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Zionism Strengthened Judaism

Contrary to the false accusations, Zionism saved the Jews of the State of Israel from the trends of secularization abroad, and the situation of Judaism in Israel is many times better than that of Jews abroad * The processes of secularization were a consequence of emancipation, and not of the Zionist movement * Had Jews heeded the calls of Rabbi Kalisher and Rabbi Alkalai, there would have been a demographic advantage over the Arabs of the region, and Torah would have prevailed together with the building of the Land

Some find it difficult to rejoice on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) because they have accepted the false accusation, as if it was the Zionist movement that caused the abandonment of Torah and mitzvot. However, the truth is the exact opposite. Although there were many secularists who worked within the Zionist movement, and some of them even wanted to secularize the nation, in practice, thanks to the Zionist movement and its activity for the sake of Kibbutz Galiyot (the Ingathering of the Exiles), the Jewish people were saved both physically, and spiritually.

I will write about the causes of secularization further on, however, suffice it to say that Aliyah (immigrating) to Eretz Yisrael was not the cause of the problem, rather the solution. Let’s compare the situation of the Jews who immigrated to Israel, with the situation of those who remained outside it. Approximately thirty percent of those who live in Israel observe Shabbat, while another forty percent of them are largely traditional Jews, and even the majority of secular people observe numerous mitzvot, such as marriage, circumcision, Yom Kippur, Pesach and Hanukkah. They protect the nation and the Land in military service, and are involved in settlement of the Land, study Tanakh and Jewish history, and provide inspiration for the observance of mitzvot between man and his fellow man.

On the other hand, the Jews who remained in Europe – the majority of them were murdered in the Holocaust, and those remaining under Soviet rule were forcibly distanced from Jewish tradition, to the point where most of their descendants married Gentiles. The situation of those who immigrated to America and England is not good in terms of Judaism, either. The majority of young people assimilate, only ten percent of them keep Shabbat, Conservative and Reform Jews in the Diaspora are at the same level of secular Jews in Israel, and tens of percent of Jews are detached from Judaism.

The same is true among North African Jews: the situation of those who immigrated to Israel inspired by the Zionist movement is immeasurably better than those who remained in exile (mainly immigrating to France); the rate of assimilation among them has already reached more than 50%, while in the State of Israel, over eighty percent of Jews are Torah-observant, or traditional.

Demographically, too, the Jewish communities abroad are dwindling due to mixed-marriages and low birth-rate, while in Eretz Yisrael, the number of Jews is steadily increasing.

It can be estimated that had it not been for Zionism, the number of Jews in the world today would be about half their number, and the number of Torah and mitzvot observant Jews, would be about a quarter. Regrettably, as a result of the false accusations against Zionism, numerous Jews remained in the Diaspora. Some were murdered, others suffered religious persecution in the Soviet Union, while still others abandoned tradition all together, and assimilated. The sooner we would have woken-up to immigrate to Israel – the more Jews would have been saved – both physically, and spiritually.

The Causes of Secularization in Modern Times

In modern times, the temptation to leave Jewish tradition and assimilate amongst the nations has increased greatly. The modern era is the period when the Enlightenment began to spread in Western and Central Europe and North America, while generating profound changes in man’s perception of himself, in his beliefs and ambitions, and encouraging the development of lofty ideas for reforming society, including liberalism, democracy, socialism and communism.

In the meantime, the Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement brought about extreme changes in the order of society, from a monarchical government that does not encourage free initiative, to a government that grants more rights to a person to express his talents in all fields. At the same time, scientists pioneered ways to empower man’s ability to create machines, accelerate agriculture, develop industry, commerce, means of transportation and communication, and accumulate immeasurably more wealth than previously. The peoples of the West took advantage of their wealth and scientific level to produce sophisticated weapons, conquer countries around the world, and instill their culture within them. Along with the development of philosophy and science, social ideas and economics, in a gradual process, religion lost its leading position in the spiritual world of man.

Changing perceptions regarding the status of man and his rights led to new legislation that gradually removed the restrictions on man, and granted equal rights to Jews (Emancipation). For the Jews – who for many generations were humiliated in their exile – new horizons opened up, as well as possibilities to integrate in the fields of natural sciences and the humanities, economics, society, and the arts. Talented Jews could leave the ghetto, realize their talents, and become entrepreneurs and top leaders, break new ground in science, develop social theories, and bring about changes in the world. For them, the Messianic vision of Israel’s redemption and return to its Land faded, and instead, was converted to activity for social and moral improvement, and the development of science and technology for the benefit of humanity. Beyond all this, the freedom that developing society promised created possibilities for improving living conditions, escaping poverty and humiliation within the Jewish community, and for a prosperous life in a foreign society. Later on, the Enlightenment spread to Eastern Europe, and the cities of the Islamic countries that were ruled by the West.

Demography

The scientific, economic and medical development led to the growth of the population all over the world. In the first stage, European nations multiplied more than others, and European Jews multiplied at twice the rate of European nations. The growth of the European peoples led to the migration of many Europeans to other countries in North and South America, to Australia and South Africa, and over time, the descendants of the European immigrants established independent states in these continents.

