Kaplan’s A New Zionism at 50

by Benjamin Shribman

“Now that Israel is to be the homeland of the Jewish People and its civilization, it will have to foster the kind of Jewish religion that can afford to be voluntaristic and that will renounce all ambition to engage in power politics.”  Mordecai Kaplan, A New Zionism, (The Herzl Press, 1959), p. 92.

“We have proven to Hamas that we have changed the equation… Israel is not a country upon which you fire missiles and it does not respond. It is a country that when you fire on its citizens it responds by going wild.” Tzipi Livni, January 12, 2009, quoted in “Captives,” by Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker, November 9, 2009.

While all English translations of Pirke Avot1:10 begin with the sage Shemayah saying “Love work,” the translations of his next admonitions vary. Some translate them as “Abhor taking high office” and “Do not seek intimacy with the ruling power.” Others translate more generally: “Shun power and do not become close with the authorities.” Though the letter of the law may seem mysterious, however, the spirit is clear enough. It is not simply that Jews ought to study Torah and not occupy themselves with secular politics, but that Jews ought to understand that association with power and domination is not for them. Such associations and concerns are not conducive to an ethical Jewish life.

Reading Mordecai Kaplan’s forgotten book, A New Zionism, published first in 1954 and in a second expanded edition in 1959, one finds a rare sort of contemporary vision: a Zionism that regards Torah & Talmud Judaism and the regeneration of the Jewish people of the world as paramount, and nationalism as a secondary and arguably retrogressive feature of a Jewish future. With Israel barely a decade old, Kaplan recognized both the opportunities and the dangers that came with the power of statehood, and, courageously, he called for a society where Judaism and Jewishness could flourish, rather than for a Jewish state.

Unlike many Zionists of his generation, Kaplan believed: that the Jewish Diaspora had to be recognized as a permanent feature of a Zionist future; that the existance of irreconcilable attitudes of Jews about their religion was something to be acknowledged and accepted institutionally as well as personally; and that the state of Israel should exemplify modern democratic values, based on intrinsic and inalienable human rights.

Kaplan regarded Zionism, like Judaism, as something that must develop, and “should recognize and repudiate expectations that have turned out to be unrealistic.” (181) He believed that Eretz Israel should come to be the “nucleus” of world Jewry, but at the same time he insisted that Zionism was about the regeneration and development of Jewish people and Jewish life throughout the world, rather than about the forging of another nation .

For most American Jews, especially the young, Kaplan’s book may seem something from the future rather than the past. He argued against a Zionism based on, and justified by, the fear and recognition of anti-semitism, and made clear that “[i]n actual practice , neither ‘racial community’ nor ‘religious community’ has held Jews together.” (95) He recognized that the number of Jews who live in Israel is and will always be small compared to the number of Jews throughout the world, and argued that the majority of Jews who are not Orthodox must have a modern Jewish inheritance no less rich and authentic than those who continue to ground their practice in the supernaturalism and authoritarian social arrangements of the past. Finally, he seems to have recognized that Jewish tradition needs to be protected from the chauvinism of modern nationalism and the degradation that comes from adapting to the so-called political realities of the modern state. He wrote:

” … the State of Israel cannot be a Jewish State, nor can world Jewry continue to be a nation in the modern sense. The State of Israel will have to be an Israeli State, and world Jewry will have to be metamorphosed into a Jewish People which is rooted in Eretz Israel and which has its branches wherever it is allowed to live.” (93, Kaplan’s emphasis)

Although there is much that is heartbreaking about A New Zionismwhen we read it today — the sadness of better roads not taken — there is some surprise and encouragement as well. For example, Kaplan seems to have believed that Israel had to provide answers to major questions about Jewish identity and practice, and that Diaspora Jewry would be lost without such answers. Fifty years later I think it’s fair to say that most Jews outside Israel are not especially dependent on Israel for their ideas of Jewish society and identity, much less for their feeling of security.

Kaplan also believed that:

“The present crisis in Zionism is but a phase in the crisis in Judaism. The only way to overcome the crisis in Zionism is to deal with the conditions responsible for the crisis in Judaism.” (171-172)

Here it would seem he had things backwards: the crisis in Judaism in the 1950s, or at least American Judaism, was a crisis of Israeli (rather than pre-state) Zionism. Israeli leaders’ expectations of Jews throughout the world ran up against the strong but ultimately limited identification with the state, especially by American Jews. One recalls the famous 1950 statements by Ben-Gurion and Jacob Blaustein, in which Blaustein made clear (and Ben-Gurion was forced to accept) that American Jews did not consider themselves “in exile” and were not to be so considered by the state of Israel.

The problem of Israeli expectations continued for decades, but not as a crisis for Judaism, which flourished in many nations often accompanied by growing agnosticism about what the state of Israel requires of a Diaspora Jew. I think Kaplan would be quite startled, and pleasantly so, by the degree to which Jewish Community Centers throughout the United States have provided substantive and sustaining Jewish identity and community. Indeed, if Kaplan’s love of the natural sciences led him to use the metaphor of the “nucleus”, it seems that half-a-century later Jews have taken their metaphor from technology, recognizing that healthy networks can have many nodes, none necessarily more important than any other.

Which brings me to Tzipi Livni’s machismaand the controversy concerning the warrant for her arrest recently issued in the United Kingdom. What Kaplan’s book reminds us is that Livni’s predicament represents neither a crisis of Judaism nor a crisis of Zionism, but only a crisis of secular power politics. And one needn’t know the chapters of Pirke Avot or Kaplan’s book to recognize that Ms. Livni’s choices and comments have had as little to do with Zionism as with Torah & Talmud Judaism.

What Livni’s behavior does recall, however, is the phenomena discussed in Paul Breines’ important (and oddly out-of-print) book Tough Jews: Political Fantasies and the Moral Dilemma of American Jewry (Basic Books, 1990). Breines’ book — which should not be confused with a book with the same title by Rich Cohen — described a history of “tough Jew” representations in American film and literature. He devoted a chapter to what he called “The Rambowitz Novels” and indeed it seems to me that Livni herself is character out of this tradition. But whereas Breines’ book acknowledged that the Tough Jew depictions in American literature became more complicated after 1982, Livni’s bravado seems foolish at best (and brazen at worst), precisely because of Israel’s military misadventures since that time.

And so, with Pirke Avot 1:10 in mind, along with Livni’s mercilessness, I was grateful to rediscover Kaplan’s A New Zionism. His book remains a vision of Zionism that is at once hopeful, devout, humane, and realistic: perhaps a source for a brighter, more ethical Zionist future:

“As Jews we have to stake our existence as a People upon the ultimate establishment of societies, whether nations, churches, or peoples, on the basis of universal freedom, justice and peace. The transition from supernaturalistic and authoritarian society to a naturalistic and democratic society is bound to be slow and checquered. We cannot afford, however, to let every reactionary wave make us doubt the actual direction of the tide.” (44)

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