Reclaiming Secular Zionism’s Religiosity

February 24, 2021 | Gershon Hacohen
About the author: Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen served in the IDF for 42 years, commanding troops in battle on the Egyptian, Lebanese, and Syrian fronts. Today he directs many of the IDF’s war-simulation exercises.

A recent article in an Israeli political journal argued that anyone who wishes to revive Israel’s moribund left must stay true to its secular heritage and “take a stand against both religion and religious people.” But to Gershon Hacohen this claim rests on a profound misunderstanding. While it is true that David Ben-Gurion and other early leaders of the Zionist left were secular insofar as they were agnostic and did not observe halakhah, their ideology was deeply enmeshed with the Hebrew Bible and Jewish traditions:

In his writings and speeches, Ben-Gurion made use of Jewish ideas fraught with religious content. [In] February 1937, for example, he asserted, “The definition of the ‘ultimate goal’ of Zionism is nothing other than the full and complete redemption of the Jewish people in its land. The ingathering of the exiles, national sovereignty.” And the Declaration of Independence [invokes] “the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream—the redemption of Israel.” There is a fundamental difference between aspiring to no more than a civil-law state that is pleasant to live in and aspiring to eternal redemption.

[U]nlike secular circles that reject any definition of Jewish identity that does not distinguish between the religious and the national, Ben-Gurion insisted on the unique and indissoluble link between the two dimensions: “The Jewish religion is a national religion, which has assimilated all the historical phenomena of the people of Israel from its beginnings up to the present. It is not easy to separate the national aspect and the religious aspect.”

In the face of the ḥaredi opposition to Zionism, Ben-Gurion stressed that not only did he refuse to turn his back on the age-old Jewish heritage but, in fact, the opposite: he sought to renew the connection with the Jewish legacy of “Rabbi Akiva, the Maccabees, Ezra and Nehemiah, Joshua son of Nun, Moses our teacher.” Disavowal of this connection is the main reason for the left’s loss of a path to the national leadership.

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