“Is There A Distinction In Your Mind Between Being A Jew & Being A Zionist?”: A Famous British Rabbi’s Reply

Here is another of the timeless posts that have appeared on my own blog, where from time to time I have posted items if historic interest. This one attracted many views when it first appeared there, and some readers of JDU may have already seen it. I hope, though, that it gathers a fresh audience here.  I have omitted from it the original introductory sentences, which are not so timeless. 

…. [S]ifting through years of accumulated papers … I’ve come across a pamphlet called Zionism Today in which a celebrated British rabbi of Orthodox principles explained how central Zionism and Israel are to the majority of Jews.

The pamphlet was published the year following the United Nations’ adoption of the (now rescinded) ignominious resolution equating Zionism with racism, but is no less relevant for that.

Here, then, is part of the edited transcript of a BBC2 interview (9 February 1976) by journalist Richard Kershaw with the rabbi in question, no less a personage than Dr Immanuel (later Sir; later Lord) Jakobovits (1921-99; pictured), Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Britain and the Commonwealth from 1966-91.

Q: Dr Jakobovits, is there a distinction in your mind between being a Jew and being a Zionist, because in non-Jews’ minds this distinction sometimes arises and of course it is that distinction which is pejoratively used by Israel’s enemies?

 A: To me certainly there is no distinction.  My Zionism is part of my religious commitment.  There isn’t a prayer that I utter three times a day, and in the grace after every meal, at every wedding, at every visit to mourners, in which I wouldn’t make reference to this longing for the restoration of our people to Zion.  And indeed you would have to censor and expunge large parts of the Prophets and of the book of Psalms and so on, if Zionism were to be expurgated from the rest of Judaism.

Q:  And yet the Israel which I visit quite often is in many ways a secular state.

 A:  It is in the first stage of its development.  After all, when Joshua entered the Land forty years after the exodus from Egypt, it took another 440 years until the first Temple was built.  So one must allow in historical developments of dimensions which are reckoned, in our terms, in millenia rather than in centuries, for a certain time to elapse for the total purpose to be fulfilled.

Q:  Well, then, the founding fathers hoped that the creation of Zion, of Israel, would end the so-called Jewish problem in the world, and in some ways it seems as if it has now become the Jewish problem.  How do you react to the United Nations vote which called Zionism racism?

A: Well, I react of course with a sense of extreme and most profound distress.  I worry not so much over the survival of our people, because after all we’ve had four thousand years’ practice in prevailing over impossible odds and will manage to do so again.  I have not the slightest doubt that we will continue and won’t throw up the sponge now, after four thousand years of martyrdom and loneliness in the world.  We were as lonely in the age of the prophets in antiquity or during the great Greek and Roman Empires, as a tiny minority dispersed among others who sought, often by force and brutality, to bring about our conversion.  So the experience of being alone and having to face very heavy and often universal opposition is not exactly new to us.

Q: And yet there is this charge made that Zionism, that Zion, that Israel has an imperialistic and racialistic odour.  Can I put it this way?  One source of that charge of racism and I’m not subscribing to it, and I’m choosing my words very carefully is the fact that Judaism does claim its people are a special people, the Chosen People.  Isn’t there a danger that this can be seen by outsiders in the world rather as Milton talked of God’s Englishmen as special people?  But there have been many perversions of this in history.  The Aryan claim to speciality, from which the Jews suffered.  Is there not a danger that the way that Jews insist they are so separate and special does lead to the charge of racial separation and racism?

A:  I do not only subscribe, as I said earlier, to the firm belief that a special historic assignment has been given to our people – part of which I believe we vindicated in our history –  but I believe that every nation, every people, has a special assignment and is chosen for a special role; otherwise they would be redundant.  I think even every individual should feel that he is indispensable and has a unique and incomparable role to play in the fulfilment of the human destiny.

Q: Do you think then, Chief Rabbi, that one can be anti-Israel without being anti-Semitic?  Or do you think that that is a fallacy?

A:  In theory that is possible.  In practice it isn’t.  The fact that the Arab nations, for instance, which of course have been the prime sponsors of this resolution, themselves do not distinguish between Jews and Zionists.  For example, in the Arab Boycott any Jew who serves on a major firm in industry causes that firm to be blacklisted….

Q:  But they also feel that because biblical authority is quoted by Jews for their position in Israel, they also say that biblical authority talks about expansion and they fear Israeli expansionism based on the same principle.

 A:  I am not aware, throughout our four thousand years of history, of any imperial conquests that Judaism made with a view to dominating other people.  I think if you compare the vast conquests made by the Arabs, often by force of arms, in the Middle Ages, which now stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean and beyond, or if you compare the activities of the colonial powers – partly through conversionist or missionary activities –  to conquer for Christianity vast parts of the globe, with the Jewish record, you haven’t got a fraction of these conquests at any time in the four thousand years ———-

Q:  Perhaps I should be more specific though.  Do you think Israel should rest within its present borders, or do you think it should expand?

 A:   I certainly believe that the historic land of Israel, as defined in the Bible, is divinely promised to us and will eventually become ours by right.

That, I believe, is as authoritative and cogent a riposte to the canard that “Judaism Rejects Zionism” as any of the many others that could be invoked to counter the claims of those enemies and critics of Israel who insist that it is otherwise, or assume that it can be made so.

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