zionism is discussed in the writings of the founding fathers of Zionism and in the ideological controversies which occupied the Zionist community in the period of the Hibbath Zion movement and of Herzl, during the second wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine, preceding the British mandatory period. In Herzl's Jewish State we indeed find an indifferent attitude to the Land of Israel. Leon Pinsker, in his Auto-emancipation, expressly rejected the Land of Israel:1 ". . . we should above all not dream of a resurrection of ancient Judea. We must not resume the connection with the place where our political life was formerly interrupted and shattered. Let our problem, if it is ever to be solved, be a modest one. It is difficult enough anyway. Not 'the holy land' should be the aim ofour endeavours, but a 'land of our own.'"

On the other hand, the Marxist Zionist Ber Borochov manifested a specific attachment to the Land of Israel and its significance in Zionist consciousness, while defining a precise order of priorities:2

Presence in the Land of Israel is the natural basis of our movement, and Zion is its natural vision; while the budding territorialism hinted at by Pinsker and even by Dr. Herzl himself was unable to root itself naturally in the consciousness of the party and to give birth to any movement without the aid of compelling external conditions such as the devastating pogroms and the flow of immigration . . .

But territorialism had deep roots in the awareness of the urgent need to solve the Jew's economic and moral problems and only a person lacking all capacity for fellow-feeling towards the oppressed and hungry masses of the Jewish people is prepared to prefer the Land of Israel without Jews to Jews without the Land of Israel . . .

Love for the ancient homeland, nonetheless pales in the face of the enormous desperation and horror which envelopes the masses of our people, rotting in hunger, distress and fear . . . . If there were no opportunity of obtaining the Land of Israel, but nevertheless there was a possibility of salvation and resurrection for the Hebrew people in another territory—it is as clear as day that it would be a ridiculous and reactionary act to stick obstinately and precisely to the principle of the Land of Israel. But this "if" is already one of the "minimums," one of the unpleasant and difficult possibilities; the single complete ideal, containing within itself everything dear and sacred to the Jews as a people, and to the Jew as a human being, was and will be Zion. The unity of the triple vision of Zion is: Zion—the liberation of the Hebrew people, Zion—the revival of Hebrew culture, and Zion—the return to the ancient homeland. Zion means both a Jew who is not hungry, but free, proud and sublime in actuality, and also autonomous existence, also a comprehensive development of personal aptitudes, also a Jewish State, also the Land of Israel. All this fulfillment is to be found in the dim and confused vision of the devotees of the movement.

Zion, therefore, does not begin in the Land of Israel, but in the necessity of liberating the Jewish people, of finding a solution for its physical and cultural distress. It is the destiny of the Jewish people which lies at the centre of Zionist consciousness. This does not mean that Zion can be taken away from Zionism but it does mean that in order of priority Zionism—with all that it comprises—comes before Zion. This order of priority emerges clearly from Borochov's above words, and he was a more devout "Zionist" not only, as we remarked, than Pinsker and Herzl, but also than the religious Zionists of the Mizrahi movement, who voted together with Herzl to set up a Jewish national home in Uganda when Borochov made himself one of the chief spokesmen of the "Zionists of Zion."

How far all this is from the world of the Land of Israel Movement and Gush Emunim today! If these are the spokesmen for Zionism today, then Zionism has undergone a complete reversal in its order of priorities. The Land of Israel has been put at the top of the list. The centre of gravity has been shifted from the cultural, political and social aspects of Jewish existence to the sacredness of the Land of Israel and its wholeness. The reversal of roles is not a reversal merely in order, but in significance. Zionism is no longer presented as the key to Jewish existence, but as an abstract idea—the "whole Land of Israel" or the return to Zion—to which Jewish existence is a means. Jewish existence is judged by the extent to which it is ready to sacrifice itself on the altar of the idea. This is shown in the last writings of the late Eliezer Livne, one of the leaders of the Land of Israel Movement, who expounds the metaphysical concept of the "return to Zion," superimposed on the concepts and values of classical Zionism. It is illustrated even more clearly by Dr. Israel Eldad (Scheib), in his discussion of "the Kingdom of Israel" and of the contrast between himself and the world of Zionism associated with Herzl and Jabotinsky (as well as with Weizmann, Borochov and the Jewish Labour Movement). In his words:3

We give the name "the Kingdom of Israel" to the dynamic combination of three revolutions: (1) The return of all Diaspora communities to the Land of Israel and reunification of the whole Jewish people, which is one people whether by desire or by compulsion, whether by assent or by descent, whether by our own decision or that of the other nations. (2) The liberation of the whole Land of Israel within the boundaries of the Divine Promise, which are its geo-political boundaries, from the Euphrates to the Nile. (3) The revival of all the tenets of Judaism, from the principles of faith and prophecy through all the levels of intellectual creativity and the growth of a renewed autonomous culture.

