A Handbook For Jewish Resistance, Part Four

Matthew Gindin
19 min readFeb 5, 2024
The Chazon Ish (Rav Yeshaya Karelitz)

When Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk (1853–1918) spoke about Zionism, he gave the following parable:

Once there was a town in which there was a well that had been closed and sealed for as long as anyone could remember. It was common knowledge that the water of this well was poisoned, such that anyone who drank from it would go insane.

One day, a group of distinguished doctors came to town, and they heard about the well. “We must investigate this well for ourselves,” they said. As they were distinguished doctors, the townspeople could not refuse them, and so they agreed to open the well for them. The doctors performed tests on the water, and determined that there was nothing bad or poisonous about it; the water was perfectly safe to drink. People began to drink from the well, and they indeed became insane. As more and more people drank and went insane, these insane people began to look at the sane people who had not drunk from the water as insane. For such is the way of insanity: those who suffer from it believe themselves to be normal and everyone else to be insane. The sane people, of course, told the insane people that they had gone insane, but their words went unheeded.

Now that the well was open, more and more people drank from it, until there were left only a small number of people, or perhaps one person, who had not drunk. The whole town shouted at this tiny minority, “Lunatics! Lunatics!” There came a point where these few individuals stopped and reconsidered: “Perhaps the whole town is correct and we are the lunatics, and we must drink from the well water and heal ourselves.”

But then they reassured themselves with the following logic, “We still remember the days when the well was closed and sealed, and everyone knew that the water was poisoned and whoever drank from it would go insane. If so, then we must be correct. We are normal and sane, the others are all insane, and we will not drink from the well.”

For our last class today I want to shift focus to religious opposition to militarist, statist Zionism. I will begin with a look at the reaction of great traditional Jewish thinkers to Zionism, and then close with a look at the reactions of a towering Jewish thinker who, while being intensely religious, was far from Orthodox: Martin Buber (1878–1965). Buber, one of the most celebrated philosophers of the 20th century, was a dissident Zionist who was an insider and witness to the settling of Israel and the creation of the state, but came to be a fierce critic of Zionism on the basis of his understanding of both the political message of the Hebrew Bible and his commitment to a neoHasidic humanism.

Rabbis and Zionism

Jews lost all power in our homeland in 136 CE after the Bar Kokhba revolt was crushed by the Roman Empire. By then it had been some time since Jews had ruled the region the Hebrew Bible says was promised to us by God. The area had been shrunk by the conquests of the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians, as well as back and forth struggles for land with the Philistines and other local non-Jewish tribes. The last Jewish state had been the Hasmonean Kingdom ruled over by descendants of the Maccabees, a state, at its peak, about half the size of modern Israel. The Hasmonean Kingdom became a client state of Rome, and in 6 CE was officially declared a province of the Roman Empire.

After the Bar Kokhba revolt was defeated Jerusalem was destroyed and a new city, Aelia Capitolina was built over it to be the capital city of the Roman province of Palestine. Jews were forbidden to enter Aelia Capitolina and lived mostly in the north. They were now a powerless minority in the Roman province. The center of Jewish life moved to Babylon as well to other parts of the Roman Empire (Egypt, Syria, North Africa, Eastern Europe, France and Germany).

The Rabbis reformulated Judaism to be a portable religion where the “Temple” was now the body and actions of the individual Jew. The Rabbis taught, as had the prophets of the Hebrew Bible before them, that the Jewish people had no right to the land of Israel. It was a gift to them dependent on them living there by the covenant. To put it another way, God had not given Israel to the Jews in perpetuity, but rather, as the Hebrew Bible says many times, Israel was given to Jews so they could fulfill the Torah, and if not, then in the indelicate words of the Chumash, “the land would vomit them out.” The common Zionist phrase that Jerusalem is the “eternal capital of the Jewish people” is both historically and theologically inaccurate. According to traditional Judaism, Jerusalem belongs to God. Between the loss of the land and it’s regaining in the 20th century, Palestine would be Roman, then Byzantine, then Muslim (and known as Falastin). The city of Aelia Capitolina would become the city of al-Quds, and would be under Islamic rule for a thousand years, twice as long as Jews had ruled it. Palestine/Falastin would be the land of others, the locus of the dreams, families, battles, and religious impulses of other peoples, for almost two thousand years.

