Yakov M. Rabkin, Au nom de la Torah: une histoire de l’opposition juive au sionisme.

Quebec City: Laval University Press, 2004. 274 pages.

Have you ever wondered why, despite the controversial nature of contemporary Zionism, we hear so little criticism of it from the rabbis? It would appear from Professor Yakov Rabkin’s latest book that there is no shortage of criticism, just the lack of a common language between the rabbis and the media.

Rabkin has set out to demonstrate that a substantial number of rabbis have always had much to say about Zionism, the state of Israel and their relation to Judaism. He is admirably qualified to bring traditional Jewish attitudes to the attention of a wide public. Born and educated in the Soviet Union, he has taught Jewish and Soviet history at the University of Montreal for many years. He is also an Orthodox Jew with a wide range of contacts in Canada, the United States, Europe and North Africa, and he has sojourned for long periods in Israel studying, researching and talking with people from the religious and secular communities.


Au nom de la Torah has been well received in France, Morocco, Switzerland and French Quebec. Curiously, the book has not been noticed in English Canada. It is to be hoped that this will change with the appearance of an English edition, scheduled for the fall.

Readers interested in the tangled Middle East conundrum will want to know how traditional Jewish thinkers regarded and continue to view the Zionist enterprise. But Au nom de la Torah is not simply a survey of such views. Rabkin organizes Jewish commentary on Zionism into a number of categories and makes it available to academic scholars who might not be aware of its depth and complexity, while at the same time he enables the ultra-Orthodox writers to come to grips with the way academics deal with the subject.

Scholars in both camps have much to learn from each other. The ultra-Orthodox or haredi Jews live a somewhat isolated life, unfamiliar with how the media and academic researchers function and how to write for them. They may also be unaware how close their conclusions are to those of the “new historians” – that group of young and middle-aged historians, sociologists and journalists, mainly based in Israel, who have been challenging traditional Zionist historiography for close to 20 years. The new historians, for their part, tend to disregard rabbinical writing because it does not follow the customary academic rules and niceties. The general reader, on the other hand, will be fascinated by a variety of thoughtful views that rarely come to public attention. Thus Rabkin prepares the ground for a long-overdue public debate on the merits and consequences of Zionism.

In presenting the arguments of traditional Jewish thinkers, Rabkin shows why Zionism is not to be identified with Judaism. Zionism has adopted and transformed Jewish festivals and even the Hebrew language to bolster its claim to be an integral part of Judaism. But in the view of many scholars and Jewish religious thinkers, the Zionists have created a secular religion, antithetical to the tenets of traditional Judaism.

The religious opponents of Zionism do not oppose the desire of individual Jews to settle anywhere in the Land of Israel so long as the local authorities adopt a welcoming attitude, but they do oppose collective attempts to return to Zion. They consequently regard Jewish life in the Diaspora as perfectly valid until such time as the Messiah appears and leads the return. Diaspora Jews, they feel, should not mortgage their future on the uncertain fate of the present state of Israel.

Who are these non-Zionist thinkers? As the title implies, Au nom de la Torah is a Torah-based criticism of Zionism. But the word Torah does not refer only to the Bible. In Judaism, much depends on the interpretation of Sacred Writ as it emerged through the ages in the Oral Law, including more recent rabbinical responses to issues of the day. Rabkin does not attempt to survey the work of the new historians, although he often quotes from them to explain various developments in the history of Zionism. He chooses rather to focus on the four principal dissenting groups: the Shas (Sephardi Jews as organized in the well-known Israeli political grouping), along with the Lithuanian, Hasidic and Reform rabbis who have reacted adversely to Zionism from the time of its origins in the middle of the 19th century.