And elsewhere Eldad says: "We are not concerned with a solution to the 'problem of the Jews;' indeed, this Zionist approach of a solution to the 'problem of the Jews' was one of the afflictions of great and good men, of Herzl and Jabotinsky . . . .'" The Zionist seems as if his whole concern is only with "pikuah nefesh"4 aimed at salvation, whereas in fact he is concerned with something greater than this, only the greater thing is pushed a way into the ethereal distance, or into the deep subconscious, and on the rational and secular conscious level it appears in the guise of "Zionism." The dispute with this "Zionism" was the ideological mainstay of Lehi ("Stern group"). On the surface it was a strange situation: in order to shoot down an Englishman on the street, was it necessary to attack the foundations of Zionist thought? Indeed it was . . .

Zionism was not concerned with liberating a homeland, but with saving a people. Even pure political Zionism was not concerned with creating the Kingdom of Israel as the aim of this revolution of our generation, but with creating a state, which would itself be the solution of the problem . . .

We rejected the whole approach of "a problem and its solution" . . .

Saving a people is not an idea. In special circumstances it may be a certain function5, but it is not an idea.

Indeed, Dr. Eldad was not exaggerating when he juxtaposed the concept of the "Kingdom of Israel" to the concept of Zionism. Nor did he pretend, at that time, to speak in the name of Zionism. But today the state of affairs has undoubtedly changed. Dr. Eldad's basic conception has not changed, but he has turned into a major spokesman for Zionism today. This phenomenon—which was evidently a result of the Six-Day War—was perhaps made possible by the radical change in the concept of practical Zionism, concerned with the fate of the Jewish people, into metaphysical Zionism, on whose altar one may even have to sacrifice the Jewish people. If things have not gone so far, this phenomenon is merely evidence that Zionist thought and consciousness are emptying themselves of content in a process begun with the creation of the State, if not earlier. The vacuum has been filled by peripheral theories and conceptions.

Gush Emunim, the Land of Israel Movement, is another aspect of this process. The thesis for which Gush Emunim stands today is that Zionism is the "beginning of Redemption" to which Jewish religious tradition aspires. Zionism accelerates the messianic process, or is perhaps the Redemption itself.

A skeptic might ask whether Gush Emunim does not today stand for false messianism, which may ultimately cause greater harm to the Jewish religion than to Zionism. Shifting from the religious to the Zionist viewpoint: here Gush Emunim represents a complete reversal in the relationship between Zionism and religious Jewry. To them Zionism is no longer a modern national movement of revival, with essentially secular values, and a Jewish identity other than the religious one.

When modern Zionism emerged, it aroused opposition among religious Jews. The dispute did not centre upon the question of Zionism. Religious Jewry could justly claim that love of Zion did not require "Zionism." In this regard Zionism was accused of presuming to hasten the "end of the days" since the return to Zion was a feature of the coming of the Messiah 6. But this was not the principal grievance of religious Jewry against Zionism, which they saw as an essentially national and non-religious movement, a threat to traditional Judaism itself. Zionism offered a national definition of the essence of Judaism, and thereby purported to alter its religious definition and to usurp the role of the Jewish religion—the Law and the Commandments—in determining the Jewish way of life. The Rabbi of Lubavitch (spiritual leader of the Habad hassidic sect), described this situation in biting words at the beginning of the century, when he accused Zionism of committing a graver offence against Judaism than had the Haskalah movement of Jewish enlightenment:7

This man, who is an old exponent of the Haskalah or a pupil of heretic teachings—he knows that he has strayed from the path of the Law and the Commandments and he is not a Jew, Heaven forbid; and there is a hope that some day he will take it to heart and return repentently to the Name, for even if an Israelite sins he has in him a divine spark . . .

