Has Zionism Failed?
Zionism: “Theory, plan or movement for setting up a Jewish national or religious community in Palestine.”
Movement: “A series of organized activities working toward an objective; an organized effort to promote or attain an end.”
Failure: “Omission of occurrence or performance; a failing to perform a duty or expected action.”1
Editor’s note: This article was written in the late 1980s. Statistics, conditions and political situations have changed. However, the basic questions the author examines are still relevant: Does Zionism work? Is it correct?
Those of us who are Jewish or supporters of Israel have a question to answer: “Has Zionism failed?” While linking “Zionist” to “failure” is a propaganda device of those who would deny Israel’s right to exist, even those most committed to Zionism are challenged to critically assess its failures and achievements. The World Jewish Congress admits,
There is a general sense that the Jewish goals and values Zionists hoped would flourish in a Jewish state are in an advanced state of erosion and are in danger of being permanently lost…Israel today—quite apart from the vital problems of peace and security—is a troubled, anxious and demoralized society.2
The question of failure arises only because the early Zionists did struggle to hold high ideals and hopes. The state of Israel has successfully been established in a fiery matrix of opposition. Zionist influence permeates every area of Jewish life and experience. It is a philosophy of life, a world view for which many are prepared to die. Tens of thousands have already done so.
One could hardly find a revolution that goes deeper than what Zionism wants to do to the life of the Hebrew people. This is not merely a revolution of the political and economic structure—but a revolution of the very foundations of the personal lives of the members of the people. (David Ben Gurion)3
With such a bold claim for the movement, and such endeavors as have already been undertaken to fulfill such hopes, our attitude toward Zionism is often seen as a barometer of loyalty to Judaism. For many Jews it may be that Zionism has become a substitute for religion. If that is so, we should not only ask, Does Zionism work? but Is it correct?
The Disaster and the Dream
It is better to dwell in the tents of Palestine than in palaces abroad. (Rabbinic saying)
Deed and dream are not as different as many think. All the deeds of men are dreams at first. (Herzl)
We must ask, why was Israel originally scattered? According to tradition, it was Israel’s transgressions that led to dispersion. The synagogue prayers speak of the lack of sacrifices in the Temple: “But, at present, on account of our sins, the temple is laid waste, and the daily sacrifice has ceased.”4
It was not the failure of Zionism but the failure of the Jewish people that created a need for the movement. To the secular-minded Zionist, the Temple meant little. But to the religiously motivated, the rebuilding of the Temple was the basis for their attitude.
Throughout the centuries, Jews in the Diaspora have entertained thoughts of a return to the land of our ancestors. Judah Halevi, the 12th century poet, expressed his longings for the land thus:
My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west—How can I find savour in food? How shall it be sweet to me? How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while Zion lies beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in Arab chains?5
Living in the Galut (Exile) was seen as a punishment that had to be endured and a pain that would never pass.
Messianism and Zionism
Until the 19th century, the Zionist hope was intricately linked to messianic expectation. The return to the land would come about only in the days of the Messiah.
When Bar Kochba failed to defeat the Roman legions in 135 C.E., the rabbis squelched messianic hopes of re-establishing a homeland. They preferred to seek appeasement of hostile powers and to prevent further tragedy which might be precipitated by another false messiah. Yet numerous messianic movements continued to spring up over the centuries, generating and reviving hopes of return, possession of the land and victory over oppressors. Rabbi David Kimchi’s picture of the Messiah (13th century) presents the restoration and purification of Jerusalem from pagans and the regathering of Jewish people.
Maimonides emphasized the coming of the Messiah as a political figure who would deliver our people from the rule of the gentiles. He de-emphasized the mystical aspects. But he could not prevent frequent rumors and speculation that the Messiah had (or was just about to) mystically initiated the program of world redemption.6
Catastrophes such as the excesses of the Crusades (1096 onward), the Black Death (1348) and the expulsion from Spain (1492) decimated the Jews of Europe. This sparked the setting of imminent dates at which the Messiah would appear to deliver our people. Then he would supposedly lead them in triumph back to Israel.
Sabbetai Zvi, David Reuben and other false messiahs won a following until their followers lost hope in the ability of these “messiahs” to establish a kingdom in the Holy Land.