In 1649, after the Cossack riots in Eastern Europe, the Jewish people numbered about one million. Nearly half of the Jews lived in Europe. About three hundred years later, before the Holocaust, there were nearly 18 million Jews living in the world, about 16 million of whom were descendants of the Jews in Europe; over five million of them had already immigrated to the United States and other new countries established by European immigrants in South America, South Africa, and Australia.

As mentioned, the Enlightenment and modernity came to the Islamic countries afterwards, and therefore the process of population growth began in them at a later time, and when it arrived, even in the Islamic countries, there was a proliferation among the Jews twice as much as the rest of the population. The combination of family values in the Jewish tradition, with economic and medical progress, created this enormous multiplication.

They Should Have Immigrated to Israel

This is not the place to engage in a comprehensive soul-searching about Judaism’s confrontation with the challenges in the modern era, but it seems that even without such a soul-searching, it is impossible not to think about the tremendous demographic blessing that the nation of Israel received, which could have helped it return to its Land, and build it enormously. In the Tractate Sanhedrin (98a), our Sages said that when the Land of Israel begins to bear its fruits in abundance, it will be a sign of the coming of redemption, as it is said: “But you, O mountains of Israel, shall yield your produce and bear your fruit for My people Israel, for their return is near” (Ezekiel 36:8). Thus, it can be said that when the Jewish people began to multiply at enormous rates, it was a sign that the time had come to return to the Land, and build it. Not meriting to do so, the phenomenon of assimilation began to erode the blessing of fertility, the Holocaust arrived, and a third of our people were murdered. After the Holocaust, assimilation stopped any possibility of proliferation and growth in all of the Diaspora, and only in the Land of Israel, the Jewish nation multiplies and grows. And still, almost a century after the Holocaust, we have not yet returned to the number of Jews we were before the Holocaust.

The First Calls to Settle the Land

Although in all generations the eminent Rabbis of Israel yearned to immigrate to the Land, in modern times a more noticeable awakening had begun. In the year 1777, the most eminent disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch, the Admor Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, immigrated with three hundred hasidim, thus laying the foundation for the Hassidic community in Israel. Approximately thirty years later, in 1809, the students of the Gaon from Vilna began immigrating to Israel and building the ‘Old Yishuv’. About thirty years after that, Rabbi Kalisher, Rabbi Gutmacher and Rabbi Alkalai began to encourage Jews to immigrate to Israel.

If only we had heeded the call of the eminent Rabbis, who knows how many pogroms and disasters could have been prevented, and how many lives saved. The nation’s connection to the Torah and mitzvot would also have remained stronger, for multitudes of Jews would have witnessed with their own eyes how, thanks to the Torah’s instructions, life is properly founded. Abandonment of the Torah stemmed largely from a feeling that those who adhered to it remained behind the times, coping merely with survival—under increasingly harsh conditions. Had we fulfilled the mitzvah from the Torah and immigrated to Israel, all of the talented Jews who assimilated and gave all their strengths to foreign nations in the fields of science, culture, politics, and economics, would have invested their energies here in the Land of Israel, for the sake of their own nation and homeland. The Jewish State would have arisen earlier – not as a result of pressures from adversities, but rather out of mitzvot of the Torah, and the vision of the Prophets.

Since we were not privileged to respond to the call of the Rabbis in the name of the Torah, Jews who understood the danger of exile and the growing anti-Semitism in Europe founded the Zionist movement, and began to raise a dire cry: we must immigrate to Israel!

The Sin of the Spies of Our Generation

In those days, about 125 years ago, when the Zionist movement was founded, the Jewish people numbered approximately eleven million, while the Arabs who lived in all areas of the Biblical borders, including Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, numbered slightly more than five million, with a little more than half a million Arabs living on both sides of the Jordan. At that point, the Jewish nation had the opportunity to return to the Land of Israel, in which to flourish, and multiply. However, the majority of our nation were afraid to uproot themselves from the Diaspora, to immigrate to Israel, and to take their fate in their own hands, as the Torah commands. Indeed, the challenge was immense; immigration to Israel in those days involved many difficulties. However, the refusal to fulfill the mitzvah to immigrate to Israel when it was possible to do so was in a sense, a modern-day ‘Sin of the Spies’ – and as we have learned in the Torah, the price for it is dreadful. We suffered the Holocaust, the rule of Communist oppression, and assimilation. And thus, today, there are about fifteen million declared Jews in the world, and in Israel, approximately seven million. In contrast, the Arabs in the vicinity of Eretz Yisrael benefited from the fruits of the industrial revolution, the growth of food production, and the improvement of medicine, and they number over eighty million.

These numbers teach us the full, grave significance of the ‘Sin of the Spies’. Just imagine what our situation could have been if millions of Jews had immigrated to Israel before the Holocaust and today we numbered fifty million, with our Torah and science scholars having contributed their talents to the ‘rectification of the world in the Kingdom of God’. It’s not too late – it still can be fixed.

“Come, let us go up to Zion, To the LORD our God! For thus said the LORD: Cry out in joy for Jacob, Shout at the crossroads of the nations! Sing aloud in praise, and say: Save, O LORD, Your people, the remnant of Israel” Jeremiah 31: 5-6).

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated

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