And he is all this despite knowing that everyone who belongs to Israel must keep the Law and the Commandments, and that if he does not keep Law and Commandments he is not a Jew, thus there is hope that he will return repentantly to the Name in one of the ways mentioned above. But the Zionists have become much more skilled in evil, and have put nationalism in the place of Law and Commandments, and as Mandelstamm says in his open letter, that not he is a Jew who keeps the Commandments, but he who is a Zionist—even if he does not wear phylacteries or keep the Sabbath, Heaven forbid, and so on and so on—is a Jew. Ha-Shilo'ah [a Zionist monthly],8 wrote last year that even he who breaks all the Commandments in the Law, Heaven preserve us, and indeed even he who denies the existence of God, Heaven forbid, if he is a nationalist he is a Jew. Voskhod [a Russian-language Jewish weekly] argued that when Israel left Egypt and became a nation Moses gave them Law and Commandments so that their belonging to one religion would preserve the existence of the group and the society, and afterwards at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, when the sages of Israel saw that the people of Israel were being dispersed and scattered to the four winds, they were clever enough to preserve the religion with a number of restrictions in order to preserve the existence of the society, and now—he says—they have realized that religion will not preserve the society, but its place will be taken by nationalism and this will preserve and sustain the society as a people.

We can see precisely what emerges from all the articles of the Zionists, that their whole aim and purpose is to make it, as they are making, a supposition amongst the people of Israel, that everything to do with the Law and the Commandments is merely a device for preserving the group and is not a personal duty. This concept will be easily accepted by our youth, who are ready vessels for such a concept. And with this concept established amongst them, they see themselves as completely exempt from the Law and the Commandments, thinking that there is no need for them, especially when they have another device to preserve the group, . . . and now nationalism takes the place of religion in preserving the society. After this supposition, he who enters the society of the Zionists does not consider himself at all obliged to maintain the Law and the Commandments, and moreover one cannot hope that even some day he will return to the Law and the Commandments, and even if you crush him in a mortar with a pestle 9 he will not repent because in his own reckoning he is a pure Jew once he is a loyal nationalist."

The Rabbi of Lubavitch did not exaggerate in his estimation of the historical role of Zionism on the ideological plane. Zionism did indeed make possible for "every Jew who so desired" a secular identity, and in this way solved the crisis of Jewish identity dating from the days of the Haskalah movement and Jewish emancipation, and rescued Jewish existence from the threat of internal disintegration. For, indeed, Jews who turned their backs on religion, and did this on the basis of an anti-religious but not anti-Jewish attitude, Jews who were prepared to continue to identify with the Jewish people and the Jewish fate, in a spirit of pride and revolt—such Jews needed a new definition centred around aspects of Judaism other than the traditional ones. This may be learned, for instance, from a recent interview where Prof. Gershom Scholem described the process of his becoming a Zionist:10

We did not come to Zionism in search of politics. It is important to understand that for my contemporaries in Germany, Zionism was only to a limited degree (it would be wrong to say not at all) a political Zionism. Some of us, to be sure, went on to become real political Zionists, but the Zionist choice was a moral and emotional decision. The honesty did not express itself in the desire for a State, but in a revolt against the lie that Jewish existence was. Jewish reality seemed alive, flourishing, but those who went over to Zionism saw that reality as obsolete. Zionism was a revolt against the life-style of the petite bourgeoisie to which my family belonged. This was the milieu in which thousands of young Jews grew up in Germany.

Recalling a stormy conversation with his father Scholem adds: ". . . I announced that I was going to study Hebrew: that was how my decision to rebel expressed itself. I wasn't sure yet whether I wanted to be an observant Jew. But a Jew I wanted to be."

Tsur: Was it a decision to be a Jew or to be a Zionist?.

Scholem: For me there was no difference between the two . . .

Tsur: Was your decision influenced by anti-Semitism?