The belief of those who wrote the Torah, which tells the early history of the Jewish people, was that we had betrayed the covenant many times, and this had caused defeat, exile, disempowerment, and finally the loss of the land. Attempts to take back power through warfare had not worked; the Rabbis concluded that only when the Jews were faithful to the teachings given by God in the Torah and won back the reward of the holy land would God return them- to take it back by force was forbidden. Passages in the Torah promising a messianic age where a great redeemer would establish Israel in peace, end violence throughout the world, and bring knowledge of God to all that lived, were now interpreted as being about the return of Jews to Israel by the Messiah, which would be a part of the redemption of the world and the long-awaited fulfillment of all of God’s plans for Israel and humanity.

In the religious imagination of Jews between 136 CE and the 19th century, Israel was a magical land. Jews prayed multiple times a day for the messianic return to Israel and the redemption of the world. Prophecy, they said, was more easily attained in Israel (or only attainable there according to some); the produce was huge and tasted impossibly good; the soil had magical properties, etc. For centuries, however, though many small groups of Jews went to live in Palestine for religious reasons, Jewish law itself was understood as forbidding a return to Palestine in the way that modern Zionists would eventually advocate for. The Rabbis of the Talmud wrote that there were three oaths preventing Jews taking Israel back through war or population transfer: One, that the Jews should not ascend to Eretz Yisrael as a wall (take it back by returning en masse). And another one, that the Holy One, Blessed be He, adjured the Jews that they should not rebel against the nations of the world. And the last one is that the Holy One, Blessed be He, adjured the nations of the world that they should not subjugate the Jews excessively.

The three oaths mentioned above, or rather the two applying to Jews, were taken quite seriously, as was the Rabbinic teaching that Jews should relate to the nations non-violently even if oppressed by them. Jewish law and consensus prior to 1890 stated that Jews should defend themselves boldly before the nations, but only with words. In the 1890s some argued that since the nations had broken the third oath, Jews were released from the first two. Orthodox Rabbis did not agree, arguing instead that if the nations broke their oath with God, then God would deal with it himself. Although Jews longed for a physical return to the land, some conceptualized it also as a symbol- for instance for Rebbe Nachman, the land of Israel also meant any place where you lived by faith alone.

Throughout the medieval era and beyond the greatest Rabbis affirmed again and again the fact that it was forbidden for Jews to force a return to Israel or wage war against the nations. In the late 19th century a group began arguing, however, that Jews were a people like any other who should live in self-determination and freedom, and could only live in freedom, peace and strength if they shrugged off traditional religion and its promises and built their own nation-state to protect themselves. After some debate over where it should be, it was decided it should be an “altneustate” (old-new state) in Palestine. This happened at a time when nationalism, as a concept, was sweeping Europe, a movement which arguably would culminate in WW1. Many leading Rabbinic voices- gadolim, or “great ones” thought to be the leaders of the Jewish people, disagreed.

The Brisker Rav (1886–1959) was a leading figure in the Soloveitchik dynasty of great Rabbis in the Litvak world. He would be known for his fidelity to traditional Jewish law and, later, his refusal to collaborate with the Israeli state. When he would be called up for the Haftorah during the Seven Weeks of Consolation, he would always cry. He explained, “Throughout history, the hope of every Jew was always hanging on the words of the prophet, “Console, console My people” and “It is I, it is I, (Hashem) who consoles you” (51:12) — and all the other verses of consolation spoken by Hashem through His true prophets, promising that Hashem Himself will redeem us. This promise breathed life into every Jew. But now, the Zionists have come and created a new vision, claiming that there is a natural solution to the “Jewish problem.” Jews must take their fate into their own hands, they say. They think that their state somehow saves the Jewish people, when in reality it is the worst exile of all.”

(Uvdos Vehanhagos Leveis Brisk, v. 4 p. 189)

The Brisker Rav said, “Two things are certain: 1) Zionism is idolatry, and 2) every Jew living in Eretz Yisroel stumbles in Zionism.”

(Uvdos Vehanhagos Leveis Brisk, v. 4 p. 197)

The Brisker Rav, like many other great Rabbis of the time, thought that the rejection of the Israeli state by Arabs was a reflection of the will of God and a punishment for its illegitimacy.

“The Zionists think that if they kill Arabs, the Arabs will be afraid and surrender to them,” he said, “But we find here in the Torah that these nations pursued the Jews like bees, who died during their attack — even when they knew it would cost them their lives. The Arabs kill and wound because they were sent by Heaven.”

