Israel Mattuck, 09 June 1917

It is only fair when endeavoring to make up one's mind about a Movement to seek for its meaning in the utterances of its leaders and adherents from the earliest to the latest of them. When in consonance with this idea we seek the meaning of Zionism, we are met with a great diversity of ideas, sometimes wholly incompatible, sometimes even mutually antagonistic, which threaten to submerge one in a sea of confusion. This diversity is not altogether a weakness, it is in one sense a sign of the living character of the Movement, towards whose life and force many diverse currents are making contribution. This diversity also broadens the area from which the Movement may draw its adherents. But it is, therefore, nonetheless confusing to the outsider who would like to know exactly what the Movement stands for, and what his attitude towards it should be. Furthermore, any discussion of the foundations and aims of the Movement must be incomplete, since it is impossible to take into account all the ideas that constitute it in a compatibility and even antagonism. But I have set to myself this afternoon the task of discussing only one part of the Movement - its theory. It is true that discussion of its theory cannot be quite separated from the history and still less from the aims of the Movement; yet within the scope of a sermon, it is not -possible to discuss anything more than one part at a time, and that inadequately. There is a special reason why we here are interested in the theory of Zionism.

This was the ground upon which Reform Judaism of the last century opposed the Zionist Movement. Many questioned its practicability, but the official attitude of Reformed Judaism was that the theory of Zionism, as then expounded, was out of accord with the fundamental ideas for which Reform Judaism stood. Liberal Judaism, in a sense, continued Reform Judaism, yet in another opens up new paths through which its adherents seek to come to an understanding of the relation of the Movement to itself. Moreover, in common with all Jews we must learn to understand the foundations of a movement which, up to a short time ago may have seemed remote from practical results, but now appears very near the achievement of its object, having been removed from the realm of hope to that of political activity, in order that each might know whether to help, hinder or be independent. There is more involved in the realisation of the hopes entertained by a small section of Jewry. The whole destiny and even existence of Jewry and Judaism are involved. The theory upon which the movement is based may ultimately prove to have been a very poor index, as to what the meaning of that movement in practice may be, yet it is the only indication we have, so our judgment will very largely have to be formed upon the merits and demerits in that theory.

Zionism in one sense is a very old, idea, as old as the time of the first exile, when the Jews, for the first time removed from their national home, gave experience through their -prophets, of a longing and desire to return to that home, and to re-establish the national life. Such a restoration of the Jewish commonwealth was to them and to the exiles of later times a religious hope. It was the necessity for the full expression of the religious life that was in them, and the condition for the establishment of the religious destiny of the Jews. They could not in their own minds fully worship the God of Israel, or to achieve the aims which He had ascribed to Israel, elsewhere in the land where the cradle of nationality that religion had been nurtured.

This ancient Zionism, or religious Zionism, contributed nothing to the foundation of modern Zionism. The man who was most responsible for the modern movement – Herzel – was far removed from any association with the religious ideal of the Jews as expressed in their prayers or in their ancient literature. It was the outburst of anti-semitism in France at the time of the Dreyfus trial that led him to think about the Jewish position and finally produced the pamphlet in which the beginnings of the Zionist movement were made. Similarly, his predecessor, to whom Zionists now refer as one of the precursors of their movement, Yeopinska – was influenced by Russian Pogroms in 1881. Both these men felt so little the spirit, even if they may have possessed the knowledge of the centuries old religious hope for the restoration of Zion, that in their plans, it was not particularly Palestine which was to form the future home of the Jews, but any country where an autonomous state, secure in its rights, could be established. The movement was in its origin not in the least idealistic, it was purely a political and economic movement, based upon the idea that the establishment of an independent Jewish nation would so raise the status of the Jews all over the world as to remove the disabilities under which they were suffering and to combat anti-semitism. And though later Herzel did come to think that the work of the Zionists should be directed towards getting Palestine, not be content with any other land, the movement did not, during his life time, lose the character of seeking merely political and economic solution of the Jewish problem.

The movement, however, received support from the spirit of nationalism which had swept over Europe some decades before the end of the last century, the spirit which roused the national selfconsciousness of the diverse peoples in Europe which produced anti-semitism, and at the same time turned the thoughts of many Jews in the direction of Jewish nationality. It was partly this thinking under the influence of the spirit of the times and partly the views of the anti-semites, that has caused some among the Jews to adopt the views of the Jews for a separate nationality.