Scholem: I can't say that I suffered from anti-Semitism as a boy. I had virtually no encounters with anti-Semitism, and those I did have did not leave a deep mark on me, although at that time—thirty years after its inception—the anti-Semitic movement in Germany had already gathered real strength . . . . Judaism interested me very much, but not the religious observances . . . . My father had said to me: 'Why don't you become a rabbi? If you want Yiddishkeit so much, then become a rabbi and you'll be able to keep busy with Yiddishkeit all your life.' I told him: 'I don't want to be a rabbi.' Papa didn't understand what I wanted. Yiddishkeit without anything?! I called it Zionism.

Although Gershom Scholem is describing here a process of Jewish awakening in the post-assimilationist period, a process peculiar to German Jewry, the function of Zionism in this case was fundamentally the same as the one it performed in Eastern Europe for young Jews who rebelled against the traditional ways of their fathers. Gershom Scholem and his friends rediscovered Jewish consciousness through Zionism. This was essentially what Herzl meant when he attempted to define the relationship between Zionism and Judaism. Chaim Weizmann and his friends in the "democratic faction" and the young Eastern European Jews of the second generation of Zionism, the generation of socialist ferment, remained within the sphere of Jewish consciousness, despite their rejection of Diaspora tradition, only because they could redefine themselves with the aid of Zionism. For them too Zionism was primarily an intellectual and cultural solution, and only secondarily a political and social one. Being a Jew meant belonging to the Jewish people, its historical and cultural tradition (which has been religious in the past, but could be non-religious henceforth). This people was now throwing off its chains—both cultural and physical—and regaining its sovereignty. Zionism was the movement to liberate and revive the Jewish people.

Along with the ambiguity of Zionist consciousness today, the contrasts between religious and Zionist definitions of Jewishness have become blurred. This could be attributed to the historical synthesis between the Jewish people and the Jewish religion. Yet as we observed in the synthesis between the two concepts of "Zionism" and "Zion," it is important to consider the order of priorities in defining the religious, national and Zionist identities of the Jewish people.

The religious definition "Israel is not a nation but through its Law," attributed to Rabbi Sa'adiah Gaon [ninth century spiritual leader and scholar], places the Law before the nation, exactly as the American Constitution preceded the American nation. From a purely religious standpoint, it is impossible to place the existence of the Jewish people above the Law; it is impossible to perceive the Law as an intellectual-cultural creation, or a means of preserving the existence and the unity of the Jewish people. In terms of priorities, it is the Jewish people which is a tool for putting the Law and its Commandments into effect. This is the meaning of the definition attributed to Rabbi Sa'adiah Gaon, and this was the position the Rabbi of Lubavitch took in his attack on the foundations of national and secular Zionism, which stresses the reverse: Jewish survival first and implementing the Law second. From a religious viewpoint this is a desecration bordering on heresy.

At the turn of the century, the generation of Ahad ha-Am and Berdyczewski gave a definition of Jewish existence which reversed the traditional roles. [Berdyczewski is considered by some to be the Grandfather of the Hebrew Canaanist movement—web editor's note] The Jewish people created a culture whose most striking aspect was the Jewish religion. This was autonomous from the cultural, social and political aspects. It is not surprising that they defined Jewish existence in a national and secular manner. Such a definition could not be accepted by religious dogma then any more than it can today. Gush Emunim and the National Religious Party have blurred the lines between religious and national interests.

More alarming is the fact that Zionist ideology does not answer the question of Jewish identity today. The strength and vitality of Zionism at the turn of the century derived principally from its ability to supply a satisfactory answer to the question of "what makes me a Jew?" Zionism did not only provide Jewishness with a national and secular meaning but gave Jews the opportunity for fulfillment through Zionist enterprise in the Land of Israel—with which he could identify and participate fully. But Zionism has lost this impetus. It recedes further and further into history, as the movement which led to the creation of the State of Israel. Today certain self-appointed spokesmen of Zionism identify it with the "Land of Israel," with settlement in the administered territories, and with Jewish religious destiny. But this is not true Zionism as we know it. Most Israelis who were born in Mandatory Palestine and also the younger generation of Sabras know little about the roots of Zionism and its role in their life as Jews. This is a severe educational failure, the result of a process which began twenty to thirty years ago. The real victim is ultimately Jewish consciousness and not merely Zionist consciousness, since the Jewish religion will not be able to fulfill the function which Zionism took over from it. There may also be no way back to Zionism in its original form. A new approach is needed in re-examining Jewish and Zionist concepts. In the interview from which we have quoted above, Gershol Scholem says:

. . . Ideologies are not immortal, and I strongly doubt whether traditional Judaism will survive in its present form, although it certainly is desirable that something should remain, and reasonable to assume that it will. How much, is uncertain. My views, in any case, are far from the church conception of Judaism. If you ask me today whether—in the light of all the events of the last fifty years—I believe that the Jewish future lies in the traditional Orthodox framework, my answer is no . . . I think there will be a crisis of birth or a crisis of extinction; time will tell . . .

