Author Archives: Matt Plen

Matt Plen

About Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.

Refusal to Serve

Reprinted with the permission of the author.

On January 3, 2005, a reserve unit of the Israel Defense Force was called in to evacuate two illegally installed caravans at the outpost of Givat Shalhevet in Samaria. The soldiers and police officers were met by hundreds of settlers who, throwing up a roadblock, attempted to prevent the unit from entering the outpost. Rocks were thrown, abuse was hurled, settlers branded the soldiers “Nazis.”

During the clash, Yossi Filant, a Yitzhar resident and sergeant in an IDF combat unit, called on the soldiers to refuse their orders to evacuate the caravans. Still in uniform, he joined the demonstration against the soldiers. Filant was arrested and tried before a court martial and sentenced to 28 days imprisonment for “inappropriate behaviour and obstructing the work of IDF soldiers and reservists,” for defecting to the side of the settlers and urging his comrades to refuse orders during the evacuation.

A Legal Ruling

Yossi Filant is not the only person calling on soldiers to refuse orders. After the announcement of the Disengagment Plan, dozens of rabbis associated with the settlement movement published halachic (Jewish legal) rulings prohibiting soldiers from participating in the evacuation of any part of the land of Israel.

One such halachic ruling, issued by the Union of Rabbis for the Jewish People and the Land of Israel, an organization headed by former Chief rabbi and spiritual leader of the settlement movement, Avraham Shapira, reads as follows:

“All aspects of our lives are determined according to the Torah. It is clear to every Jew that religious observance is above any directive or law that contradicts Torah law. It is inconceivable that a ruling by the Rabbis forbidding Shabbat desecration should be considered as sowing disunity in the IDF and an incitement to disobey an order. This ruling, referring to the evacuation of army settlements and the army bases protecting them, is no different. And it is unthinkable that an act forbidden by Halacha shall be made permissible because of a military order of one kind or another…

Max Nordau

Max Nordau first encountered Zionism in 1895 when Theodor Herzl, suffering from what seemed to be a near-delusional obsession with the problem of anti-Semitism, was referred to Nordau’s medical practice for psychiatric advice.

On hearing Herzl’s plans for founding a Jewish state, Nordau is said to have declared, “If you are insane, we are insane together. Count on me!”
Early Zionist Max Nordau
Nordau was to become Herzl’s most devoted follower, his ideological lieutenant, and second-in-command of Herzl’s World Zionist Organization. Together they created political Zionism, the movement devoted to the creation of a Jewish state by diplomatic means as the only possible solution to European anti-Semitism.

Religious and Cultural Upbringings

Like Herzl, Nordau was born in Budapest and grew up in a German cultural milieu. Although he received a medical degree and practiced as a physician, Nordau was best known as a journalist and a man of letters. From the late 1860s he worked for several leading European newspapers, including the Viennese Neue Freie Presse— the same institution which employed Herzl as its Paris correspondent.

After receiving a traditional Jewish education (and, unlike Herzl, graduating from his studies with a working knowledge of Hebrew) Nordau abandoned religious life. He became a member of the assimilationist Western European Jewish intelligentsia before making a dramatic return to Jewish life with his newfound passion for Zionism.

It was in this assimilationist phase, prior to 1895, that Nordau published the books which brought him notoriety in European intellectual circles: The Conventional Lies of Society (1883) and Degeneration (1892). In these works he articulated a liberal, utilitarian philosophy based on the concept of human solidarity: the idea that an individual could best serve his or her own interests through consideration of others and by working to improve the lot of humanity as a whole.

Of this, he wrote, “The flourishing of mankind is your Garden of Eden, its degeneration–that is your Hell.” Nordau envisioned a rationalist version of the Zionist state, serving as a contractual framework designed to promote the wellbeing of its citizens. This was the background for his fiery and controversial denunciation of late 19th century Europe’s descent–or degeneration– into irrationality, ethnic nationalism, and anti-Semitism.

Israel’s War of Independence

The history of the 1948-9 Arab-Israeli war is deeply controversial. Israelis and their supporters have traditionally referred to the conflict as the War of Independence, seeing it as a defensive war to prevent the destruction of the fledgling Jewish state in the face of overwhelming Arab aggression. Palestinian Arabs and their allies know the events around it as the Nakba (catastrophe)–the destruction of Palestinian society, the establishment of Jewish rule in Palestine, and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from their homes.