The position of Jews gradually improved. Some acquired influence and social acceptance. Programs of education and welfare took the place of apocalyptic expectations. The real world and its possibilities intruded on fanciful interpretations of Scripture. Christian and Jewish philanthropists formed charitable societies for the amelioration of the condition of Jewish people, often with proposals for the establishment of a haven from persecution. The 19th century was an era that saw much improvement.
Numerous homelands were proposed for the Jewish people between the 17th and 19th centuries, including Surinam, Curacao, Missouri, Argentina, Ararat (New York), Uganda, Syria and Madagascar. Most suggestions were wildly impractical, but some wealthy members of the Jewish community, such as Sir Moses Montefiore, gave material aid to small communities of hopeful settlers in Palestine and Argentina. The optimism with which Montefiore and others were welcomed and the way their actions were interpreted as making way for a return to the land can be seen in the writings of Judah Alkalai of Semlin in Yugoslavia.7
When the Jewish community of Damascus was accused in 1840 of ritual murder, Montefiore helped rescue them. Rabbi Alkalai, a Kabbalist, interpreted this event as the arrival of the messianic era. He believed human intervention in possessing the land would effectuate redemption. He urged his followers to adopt a form of nationalism which would revive the Hebrew language and unite the Jewish people regardless of their degree of orthodoxy.
The Haskalah (Enlightenment), which brought secular education and emancipation to the Jewish communities of Europe, gave writers such as Moses Hess and Leon Pinsker a political and more pragmatic dimension expressing Zionist hopes. In “Rome and Jerusalem” (1863), Hess talked of a Jewish “national spirit” that could only be preserved when national life in a Jewish homeland had been reestablished. Just as Italy had been reunited in 1859 by Garibaldi, so Hess, influenced by the sweep of nationalism and the idealism of Hegel’s philosophy, urged that the “creative genius of the nation” be similarly expressed.
Leo Pinsker saw in events such as the pogroms that occurred in the wake of the assassination of Czar Alexander II (1881), an argument from necessity for the Jewish people to find a homeland. As some 2.6 million Russian Jews began to leave for America between 1881 and 1914, he published “Autoemancipation,” arguing that the only way Jews could cease to be foreigners and objects of xenophobia and judaeophobia was to establish a nation and a homeland of our own.
With various thought-groups on the scene, Theodore Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland, from August 29 to 31, 1897. Herzl had reported on the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew and an army officer. He was tried and found guilty of treason, then sentenced to life imprisonment on the flimsiest of evidence. This motivated Herzl to write a pamphlet entitled, “The Jewish State.” The combination of his journalistic skills and his gifts as an organizer to unite different streams of the Zionist movement made him the ideal candidate to communicate the vision of what could be achieved. Despite his proposal that the Jewish national homeland be established in several places other than Israel, he proved accurate when he wrote of the Congress in his diary,
Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word—which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly—it would be this: at Basle, I founded the Jewish State.…If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years and certainly in fifty everyone will know it.8
It is interesting to note that in attendance at some of these congresses was David Baron, a well-known Jewish believer in Jesus. He had seen the plight of those Jews who lived under threat of pogrom and persecution, and was representative of many Christians (Jewish and gentile) who had committed themselves to working for the re-establishment of the Jewish state. Herzl himself was friendly with another Christian Zionist, William H. Hechler, who gave inspiration and enthusiasm to Herzl’s writings, and was most helpful in arranging meetings on the diplomatic level with emissaries of the czar of Russia and the sultan of Turkey.
In the 20th century the events of two world wars brought the hopes of the Zionists to reality: the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the Holocaust, the destruction of one third of the world Jewish population. In 1948 Israel became a state!
(according to 1986 Government survey, Central Bureau of Statistics)
Jewish—3,560,000 (82.2 %)
Muslims—600,000 (13.8 %)
Christians—100,000 (2.1 %)
Population increase since 1985—67,000 (1.5%)
Birthrate—3.0 (last year 3.1)
Jewish birthrate—2.8 (same)
Immigration—9,300 (last year 10,600)
The desire of the early Zionists to establish a society of just and humane values needs to be measured against the situation in Israel today. There are visible tensions and conflicts which should be examined from a sympathetic yet critical perspective. Objectivity in such matters is practically impossible.