This far the movement was purely secular. In its political and economic aims or in the support it received from the national movement in Europe, it could claim no religious sanction, nor held forth any religious aims, but once it was established, religion did not come to take part in it. It was religion that was responsible finally for turning the Zionist movement into a movement for the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine and not elsewhere. In the western world, many of the adherents to traditional Judaism saw that the only chance of the preservation of Judaism was in the return of the Jews to their ancestral home. Considerations and conditions of western life, the ideas which permeated in the intellectual and social atmosphere made against many of the elements in that tradition, particularly against its observances. In their mind and from their point of view there was no chance of Jews remaining loyal to Judaism as they conceived it in the western countries. There were others who thought they saw, and perhaps rightly, great spiritual poverty among the Jews of the world. In the west that poverty was due to indifference, to the complete abandonment of the Jews to the enjoyment of the rights which emancipation had brought them, and to the use of these rights for the attainment of material objects. In the East the Jewish spirit was being cowed and weakened, and in its creative powers extinguished by constant oppression. Jewry needed a spiritual regeneration. The force that would produce it could come only from the ancient centre of Jewish life where the law and prophets were born, where the ideals that first gave Judaism its character and Jews their destiny, were expressed, where Israel once lived as a nation.

Though this sketch of the elements of Zionism is very brief and inadequate, it will yet reveal a variety of values. The original purpose, for example, which was in Herzel’s mind, has we think, now been achieved in altogether different way. The Russian Revolution had probably brought a solution of the Jewish problem whose centre was in Russia. Though we cannot speak of this with certainty, yet all indications point in this direction. This, too makes it easier to consider Zionism on its own merits. Undoubtedly in the early part of its course and perhaps more so latterly, many supported it not because of agreement with its theories and ideas, but because they thought they saw in it a channel of escape, for the Jews in Russia and elsewhere,, who were oppressed, from their miserable lot. The Zionist movement was to them a sort of philanthropic effort, and as such they gave it support. The removal of the need for such philanthropic efforts, regardless of the fact whether it was even a very worthy or practical one, does simplify matters considerably; so that Zionism must stand or fall by the truth or falsehood of the ideas for which it stands, and the intrinsic value in the aims which it sees.

It is quite evident that the fundamental idea in Zionism is that of Jewish nationality. At first it seemed that that nationality was looked upon as an aim or an ideal rather than as an actuality, that it was necessary to create such a nationality in order that Jews throughout the world might come to possess a national character, even like the people among whom, or with whom they dwelt. But under the influence of the Jewish nationalists, and more particularly later under the influence of world events, it has come to emphasise Jewish nationality as an actual fact which is now a bond uniting all Jews over the world. The theory of Zionism is, therefore, that the Jews are a nation scattered over the face of the Globe, a nation without a home, and that this homelessness is making for the disintegration of Jewry.

Upon what grounds do they rest this belief or assumption that the Jews are a nation? We might expect that the Zionist would go to some pains to tell us why he thinks the Jews of the world even now do constitute a nation. It is not only physical facts that makeup a national existence, for we find Jews divided in their allegiance with one or another of the many national groups and find them readily fighting one against the other, each for the cause of his own particular nation. There are plenty of vague affluxions to this question, but they do not help us vary much. And I notice that all the Chairmen of the Federation of English Zionists could say to support his claim that the Jews were a nationality was that the consciousness of the Jewish people themselves was shared by non-Jews. I think he should have turned it around and said the feeling of some non-Jews to the Jews of a separate nation was shared by the Zionists. For the consciousness of separate Jewish nationality does not exist in those countries where the Jews, because of legal restrictions, have been made to live spiritually, socially and economically separated from the rest of the people in that country where, in short, there have been Ghettos; and the Jews, there being kept apart from the others, being refused the rights which went with the nationality among which they lived, were not by their own consciousness, but by unjust and cruel oppression, made to feel themselves separate; but in the countries where they have been emancipated, there is not among those who for a few generations have lived in emancipation, a consciousness of separate nationality. And the dogmatic statements of the Zionist, even though separated by the anti-Semites will not alter the fact.

