No, Zionism has Nothing to do with Religion

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If you were to step back in time into early-nineteenth century European Jewry and told people that in about a century their descendants would enjoy political autonomy in their ancient homeland of Israel you would receive two very different reactions.
The secular Jews would have told you that you were crazy.
Why and how would Jews possibly return to their indigenous homeland? Why would they leave the progressive, comfortable, and luxurious streets of Europe and move out to a swampy wasteland ridden with disease and neglect? Plus, things in Europe are going great! This is the first time in history where Jews are truly accepted as equals in society. Our children and grandchildren will enjoy even more benefits and pleasures then we do today, soon they will be fully European.
Are you sure this won’t happen, you ask them. Yes, they reply, it’s an utter impossibility. Only a delusional fool would believe that we would ever leave our homes for that wilderness.
The Orthodox Jews would have a very different reaction.
Assuming they believed you, the Orthodox Jews would immediately break down into tears. 1,800 years we have waiting for the Messiah, they would say in between tears of joy, and now it will finally become a reality. All of the prophecies regarding the redemption, the return to Zion, the ingathering of the exiles, and the rebuilding of the Temple were correct all along! They would run home that night and pack bags to keep under their beds so they wouldn’t have to delay even a moment when the great Shofar blows and they are transported to the promised land on the wings of eagles.
What if the Jewish return to Israel was brought about not by God and the Messiah, but by secular Jews and politics, you ask? Impossible they say while trying not to laugh. The Torah, prophets, and rabbis have taught us in hundreds of places that only by returning to God’s ways can we be brought back to the Holy Land. And furthermore those atheists could barely tell you the first thing about Israel! Do you really think that they could possibly aid in its holy reestablishment?
One of the bigger misconceptions of Zionism is that its origins lay in fundamentalist religion urged on by delusional messianic impulses. That view couldn’t be further from the truth.
Early Zionists weren’t just irreligious, they were anti-religious socialists. These are people who had been trying for hundreds of years after the Enlightenment to shed their Jewish identity, replacing it with that of pure European. After all, historic European anti-semitism was almost entirely religious in nature. The Jewish rejection and subsequent “murder” of Jesus highlighted the fundamental immorality of the Jewish religion and set the foundation for a plethora of anti-semitic tropes throughout the middle ages.
But all that was back then, secular Jews in the nineteenth century argued. As both the Jewish and wider European community become increasingly secularized, all of this religious anti-semitic nonsense will soon stop. And these secular European Jews took advantage of this newfound freedom. They quickly rose to prominence in almost every facet of European society and never looked back. Relinquishing one’s Jewish identity was a reasonable price to pay for the freedoms that Europe would afford these secular Jews.
But they were still Jews. And we all know how this story ends.
As religious anti-semitism slowly morphed into racial anti-semitism, the secular Jews realized that even atheism and secularization wouldn’t be enough of a respite from Jew-hatred. It was then that these Jews slowly began to realize that Jews needed their own political autonomy to guarantee their freedom.
If the world won’t let us forget that we are Jews, then we must reclaim the fundamental essence of our Jewishness. A nation comprised of people spread throughout the world with a 3,000 year history going back to ancient Israel.
Meanwhile the Orthodox Jews were completely sidelined during these internal conversations. Many of them had never (both metaphorically and literally) left the ghetto walls long after post-Enlightenment European society had given them the thumbs up to do so. They never for a second considered giving up their Jewish identity regardless of the social and economic benefits that it would afford.
Given that they never attempted to assimilate into mainstream Europe in the first place, they didn’t experiences the radical shifts from religious anti-semitism, to perceived possible assimilation, then to genetic/racial anti-semitism as succinctly as their secular counterparts. At least not until it was already too late.
As the idea of Zionism began to spread throughout secular European Jewry in the early 20th century, the Orthodox leaders couldn’t have been more antagonistic. Zionism is the devil, an evil act that will bring about untold divine retribution (you can imagine how many of them explained the Holocaust), they said. In stride they forbade any of their followers from fleeing to Palestine. As European Jewry was about to burn to the ground, and the Zionists were busy rescuing as many Jews as possible into Palestine, the Orthodox leaders were hellbent on fighting Zionism and staying in Europe at all costs.
Again, we know how this story ends. The Holocaust wiped out nearly every corner of Jewish life in Europe, and it was only due to the foresight of these secular Jews that the few survivors even had a place to go. In the end many of the Orthodox Jews did ironically end up in Israel, where a large percentage of them continue to reject the fundamental idea of Zionism and the Israeli government until today.
So next time someone tries to pigeonhole Zionism as a fanatical religious movement, tell them that it is exactly the opposite. Zionism is a distinctly secular movement, a movement of Jews who realized that they have waited for God and the Messiah long enough, and that it was time to take their safety and future into their own hands.
    Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
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