The Rise of Political Judaism

I know what you’re thinking: who’s the guy with the awesome beard? It’s Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (better known simply as ‘the Rav’). Living between 1865 and 1935, Kook was the first chief rabbi of the pre-state Jewish Yishuv in Palestine. Today, however, Kook is perhaps best known as the founder of ‘religious Zionism’, the ideology of Israel’s West Bank settlers (although Kook’s son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, was more important in shaping this movement’s contemporary focus on settling the West Bank– but he didn’t look as awesome).

In this piece I want to briefly discuss the importance of religious Zionism in the context of today’s Middle East. On the one hand, the ideology of Israel’s settlers is of course one of the most important factors in determining the chances of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. But on the other hand, the advent of political Judaism also signals a much broader trend, one that can be witnessed today from Iraq to Syria to Turkey: the victory of political religion over secular modernism. This is the element I want to discuss here.

Considering the nature of religious Zionism, the first thing to note is that in an important sense it’s an unlikely ideology. This is because its two component parts — Jewish religion and Jewish nationalism — are historically polar opposites.

Zionism (i.e. Jewish nationalism) was originally a strictly secular (indeed largely socialist) affair. In this respect, Zionism should be placed in the context of other European modernist ideologies of the late 19th century, e.g. Kemalism. As such, Zionism aimed to liberate the ‘Jewish nation’ from its ancient religious ancestry and put it on the technological path set forth by the European Enlightenment. Thus early Zionism was characterized by its own secularist propaganda, trading on narratives of downtrodden Shtetl Jews reformed into farmers and soldiers founding a commune-based utopian society. It is hard to overestimate how large a revolution Zionism presented for Jewish culture in this regard: from religious to secular, from urban to agricultural, from diaspora to sovereign nation, from weak intelligentsia to strong ‘nation of the land’.

Jewish religion, in turn, was historically staunchly anti-nationalist— indeed to a large degree it still is today, with most of ultra-orthodox Jewry being non-Zionist or anti-Zionist (even if such communities reside in Israel). There are various grounds for this traditional anti-nationalism (apart from the belief that only the Messiah can rebuild the Jewish kingdom, which really is a symptom of Jewish anti-nationalism, not its cause).

First, of course, Jews historically had every reason to oppose nationalist movements, benefiting instead from multicultural ideologies like non-nationalist monarchism (such as that of the Austrian-Hungarian empire) or later socialism. But a second and more interesting factor lies in Judaism itself.

Judaism is characterized internally by two almost contradictory ideologies, one formed in the Jewish diaspora (paritcularly the early diaspora of the Babylonian exile), the other based in the Davidic monarchy and Temple cult that characterized the period of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel between the 10th century BCE and the 1st century CE.

On the diasporic ideology, Jews are continually reminded that they are a minority living among larger, more powerful nations, and consequently admonished to place their faith in a transcending G’d rather than any earthly power. In this trend fits, for example, the Jewish ridicule of any religious cults centered on physical objects or places. Similarly fitting in this trend is the Torah’s hesitant approach to Judaism’s own monarchy, exemplified by G’d’s having to be explicitly persuaded into appointing a king over his people, and his subsequent rejection of the first Jewish king Saul.

Belonging to the ‘Jewish sovereignty’ ideology, in contrast, is Judaism’s focus on the Davidic monarchy, and the associated notion of a ‘Messiah’. In contrast to Saul, G’d is represented as loving David and Solomon, as well as the faithful among their successors. Indeed the notion of a Messiah is explicitly intended as a promised return of the family of David to a sovereign Jewish throne over the Land of Israel. Likewise, G’d himself is often spoken about as a King, and it is no coincidence that this focus on a single Redeeming Ruler took on such significance in Christianity. Part of this ‘Jewish sovereignty’ trend is also the land-oriented nature of parts of Judaism, which focus, for example, on the physical place of Jerusalem or agricultural events for which there are sacrifices at the Temple. (The ‘diasporic’ counterpart to this part of ‘Jewish sovereignty’ Judaism is the rabbinical tradition, which focuses not on sacrifices and agriculture but debate and prayer).