Jew and Arab
The Arab minority in Israel lives in better economic conditions than in many neighboring Arab states, and is certainly treated far more humanely than a Jew would be in an Arab land. Yet they suffer a degree of discrimination in political, economic and social life. David Ben Gurion wrote in 1918:
Palestine is not an unpopulated country. Within the territory that may be regarded as Eretz Israel.. . there is a population of slightly over 1 million.…By no means and under no circumstances are the rights of these inhabitants to be infringed upon—it is neither desirable nor conceivable that the present inhabitants be ousted from the land.9
Some Arabs lost their homes at the creation of the state of Israel; others abandoned them.
There are 630,000 Israeli Arabs (the majority Muslim) living in Israel. Seventy-five percent of them work as employees, and 25 percent are in the construction trades. The move to lower paid employment reinforces an economic divergence, and the average income of an Arab family is roughly 83 percent of a Jewish family’s.
Arabs make up 16 percent of the population but compose only 6 percent of the Knesset members. No cabinet ministers, Supreme Court justices, prominent business owners or industrialists are Arab.
The defense industry, a major employer, is closed to Arabs. For many it would mean a choice between family and country if they were allowed to serve, and the government is wary of giving them access to arms and classified information. Opportunities in secondary and university education for Arabs are limited.
The Arab population has difficulty defining its own identity. They live in Israel, yet, they are surrounded by hostile Arab states. They are mostly Muslim by religion, with a small number of “Christians,” yet they live in the midst of a Jewish majority.
Many Arabs in Israel stay within family and extended family groupings rather than fully integrating into the wider society. Ironically, this is the pattern followed over the centuries by Jewish communities living in hostile gentile environments.
Is Israel a “hostile” environment for Arabs? It is noteworthy that while he has the support of only a small extremist following, Rabbi Meir Kahane calls for the “repatriation” of all Arabs living in Israel. The majority of Jewish Israelis do not support Kahane, yet, his strident views have served to increase Jewish Arab tensions.
Secular and Orthodox
Another tension is between the majority of Israelis, who are secular and non-religious, and the minority of Orthodox Jews. The machinations of the minority religious parties, as well as the not infrequent scandals involving bribery and base dealing among Orthodox public figures, have produced a deep suspicion and cynicism among the many non-observant Israelis. Most Israelis consider army service a test of commitment to family and country. Some Orthodox cite “religious grounds” to avoid the compulsory army service. Such a lack of comradery between secular and religious Jews thwarts the hopes of the early Zionists that the nation would stand together as one.
Other Orthodox practices that cause disfavor and tension with the secular Israelis include a ban on travel during the Sabbath, the closing of movie theaters until after the Sabbath and the refusal to allow Israeli “daylight savings” time (one extra hour and increased productivity for farmers). The secular majority often feels manipulated by a small religious minority.
Conversely, the Orthodox have reacted to what they perceive as blatant materialism and decadence on the part of the non-observant. They have stoned cars driven through the Orthodox Mea Shearim district on the Sabbath and have burned down city bus shelters which carry advertisements which they deem unseemly (e.g. a woman in a bathing suit). In addition, the Orthodox have protested and in some cases prevented archaeological excavations at sites of religious and historical interest.
How does this square with the hopes of the early Zionists for a secular state where there would be religious pluralism and all would have freedom of religion or non-religion? The pattern of resurgent fundamentalism in Muslim countries demonstrates how often the tension between secular and religious world views can lead to a totalitarian regime. On the other hand, a secular backlash against those seeking to revive Torah observance could lead to an increasingly immoral, valueless and relativistic society. In retaliation to the bus-shelter incidents, a synagogue was destroyed by vandals.
Ashkenazim and Sephardim
The early immigrants to Israel were the Ashkenazim (Jews of European and Western origin). They have held the reins of command and greatly influenced the formation of the state and its institutions (schools, hospitals, banks, etc.). Yet the Sephardim (Jews of North African and Oriental background) are culturally closer to their Arab neighbors. As their proportion of the population increases through a higher birth rate, they are demanding a more favorable balance of power. A visitor to Israel might be surprised at how some services are performed quickly and efficiently, while others, such as mail delivery, are slow. Price changes are erratic and strikes frequent. This inconsistency, in part, is due to tensions between Eastern and Western thought.
