The Failure of Secular Zionism

Rabbi Kook feared that a lack of religious committment would adversely affect the state of Israel - and it has.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

Judaism מתפללים על קבר הרב קוק
מתפללים על קבר הרב קוק
פלאש 90

Despite Rabbi Kook's support for all those engaged in settling of the Land of Israel and the Ingathering of the Exiles, his assessment was that without a connection to the foundation of holiness – 'emunah' (faith), observance of the Torah and mitzvoth, and the vision of redemption for Israel and the world – the secular Zionist movement would lack the ability to achieve its goal of rebuilding the Jewish nation in its land.

He wrote about this in numerous letters, and spoke about it in conversations, sermons and speeches. As a result of this, he initiated the establishment of the 'Degel Yerushalayim' movement.

Rabbi Kook also realized that a central feature of the Righteous Gentile's support of the Zionist movement was based on their faith in the Bible, and he feared that as they came to know the remoteness of the secular Zionist's leaders from faith in God, they would remove their support for the Jewish people's request to establish a state in their homeland (Igrot Haraya 3, pg.173).

He wrote that a secular program for the Jewish nation could never achieve the fulfillment of Israel's national objectives (Ma'amarei Haraya, 2, pg.298). "Nothing will be born of our labors if we do not attach to the importance of practical actions, restoring the vision of the idea embodied and concealed in them…Not only will it not be beneficial, but will further humiliate the idea, and in the end, cause the termination of the actions" (Orot Hatechiya 6).

Indeed, it must be noted that although some of the leaders and supporters of Zionism were totally secular, the Zionist movement as a whole did not detach itself from Jewish tradition. Among its constituents were entirely religious figures, such as the members of the Mizrachi movement, traditional Jews, such as the members of Betar, and to a lesser extent, segments of the Labor movement. Even the secular Jews within the Zionist movement accepted Judaism as the basic culture, so undoubtedly, faith and Jewish tradition carried great weight in Zionist activities. Nevertheless, Rabbi Kook estimated that without a deeper connection to Judaism, the Zionist movement would not be able to reach its goals.

The Danger of Detachment

As rabbi of Jaffa in 1908, Rabbi Kook called upon faithful Jews to build the land both spiritually and physically, combining Torah with 'derech eretz' (worldliness), because all future growth of redemption is dependent on building the country out of true piety, writing:

"…I have pondered which direction to take for a long time, and I truly know that all the hope of settling the Land of Israel…depends on this colossal point, that positive forces should join us in the spiritual and physical building of the Land of Israel…don't wait until it's too late, do not allow the trampling [anti-religious educators] to crush the suckling, the roots of God's planting, who ascend to the Holy Land…."

If this occurs, he continues, the land will be taken over by  "forceful people armed with promiscuity and the ways of the goyim, without a trace of Israel's true holiness, who cover their failures with the dross of false nationalism, granules of history, and love of the language, clothing life with an  Israeli outward appearance, while its entire core is not Jewish, which will ultimately turn into a destructive force and a monster, and in the end, also hate of Jews and the Land of Israel, as we have experienced in the past – (if) this impure hand prevails, the magnitude of the disaster will be inconceivable.

"But I have trust in God, who will not allow our feet to be moved, and all who fear the word of God, and desire the salvation of His nation and holy land, will rise to our call, and embark on establishing in Zion a precious cornerstone, revitalizing the 'New Yishuv' on the foundation of purity of faith, connected with the joy of life and its justified requests, and God shall be with us, to rebuild the ruins of our nation for generations" (Igrot Haraya 1, pg.144).

Was Rabbi Kook Mistaken?

On the face of it, reality has proven the opposite of Rabbi Kook's words: the State of Israel was established – and even continues to develop and prosper – while at the same time, its leaders are unfaithful to Judaism's sacred beliefs.

Some people simply interpreted Rabbi Kook's words as being similar to those of many other rabbis, who, carrying the responsibility of religious observance on their shoulders, constantly encourage their followers to engage in Torah and mitzvoth. When speaking with businessmen, they tell them that if they keep Torah and mitzvoth, their business will succeed. When they speak to public figures, they say that if they keep Torah and mitzvoth, they will be successful in all their undertakings. When they speak to scientists, they tell them that in the merit of Torah and mitzvoth, they will succeed in their research.

And indeed, these statements are true, but they lack an in-depth analysis of the situation; rather, they reflect a basic point of view that only through Torah and mitzvoth can one be truly successful – if not in this world, then in the World to Come. If not in this generation, then in the End of Days.