(Nesivos Rabboseinu v. 2 p. 164)

This sentiment not only existed among the Litvaks, but also among the Hasidim. Rabbi Shalom Ber Shneerson was the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe (1860–1920), two Rebbes previous to the creator of Chabad as we know it, the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe. In any case, the fifth said, “Their plan to gather the Jewish people together with their own power will never be; and all their strength, their many strategies and efforts will not work or have any success against the will of G-d.” (Igros Kodesh, letter 130)

“Whoever twists the meaning of the Torah and finds proofs to Zionism from the Torah, and especially from the Hidden Torah (the Kabbalah, as Rav Kook did- M.), is like one who places an idol in the Temple,” he also said, “G-d will not forgive him. May G-d in His great mercy remove this accursed doctrine from among the Jewish people, and inspire their hearts to repent to Him in truth.” In a more thorough discussion, he explains his objection, shared by many Rabbis of the time, that Zionism would have the effect of replacing Jewish religion and values with nationalism.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe (1880–1950), who brought Chabad to America, wrote, “The straight-thinking Jew looks on in astonishment, thinking: what do these rebels against G-d and His Torah have to do with the Land of Israel? (Mishmeres Chomoseinu 20 Shvat 5716)” and also “I hereby join with the honored rabbis who oppose and protest against Mizrachi [a Zionist group] and the like. They do not walk in the spirit of the Torah. I wish to convey in writing that the Jewish people should separate themselves from this terrible desecration. Let the defiled leave the face of the Holy Land! (Om Ani Chomah, 5709 ch. 4 p. 400)” and finally, “We are forsworn by the covenant of G-d that we cannot overcome [exile] with might or power, only by understanding and knowing the word and command of G-d.”

Rabbi Ahron Roth, the Shomer Emunim, was a favorite Hasidic master of Reb Zalman, who translated a book of his. He was staunchly anti-Zionist, as are his followers today. A festive meal was held to celebrate the completion of a Torah scroll in memory of the Jews killed in the Holocaust. All the Chassidic rebbes and heads of yeshivas attended, including the Rebbe. He sat down at the table opposite the Zionist chief rabbi [Herzog]. He asked others who this man was, and they replied that it was the Zionist chief rabbi. The Rebbe immediately stood up from his place and left the hall. On the way home, he said, “I did not want to sit at the meal together with him.” One of the Chassidim commented that this chief rabbi was somewhat better than his predecessor, but the Rebbe said, “I don’t want to hear any praises of him. If he is with them, it is forbidden to speak positively of him.”

Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (7 November 1878–24 October 1953), also known as the Chazon Ish after his main work, was a Belarusian-born Orthodox rabbi who later became one of the leaders of Haredi Judaism in Israel, where he spent his final 20 years, from 1933 to 1950. His books are still popular and are revered in English translation among North American Orthodox Jews. The then Zionist Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Unterman, showed the Chazon Ish a proposal to allow marriages on the 5th of lyar (Israeli Independence Day, during Sefirat HaOmer), when they are not usually allowed according to Jewish law, and because he was afraid to explain the true reason, he claimed that on that day the soldiers are on vacation and can get married. The Chazon Ish said to him: “If this is so, then I am inclined to allow marriages from Rosh Chodesh lyar until Lag B’Omer (i.e. to be even more scandalously lenient).”

The Rabbi of Tel Aviv argued that this is very lenient. The Chazon Ish then asked: “How is it that I am lenient and you are strict?” Rabbi Unterman was finally forced to admit that he wished to bypass the laws of mourning for Israeli Independence Day as a day of special joy.

The Chazon Ish replied forcefully: “Perhaps it is more fitting to declare it a fast day (a day of special mourning)!” (reported by Reb Moshe Shonfeld)

The Chazon Ish said: “The only actual difference with the formation of the Zionists State is, that before this they were hoodlums without arms, and now the hoodlums have arms.” (reported by Reb A. Y. Weintraub)

At the beginning of the State, the municipality of Bnei Brak wanted to hang an Israeli flag on his house and he refused and when he was told he would have to pay a fine because of his refusal, he answered, “It’s worth it, it’s worth it.”

In 1948, after the Israeli army conquered large amounts of land from the Arabs, Jewish merchants cut beautiful lulavim for Sukkot from that land and brought them to the market. A certain young religious Jew was considering buying one, but first he went to the Chazon Ish and asked, “Is this lulav prohibited as a stolen lulav? Or do we say that the Haganah (Zionist paramilitary) acquired it through military conquest?”

