Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, is these days a hot, rocky, swampy, impoverished backwater of the Ottoman Empire without an economy to its name. So what kind of Jew is going to live there? That’s the question confronting the Zionist Movement in the last couple decades of the 1800s. And they had an answer. They were going to create New Jews. Jews who were physically strong, burning with idealism and practical know-how, Jews who were young, Jews who were women, Jews who could fight, Jews who could work, and Jews who would reject the stern religiosity of Orthodox Judaism and instead nurture a spirituality connected to the land of the Torah. Zionism, then, wasn’t just an effort to create a Jewish state. It was also a movement to create an entirely new Jew.
Zionism was still a minority movement within the diaspora (i.e. outside of Israel) Jewish community. It was primarily a mass movement of secular, poor-or-middle-class Jews from Eastern Europe. Who was against Zionism, and why?
Orthodox Jews: only God, not humans, can bring about the restoration of the Jewish homeland. The return of the Jewish People to sovereignty in the Holy Land is part of God’s larger plan for humanity, so its creation can’t happen until the coming of the Messiah and the redemption of humanity.
Secular Jews: despite the occasional anti-Semitism, Western Jews generally feel like they are safe, assimilated, and cultured — so why give that up to move to Palestine?
American Jews: don’t create a new homeland, just move to the new one that already exists, the United States! With its constitutional democracy, equal rights, and freedom and prosperity, American Jews feel that there is no reason to think that Jews won’t forever be safe and secure here, free to practice Judaism and celebrate Jewish culture.
Zionism said that a New Jew is needed. Someone whose Judaism is based on physical strength, a renewed spirituality, and an unrelenting focus on the land; as opposed to the weak, intellectual Jew of the European ghetto. Max Nordau, a Zionist leader, called this “muscular Judaism.”
So we have a new Zionism tree branch: Labor Zionism. Aaron David Gordon pushed the idea that the New Jew would be created by working the land. Through the hard labor of agricultural work the New Jew would connect with nature to invigorate creativity and spirituality. This worldview joining socialism with physical labor, is the basic premise behind Labor Zionism. It profoundly influenced Israeli life, and still does, most visibly through the kibbutz.
What we have emerging at this point, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, are different clumps of ideas and theories manifesting themselves in Eretz Yisrael. Small cities are popping up, socialist villages are being built, land is being cleared for agriculture, new kinds of music, dance, and social interactions are developing, there’s an old language (Hebrew) being revived. All of these leaves and branches are creating this new world, this new Jewish culture, and a new kind of Jew. All of these things are Zionism. And all of these things contribute to the Israel that eventually emerges, and the Israel that we have today.
Given the religious opposition to Zionism, there still exists today Orthodox Israelis who reject their Israeli identity as illegitimate, even though they live there.
Max Nordau’s solution to the physical degeneration of European Jews was to create Hebrew sports clubs to promote Jewish achievement in sports as a way to boost confidence.
NAMES TO KNOW
Max Nordau: a close confidant of Theodore Herzl, Nordau was born Orthodox but rejected his identity to become an assimilated German. The Dreyfus Affair awakened his Jewish identify and he became a prominent Zionist leader, focusing on developing the democratic nature of the movement. He coined the term “muscular Judaism” to describe the new kind of Jew Zionism wanted to develop.
Aaron David Gordon: AD Gordon was a Zionist thinker, philosopher, and early leader of the Labor Zionist tree branch. ““It is labor which binds a people to its soil and to its national culture,” he said, articulating what became known as the “religion of labor” to describe how the Jews were going to transform themselves.
KEY CONCEPTS TO KNOW
There was a theory that the Jews would end up being fine in Europe as long as they had some degree of autonomy within their communities. Led by a Russian Jewish historian named Simon Dubnow, this idea — called Jewish autonomism — said that the Jewish future depended on them remaining spiritually and culturally strong wherever they lived. If agreements could be struck with local political powers to ensure Jewish communal self-rule, then Jews could reject assimilation and, essentially, have their own mini-homelands wherever they were. The Holocaust would later permanently destroy the idea of autonomism, but at the turn of the century a lot of Jews believed in it.
At the Second Zionist Congress in 1898, Max Nordau coined the term “muscular Judaism” to contrast the New Jew of Eretz Yisrael with the pale, weak, intellectual Jew of the European ghetto. But it wasn’t just about strength for the sake of being physical strong. It was also about reviving the Jewish spirit, beaten down by centuries of persecution in Europe. And Eretz Yisrael as our homeland because that’s where the Jews were once strong and powerful.
Labor Zionism is the notion that in order to build a homeland and renew the Jewish body and spirit, the Jewish people would have to take up hard agricultural work to connect them to nature. It wasn’t just leaving Europe for the Land of Israel. It wasn’t just about getting exercise and building muscles. It wasn’t just about shedding the Orthodox Jewish traditions of Europe. It was about rejuvenating the Jewish people through labor, in which they would be forced to work together in harmony. And out of this harmony and shared purpose will be a reawakening of the Jewish spirit in a new form, and a new person.