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Jewish and Zionist Approaches to the Use of Force

Published in Tikkun (USA) in April 2006.

Jewish and Zionist Approaches to the Use of Force

By Yakov M Rabkin*

[...] for it is not by strength that man prevails (Samuel I 2:9)

Force, and its use, is no stranger to the Torah. The Pentateuch and several of the Books of the Prophets (Joshua, Judges) teem with violent images. Biblical Israel was conquered under conditions that could hardly be described as peaceful. But far from glorifying war, Jewish tradition identifies allegiance to God, and not military prowess, as the principal factor in the victories mentioned in the Bible. After the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, Jewish life underwent a metamorphosis that rejected the use of force.

Codified Pacifism

Tradition interprets the destruction of the Temple and the ensuing exile as divine punishment for certain transgressions committed by the Jews. Gratuitous hatred[1] among the Jews is held to be the cause of the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome.

The Talmud reports that the Roman siege of Jerusalem in the first century divided the city’s population against itself. The scholars of the Law were more inclined toward a negotiated compromise, while the birionim (violent rebels) organized a forceful response. The Talmud, and several classical exegetes reproached those who favored armed struggle in particularly severe terms: “If the birionim had heeded Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai, the Temple of Jerusalem would still be standing.”

A classical definition of might suggests that he who succeeds in controlling his own passions is more powerful than he who conquers a city. This definition, revitalized a few decades after the fall of Jerusalem, reflects a worldview that places all confidence in Providence and has nothing but disdain for physical force. [2] The relationship with iron, the instrument of murder par excellence, provides a clear indication. Iron tools would not be used to hew the stones of the Temple, because iron is commonly used to make weapons. This is why n many Jewish households, before reciting grace after the meal, the knives are removed from the table, traditionally associated with the altar of the Jerusalem Temple. So well known was the tradition that Napoleon, in his proclamation inviting the Jews to re-establish a Jewish State in Palestine at the end of the 18th century, took pains to reassure the Jews that they would not have to conquer the Promised Land, but only to keep it once it had been occupied by the French army.

Tradition locates Jewish heroism in the yeshivas, not on battlefields. The humility before adversity that is typical of Jewish tradition, led many secularized Jews to revolt in the early 20th century. Patience in the face of injustice and persecution filled them with shame, and impelled them to take the fate in their own hands. But the older tradition, the source of inspiration to those who opposed Zionism in the name of the Torah, never entirely disappeared.

The Founding Fathers

In Jewish tradition, two figures are credited with creating a Judaism that was at once more personal and more cosmopolitan. The first is Yohanan Ben Zakkai, a Torah scholar who, trapped in Roman besieged Jerusalem, contrived to flee the rebels hidden in a coffin. Tradition holds that he gained permission from the Romans to teach the Torah at Yavne, a small town southwest of Jerusalem. He thus became an emblematic figure in the emphasis on Torah study that replaced the struggle for political independence.

The second figure is that of Judas the Prince (135-219), revered as the redactor of the Mishna. A signal aspect of the life of Judas the Prince, as preserved in the Talmud, was his friendship, even his intimacy with Antoninus, the Roman Emperor of the day. Judas the Prince had settled in Tzipori (Sephoris), the Roman administrative center in Galilee.

Both figures, Yohanan Ben Zakkai and Judas the Prince, embody a conciliatory attitude toward any occupying power. They stand in sharp contrast with the patriots who perished in armed struggle or collective suicide (Massada or Gamla). The survival of the Jewish continuity owes much to these two “collaborationist” rabbis who hold such a prominent place in tradition.

But are these pacifist values firmly anchored in the Jewish worldview or are they simply the creation of historical circumstances? In a work of religious polemic, the Spanish poet and scholar Judas Halevi (1080-c. 1141) presents a dialogue that was to assume its full force almost one thousand years later. When the rabbi in the book asserts that “ you hold against us our humiliation and our poverty; and yet these qualities are those that glorify the most pious men of Christianity and of Islam”, the King of the Khazars, who is about to choose between the three monotheistic religions, responds with a touch of cynicism: “Such would be the case had you freely chosen humility: but you were so constrained. And should you gain hegemony, you too would kill. (Halevi, 37-38)

Frustration and Violence in Russia

In the event, the shift took place well before the Jews gained any kind of hegemony. It happened in Russia, a country that was home to millions of Jews concentrated in the Pale of Settlement, and ruled by a cruelly punctilious bureaucracy. In 1861, the liberal reforms of Alexander II opened the doors to the integration of the Jews and gave every appearance of leading them to emancipation. Jews flocked to the universities, into new trades, and rapidly became a significant portion of the Russian intelligentsia. But when a terrorist bomb killed the Tsar in 1881, the period of liberalism came to an end and, for the first time in more than two centuries, a wave of pogroms swept across Russia.

Zionism, which most scholars consider a major break with Jewish tradition, must be seen in the context of several movements that originated in tsarist Russia and attempted to “normalize” the Jew of the Diaspora. Zionism would seek to transform the meek traditionalist Jew into a brawny, assertive Hebrew. The radicals proclaimed it necessary to straighten the spine of the Jew, long curved before his oppressors and long bent beneath the weight of the volumes of the Talmud; to free him from the burden of exile as well as from that of Jewish tradition defined as “the yoke of the heavenly kingdom”—meaning loyalty to the Torah. Implicit in this process of liberation was an increased reliance on the use of force.

Most rabbis had reacted to Zionism with revulsion, as they had to the very idea of armed struggle. To defy the nations could bring nothing but fresh disaster, they warned, but fewer and fewer Russian Jews heard their voices. The pervasive atmosphere of nihilism and of contempt for human life (Landry) generated an upsurge of terrorism whose spectre haunts the world to this day. Some observers have even drawn a connection between the Russian ideological heritage of the 19th century and the broader history of terrorist activity, including the Middle Eastern variety, and including the spectacular attack on the Twin Towers in Manhattan. (Glucksmann)

While other Jewish communities the world over remained faithful to the tradition of non-violence, and contemplated no armed action against the populations amongst which they lived, that tradition came under increasing attack in Russia, as ever-greater numbers of Jews discovered the allure of political violence. Russian Jews flocked to radical political parties.

Pride and Self-defence

The pogroms of the late 19th century deepened the insecurity of the Jewish populations of the Russian Empire. In contrast to Jewish reactions during the pogroms of the 17th century, which had been far crueller and more violent, for a growing number of secularizing Jews the insecurity and the suffering they encountered at the end of the “century of progress” had lost all religious significance. 20th century Jews who had broken with the Torah reacted in an entirely different way. Rather than scrutinizing their own behavior and intensifying their penitence while they fled the violence, they asserted their pride and called for resistance. It was a radical departure from tradition.

Zionism emerged from a climate of shame, of insulted dignity. Even though the Torah, both written and oral, repeatedly cautions Jews against personal or collective pride, it was precisely in these traits that the Zionists sought the kind of respect that they defined in European terms: a country, an army, political independence. What gave the Zionist movement its extraordinary vigor were not the suffering of pogrom victims, but the humiliation of the rejected supplicants, of those whose hopes of integration into Russian society the pogroms had shattered. They felt drawn by the Zionist doctrine of Theodore Herzl, himself a rejected aspirant, whose hope of becoming a full-fledged European was shaken by the Dreyfus trial.

At first glance, it seems odd that anti-Jewish violence and anti-Semitism had a greater impact on acculturated Russian Jews than upon those who suffered its direct impact on their lives and belongings. Even though the vast majority of them suffered no physical consequences, the violence of the programs devastated them.

It was Haim Naham Bialik, a Russian author who later became a cultural icon in Israel, that stoked the fires of revenge. In a poem written following the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, he castigated the survivors, heaping shame upon their heads and calling upon them to revolt not only against their tormentors, but also against Judaism. Bialik lashed out at the men who hid in stinking holes while their non-Jewish neighbors raped their wives and daughters. The anger that had swept over many Jews caused Bialik, a former yeshiva student, to overturn the Jewish value system. He mocked the tradition that attributed all adversity to shortcomings in the behavior of the Jews: “let fists fly like stones against the heavens and against the heavenly throne.” Bialik broke violently with Judaism, and issued a ringing challenge: defend yourselves or perish!

Brenner, another Russian poet, and like Bialik the son of a pious Jewish family, rebelled as well against the Jewish tradition. He radically transformed the best-known verse of the Jewish prayer book “Hear, O Israel, God is your Lord, God is one!” one of the first verses taught to children and the last to be spoken by a Jew before his death. Brenner’s revised verse proclaimed: “Hear, O Israel! Not an eye for an eye. Two eyes for one eye, all their teeth for every humiliation!” He was to die a violent death during the Arab riots in Jaffa.

Honor, pride, the thirst for power and revenge: these were the new motives that swept into Jewish consciousness at the beginning of the 20th century. The shift in outlook that took place in the late 19th century among many Russian Jews was undoubtedly more significant than the real impact of Jewish self-defence in Russia. It radically modified the meaning of Jewish history in the eyes of the youth, who thirsted after a specifically Jewish activism. The secular version of Jewish history had eliminated the privileged relationship between God and his people, and made the Jews the victims of an historical injustice. A historical vision of this kind stimulated a powerful impulse to action. Several of the founders of armed Jewish units, both in Russia and in Palestine, recognized the importance of the use of force as a way of wrenching the Jew from his Judaic past.

Joseph Trumpeldor, a Russian veteran, is the incarnation of romantic heroism in the Zionist curriculum. Killed in a skirmish with the local Arab population, he apparently managed to utter the last words: “How good it is to die for the fatherland.” The phrase was to become, with the officers’ oath at Massada, one of the symbols of the new determination to take up arms.

His predecessor in the Diaspora was the Russian Zionist activist Pinhas Dashevsky (1879-1934), who also held a central position in the Zionist educational system. Dashevksy attacked one of the instigators of the 1903 Kishniev pogroms, and went on to become “the first revolutionary manifestation of Jewish national consciousness.” His terrorist act was an exemplary one, for “he understood the true nature of Zionism and adhered to it throughout his life.” (Sternhell, 50)

The example of Trumpeldor, who had been decorated by the tsar for his bravery in battle, inspired Zionist youth throughout the Russian Empire. Students from Riga had originally encouraged Jabotinsky, in 1923, to set up a Zionist activist organization that took the name Brith Yosef Trumpeldor (the Josef Trumpeldor Alliance), the acronym for which—Betar—harked back to Bar Kokhba’s last stand. The organization quickly became a Zionist educational institution with a strong military component. Betar shock units drew stern opposition from the Jews of Palestine, who insulted the participants in a military parade organized by Jabotinksy in Tel-Aviv in 1928, one year before the massacre at Hebron. The spectators spat upon them, calling them “Militarists! Generals!” (Schechtman, 88)

Zionist youth mobilization broke with the pacific self-image of the Jews, whether practising or non-practising, and drew hostile reactions. Albert Einstein was among the Jewish humanists who denounced the Betar youth movement in 1935, described it as being “as much of a danger to our youth as Hitlerism is to German youth.” (Schechtman, 261) Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise expressed his indignation at what he saw as a slogan to fit the times: “Germany for Hitler, Italy for Mussolini, Palestine for Jabotinsky!” (Schechtman, 267) He considered Jabotinksy’s philosophy to be militaristic, while “the whole tradition of the Jewish people is against militarism.” (Schechtman, 269) An article published in Prague, in 1934, under the title ‘Brownshirt Zionists’ accused Jabotinsky of direct links with the fascist dictatorships (Schechtman, 562-563)

A Sharp Break

The accusations may seem extreme, but a danger did exist: “deprived of its religious dimension, the dream of a ‘Third Kingdom of Israel’ could only lead to totalitarianism.” (Barnavi, 225) Intense devotion to a cause, to a nation, to a leader, was far from unique at the time. Parallels could be found in many European countries, where youth was mobilized in the name of the fatherland.

In its Zionist version, the teleology of return was expressed as the reduction of Jewish history to a continuum of suffering that could only lead to Jewish self-emancipation, and to the enfranchisement of the Jews as a modern people on its own land. An expression frequently heard in Israel is ein berera (“there is no choice”), which translates teleological sensitivity into political inflexibility concerning any other option available to the Jews of the world. It follows that the State of Israel is the only place for the Jews, though ever since its creation, conditions have been somewhat more serene in the Diaspora. Ein berera also means that there is no other choice but to use force.

The Russian dimension of Zionism cannot be overestimated. One telling indicator is the composition of the Knesset a mere twelve years after the founding of the state. Despite the almost total prohibition of emigration from the Soviet Union for more than four decades, more than 70% of the members of this political elite were Russian-born, with 13% born in Palestine/Israel of Russian parents. The American Zionist elites, whose support was crucial for Zionism’s success, were also composed primarily of Jews of Russian origin. (Gilbert, 115) The replacement of the Jewish elites of German origin with those originating in Russia also contributed to the shift, between the two wars, of Jewish public opinion in the United States in favor of Zionism. The essentially Russian character of Zionism stands revealed in its concepts, its methods and the support it drew from the most powerful section of the Diaspora, that of the United States.

Israeli right-wing parties, which draw much of their support from voters of Russian origin, bear out the Russian dimension of the Zionist enterprise. Molodet (whose web-site in Russian modifies the World War II slogan, “For Our Soviet Fatherland” to read “For Our Jewish Fatherland”), in its support for deportation of the Palestinians, has published an interview with a Russian Israeli journalist who affirms that without the historical experience of the Russian Jews, the Israelis will remain unable to attain their historical destiny. Israelis of Russian origin must then guide the nation, and purify it of its many illusions. In her view, the State of Israel is the advance guard of the Jewish people, itself threatened by total extermination in the world of the 21st century. (Kaganskaïa) Molodet’s aggressive stance has won admirers in Russian nationalist circles, which lament that the Russian will to struggle has survived only in Israel, and primarily among Israelis of Russian origin. (Rumiantsev) Incidentally, the URL for the Molodet site in Russian is almost identical to that of a Russian ultra-nationalist one (http://nasha-rodina.ru/ and http://www.rodina.org.il) and the two sites contain reciprocal links. Though all expression of Zionist feelings was proscribed throughout the long Soviet period, family ties have remained solid.

The ethical heritage of the Diaspora, inspired by a millennia-long pacifist and moralizing tradition, slowly vanished under the impact of the Palestinian question. The generation that followed the first settlers to Palestine mirrored the dream of the founders; the next generation saw itself as pragmatic, physically fit, aggressive, and prepared to take up arms. Each succeeding generation was less ambiguous than the one before it about the use of armed force: “You can’t build a state wearing white gloves” as Nathan Alterman, a leading poet and pillar of the Israeli cultural establishment later put it.

Both rabbis and secular Jewish intellectuals have often used the samesimilar arguments to condemn the use of force. Haredi anti-Zionist Rabbi Amram Blau in Jerusalem accused the Zionists of having no respect for human life: “[...] they have proven to be irresponsible, extended their rule over parts of the Holy Land, which had been inhabited by Arabs, and thereupon brought the entire Arab world into conflict with the Jewish community.” (A. Blau, 2) The analysis of Hannah Arendt, a secular German Jewish intellectual, echoes the same view:

And even if the Jews were to win the war, […] [t]he “victorious” Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defense. […] And all this would be the fate of a nation that- no matter how many immigrants it could still absorb and how far it extended its boundaries (the whole of Palestine and Transjordan is the insane Revisionist demand) – would still remain a very small people greatly outnumbered by hostile neighbors.    (Arendt, 187)

As the 21st century opens, violence is no longer the exclusive realm of the military; it has become a part of daily life among the settlers of the West Bank, among whom the National-Religious form the ideological hard core. They are now extending their assertive approach first to Arab civilians, and later, to all those whom they consider as obstacles to permanent retention of the territories. This is the context in which National-Religious youngsters attack journalists and international observers in the streets of Hebron and elsewhere in the West Bank. (Settlers Attack) For anyone who sees televised images of ostensibly pious Jews abusing foreign journalists and Arab civilians can only conclude that Judaism inspires such cruelty. This may have serious consequences for the Jews all over the world.

While most Haredi Jews remain aloof from the military in Israel and many secular Jews have lost admiration for the army, one group of religious Jews has become the most motivated part of Israeli society in terms of using force to settle the land and protect the settlements. The National-Religious, or Mizrahi, movement initiated in Russia a century ago, has been galvanized by the 1967 conquest of many Biblical lands. The Mizrahi had long been a small minority among the religious Jews and, perhaps, an even smaller minority among the Zionists. From the outset, the movement accepted Zionism but kept away from messianic interpretations of this new phenomenon. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine, a position created by the British mandatory authorities, injected messianic expectations in the Zionist enterprise. He saw in the defiantly anti-religious Zionist pioneers the ‘white donkey’ that would lead the Messiah into Jerusalem. He also expected, as it turned out in vain, that the very contact with the Holy Land would bring these pioneers closer to the Torah. The great majority of rabbis of his time (and, it goes without saying, secular Israelis themselves) categorically rejected the efforts of Rabbi Kook to present the Zionists as the ‘white donkey’ that will lead the Messiah into Jerusalem. Well before 1948, they had underlined the spiritual and physical dangers they saw in the Zionist enterprise.

The establishment of the State of Israel created enormous enthusiasm among the National-Religious. While Rabbi Kook is seen as “radical and revolutionary” even by Zionist historians (Avineri, 254), today’s National-Religious doctrine draws its inspiration from his mystical thought as interpreted by his son Zvi Yehuda who infused the State of Israel with a strong messianic content. The vast educational network of the National Religious movement has successfully propagated this new doctrine in the last forty years. The sanctification of the State of Israel is common among the National-Religious, and it is only in recent months, in the context of impending evacuation of some of the territories occupied in 1967, that this total devotion to the State has begun to wane.

As part of their adherence to Zionism, the National-Religious not only accepted the use of force proper to the Zionist enterprise. They also turned it into a religious obligation. Their commitment to modern nationalism, most varieties of which in Europe and elsewhere have not shied away from the use of force, stands in stark contrast with traditionalist thought. While for the National-Religious, the victory of 1967 was a sign of divine benevolence and an overt miracle, the Satmar Rebbe, condemned the Six Day War, reminding his followers that the Zionists had sacrificed thousands of lives on the altar of the State that he considered to be the source of all violence in the region:

there is no doubt that the Torah in no way permits the loss of one Jewish life for the sake of the entire Zionist state. […] Even in a nation of tsaddikim, righteous people, there is no authorization in our era to subject Jews to war… It is clear as day that the Torah obligates us to make every effort to mediate for peace and avoid war. These evil people, the Zionists, do the opposite of the Torah view and quarrel with the nation constantly.”(“May Jews Wage War…”)

For the Satmar Rebbe, to draw the Jews into war was equivalent to murder. The conclusion was as powerful as it was categorical, and his remarks were widely circulated throughout the Haredi world. (Teitelbaum)

Several Mizrahi rabbis have equated the State of Israel with the kingdom as defined by Jewish tradition, which enabled them to enlist Judaism in the military aspects of the Zionist project. The Mizrahi regretted that Judaic jurisprudence was rich in questions of cooking, but poor when it came to political or military matters, and they began serious efforts to bring the oral Torah up to date, an enterprise which most Haredi Jews would consider illegitimate and most secular Israelis irrelevant.

