Zionism and the Battle over Judaism

Eliyahu Stern Examines Zionism’s Roots at Rogoff Memorial Lecture

While Zionism has been interpreted in many different ways, it is generally understood as a form of Jewish nationalism promoting the formation of a Jewish nation in the land of Israel. However, in a February 25 talk titled “Zionism and the Battle over Judaism” delivered at Yeshiva University’s annual Hillel Rogoff Memorial Lecture, Dr. Eliyahu Stern questioned a view of the movement he felt was becoming all too common—that an ideology formulated by Jews must be Jewish.

Dr. Eliyahu Stern
Dr. Eliyahu Stern offered an in-depth look at Zionism’s roots at the annual Hillel Rogoff Memorial Lecture.

“In recent years it has become fashionable in both academic and political circles to attribute religious, messianic origins to the modern Jewish nationalist movement called Zionism,” said Stern, a graduate of both Yeshiva College and YU-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and an assistant professor of modern Jewish intellectual and cultural history at Yale University. Citing scholars such as Columbia University’s Gil Anidjar, who see racial overtones in a movement founded on religious principles, Stern said, “The assumption behind Anidjar’s claims is a kind of guilt by association—since Zionism draws on religious motifs, either Jewish or Christian, its goals must be inherently messianic, and thus exclusionary, anti-ethical and racist.”

In a lecture that delved deep into 18th and 19th century Jewish European history, Stern sought to link Zionism instead to three polarizing religious movements that directly preceded it—Hassidism, Mitnagdim [opponents of the Hassidic movement] and Haskalah [European Jewish Enlightenment]. According to Stern, the vicious and constant clash of these sects produced a crisis for Eastern European Jewry. “While Jews grew hungrier by the day with few viable professional or economic opportunities on the horizon, religious leaders buried themselves in their books and engaged in esoteric debates,” he said. That galvanized early Zionist leaders like Peretz Smolenskin and Moshe Leib Lilienblum to search for a new model of Judaism that would unite the Jewish community in addressing its pressing and very real day-to-day needs rather than lofty religious debate.

“Zionism’s battle against Judaism was never a battle against Judaism per se,” said Stern. “Rather, it was a battle with the battles over Judaism that engendered denominational factualism and prevented Jewish leaders from directly addressing people’s daily concerns. Smolenskin and Lilienblum transformed the religious aspects of Judaism from ends in themselves into a means of establishing a national identity—the religion of Israel was an instrument in the service of the nation of Israel, not vice versa.”

Stern added, “It is dishonest to ignore the socioeconomic, sexual, racial and ethnic inclusiveness of Zionism and Western secularism over the religious and political entities they replaced. By rejecting the claims and debates of the rabbinic tradition, Lilienblum and Smolenskin were able to establish the conditions necessary for a political movement that could address the economic crisis and create a cohesive, inclusive national body politic, containing not only European Jews but Christians as well as people from India, China and others who embraced Mosaic values.”

“If there’s anything foundational for 21st century Judaism it’s Zionism, and it’s our obligation to make every effort to understand it, because Zionism is where religion, nationalism, culture and identity all come together for the Jewish people,” said Dr. Jerome Chanes, a senior research fellow at the Center for Jewish History at the Graduate Center of City University of New York, who attended the lecture.

Racheli Berger, a sophomore and member of Stern College for Women’s S. Daniel Abraham Honors Program, felt the context Stern provided was especially important for YU students. “It’s something a lot of people feel inherently passionate about because of their upbringing and background and it’s important to see these issues from other perspectives,” she said. “This was an angle on religious Zionism that was extraordinarily different from anything I’ve seen before, and I think that’s significant because it can open up new conversations.”

So does Stern.

“The secularization process of Zionism offers a political model that has the capacity to overcome, not the weight of Jewish history, but the inevitability of religious clashes and eternal religious wars whose only end is apocalypse,” he said. “The founders of Zionism hoped that it would help overcome the deep fractures in world Jewry, but most importantly for our times, it remains Israel’s most viable path towards a more peaceful Middle East.”

The lecture is named for Hillel (Harry) Rogoff, an alumnus of Yeshiva University and longtime editor of The Jewish Daily Forward. It was established in 1971 through the efforts of the late YU English professor and administrator David Mirsky and members of the Rogoff family.

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