Judaism and Zionism: What is the difference?

A central point of contention during #IsraeliApartheidWeek is the allegation that being anti-Zionist means one is necessarily anti-Semitic. While there are no doubt examples where one may be both, it’s unclear whether, and how, the two are necessarily linked.

In order to get clarity on this, The Daily Vox spoke to Professor Antony Arkin, chairperson of the KwaZulu-Natal Zionist Council and the Treasurer of the South African Zionist Federation, and Allan Kolski Horwitz, an activist for National Coalition for Palestine, trade unionist, and writer.

While both are Jewish, Arkin identifies as a progressive Zionist, while Horwitz is strongly anti-Zionist.

Are Judaism and Zionism the same thing? Are all Jews also Zionists and are all Zionists Jewish?

Arkin: No, Judaism and Zionism aren’t the same things, but Zionism is a major component of Judaism in the sense that Zionism believes that all Jewish people are a single people with a single history and destiny. It’s a large component of Judaism but you can be Jewish without being Zionist, and there are people who certainly believe that you don’t have to be Zionist to be Jewish – but it’s a very small minority. You also have all sorts of other people – a large number of Christians, for instance – who are ardent Zionists.

Horwitz: Not in the least. We have to make a distinction between Judaism as a religion, a way of life, and Zionism as a political movement. Zionism is a recent phenomenon and has led to an apartheid society in *Palestine. But Judaism is not responsible for Zionism: it was a response of largely secular Jews – not religious Jews – to the problem of anti-Semitism. It is, in fact, borne of European nationalism.

What is the fundamental difference between Judaism and Zionism? If there are core tenets or principles of each, what are they?

Arkin: The key of Judaism is a belief in a single God, that all humanity is created by God, that you have a responsibility to – what they call Tikkun Olam, “repair the world” – to work with God, and that the Jews have been specifically called serve God’s will. Judaism is based on this belief system going back something like three and a half, four thousand years. While Zionism is a large part of the practice of Judaism and is centred in the land of Israel and that it’s a responsibility to rebuild the land and prepare for the time of the Messiah, or the end of days.

Horwitz: The fundamental tenets of Judaism is the belief in one God and do unto others as you would have done unto you. There’s a short saying that Jewish people say every morning is “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad – Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” There is the monotheistic tradition as well as the tribal identification. Zionism was simply to say that the Jews need a country of their own because they cannot live in exile from Palestine – that there shouldn’t be diaspora. The idea is that Jews cannot live outside of Jewish communities and should thus become inward looking and protect themselves physically from alien cultures and societies, by creating their own society in their own territory.

What’s the connection between Zionism and Judaism that’s led to the situation where many people see them as intrinsically linked?

Arkin: I think, a fair component was, after the Holocaust when a lot of the Jews in Western Europe, certainly, believed they were Germans of the Mosaic persuasion rather, so they were Germans or British or French, and after the Holocaust it certainly was a feeling that that was unlikely to be the case, given the persecution they faced. So then a great deal after that was the Six Day War and thereafter it convinced the Russian community to come to Israel, and that had a tremendous impetus in the state.

Horwitz: I think an important turning point in Jewish history was the Nazi holocaust when Jews were physically exterminated simply because of their identity as Jews. That very profound trauma led people to think that for Judaism to survive, as a religion, it’s also necessary for Jews to have a physical territory where they can physically survive. So after the second World War, there was an uneasy relationship between Judaism and Zionism.

To what extent is Judaism a political ideology? And to what extent is Zionism linked to religion and faith?

Arkin: Judaism is not a political ideology, it’s one of the original core religious civilisations. Zionism is a political ideology in the sense that it’s based on religion but [it’s based on] the development of a Jewish and democratic state for the Jewish people. So its argument basically is that, as any people is entitled to a land, a country, so are the Jews. Yet Zionism has always been a part of Judaism in the sense that you pray towards Jerusalem and numerous other religious practices centre on it – Jews generally hope for the rebuilding of the great country. As a political movement, it developed, much as the rest of the European political movements, and certainly the modern Zionist movement, from about the 1895 or so.

Horwitz: Today, most religious Jews accept Zionism as necessary, and unfortunately have blurred their moral sense such that Israel becomes an exception to every moral precept in Judaism. Given the practice of the Israeli state, no Jewish person who’s truly moral could accept it. But there’s been this historical expediency that Israel has to be exempted from moral judgement because of the Holocaust and the threat for physical survival. Up until the second World War, the Zionists as a secular movement didn’t have the support of the Jewish religious authorities, or the vast majority of Jews either. So the reality of it is that the Palestinians have become the victims of European history. Where Jewish people, I think, wrongly decided that in order to survive, there was a legitimacy in inflicting dispossession on other people. Jews for themselves can’t claim the right to overrule their own religious and moral precepts in order to create a state which can give a haven to Jews all over the world.

What’s the view on Israel as a nation state from the perspective of Judaism? And is there a difference in how it’s viewed from a Zionist perspective?

Arkin: Originally when the Zionist movement was established, much of the Orthodox establishment was against it as a political movement, arguing that it was only at the time of the Messiah can you have this belief in the reestablishment of the [Jewish] state. But as I said, by the 1930s and 1940s, that idea changed completely and possibly even earlier than that. Nowadays within Orthodox belief, it’s seen as very much in line with mainstream Judaism. With Reform Judaism was a slightly different viewpoint, again right from the 1860s to 1870s it was argued that we are a religion rather than a people. This drastically changed also in the 1930s to 1940s and today certainly in the Reform and Conservative movements, Zionism is a significant and major component of all streams of Judaism.

Horwitz: Judaism has a great link, a cultural and religious connection, with Palestine. But the existence of Jewish communities in Palestine became secondary for 1800 years until Zionism as a political movement espoused a return of the Jewish people to Palestine. And that was initially opposed by religious Jews who said there could only be a return under the auspices of the Messiah. The messianic tradition placed Jerusalem at its apex, but that the return could only be through the agency of God – not through human political agency. There are a few remaining religious sects that still believe in that and they counter Zionism and see Zionism as something almost heretical – that human beings are trying to take the place of God in terms of this return. Zionism must be seen as a political movement that arose in Europe at the turn of the 19th century, as a result of anti-Semitism, and the Palestinian people have paid the price for this.

*Horwitz does not acknowledge the existence of Israel as a legitimate state and thus refers to the entire region as Palestine.

We previously wrote that Arkin held this view. We apologise for this error.

Featured image via Flickr