Just as the early Zionists had difficulty organizing themselves into one coherent political party, so today the variety of colors on the political spectrum in Israel is dazzling. It encompasses every shade of political, economic and religious philosophy. While this is not a bad thing in itself, it does mean that the decision-making process is hampered by negotiations and compromises between and within the parties. The only issue on which there is general consensus is the nation’s security.
We must ask whether this fulfills the intention of the early founders. They would probably see the inertia in the political system as a failure to achieve a united vision and program.
The Peace Process
The formation of the state of Israel was not without severe obstacles. The opposition to her existence has increased, and now Israel is caught in a complex political web of those who support her and those who wish to see her destroyed. The PLO, the Arab nations and the Communist bloc nations have created formidable opposition, which from Israel’s perspective forces her to expend vast portions of her budget on developing and maintaining offensive and defensive military capabilities.
While allies supply some of the necessary funds and arms, relationships with them are delicate. Such a complex situation presents no hope for peace now or in the foreseeable future.
Secular Idealism and Prophetic Vision
The early Zionists were visionaries and yet realists. Somewhere in the struggle to form the state, part of the idealism was “postponed.” Social concern for the needy diminished. The democratic processes and political participation sought by those who did not have full rights in the Diaspora were never fully implemented. The harmony in national life planned by those who were once treated as foreign and unwelcome elements was not achieved. Had these goals been reached, Zionism might be judged to have succeeded. But according to their own high aspirations, too much has remained undone.
The prophets of Ancient Israel had a similar concern for the Jewish people of their day. Themes of justice, peace and freedom are found throughout the Scriptures. But there is an important difference between the ancient prophets of Zion and the modern Zionists. That is the involvement of God himself as Originator and Evaluator of all that takes place in the life of men and movements. The Zionists of the 19th century sought to establish a tolerant and pluralist society where religion was to be given freedom of expression. But faith in the God of Israel was never seen as the guiding force and fundamental truth on which the movement should be based.
Its vision was utopian, often derived from radical theories of man and society which left no room for God. Many held that the collective, the Kibbutz, or simply going back to the land would provide the solution for the social displacement of Diaspora.
Hebrew Scriptures teach that social problems are solved by the intervention of God and obedience to his standards. Salvation is understood as an act of God which is not only a political rescue mission but also affects social relations and renews personal faith.
To some, Zionism is seen as a form of salvation. But at best it is salvation for a land and relationship to a place. True biblical salvation is a relationship to God. Salvation must come by faith, not by fight. The prophets spoke of the high standards which the Torah set for everyday life, standards which have largely remained unmet. The prophets brought not just criticism and condemnation for these failures, but also the promise of forgiveness and the hope of a redeemer. This redeemer, the Messiah, would truly establish his kingdom in Zion and bring its citizens into harmony with one another. This would not come about through mere political means, but it was to be the result of God’s own initiative. Today that initiative is received in the salvation of God. Salvation includes the free gift of forgiveness, the new life with a new manifesto and a new vision. Where the Zionist movement may have failed, the God of Israel has guaranteed success.
Was Jesus a Zionist?
There were as many different political and religious parties in the first century as there are standing for election in the Knesset today. Historians mention Pharisees, Saduccees, Essenes, Hasidim and others. The Saduccees had compromised their national interests by uniting with Rome to preserve their own position. The Herodians, claimants to the throne, were usurpers, as the throne belonged rightfully to one of Davidic descent. That rightful claimant was Yeshua, or as he is commonly called, Jesus.
Some claimed that Jesus was a pacifist; others said he was a freedom fighter in league with the Zealots of his day. But close examination reveals that Yeshua saw the rule of God as being both a spiritual and a political reality in line with Hebrew Scriptures. Throughout his life Jesus (Yeshua) interacted with the Zionism of his day—that of the Zealots, who wished to revolt against Roman rule. One of his disciples, Simon (not Simon Peter), was a Zealot, and at one stage in Jesus’ life the crowd wanted to make him king by force. Yet he resisted the merely political interpretation of his messiahship. He wanted people to see the deliverance of the Messiah as transcending an earthly reign. His was the kingdom of Heaven—a spiritual salvation as well as a new freedom for the citizens of the kingdom of God. When men live in wrong relationship to God and to one another, it is not God who has failed.