I do not know what form will crystallize here, whether there will be some synthesis of the conservative forces and the forces of change. The situation may be much more dangerous than we think, but I do not believe a new faith will emerge. I see something today that I did not see fifty years ago: the threat of death, of oblivion, unfolding here. As for the Diaspora—I see no productive forces that will manifest anything enduringly Jewish.

But whether we will show that potential here—that depends on a whole complex of matters beyond our control. When you look at the secularization process, you can perceive grave processes in which it is difficult to discern any seed of future, any fructifying seed. But who knows? Maybe there is no other way of undergoing crisis, but through descent for the sake of ascent." 11

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1. Autoemancipatian! Mahnruf an seine Stammesgenossen von einem russischen Juden ( 1882). p. 22.

2. "On the Question of Zion and Territory" (1905).

3. "Medinat Yisrael Rosh Gesher le-Malchut Yisrael" ("The State of Israel—a bridgehead for the Kingdom of Israel"), 1958. p. 32.

4. The Jewish religious injunction to save life at all costs, even if it means violating the Sabbath, eating unkosher food, etc.

5. By "special circumstances" Eldad apparently meant the Holocaust of the Jewish people in the Second World War. Even this statement implies disregard for the fate of the Jewish people and an incredible departure from the basis of Zionism which set out to find a secure shelter for the Jewish people.

6. In this respect, then, Gush Emunim has completely reversed the religious viewpoint by deciding that Zionism was itself the beginning of Redemption. The roots of this change are to be found not in Gush Emunim, but in the teachings of Rabbi Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, which he expounded in a totally different historical context.

7. Or Yesharim, 1903.

8. The Hebrew monthly founded by Ahad ha-Am in Russia in 1896.

9. An allusion to Prov. XXVII 22.

10. From "With Gershom Scholem: an Interview" (by Muki Tsur, tr. Moshe Kohn), Shdemot, III (spring 1975), pp. 5-43. Quotations are from pp. 6, 7, 9, 13.

11. Ibid. pp, 22-23.

About the Author

Yigal Elam, an historian, is a member of the editorial board of the left-wing monthly Emda (Tel Aviv).

Further Reading on Gush Emunim

Extreme Politics in Israel by Ehud Sprinzak

Gush Emunim: The Politics of Zionist Fundamentalism in Israel by Ehud Sprinzak

Gush Emunim: The Tip of the Iceberg by Ehud Sprinzak

Gush Emunim: Between Fundamentalism and Pragmatism by David Newman

The National Religious Party and the Religious Settlers in Israel by Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky

The Nature of Gush Emunim Settlements by Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky

Foundations of a Political Messianic Trend in Israel by Uriel Tal

Further Directions

This paper makes several allusions to the need for a new Jewish ideology to replace a failing Zionism. Beyond the religious nationalism of Gush Emunim, one is drawn to consider the Hebrew Canaanist movement as such a replacement. Boas Evron, in his "'Canaanism:' Solutions and Problems," sees Hebrew Canaanism as "a dialectical complement and antithesis to Zionist thought," as "an expression and continuation of the 'biblical revolution'" and as "an alliance . . . with extreme aspects of Messianic Jewish activity. [including the Messianism of Gush Emunim]."

I believe that Hebrew Canaanism will likely become a more powerful force in Israel and Jewish thought in the near future. As it is a largely unknown movement, I have reproduced a few revelant papers below:

Two Brief Introductions to Hebrew Canaanism by Ron Kuzar

"Canaanism:" Solutions and Problems by Boas Evron

The Canaanist Platform by the Center for Young Hebrews translated by James S. Diamond

The Vision of the New Hebrew Nation and its Enemies by Yaacov Shavit

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