Jewish Immigrants Seek a Safe Haven

The war had its roots in waves of Zionist immigration to the Land of Israel, beginning in the 1880s and peaking in the 1930s and 40s, with the flight of Jews from the Holocaust. Their plight and the absence of a single country willing to give them a home made urgent the need for a Jewish state.
war of independence
Following WWII, hundreds of thousands of Jewish displaced persons set their sights on aliyah, but the British government–in control of Palestine since 1917 and keen to maintain friendly relations with the Arab world–refused to admit them. As violence between Jews, Arabs, and the British mounted, Britain handed over the problem to the United Nations.

In 1947, Palestine’s population of 1.85 million was approximately one-third Jewish and two-thirds Arab. The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) proposed the end of British rule and the partition of the country into Jewish and Arab states and an internationally controlled area around Jerusalem. The Zionists, desperate to enable Jewish immigration and with an eye to future territorial expansion, accepted the plan. The Arabs rejected it as they opposed any Jewish rule in Palestine.

On November 29, on the heels of the UN General Assembly’s vote in favor of partition, Jewish settlements and neighborhoods were attacked by Palestinian guerrillas.

What ensued was, in effect, two separate conflicts: a civil war between Palestine’s Jews and Arabs (November 29 1947-May 14 1948) was followed by the establishment of the state of Israel and its invasion by five Arab armies; the ensuing war lasted until July 1949.

David Ben-Gurion

David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), Israel’s first prime minister, was one of the most important Zionist leaders of the 20th century. His uncompromising vision of Jewish unity and statehood, together with a genius for pragmatic political and military tactics, enabled him to establish the State of Israel and guide it through the social, economic, and military challenges of its early years. But Ben-Gurion’s career was marked by a series of intense conflicts, and he remains one of the most debated figures in Israeli politics.

An Early Zionist

David Ben-Gurion (born Gruen) was born in Plonsk, in Russian Poland, and grew up in a family committed to the Zionist cause. He immigrated to Palestine in 1906 and worked as a laborer and watchman in the Jewish settlements of Rishon Letzion and Petah Tikvah. Almost immediately he took up positions of leadership in the socialist Zionist Poalei Tzion party.

first israeli prime ministerHe published articles under the name Ben-Gurion, in which he argued for the settlement of the land and the centrality of Hebrew as the only true expressions of Zionism. With the outbreak of World War I he advocated loyalty to the Ottoman Empire, which then ruled Palestine, but later joined the Jewish Legion of the British army, with the hope of fighting for Jewish independence.

After the war, Ben-Gurion returned to Palestine, where he quickly rose to prominence in the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community).  He was instrumental in founding a mass political party–Ahdut ha-Avodah, the forerunner of the modern Labor party–and, in 1920, the Histadrut Labor Federation, perhaps the most important instrument for the realization of Zionist goals. Ben-Gurion believed that socialism and Zionism were two sides of the same ideological coin. Jewish nationalism sought not only to achieve Jewish economic self-sufficiency, but also to create a new kind of Jew: proud, independent, and living off the fruits of manual labor.

Ben-Gurion saw the Jewish working class as the carriers of this revolutionary spirit, and, in line with his slogan, “From class to nation,” saw the interests of workers and the Jewish people as a whole as the same. The role of the Histadrut, as he saw it, was to build a Jewish economy under the leadership of the Jewish working class.

Baruch Goldstein

On Purim morning, February 25 1994, Baruch Goldstein walked into the Muslim prayer hall at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Goldstein, wearing his IDF reservists uniform, was carrying a Glilon assault rifle and 140 rounds of ammunition. He opened fire into the crowd, killing 29 people and injuring 125, until he was overwhelmed and beaten to death by survivors.

Goldstein’s Background

Goldstein was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1956 to an Orthodox family. He studied at Yeshiva of Flatbush, Yeshiva University, and at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where he trained as a physician. He was a member of the Jewish Defense League, an extremist Jewish organization which advocated the use of violence to combat antisemitism, and a disciple of its leader, Meir Kahane. After immigrating to Israel, Goldstein served as a doctor in the Israeli army. He settled in Kiryat Arba, a Jewish settlement bordering Hebron, and continued to work as an emergency physician.

In Israel, Goldstein was an active member of Meir Kahane’s Kach party (Kahane immigrated to Israel in 1971), a movement which was banned from running in Israeli elections due to its racist, anti-democratic platform. Following the massacre, the press reported that Goldstein’s anti-Arab views had led him to refuse to treat non-Jewish patients while on duty in Lebanon in the early 1980s–in direct breach of orders–and later as a civilian doctor in Hebron. Despite this, Goldstein received two citations from the Israeli army in 1993 in recognition of his medical work, and in January 1994 he was recommended for promotion from the rank of captain to major.