Rabbi Kook was Right

The truth is that in his deep foresight, Rabbi Kook perceived the basic shortcomings of the secular Zionist movement. Even before the First World War, Rabbi Kook clearly understood that the secular Zionist movement would lack the moral strength required to deal with the complex difficulties. True, the secular Zionist movement has great merit for starting to operate politically and settling the land on a large scale, but without a deep connection to holiness, its objectives cannot be achieved.

And indeed, Rabbi Kook was correct. Without the First World War, and even more so, the Second World War and the terrible Holocaust which transpired, the Zionist movement would not have achieved establishing the State.

Rabbi Kook, of course, did not live during the Holocaust; he spoke about the responsibility placed on the generation to advance the Jewish nation towards the establishment of a state, even without a terrible tragedy. Therefore, he warned all who would listen that the national movement must be connected to the sacred, and work diligently for the revival of Israel. The plea was directed to both the secular Zionists, and also to the hareidi public, who stood-by idly and did not join the immigration and settlement effort.

Had we succeeded in joining the holy and the secular, the Zionist movement would have been able to encourage millions of Jews to make aliyah, and thus, capable of making a significant and compelling claim to the nations of the world, to support the realization of the Jewish people's right to its land. 

Crisis That Gave Rise to the State of Israel

Terrible catastrophes befell us, out of which the State of Israel was born. The First World War, a conflict more difficult than any previous wars, caused a great shock in the world. Tens of millions of casualties left nations bleeding. Great empires crumbled, and new countries were created. As a result, many people began to alter their way of thinking, and this led to the Balfour Declaration (Nov.2, 1917), according to which Britain received power over all the Land of Israel on both sides of the Jordan River in order to establish a national home for the Jewish nation, a program that was later approved by an international conference in San Remo (1920).

But the fact is that within a few years, the Zionist movement allowed all the enormous achievements to slip through its hands.

First, it agreed to abandon the continuation of the Jewish Legion, created during the First World War with the express purpose of initially helping the British effort to conquer the Land of Israel for the Jews, and later, to serve as the nucleus of a Jewish army that would defend the national home.

After that, they relinquished – in favor of the Arabs – Transjordan.

Then, they agreed to limit immigration to Israel, abandoning their claim to reach a Jewish majority and create a Jewish state. Given such a situation, there was no chance of establishing the State of Israel.

Then came the Second World War, which was even more grueling than its predecessor, and for the Jewish people – the most tragic  of all.  Six million of our people were murdered with atrocious brutality. After the extent of the Holocaust was revealed, much of the world recognized the right of the Jewish people to establish a state in the Land of Israel.

And yet, the official Jewish leadership did not have the courage to fight for it. Only thanks to the breakaway organizations, the Irgun and Lechi, were the British expelled from the country, enabling the establishment the State of Israel. After the State was established, because the religious connection to the holy areas of the land was not sufficiently rooted, the I.D.F. was stopped in mid-action during the War of Independence, leaving Judea, Samaria, and the Temple Mount in Arab hands.

Years later, during the Six Day War, the leadership also did everything possible to avoid conquering the Temple Mount and Judea and Samaria. They begged Hussein not to join the war. And after conquering Judea and Samaria, they tried to give it back to the Jordanians in exchange for 'peace'.

This is exactly what Rabbi Kook spoke about, and unfortunately, this is what we ourselves have witnessed over the last few generations. At almost every critical junction in which spiritual strength was required, the Zionist movement failed. Only by the grace of God have we achieved the Ingathering of the Exiles and settling the land.

Testimony about Rabbi Kook

Rabbi and Professor S.K. Mirsky z"l, told this story: "Once, shortly after my wedding, I visited Rabbi Kook. It was in the year 1929, following the first Arab riots in Jerusalem. He sat at the head of the table with the Talmud 'Ketubot' open in front of him, deep in thought.

"As I contemplated to myself about how to ask the Rabbi about the current situation, I suddenly saw another man sitting there. He pulled-out a piece of paper, and turning to the Rabbi, said: "Many people say that if the Rabbi were to reveal his opinion now, 'da'at Torah',  and write openly that we have no desire to conquer the land and establish a Hebrew state, but rather, to sit before God like our forefather's "Shomrei HaChomot" (Guardians of the Walls) have done for generations, then the Islamic religious leaders would also call for peace, the rioting would stop, and no more innocent blood would be spilled in Jerusalem, our Holy City."

Hearing this, Rabbi Kook shuddered, and staring at me, said with a trembling voice: "How could such a treacherous thought against God and His nation enter this man's heart – thinking I would sign on it?! In the merit of building and conquering the land, we will be redeemed!" Following this, Rabbi Kook stood up and forced the man to leave. I had never seen Rabbi Kook so emotional" (quoted from the book "Ohev Yisrael b'Kedusha", Section 5, pg.135).