Modernity burst onto the stage of history some three hundred years ago, when free thinkers of all stripes—philosophers, revolutionaries, political leaders—struck blow after blow at the traditions of the past. They strove for a future in which humanity would slough off the heavy burdens of history, including the ones imposed by the faith of generations. The Enlightenment included a specifically Jewish strain, the Haskala, and among the targets of Jewish intellectuals was the Jewish tradition. At the forefront of this revolt against Jewish history were the Zionists.
Zionism was a modern ideology. As Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, once noted, the Zionist revolution was different from the American, French, and Russian revolutions because whereas revolutions are generally mass, popular movements against oppressive regimes, Zionism was a revolution of Jews against themselves. Long before Zionists waged a military struggle against the rule of a foreign power, they waged a cultural struggle against the rule of the past. And indeed, some of the main Zionist thinkers saw Zionism as a Jewish revolt against Judaism.
But not all did so, and those who did, did not do so fully. There was another side to Zionism, which became clear during the argument over the Uganda Scheme—the Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl’s proposal to build a Jewish national home somewhere other than the Land of Israel. At the root of the fierce resistance provoked by the plan was the demand that Jews not surrender their ancient land to establish a new state. The resistors’ insistence expressed an additional undercurrent in the Zionist ideology: the desire of a people to return to its past. And that undercurrent also found expression in the daring project to revive the Hebrew language, a development that reflected the Zionists’ desire to resurrect their ancient national past, a project that was virtually unparalleled in human history.
Zionism, therefore, is both a revolt against the past and a return to it. This tension underlies all that is enigmatic in the Zionist mindset. The Zionists sought to complete their disconnection from tradition in the Land of Israel, of all places. And the banner they wanted to raise in their revolt against religion was to be in their ancient, sacred language.
Human experience is replete with relationships that are based on conflicting emotions. Some couples have tempestuous relationships in which feelings of attraction and rejection coincide. This is precisely the nature of Zionism’s relationship with Jewish history. It embodies a revolt against the past alongside a resurrection of the past. Revolution, alongside renaissance. The unreconciled tension that comes from the polar ends of Zionist identity and consciousness creates the movement’s cultural electricity.
The Zionists’ fervor produced a revolution. Their dream came true, their state was founded; later it began to prosper. But over time, Zionism’s dual identity fractured into its constituent parts. Religious Israelis became the exclusive masters of one side—the connection with the past. Secular Israelis became the exclusive masters of the other—the revolt against the past. The proportion of Israelis who believed in both declined. What used to be a conceptual tension between two contradictory impulses developed into a societal tension between different Israeli factions. An identity full of contradictions was replaced by a society full of divisions.
From The Wondering Jew by Micah Goodman; translated by Eylon Levy. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.
Micah Goodman is president of Beit Prat, one of the leading organizations in Israel for young adults, and a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The author of Catch-67, he is considered one of the most original and influential public intellectuals in Israel.