The Massacre: Fact and Fiction

baruch goldsteinThe events of February 25 are no less controversial than Goldstein’s character. Various versions of the morning’s events circulated in the Israeli press based on eye witness accounts: Goldstein was called up for reserve duty on the morning of the massacre and driven to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in his commander’s army jeep; he was helped to enter the Tomb through a locked side-entrance; the shooting was preceded by the detonation of at least two grenades; interviews with the survivors as well as an IDF ballistics report indicated the presence of a second shooter; survivors reported that upon escaping the Tomb, they were fired at from a nearby army lookout.

Golda Meir

Golda Meir–then Mabovitch–was born in 1898 in Kiev. In 1903 her father, driven to destitution, left Russia for the United States. Golda, together with her mother and siblings, moved to Pinsk and waited for her father to send for them. Pinsk was one of the centers of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, and Golda grew up amid the threat of pogroms and in the subversive atmosphere of pre-revolutionary Russia.

Early Years

israeli prime minister golda meirIn 1906, the family moved to the States and was reunited with their father in Milwaukee. Golda excelled in her studies and, upon graduating high school, trained as an educator and became a teacher. In 1915 she joined the local branch of the socialist Zionist party Poalei Zion and in 1921, together with her husband Morris Myerson, immigrated to the Palestine.

The couple joined Kibbutz Merhavya in the northern Jezreel valley. Overcoming the grueling conditions on the kibbutz as well as the widespread prejudice that American girls were not tough enough for a life of manual labor, Golda began to fulfill her ambition of being a pioneer. “Not being beautiful,” she wrote, “was the true blessing. Not being beautiful forced me to develop my inner resources. The pretty girl has a handicap to overcome.”

Rise to Power

Almost immediately, Meir took on positions of responsibility in the Histadrut, the workers’ federation responsible for the lion’s share of pre-1948 economic development, social services, and political leadership. In 1928 she was appointed as executive secretary of the Women Workers’ Council, and served as emissary to the Pioneer Women’s Organization in the United States from 1932-34. Upon her return to Palestine, Meir was invited to join the executive committee of the Histadrut and, two years later, was appointed as head of its Political Department. In June 1946, Meir replaced Moshe Shertok (later Sharett) as head of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department, the quasi-foreign ministry of the state-in-waiting.

In 1947, the British announced their intention to leave Palestine, and turned the question of the country’s future over to the United Nations. As the U.N. General Assembly prepared to vote on the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, Meir was sent on a clandestine mission to negotiate in person with King Abdullah of Transjordan. In a November 1947 meeting with Meir at Naharayim, in the Jordan Valley, the king declared himself an ally of the Zionists and promised to abstain from hostilities against the Jewish state. Yet six months later, rumors reached the Yishuv’s leadership that Abdullah had joined the Arab League and was planning to join the coming attack on Israel.

Jonathan Pollard

UPDATE: In July 2015, Jonathan Pollard’s lawyers announced that he had been granted parole and would be released on Nov. 20, 2015.

On the morning of November 21, 1985, on the instructions of Israeli officials, Jonathan Jay Pollard and his wife Anne made their way to Israel’s embassy in Washington, DC. They were admitted to the embassy compound, but after several minutes asked to leave.

Upon exiting, they were arrested by waiting FBI agents. Jonathan was charged with conspiracy to commit espionage and Anne was accused of unauthorized possession of classified documents; both were imprisoned. Anne was released after serving three years of a five-year sentence. Jonathan was sentenced to life without parole and, to date, remains in a federal prison.

Intelligence Leak

Jonathan Pollard was raised in South Bend, Indiana, in a staunchly Zionist family. While working as an analyst for the U.S. Naval Intelligence Service, he became convinced that the United States was reneging on its commitment to provide Israel with vital intelligence at a time of increased security threats to the Jewish state.

In May 1985, after protests to his superiors were cursorily dismissed, he made contact with Colonel Aviem Sella of the Israeli Air Force, then on sabbatical in Washington. Pollard offered to provide him with intelligence material that would then be transmitted to LAKAM, Israel’s Office of Scientific Liaison, headed by former Mossad agent Rafael Eitan.

Over the following months, Pollard provided Sella with more than 1,000 classified documents, containing information on Soviet arms shipments, Syrian missile technology, Iraqi chemical weapons production, Pakistan’s nuclear program, Libyan air defenses, and assessments of PLO forces.

jonathan pollard

Despite Pollard’s ideological motivation, Sella “corrupted” Pollard by giving him cash payments. Changes in Pollard’s spending habits aroused his superiors’ suspicions, and he was placed under surveillance. Fearing arrest, he notified Sella, who immediately fled the United States. Sella left no contingency plans for the Pollards.

Hayim Nahman Bialik

Hayim Nahman Bialik was born on January 9, 1873 in Radi, a small town in the Ukraine. When he was five, his father’s business failed and the family moved to Zhitomir, the capital of Volhynia. Two years later his father died and his mother, unable to support the family, handed the children over to other relatives.

Early Years

Bialik was raised by his grandfather, a wealthy businessman and religious Jew who imposed a strict Jewish education on his wild and undisciplined grandchild. By the age of 13, Bialik had the reputation of an ilui–an intellectual prodigy–and was consulted on questions of Jewish law. At 17, he left to attend the famous yeshiva at Volozhin. There, he wrote his first poems and became attracted to the secular-nationalist writings of Ahad Ha’am.

Bialik soon became a full-fledged Zionist and–without telling his grandfather–left the yeshiva in the hopes of attending university or a modern rabbinical seminary. Bialik traveled to Odessa–the center of the new, secular Jewish culture. There he met Ahad Ha’am, Moshe Leib Lilienblum, and other cultural Zionist leaders. He began publishing–one of his first poems was El Ha-Tzippor ("To the Bird"), a lyric of longing for Zion–and was soon recognized as his generation’s most promising Hebrew poet.

In 1893, Bialik returned to Zhitomir to marry Manya Averbuch and work for his father-in-law as a timber merchant. Alone in the forest for days on end, Bialik wrote prolifically. Alongside poems with pronounced nationalist themes, such as "Blessing of the Nation," he produced "Ha-Matmid," a depiction of a yeshiva student, in which Bialik worked through the theme of self-denial in pursuit of a higher ideal.

In 1897, after the collapse of the family business, Bialik moved to Sosnowiec, a town on the Prussian border, and from there, in 1900, back to Odessa. After working as a teacher and a merchant, in 1903 Bialik was appointed the joint editor of Ha-Shiloah, a Hebrew periodical founded by Ahad Ha’am. Following the first Zionist Congress of 1897, Hebrew poetry took on new importance, and despite the fact that most of his poems articulated not hope but grief and despair, Bialik was hailed as a prophet of Jewish nationalism.

City of Slaughter

In 1903, Bialik was commissioned by the Jewish Historical Society of Odessa to travel to Kishinev, a town in Bessarabia (now Moldova) where in the course of a three day pogrom 47 Jews had been murdered. His experience interviewing the survivors led him to write the epic "City of Slaughter," which reflects the poet’s bitterness at the absence of justice and the indifference of nature, but also attacks the Jews who had done nothing to defend themselves in the face of the violence. The poem reads:

To the graveyard, beggars!

Dig up the bones of martyred father and brother,

fill your sacks, sling them on backs

And hit the road

to do business at all the fairs;

advertise yourselves at the crossroads so everyone sees,

in the sunshine on filthy rags spread the bones

and sing your hoarse beggar song,

beg the decency of the world!

Beg the pity of goyim!

Eternal beggars!

Bialik’s criticism resonated with the Zionist goal of effecting a revolutionary transformation of the Jews into a proud, even warlike, nation. The poem circulated in Hebrew and Yiddish versions, as well as in a Russian translation by Revisionist Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky.

In these years, Bialik realized his full power as a poet, raising Hebrew lyric to the level of the great European romantic poets. Alongside "City of Slaughter" and other "poems of wrath," whose inflammatory tones influenced not only Zionists but a generation of Jewish Communist revolutionaries, Bialik composed poems about nature and lost love. Yet even his love poetry was marked by disgust and despair at the failure of passion:

I was innocent, no storm of lust

had fouled me

Till you came. I, foolish boy,

cast down at your feet, mercilessly,

my purity of heart and soul, the tender flowers of my youth.

(From Hungry Eyes, 1897)

Confession of Loss

In 1905, Bialik published "Scroll of Fire," a nine section experimental prose poem. The poem weaves Talmudic legends into a romantic allegory of national and personal trauma.