But sometimes Zionists speak vaguely of history and of hopes which mean the evidence of Jewish nationality. It is many centuries since the Jews were a nation, and when they were, that which held them together was not any of the appurtenances of national organization, but rather the force of a common religion. They have not been an independent nation for well-nigh 2,500 years, while their whole national existence was something like 400 years. Whatever of nationality they may have learned in the early part surely must long ago have been forgotten. But the national element in Jewish history is the least part of it. And as for their hopes, how much of national ambition enters into them depends, as we have seen, how many of them are Zionists, and when the Zionist speaks of Jewish hopes being the evidence of Jewish nationality, he is but speaking of himself. That is too often his error that makes his consciousness and his hopes stand for a consciousness and hope of all Jewry.

How then shall we explain the feeling of the Jewish unity which is in all Jews? After all we do find in ourselves the feeling that we are bound to the Jews of all the world. A great factor in this, that is in creating and maintaining the Jewish unity, is the Jewish religion. For though there may be varieties in religious views and ideas, there still remains the spirit of religious unity which binds together all sections of the Jews. And the Liberal Jew of Western Europe and America, though he may in many ways differ from the Jews of Galicia or Poland, yet feels a conscious bond of religious belief and religious hope that makes the two equally members of Israel, and both alike feel the glory and the power of Israel’s spiritual tradition, both alike feel the greatness of the destiny for which Israel has been called.

There are some who are incapable of appreciating this binding or uniting force of religion. They speak derisively of those who separate, who denationalize Judaism and make it into a religious cult. In this they betray their incapacity to gauge the strength or sweep of religious facts; religion to them is a cult. Poor people that still live religiously in primitive times when religion meant only rites and practices; and religious fellowship and religious brotherhood, they cannot understand. Religion, as the interpretation of life in ideal tongue, and as the guide of life towards the realisation of ideal values, such a conception is beyond their horizon of thought! They know the meaning of nationality, but they do not, except there be a law that despite their much lip service to ideals will show the force of religion, comprehend; and therefore the possibility of Jewish solidarity being based upon a common religion has no meaning for them.

It is only fair to point out, however, that some of their own associates are endeavouring to point out to them that the basis of Jewish unity is their religion. The Jews, they say, are not like other nations, their nationality rests upon none of the factors politically or geographically upon which other nationalities of the present world are based, but Jews as a nationality do not fit into any of the modern categories because theirs is an ancient existence – they are a religious nation. Now, in ancient times all nations were religious in the sense that religion and nationality were co-extensive. Babylonia with its citizens of Babylon were also adherents of the Babylonian religion: Greece with its citizens, the Greeks, were also adherents of the Greek religion, and also the Jew was an adherent of the Jewish religion. But that was in ancient times; we live in modern times.

If you admit that the basis of Jewish nationality was their religion, why nationality at all? Is it not after all saying that religion is the force which unites them? And when we say that, we eliminate certainly the need for another bond, and in the case of the Jews, the existence of it. This religious bond has been in the past, and probably will for some time to come be reinforced by some of the facts of Jewish history, and some of its unpleasant facts. The memory of the hardships and oppressions in the life of the Ghettos, which the Jews were for a long time made to endure, because of their religion, has welded them together, and left in their memories a bond of unity. That is the explanation of the (to use a common expression) Jewishness of many or of some who would deny that they in any way accept the Jewish religion or adhere to it. They have been brought up in Ghettos, or they have inherited memories of the Ghetto life and of its hardships, and these are responsible for the survival in them of a sense of Jewish unity, which, however, by itself must soon die out, and is even now not strong enough to make these men in every way loyal to the Jewish people. It is upon the religious bond that our faith, the future spirit of Jewish solidarity, must rest.

Whether that bond will be strong enough or not will depend upon the loyalty of individuals to the Jewish religion. So long as Jews are steadfast in loyalty to their faith, so long will they remain loyal to the Jewish people, so long will all feel the common bond which unites them. The idea of nationality apart from its intrinsic error holds no promise for the future of the Jews, but that of a weak ineffective national existence for a small fraction of them, while the large number of them are left in the world thence to choose between remaining for all time aliened or separated from the Jewish people. By so much as religion is greater than nationality, by so much as it is more comprehensive, by so much as it is universal while nationality is local, by so much will religion be a stronger and more effective bond to unite the Jews and a greater force to cause them to persevere.