8. Zionism in Practice – The Organisation and its Tensions
Before the official founding of the World Zionist Organisation by Herzl in 1897, the spearhead of the movement was the Hovevei Zion, most of whose members were based in Russia. This had been formally brought into existence at the Kattowitz conference of 1884, which served to unify the scattered Zionist societies that had emerged in the wake of the 1881 pogroms. In these early years, the movement dedicated itself to settlement activity and educational work in Palestine. Under its leadership, thousands made Aliyah to the agricultural settlements and other new projects that were to form the lifeblood of the new Yishuv.
When Herzl appeared on the scene in the mid-1890s, he was all but ignorant of the contribution of the Hovevei Zion and initially went about his plans without taking them into account. Herzl’s supporters were similarly drawn from the ranks of the those Jewish intellectuals who had endeavoured to integrate into the cultural milieu of Central and Western Europe. Many were drawn to Zionism because of their perception, often based on painful personal expereince, that emancipation and integration into these societies was not possible.
When Herzl founded the World Zionist Organisation in Basle at the First Zionist Congress (1897), it was meant to absorb all of the Eastern European and other Zionist organisations that had existed heretofore. His program, as outlined in the essay, ‘Der Judenstadt' -The Jews’ State, envisaged the creation of a number national institutions that would provide the political framework from which the state would emerge. Chief among these were the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (the Jewish National Fund), the chief land purchasing agency of the Zionist movement, the Anglo-Palestine Bank (later Bank Leumi) and the Keren HaYesod, the major financial institution, which was actually organised some fifteen years after Herzl’s death.
The organisation was, once again, the arena for a number of clashes between different forces and interest groups. There were five major clashes.
A. The Cultural Question and the Place of Religion
For some Zionists, especially the East European Jewish intellectuals, Zionism was not only a national movement committed to the establishment of a Jewish homeland. It also wished to create a modern, secular Jewish identity. According to this formulation it was not religion that was to provide the basis for Jewish identity but ethnicity and nationalism.
The Hebrew language, the Land of Israel, Jewish history, literature, customs, folklore and their interplay were to provide a new more open-ended paradigm for Jewish identity.
Of course, such a formulation was bound to meet with vehement opposition from those who argued that this was a rebellion against the Jewish people’s covenental relationship with G-d. As the influence of these secularists, popularly known as Cultural Zionists, increased within the nascent Zionist movement, their religious opponents warned that future cooperation would be impossible if a single education program would be adopted by the Zionist movement. They demanded that on matters spiritual and educational they, the religious Zionists would enjoy autonomy.
Consequently, as early as 1911, two departments of education existed within the Zionist Organization, one that was based on the secular, culturalist approach and the other on the Mizrachi, a religious-Zionist understanding of Jewish self-identification. This situation was mirrored in the school system in Palestine and, indeed, continues until today.
For more or less the whole of its pre-state existence, the Zionist Organisation experienced a variety of controversies concerning Orthodox and secular Jews (free-thinkers) who debated the meaning and place of “Jewishness” in the Zionist movement and the Yishuv. This should not surprise us as the stakes were very high – no less than the attempt to define the Jewish character of the first Jewish state since the destruction of the Second Temple. Although a status-quo agreement was made in 1947 between the secular, Labour-dominated Provisional Government and the orthodox political parties, this issue was to remain an ongoing cause of tension after the creation of the State.
B. The “Jewishness” of the Zionist Vision
The non-religious Zionists were not monolithic in their understanding of the purpose of the Jewish State.
In the early years of the Zionist movement there were serious differences between Herzl and his relatively assimilated western supporters and the Eastern European Zionists, many of whom were secular, but all of whom came from an intensely Jewish background. Many of the Eastern Europeans had repudiated the yeshiva education they had received in their youth, but this had in no way affected the intensity of their Jewish consciousness or their view of the importance of Jewish exploration. In these respects they stood in total contrast to the western Jews, including Herzl himself, whose knowledge of Judaism was attenuated by long periods of exposure to modernity.
The great critic of Herzl was Ahad Ha’am (about whom, more below). An ardent secularist, Ahad Ha’am was critical of what he saw as Herzl’s wish to create a state of refuge for the Jews that would have little Jewish character and which would not be imbued with Jewish values. When Herzl’s book, Altneuland was published in 1902 describing the Jewish State twenty years after its establishment, Ahad Ha’am attacked and even ridiculed Herzl for its lack of Jewish content. Ahad Ha’am claimed that Herzl had created a state of Jews but not a Jewish State.
Despite the disbanding the Bnei Moshe society founded by Ahad Ha’am in 1888, to promote Jewish education and national consciousness within the Zionist world, from the time of the 1897 Congress, the ideological attack on Herzl’s stance on this question continued.
C. Zionism - Practical Or Political?
Herzl and his followers developed what came to be called “Political Zionism”.
An essential plank was the idea that Palestine should be secured for the Jews by way of diplomatic activity with the Turks, who controlled the territory at that time. As such, Herzl was critical of any activity that might increase Turkish antagonism towards Jews and Zionism. For example, he believed that too much practical settlement activity would provoke anti-Semitism, something that could put the entire Zionist enterprise in jeopardy.
On this issue, he was strongly opposed by those who called themselves “Practical Zionists,” largely drawn from the Eastern European supporters of the Hovevei Zion, who had made settlement activity their main purpose since the early 1880’s. They believed that without the growth of the Jewish population in Palestine and the expansion of a Jewish economy and infrastructure, the claim for statehood would be tenuous.