"Scroll of Fire" begins with a powerful depiction of the destruction of the ancient Temple, yet the poem was also inspired by the burning of Odessa in 1905, the memory of childhood fires, and an intense extramarital relationship. Drawing on a Talmudic legend and the Song of Songs, Bialik describes the words of the last surviving boy–a character representing Hope–to the only girl not to commit suicide in the wake of the catastrophe:

All my life my soul cried out to you in a

thousand voices, and in tens of thousands of ways,

crooked and invisible, fled from you to you

Even as a baby in the black of night, I saw

your beauty and covered your hidden light …

With the sorrow of a mother the golden light

of your eye rested on me … at night

like a weaned child on his mother’s lap

I made my love known and I waited.

"Scroll of Fire" is a confession of loss, and reflects Bialik’s ambivalence about his public role. It begins with a national catastrophe but uses this event to address deeply personal issues, and articulates the poet’s guilt about subordinating a greater issue to a merely–but more powerfully–personal event.

Bialik’s writing was influenced by many factors happening around him: the ambiance of the Russian Pale of Settlement, the new traditions of hasidism and haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), the Romantic Movement, ongoing anti-Semitism, and growing Zionism. His poetry was marked, perhaps above all, by the use of a sweeping array of Jewish sources, from the Bible, through Talmud and Midrash, to medieval and modern poetry. These sources were quoted and paraphrased, often ironically or in a misplaced context, to achieve artistic richness and to thrill an audience itself imbued with a deep knowledge of the tradition.

Bialik’s primary literary influence was the pioneer of Hebrew and Yiddish fiction, Mendele Mokher Sefarim (S.J. Abramowitz). The older writer shared Bialik’s experience of orphanhood and abandonment by his mother, and the two developed a close emotional bond. On the ideological front, Bialik was decisively inspired by Ahad Ha’am and his calls for a Jewish cultural renaissance. Some have argued that the poet’s creativity was stunted by Ahad Ha’am’s didactic, ideological approach to art.

Forays into Publishing

Bialik’s poetic output dropped off in 1906 as he focused on his publishing business. He began to collaborate with Y.H. Ravnitzky on Sefer Ha-Aggadah, a comprehensive compilation of legends culled from Talmudic and midrashic literature. The book was part of Bialik’s project of kinnus, or ingathering, an attempt to collect the fragments of Jewish literature from all countries of Diaspora. He believed they would bring about an emergent Jewish national consciousness.

But Bialik’s conflicted preference for the personal over the public found expression again during a visit to Israel in 1909. He tried to give readings of his more personal work, but audiences insisted on hearing his poetry of hope and national revival. The acclaim he received aroused the same bitter feelings evident in many of his poems. As he wrote to his wife from Jaffa, "The people regard me as someone worthy of respect, but I know that I am a nothing, a nobody."

Bialik’s despair grew. As he wrote to a friend in 1909, "Sometimes I think I’m going mad. I lack nothing, it seems, but I have no peace of mind. What is it? I don’t know. Big and little sins gnaw at me like worms. At night I don’t sleep. I’m worn out by ugly idleness, and I feel that I’m wallowing in a filthy pit." In "A Twig Fell” (1911), the poet is obsessed with death, seeing himself as a broken, useless twig, hanging from a branch.

Dramatic historical events of 1917-1920–the Bolshevik revolution, the Balfour Declaration, and pogroms that swept Eastern Europe in the wake of the First World War–prompted Bialik to leave Russia. He traveled to Berlin and in 1924 settled in Palestine.

Lasting Legacy

In Tel Aviv, Bialik reorganized his life. He reestablished the publishing house he had started in Odessa, served on the board of the Hebrew University and as the honorary president of the Hebrew Writers’ Union, and traveled to the United States as an emissary for the World Zionist Organization. He edited collections by the medieval Hebrew poets Moses ibn Ezra and Solomon ibn Gabirol, and he published poems, songs, and reworkings of biblical stories for children.

Bialik has influenced entire generations of Zionists, including tens of thousands who were exposed to his poetry as part of the Israeli school curriculum. He wrote Hebrew poetry at a time when it was far from clear that Hebrew would become the spoken language of the Jewish community in Israel.

His experiments in rhyme and meter–he pioneered free verse and prose poetry in Modern Hebrew–opened up possibilities for the future development of Hebrew literature, and his impact is felt in the work of almost every subsequent writer, from Agnon and Joseph Hayim Brenner through to Uri Zvi Greenberg, Natan Zach and Yehuda Amichai.