So how does this bifurcation in Judaism reflect on religious Zionism? There are two points I want to make here.

First: while historically an unlikely combination, in fact the rise of religious Zionism should have been expected from the very rise of Zionism itself. It was the diasporic position of the Jewish people that gave prominence to the corresponding diasporic element of Jewish religion. As such, the return of Jewish political and military power naturally pressed to the fore the ‘Jewish sovereignty’ streak in Judaism, making it seem more relevant than its diasporic alternative, and more feasible than it had been in the past.

Second — and this is the trend that has a much wider arc than merely Judaism — it is telling (and perhaps should have been foreseen) that the age-old archetypes of Judaism are beginning to take precedence over the novel 19th century archetypes of secular Zionism. The sorts of modernism and optimism that underlies secular Zionism have come to seem quaint, naive and unrealistic in today’s age, where the millennia-old images of Judaism are classical and in this sense timeless.

This rise of religious motifs over secular ideologies is the phenomenon that we see not merely in Israel and Judaism, but throughout the Middle East and even beyond: modernist ideologies hatched in the 19th century have come to seem like fantastical caricatures, which it is hard to imagine people ever believing at all. In this way, communist visions of a ‘workers’ paradise’ seem naive and their consequences often brutal, just as Kemalist visions of a Westernized Turkey seem almost absurdly insensitive to native customs and beliefs.

It is also the transition from modernism to political religion that in many ways explains the events in the Middle East, from the demise of the secular Ba’ath party in Iraq and Syria to the protests in Istanbul. In all these cases, the broader, more rural population that really never quite followed the modernist ideology of the urban elites is returning in force to the religious ways of thinking that sustained it for centuries. Meanwhile, the former ‘true believers’ of the secular modernist ideologies no longer support their former world-views, and are stuck in a no-man’s land between the resurging religiosity of the wider population and their minority position of liberal consumerism. This demise of secular ideology, beyond anything in Erdogan’s authoritarian politics, is what is playing a role in pushing Istanbul’s educated elites into Taksim square.

A final word in this regard is due to the West’s liberal elites: they, though not in any individual or self-conscious sense, are responsible for abandoning the secular modernisms that sustained much of the progress of the early 20th century. There is much to say against ideologies like Kemalism, secular Zionism and Socialism, including sometimes brutal results and a lack of realistic sentiment. But what they did represent were attempts at real-world projects intended to actually guide societies. In contrast, the relativism, ironic skepticism and apathy that have shaped the post-WW II abandonment of these ideologies (and which remain prominent today) serve more as free-wheeling thinking-for-thinking’s sake on the part of Western elites. What is the political point of ‘deconstructing’ notions like nationalism and tradition, celebrating pre-technological ‘native cultures’, or fostering ‘feminist literary critiques of dogmatic power structures’? What real-world projects are going to be guided by these perspectives?

The answer, of course, is none. These are ideological fantasies hatched by today’s academies, while the rest of the world is in a process of reverting to age-old religion, to everyone’s detriment.

[One more note that may be of interest. The way Kook and religious Zionism in general managed to unite Zionism and Judaism (and indeed place Judaism at the heart of modern Zionism) is quite interesting. There is a traditional tension in Judaism between the strictness of its teachings and the desire to give ordinary people access to G’d. In many ways Christianity is a product of this tension. What Kook did was ‘come down from the religious mountain’, so-to-say, and embrace the secular Jews who came as Zionist settlers. Still today, this is what makes religious Zionism popular: that unlike ultra-orthodox Jewry it does not judge and abhor ordinary, secular Jews, but provides them an appealing path to more religiosity.]


One thought on “The Rise of Political Judaism

  1. Pingback: Evaluating the Military Argument Against the Two-State Solution? |

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