Israel’s Third President’s Surprising Fascination with a False Messiah

Born Shneur Zalman Rubashov in 1889, Zalman Shazar would serve in Israel’s first cabinet and later as the country’s president from 1963 until 1973. Shazar, however, was not a politician by calling but a historian, who studied under Simon Dubnov—then the dean of Russian Jewish historians—and later trained at German universities. His research on the disastrous career of the 17th-century false messiah Shabbetai Tsvi would inspire Gershom Scholem’s definitive studies. Stuart Schoffman revisits Shazar’s peculiar fascination with this historical figure:

Just as historians have begun to re-evaluate Ḥasidism, Rubashov declared [in a 1913 essay], they should appreciate the vital “sap” of Sabbateanism, its power to inspire the Jewish nation. . . . In 1924, Zalman Rubashov made aliyah. The next year, . . . he wrote an editorial entitled “Yom Shabbetai Tsvi,” [in which he argued that] if we Jews were fully rooted in our history, we would honor Shabbetai Tsvi on this, his 300th birthday. . . . Shabbetai built a “popular movement such as the diaspora had never known.” He “overcame the diaspora, vanquished the medieval nature of Judaism, and forced open the gates of a new Hebrew history.” He “struck new fire from the eternal rocks of religion, to redeem the people and the individual.”

In other words: the Great Pretender was a tragic Promethean hero who ignited an enduring revolution. Writing in Hebrew in secular Tel Aviv, Shazar boldly spun a messianic fiasco into a Zionist manifesto. . . .

Scholem delivered a tribute [to Shazar after his death in 1974]: “In a certain sense, it was Shazar’s personal tragedy that he was unable to fulfill his destiny as a historian. . . . The scholar and statesman within him strove to dwell together but could not find balance and compromise.”

I . . . beg to differ. Leafing through the Sabbatean studies of Israel’s third president, I hark back to his mentor Simon Dubnov, who wrote in 1893: “We recount the events of the past to the people, not merely to a handful of archaeologists and numismaticians. We work for national self-knowledge, not for our own intellectual diversion.” Some historians do it best on the page, others on the stage of Jewish history.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Gershom Scholem, History & Ideas, Israel & Zionism, Jewish history, Shabbetai Tzvi, Simon Dubnov, Zalman Shazar

Only Hamas’s Defeat Can Pave the Path to Peace

Opponents of the IDF’s campaign in Gaza often appeal to two related arguments: that Hamas is rooted in a set of ideas and thus cannot be defeated militarily, and that the destruction in Gaza only further radicalizes Palestinians, thus increasing the threat to Israel. Rejecting both lines of thinking, Ghaith al-Omar writes:

What makes Hamas and similar militant organizations effective is not their ideologies but their ability to act on them. For Hamas, the sustained capacity to use violence was key to helping it build political power. Back in the 1990s, Hamas’s popularity was at its lowest point, as most Palestinians believed that liberation could be achieved by peaceful and diplomatic means. Its use of violence derailed that concept, but it established Hamas as a political alternative.

Ever since, the use of force and violence has been an integral part of Hamas’s strategy. . . . Indeed, one lesson from October 7 is that while Hamas maintains its military and violent capabilities, it will remain capable of shaping the political reality. To be defeated, Hamas must be denied that. This can only be done through the use of force.

Any illusions that Palestinian and Israeli societies can now trust one another or even develop a level of coexistence anytime soon should be laid to rest. If it can ever be reached, such an outcome is at best a generational endeavor. . . . Hamas triggered war and still insists that it would do it all again given the chance, so it will be hard-pressed to garner a following from Palestinians in Gaza who suffered so horribly for its decision.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict