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Today, for better and for worse, many Jews consider Zionism and Judaism synonymous, but this was not always the case. In the late 19th century, when some European Jews began supporting and organizing the mass settlement of Palestine, they were criticized from almost every position on the Jewish religious spectrum.
From the Right
From the traditional point of view, the Zionists were revolting against God’s will. The ingathering of the exiles, it was believed, was to be a prominent feature of the messianic age, but it was supposed to be initiated by God, not humankind. Classical teachings warned against “hastening the end”–trying to urge on the redemption–and Zionism was viewed as violating this taboo.
Additionally, the Zionist leadership was overwhelmingly secular; thus, from a religious viewpoint, their project was fundamentally tainted.
From the Left
The religious left also questioned Zionism. The Reform leadership embraced the opportunity to be European citizens, and therefore their religious outlook stressed universalism and the unity of humankind. Traditionally, the goal of Jewish history was a messianic return to Israel, but the reformers had the opposite view: Jewish history started in the Land of Israel, but was intended to spread outward. Judaism was a religion–not a nation–with a mission to proliferate morality. Going to Palestine to form a particularistic Jewish society was, therefore, blasphemous, because it countered everything the Jewish religion was meant to accomplish.
Hermann Cohen, the great German Jewish philosopher, expressed the liberal position well when he wrote: “we regard the moral world as it unfolds throughout history as our Promised Land.”
On the other side of the Atlantic, things weren’t much different. On July 4, 1882, when Independence Day coincided with the 17th of Tammuz–a fast day commemorating the commencement of the destruction of ancient Jerusalem–Kaufmann Kohler, the leader of the Reform movement in America, opted to celebrate the secular holiday instead of mourning over “past political power and glory.” Kohler urged his congregants to praise “the sublime Ruler of History for the new terms and prospects opened on this free soil for the realization of our messianic expectations.”
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