Secular Jews often dismiss the views of the religious opponents of Zionism, who they tend to assume are mired in a world view more in tune with the 18th century than with the world in which we live today. Although the Orthodox groups take different positions and make different accommodations (or non-accommodations) with Israel, there is a common approach with which all of them agree. Their rabbis hold that the Jews were expelled from the Land of Israel because of sins they committed. Until such time as God decides that the sins have been sufficiently expiated and sends the Messiah to lead the return to Zion, the Jews are to remain in exile. (Many religious Zionists continue to believe that theologically the Jews are still in exile, even if their ancestors have lived in Israel for several generations.)

Individuals are permitted to return so long as they lead exemplary lives, but Jews are not permitted to make any collective or organized attempt to hasten God’s work. Such activity will bring on further divine punishment as occurred in the unfortunate episode of the false messiah, Shabbetai Zvi, in the 17th century and as is now occurring in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The effect of Zionism, they argue, has been to distort traditional Jewish teaching and replace traditional Judaism with a secular Godless religion, which can only bring disaster on Judaism and its adherents. The religious dissidents regard the creation of the state as a form of idolatry, as is the current vogue of elevating the land into a mystical symbol of messianic redemption.

These attitudes may strike some readers as very strange indeed, but as Rabkin shows, they have emerged out of the Jewish Diaspora experience of at least 2,000 years, and as such they are an integral part of Jewish thought. Rabkin quotes extensively from the work of Jewish thinkers past and present, and their writings often reveal remarkable depths of insight and prescience. Take, for example, the following comment from Rabbi Amram Blau (1894–1974), the founder and leader of the Neturei Karta movement, as presented by his second wife, Ruth Blau (1920–2000), in her 1978 book Les gardiens de la cité: Histoire d’une guerre sainte. Blau was writing shortly after the Six Day War of 1967:

If the Zionists had had a modicum of common sense, they would have proposed to the Arab states that they join with the Arabs in a confederation which would include the Palestinians who would then have been able to recover their rights. We make peace when we are strong. And that is what the Zionists are at the moment. But they won’t do so because they are arrogant and refuse any concession. They prefer to put the lives of millions of Jews in permanent danger rather than see an Arab as president of such a confederation.

By this spectacular lightning war, they imagine they have won. Today, they are no doubt at the height of their power. But they have begun their decline. They will not be long in discovering all the problems that their conquests are going to bring them. The hatred of the Arabs will increase, and they will seek their revenge. The Zionists now possess hundreds of thousands of enemies within their borders. We are all of us here in very great danger.

How is it that despite the uniformity, consistency and weight of religious thinking that opposed a return to Zion, Zionism suddenly emerged? In Rabkin’s view, Zionism is an ideology that grew out of the 19th-century Emancipation movement and is associated primarily with his former compatriots, the Russian Jews. Whereas in western and central Europe many Jews were able to integrate into the life of the countries they inhabited, in imperial Russia Jews were not only denied the possibility of integration but were also subjected to vicious persecution and pogroms. Many secular-minded Jews joined the revolutionaries and adopted the violent measures that the latter employed against the Czarist police and army. But there were also many who joined the Zionist movement and imbued it with the doctrines and the militancy that they had absorbed from Russian revolutionaries. Rabkin has no difficulty in pointing to David Ben-Gurion and his comrades, as well as Vladimir Jabotinsky and his followers, who, he argues, set the basic tone, tactics and acceptance of violence in the Zionist movement, especially as it developed in Mandate Palestine.