After Herzl’s death in 1904, the failure of the East Africa project (see below) and the continuing inability of the movement to secure political promises from the Great Powers, there was little alternative but to make concessions to the practical Zionists and to espouse a mixed agenda of diplomacy and settlement work. This uneasy alliance, born of necessity, came to be called “Synthetic Zionism.” The man who coined this term and implemented its program was Chaim Weizmann, later to become Israel’s first President.
D. Eretz Yisrael or Elsewhere?
One of the most serious controversies that threatened to split the Zionist movement during its early years was the question of where exactly the Jewish state should be situated.
It was clear to many that the idea of establishing a Jewish state, or homeland, was a good one, but the sense of emergency concerning the Jewish situation led several supporters to contemplate alternatives to the Land of Israel.
Two of the most important political thinkers in those early years, Leo Pinsker (“Auto-Emancipation” 1882) – who became the leader of Hibbat Zion, and Herzl (“The Jewish State” 1896), the founder of the World Zionist Organisation, were both uncertain. In neither pamphlet is a clear statement made on the subject.
Likewise, their important predecessor, the early Jewish nationalist theoretician and publicist, Peretz Smolenskin, was similarly disposed until the 1881 pogroms.
As far as these thinkers were concerned, at least initially, the critical aim of Zionism was to create a political, territorial framework for the Jewish nation in the most viable location. For most of the Eastern Europeans, including Pinsker and Smolenskin, by the mid-1880’s, it was clear that the only possible venue could be Eretz Yisrael. It was the only place, so they believed, that had the capacity to enthuse the Jewish masses, whose support was essential.
The question of which territory would answer the needs of the Zionist movement reached a climax when Herzl commended the delegates at the 6th Zionist Congress (1903) to examine a British option to settle Jews in East Africa. Although the Congress voted to despatch a committee of inquiry to the area, it refused to allocate funds for this purpose.
At the 7th Zionist Congress held in 1905 (after Herzl’ death) a resolution was passed rejecting territories other than Palestine for the creation of the Jewish State which lead a small group to leave the movement and form the Jewish Territorial Organisation. They were led by the Anglo-Jewish novelist Israel Zangwill and continued to examine alternatives to Palestine arguing that the situation of the Jews was too desparate to await the procurement of the Land of Israel.
However, following the British Government’s issuance of the Balfour Declaration, the Territorialists activities were undermined and the organisation was formally disbanded in 1925.
E. Zionism and the Arabs
A further area of dispute amongst Zionists emerged over the movement’s relationship with the Arabs.
Although this issue was discussed at the turn of the century by some Zionist thinkers, the riots of 1920-1 and 1929 forced a deeper examination of this question. Over this issue the movement divided into three broad camps.
The more radical of these were the Revisionists led by Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky who warned that the conflict with the Arabs was inevitable and that talk of compromise and negotiation would have no sway with the local population. Although the Arabs had a claim, the Zionist cause he claimed enjoyed the greater merit (justice). The needs of the Jews were, he said a matter of starvation whilst those of the Arabs were to satisfy their appetite.
Jabotinsky demanded that the British implement their obligations under the Mandate and establish a Jewish State with a Jewish majority on both banks of the Jordan. In the face of the inevitable Arab opposition, Jabotinsky called for the construction of an ‘iron wall’ consisting of Jewish military force supported by the British. Only by demonstrating a dogged commitment to the Land of Israel would the Zionist movement overcome the Arab national movement and force the latter to make peace. When the time for peace came, Jabotinsky promised to be magnanimous.
At the other end of the spectrum, was a group of intellectuals whose leader was the great philosopher Martin Buber. In 1925, he and his followers founded Brit Shalom (Peace Covenant) which called for mutual reconcilliation between the Jewish and Arab national movements in Palestine.
Buber rejected the idea of Zionism as just another national movement and desired instead that it create an exemplary society. Such a society could not, he said be charactetrised by Jewish domination of the Arabs. It was incumbent on the Zionist movement to reach a consensus with the Arabs even at the cost of the Jews remaining a minority in the Land. Brit Shalom embraced the idea of bi-nationalism and saw in its promise of a single state the moral and just solution to a tragic conflict.
The third camp, led by David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann - who were otherwise frequently in political conflict -, took a more pragmatic approach.
Although they were committed to the establishment of a Jewish State, they adjusted their position in accordance with the changing circumstances not only in Palestine but beyond. For example, following the Arab riots in 1929 and the British decision, later curtailed, to limit immigration and land sales, led these leaders to pursue negotiations with the Arab national movement and its representatives, both inside and outside Palestine.
In their efforts to find a compromise they contemplated bi-nationalism as a solution. This may, of course, have been a tactical consideration allowing for a more concilliatory position vis-a-vis the British, in the hope that the future upbuilding of Palestine would continue until circumstances changed in Zionism’s favor. It is of little surprise that both leaders supported the acceptance by the Zionist movement of the partition proposals of 1937 and 1947. For these leaders the slogan, ‘Palestine is for the Jewish nation and the Arabs who live there’ was a useful summary of their position.
As different groups rose and fell within the movement and great leaders of charisma and power (Weizmann, Ben Gurion) came to prominence, old tensions fell and new ones arose.
- The rise of Revisionist Zionism under Ze’ev Jabotinsky in the 1920’s and 30’s created new waves of tension within the movement.
- The rise of a strong political centre in Eretz Yisrael representing the Yishuv, also caused significant tensions in the struggle for the leadership of the movement.
However, we can certainly say that the movement, despite these internal tensions, was strengthened over time by immigration, economic expansion, the upbuilding of community institutions, and a strong sense of national purpose. Despite the destruction of one third of its people during the Holocaust, the Zionist movement rallied with the help of world Jewry to press more vigorously for the establishment of the Jewish State.