At the same time, there have been signs of a growing unease among the National-Religious: rabbis such as Yoel Bin-Nun and Aharon Lichtenstein, who have have criticized the excesses of National-Religious militancy, particularly among the settlers, with whom the two rabbis are intimately familiar. Yitzhak Blau, a rabbi at a National-Religious yeshiva located in the West Bank, has demonstrated how Judaic sources have been systematically deformed to derive from them warlike teachings. (Blau, 39-60) He shows that many National-Religious rabbis have used the Torah to denigrate the value of compassion, to promote racism and to transform the occupation into the supreme good. Latent in their arguments he detects the influence of secular fascist-minded intellectuals like Berdyczewski and Uri Tsevi Greenberg (1896-1981), who denounced Judaic pacifism and rejected the entire rabbinical tradition.

Indeed, the legitimisation of virile, defiant Zionism through the use of Judaic sources has had a powerful mobilizing effect. Rabbi Yitzhak Blau deplores an important departure from tradition in National-Religious thought, which, like the secular Zionists, glorifies concepts foreign to Jewish tradition, such as ‘national honor’ or ‘national pride’. ”It would be quite an irony,” concedes Blau, “to discover that a virulent critic of Judaism, Friedrich Nietzsche, indirectly influenced the religious Jewish community.” Incidentally, the eruption of religiously influenced Jewish militancy in the aftermath of the Six Day War antedated by nearly two decades the upsurge of militant Islamism.

Both Zionist intellectuals and the Orthodox rabbis who oppose Zionism agree that Zionism represents a true revolution in Jewish history, a negation of Jewish tradition. Yosef Salmon, an Israeli authority on the history of Zionism, writes:

… It was the Zionist threat that offered the gravest danger, for it sought to rob the traditional community of its very birthright, both in the Diaspora and in Eretz Israel, the object of its messianic hopes. Zionism challenged all the aspects of traditional Judaism: in its proposal of a modern, national Jewish identity; in the subordination of traditional society to new life-styles; and in its attitude to the religious concepts of Diaspora and redemption. The Zionist threat reached every Jewish community. It was unrelenting and comprehensive, and therefore it met with uncompromising opposition. (Almog, 25)

The embrace of the use of force by the National-Religious is part of this revolution, perhaps its most daring aspect. More than any other aspect of modern Jewish nationalism, it splits contemporary Jewry, perhaps, irreparably.

As the 21st century opens, violence is no longer the exclusive realm of the military; it has become a part of daily life among the settlers of the West Bank, among whom the National-Religious form the ideological hard core. They are now extending their assertive approach to all those whom they consider as obstacles to permanent retention of the territories, i.e., in their understandably uncompromising view, obstacles to the coming of Messiah. This is the context in which National-Religious youngsters attack journalists and international observers in the streets of Hebron and elsewhere in the West Bank, and, more recently, engage in clashes with Israeli soldiers. (Settlers Attack) For anyone who sees these televised images of ostensibly pious Jews can only conclude that Judaism inspires such cruelty. This may have serious consequences for the Jews all over the world.

* The author is Professor of History at the University of Montreal. His recent book, which appeared in the original French last year, is scheduled to appear in English in late 2005 under the title “A Threat from within: History of Jewish Opposition to Zionism”.


[1] A Google search for “gratuitous hatred” has yielded 88 500 entries, apparently all of them to Jewish subjects. This term, and may be even the phenomenon it defines, seems to be exclusively Jewish.

[2] Pirke Avot 4:1.


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