Although the majority of Zionist settlers were secularists, and they were the ones who assumed the leadership roles, there were a number of religious people who immigrated during the Mandate period. Many of these were from the Mizrahi (= eastern in Hebrew, but also an acronym derived from Hebrew merkaz ruhani = spiritual centre) movement founded in 1904. And there were, to be sure, some religious Jews from the old Palestinian community who joined forces with them. These were people who sought a means of reconciling Judaism with the Zionist ideal.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who had immigrated to Palestine as early as 1904, continued the work of seeking to mesh Zionism with traditional Judaism in the hope of bringing the secular Zionists back into the fold – a hope that is yet to be realized – and founded a yeshiva (religious college) to promote his views. The Zionist leadership encouraged this approach, and in 1923 the British administration appointed Rabbi Kook to be Palestine’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi. While hardly a Mizrahi himself – he was a traditional and mystical Jew – Kook, in the often daring interpretation of his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, came to serve as an inspiration for the Mizrahi movement many years after his death. The Mizrahi rabbis wholeheartedly participated in the coalition governments after the founding of the state in 1948. Unlike the other religious movements, they encouraged their young men to serve in the Israeli army. They now call themselves the National Religious Party, and it is they who nourish the Gush Emunim and other right-wing settler groups in the Occupied Territories. These people are not a majority, even among Israeli religious Jews, but their messianic fervour and commitment make them a force to be reckoned with in Israeli politics.

It is not part of Rabkin’s intention in this book to discuss the reaction of Diaspora Jews to Jewish religious thought. But for the sake of the general reader, who may wonder how it is that Diaspora Jews seem to project a wall of solidarity with Israel while their traditional religion denies the validity of the Zionist state, Rabkin does provide a few explanatory remarks. He assumes that non-Jewish readers will understand that thousands of Diaspora Jews, secular as well as religious, were not in the least attracted to Zionism. However, Rabkin argues, the Zionist movement used the Holocaust and the overwhelming need to provide a shelter for thousands of survivors who could not or would not return to their countries of birth as a powerful tool to advance the Zionist cause. The Holocaust created a wave of support for Zionism among Jews and gentiles alike.

The change of heart was particularly striking among the Liberal or Reform Jews, who form the largest synagogue group in America. The Reform movement continues to support Israel, although a few of their rabbis do not, as Rabkin demonstrates in his book. But the fact is that today most Jews, both in Israel and the Diaspora, are not observant, even if some of them are nominal synagogue members. For these Jews, Zionism and the Jewish state represent their only link to Judaism. The traditional rabbis were right: for millions of Jews Zionism has displaced Judaism, and giving it up would sever their last links to the religion of their ancestors.

As the opponents of Zionism see it, the present situation is dangerous. Zionism is a negation of traditional Judaism for it ignores traditional Jewish ethics and morality. It is an outmoded ideology that has at its core a colonial mentality more appropriate to the 19th century than to the 21st. The rabbis believe that Zionism has utterly changed the character of the Jew, but not for the better. In its aggressive pursuit of more and more Arab land, Israel has brought on a desperate conflict with the Muslim world and exposes Jews everywhere to a new form of anti-Semitism. By claiming to represent and speak for Diaspora Jews, Israel makes Jews vulnerable to charges of dual loyalty. But worst of all it endangers Jewish lives at home and abroad; it threatens to bring on a series of wars that endanger not only Israel itself, but also the Middle East and parts of the surrounding world. The traditional rabbis point the way: the Zionist state must be dismantled. Jews could continue to live in the Holy Land, but as cocitizens, not as masters of the Palestinians.

Au nom de la Torah is an academic book, accessible to general readers with some knowledge of the subject. There are plans afoot to have it translated into Spanish and Italian as well as English. This is to be welcomed because the book brings together and presents several threads that are not easily available to English-speaking readers interested in the Middle East conflict. Although many books and articles have been written on Zionism, the ordinary reader will find it difficult to locate informed critiques of the subject. Since the average reader is not familiar with all the terms, institutions and movements referred to in the book, it would be useful in subsequent editions to expand the glossary to include brief accounts of the principal trends within Judaism.

Of course, many readers will not accept the conclusions Rabkin presents in his last chapter. We know that independent states do not willingly agree to their own dissolution. But Au nom de la Torah will force many Jews to come to terms with the contradictions between the religion they profess to believe in and the ideology that has in fact taken hold of them. Professor Rabkin is to be congratulated for explaining to us why Zionism is not identical with Judaism.