Although many of Bialik’s personal poems have been misinterpreted in the light of nationalist preoccupations, his power as a poet comes from the force of personal trauma that underlies his poetry’s national themes. He speaks for his exiled, traumatized people out of his own personal biography of abandonment and separation.

In 1934, Bialik published Orphanhood, a four-part recreation of his life’s greatest trauma: the loss of his mother and father. A few weeks later, on July 4, 1934, he died of a heart attack while visiting Vienna. His death was mourned by Jews around the world as a national tragedy.

Shabbetai Zevi

While faith in the coming of the messiah is a linchpin of Judaism, Jews have traditionally taken a patient, quietistic approach to their messianic beliefs. Since the devastation wreaked by false messiah Bar Kochba and his rebellion against the Romans, and the centuries of persecution caused by another messianic movement–Christianity–Jews have been understandably suspicious about anyone’s claim to be God’s anointed.

The rabbis of the Talmud went so far as to introduce specific prohibitions against messianic agitation, instituting the “three oaths” which prohibited any attempt to “force the end” by bringing the messiah before his allotted time (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 111a). Yet in the mid-17th century, belief in the false messiah Shabbetai Zevi spread like wildfire throughout the Jewish world, sweeping up entire communities and creating a crisis of faith unprecedented in Jewish history.

Shabbetai Tzvi was said to be born on the 9th of Av in 1626, to a wealthy family of merchants in Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey). He received a thorough Talmudic education and, still in his teens, was ordained as a hakham–a member of the rabbinic elite. However, Shabbetai Tzvi was interested less in Talmud than in Jewish mysticism. Starting in his late teens he studied kabbalah, attracting a group of followers whom he initiated into the secrets of the mystical tradition.

Shabbetai Tzvi battled with what might now be diagnosed as severe manic depression. He understood his condition in religious terms, experiencing his manic phases as moments of “illumination” and his times of depression as periods of “fall,” when God’s face was hidden from him. While at times of depression he became a semi-recluse, when “illuminated” he felt compelled to contravene Jewish law, perform bizarre rituals (ma’asim zari or strange acts), and publicly pronounce the proscribed name of God.

In 1648, Shabbetai Tzvi declared himself to be the messiah but did not make much of an impression on the Smyrna community which had become accustomed to his eccentricities. Nonetheless, the rabbis banished him from his hometown, and he spent much of the 1650s traveling through Greece and Turkey. He was eventually expelled from the Jewish communities in Salonika and Constantinople for violating the commandments and performing blasphemous acts. In the 1660s he arrived in Egypt via Israel. During this period he led a quiet life, displaying no messianic pretensions. The turning point in his messianic career came in 1665 as the result of a meeting with his self-appointed prophet, Nathan of Gaza.

Simon Dubnow

Jews today might struggle to understand a Judaism without either Israel or religious practice. But for the better part of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an array of diverse ideologies competed with Zionism and religion. Thinkers strove to create a non-Zionist, secular form of Judaism that eliminated God, Torah, and the Land of Israel as the exclusive bases of Jewish life.  One of the alternative foundations they proposed was History.  One of the most prominent of these thinkers was Simon Dubnow, a seminal Jewish historian and non-Zionist Jewish nationalist.

Rebellion Against Religion

Dubnow was born in 1860 in Belarus. Though he grew up in an observant family, Dubnow began reading literature associated with the Russian Jewish Enlightenment of the mid-19th century. These writings broadened his horizons and inspired him to rebel against religion. He set about teaching himself Russian and tried to acquire a secondary school diploma, which was needed to enter university.

Dubnow embraced a secular, cosmopolitan life. He moved in with his fiancée and rejected a religious wedding. He refused to attend synagogue on Yom Kippur, arguing that he could not pray to a deity he did not believe in, and barely managed to say kaddish at his father’s funeral.

But his allegiance to these values could not be sustained either. In his 20s, in the wake of the pogroms and anti-Jewish legislation of 1881-82, Dubnow lost faith in the doctrine of universal progress. In a climate of intensifying anti-Semitism, he found himself isolated, cut off from both Christian intellectuals and the traditionalist Jewish population.

This crisis catalyzed an ideological revolution. Dubnow became a Jewish nationalist. He came to believe that individuals’ connections to humanity must be mediated by their membership in a national group. As members of a nation, there was no need for Jews to accept the truth of religion. Instead, Dubnow held that the basis of Jewish identity was historical consciousness.

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