Herzl was proclaimed the Messiah by the Bulgarian Jewish community in the 1890s. He wisely refused the title. When Yeshua was proclaimed the Messiah, he called for a true turning back to God, but he accepted the title “Messiah” and explained that his kingdom was not of this world. For those who know the reality of his program, there is comfort.
The early Zionists made tremendous sacrifices to see their views expressed and their programs put into effect. Yet, looking now at the results, many of them might say, “Yes, we believed in what we were doing. But for Zionism to continue successfully, this generation must also make similar sacrifices with even greater courage.” That is putting a great demand on those descendants of immigrants who were born into a movvement they had no choice in joining, with a philosophy they did not formulate for themselves.
The challenge for the present generation, now many years after the state’s formation, is not to be found in the secular thinking of the founders. To find the source of their hopes for the land and the people one must turn to the revelations of the prophets, and to see that these are in part fulfilled in the Messiah who has already come.
Even though most Zionists would deny it, it is good to know that God is the God of the Zionists. Although not acknowledged by many of those who shaped the movement, God shaped the shapers of the movement. When Herzl “boasted” privately that he had formed the Jewish state, he failed to see that it was God who formed Herzl and gave him his idealism. The early Zionists, though wary of orthodoxy, borrowed the language of Zion from the Scriptures. And if they would have looked more closely at the prophetic message they would have realized that they were simply playing a small part in God’s larger program of freedom for all of humanity through the Messiah.
1848-Paris Commune and other uprisings in Europe—many Jewish radicals involved.
1861-Conference of Rabbis and community representatives in Thorn, Germany. “Jewish company for the settlement of the Holy Land” formed (Zion Society).
1882-Leo Pinsker publishes “Autoemancipation,” urging Jews to seek a national home, preferably alongside the Jordan River.
1884-“Lovers of Zion” (Hibbat Zion) holds first conference.
1894-Herzl observes Dreyfus trial and is convinced of need for a Jewish national home.
1896-Jewish State” published. Influences Jews in Russia and some Christians.
1897-First Zionist Congress held in Basel, Switzerland.
1898-Herzl meets with Kaiser Wilhelm II in Jerusalem. No response
1902-Herzl meets with sultan of Turkey but is denied right to settle in Palestine.
1902-Government of Britain fails to support proposals Herzl brings for settlement in Cyprus and Sinai Peninsula.
1917-Balfour Declaration favors “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
1920-Mandate for Palestine assigned to Britain.
1948-Establishment of the state of Israel.
Editor’s Note: Richard Harvey is a British subject, the son of Jewish parents. He received his theological training at Bristol University and All Nations College. He frequently serves as spokesman for the messianic movement in England and is a lecturer at All Nations College.
- Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (G & C Merriman, 1977.)
- “Issues Facing World Jewry,” World Jewish Congress (New York: Heshel Shanks Publisher, 1981), 3.
- Lawrence Meyer, Israel Now (New York: Delacorte Press, 1982),15.
- Dr. A.T. Philips, editor, Daily Prayer Book (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company), section 3, p. 41.
- Heinrich Brody, editor, “Selected Poems of Judah Halevi” (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1952), 2.
- “Messianic Movements,” Encyclopedia Judaica Vol. 11 (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing, 1972), 1424.
- “Zionism,” Encyclopedia Judaica Vol. 16. (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing, 1972).
- Colin Chapman, Whose Promised Land? (United Kingdom: Lion Publishing, 1981), 43.
- Meyer, Israel Now 243.
Interim UK Director
Richard is a UK based-Jewish believer in Jesus (Yeshua) who has served with the Church's Ministry among the Jewish people (CMJ) and as UK Director of Jews for Jesus. He became a believer in Jesus in 1974 from a Liberal (Reform) Jewish background. He taught Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at All Nations Christian College, UK, and was Academic Dean and Director of Postgraduate Studies. He is a past President of the International Messianic Jewish Alliance (IMJA). His PhD was supervised by Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok and is published as Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology: A Constructive Approach (2009). He is now Senior Researcher with Jews for Jesus, and spends his time writing, teaching, training, mentoring and drinking coffee in UK, Israel and around the world. His most recent book “Luther and the Jews: Putting Right the Lies” (Wipf and Stock, 2017) is a timely contribution to the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. He is married to Monica, who is also a Jewish believer in Jesus, and has two children and three grandchildren. my story