In the movement’s heroic age, therefore, Theodor Herzl made the international scene his primary arena and spent his career, often in pathos and tragedy, in searching for a likely ally in the ante-chambers of the potentates. Having embarked on the quest for a Jewish kingdom of this world, Zionism perforce had to address itself to the keeper of the keys to that kingdom, the gentile.
Or, to state the point from a wider perspective, the scheme of Jewish religion had seen the messianic problem as one of resolving the tension between the Jew and his Maker — the Exile is punishment and atonement for sin; for the new doctrine, at its newest, the essential issue is the end of the millennia of struggle between the Jew and the world. The secularization of the messianic ideal called into question another of the basic concepts of Judaism, the notion of the “chosen people.
” Modern Zionism agreed with the classical faith that the Jews had once been chosen to lead the world, and, in this connection, it was not important whether it was believed that the choosing had been done by God or by the unique Jewish national genius. However, one question, that of the place of the Jew in the post messianic era, could not be avoided. Despite some occasional remarks to the contrary, the weight of learned opinion in the authoritative religious writings and the whole of popular Jewish feeling had always been certain that the election of the Jew would persist to all eternity.
This idea has been no problem to those who combined the older pieties with their Zionism, who have therefore simply accepted it, or to the unflinching secularists and humanists, who have completely discarded it. But the mainstream of the movement has not really known what to do with the idea of the “chosen people. ” If the new messianism meant the normalization of the place of the Jew in the world, what unique destiny was ultimately reserved for him?
If his “end of days” is to be an honorable and secure share in the larger liberal society of the future, what remains of his “chosenness? ” This dilemma is already present in the writings of Moses Hess, the first Zionist thinker who was completely a man of the nineteenth century. His solution, the only apparently logical resolution to this tension between the heart and the head, was to try to define some grand “modern” and “progressive” role that Jewry alone was destined to play in fashioning the world of tomorrow.
With characteristic lack of systematic exactness, he speaks mystically of new transcendent values which are to issue from a restored Zion and of a new Jewish nation to act as the guardian of the crossroads of three continents and to be the teacher of the somnolent peoples of the East, i. e. , he imagines a distinguished, but not a determinant, part for the Jew to play in the general mission civilisatrice of an expanding West.
This last conception is quite close to Herzl’s dream of a Jewish Switzerland which was to be a model creation of the aristocratic liberalism that was his political faith. The same essential doctrine was preached by Ben-Yehudah, as he labored to transform Hebrew from the “Holy Tongue” to a significant modern language, and by Borochov, for whom Zionism is a state-building preamble necessary to the creation of the arena in which the Jewish sector of the international class struggle is to take place.
To aspire to the role of the mentor of the Middle East, or the most blessedly modern small state, or the richest of the reviving national languages, or the most ideologically correct socialism — this kind of thinking is an outlet for the older emotions about the metaphysical “otherness” of the Jew from the rest of humanity, but it is no more than an outlet. This passion required a much broader pied-a-terre.
The problem, therefore, came to a head in the work of Ahad Ha-Am (Asher Ginsberg), the greatest figure in the “spiritual” school of Zionism. He knew much more clearly than Hess that it was not enough to claim that which the world would easily grant, that the biblical past was the source of western morality; it was clear to him that a restored Zion would surely mean more to humanity than a sovereign Albania, but that this was still a far cry from the old concept of the “chosen people.
” To succeed in the apparently impossible task of asserting the continuing chosenness of the Jew in this-worldly terms, he had to claim much more, that the moral categories of the Jewish national genius would always remain uniquely sublime among all the creations of man. The messianic era, in this version, is an age in which the Jewish ethic comes to full flower in a national community in Palestine living as a moral priesthood whose authority is accepted by all mankind.
Enough has been said to prove the point that modern Zionism represents a crisis not solely in the means but in the essential meaning of Jewish messianism. Once this is understood, it becomes possible to place Zionism in its proper historical frame. It is, indeed, the heir of the messianic impulse and emotions of the Jewish tradition, but it is much more than that; it is the most radical attempt in Jewish history to break out of the parochial molds of Jewish life in order to become part of the general history of man in the modern world.