The Chazon Ish replied angrily, in a loud voice, “What military conquest? What military conquest? It is forbidden to use this, it is a stolen object.”(Orchos Rabbeinu v. 2 p. 246, Maaseh Ish v. 5 p. 188)

R’ Avigdor Miller (1908–2001) was a very stringent Ultra-Orthodox leader in New Jersey, a polarizing figure because of his fundamentalist views of traditional Jewish law and thought. He is also revered and celebrated in the Orthodox world to this day, and has many books still in print. That said, he also commented once, Now, don’t make any mistake: if a man is against the State of Israel, it doesn’t mean he’s an anti-Semite. That’s the policy of the Israeli people, the leaders of the Israeli people; they like that. They make it appear, and all the Jews swallow their propaganda line, that if you’re not for the State of Israel then you’re an anti-Semite. But it’s foolishness! One thing has nothing to do with the other at all.” He also said, “The State of Israel solves nothing. All “problems” remain the same, and new ones are created.”

Buber

Martin Buber, who would later be known for his masterpiece I and Thou as well as his Tales of The Hasidim, both of which were widely read inside as well as outside the Jewish community, was a passionate evangelist for Zionism as a young man. By 1901 Theodore Herzl had appointed the charismatic young speaker to editor-in-chief of Die Welt, the publication of the World Zionist Organization. Buber was not interested in Zionism as a political ideology but as a means for the cultural rebirth of the Jews. He felt that Jews needed their own communal structures on their own ancestral land in order to be reborn.

It wouldn’t be long before Buber became a thorn in the side of the Zionist establishment. He soon found himself in tension with religious Zionists who did not think any of what Buber called “Jewish renewal” was needed, rightwing Zionists whose only concern was power, and political Zionists whose main concern was raising money and making allies, not the “spiritual uplift” of the community. Soon Buber and Herzl would fight and break ties after Herzl published the Utopian Zionist novel Old New Land. Ahad Ha’am criticized it as putting forth a state that imitated “Euro-Christian” nationalism and lacked any real Jewish content, and in the ensuing fight Buber, in which Buber backed Ha’am, he resigned.

Buber came to feel that a Zionist state in fact had nothing to do with what he cared about- the renewal of Jewish values, spirit and culture- and that the Zionist project could easily proceed without accomplishing these goals. Buber withdrew to focus on supporting Jewish art and literature. From now on his involvement with Zionism would be only as a “voice of conscience” protesting when mainstream Zionists betrayed the humanist and Jewish principles which he held dear.

In 1918 Stefan Zweig, the great Viennese Jewish writer, published a pacifist play called Jeremiah, a “hymn to the Jewish people” which imagined the creation of a new Jerusalem: a life of international human solidarity not located in any one place, a “permanent rebellion” against the very idea of the nation-state. Zweig asked Buber if after WW1 he was still possessed by “the dangerous dream of a Jewish state with cannons, flags, military decorations.”

As Paul Mendes-Flohr summarizes in his bio of Buber, he asked Buber “what will remain of the Jews spiritually if they deny their destiny to dwell among the nations of the world as a people that has transcended the folly of nationalism? The establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine would be a betrayal of the people’s prophetic vocation and a tragic disappointment.”

Buber responded, “I do not know anything of a ‘Jewish state with cannons, flags, and military decorations’, not even as a dream.” He said that he was interested in the building of a community in Palestine and was willing to risk that it would not go well, it “depends on those who create it” which was his very motivation for taking part. Buber was, however, worried. To another friend he wrote, “We must not deceive ourselves that most of today’s leading Zionists (and probably also most of those who are led) are thoroughly unrestrained nationalists (following the European example), imperialists, even unconscious mercantilists….they speak about rebirth and mean enterprise. If we do not succeed to construct an authoritative counterforce, the soul of the movement will be corrupted, possibly forever.”

Buber was particularly concerned by the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which aligned Zionism and British colonialism. Buber stood almost alone in his opposition to it. SY Agnon, who would become a great Israeli writer, chided Buber for his belief that “we are to regard ourselves as citizens of the world dedicated to tikkun olam….He nurtured this view with a cherubic innocence, a purity of heart, and at times with extreme naivete.”

Buber, though, took aim at the “dogmatizers of nationalism,” Zionists who said “Let us be like all the [other] nations.” Although Zionists claimed to be against assimilation, Buber said they were hypocrites who “would readily approve of idol-worship in our homeland if only the idols bear Jewish names.”

In 1934 the Gestapo banned him from giving public lectures. Shortly afterward Martin and his wife Paula visited Palestine. They fell in love with Jerusalem and made contact with local Arabs, attending a Muslim wedding and meeting with sheiks and common Palestinian folk. Their concern over the relationship between Jews and Arabs became dejection when the 1936 Arab revolt broke out. Many Arabs had been unhappy with the British colonial project in Palestine — the British had exploited and oppressed them in classic colonial style, putting down resistance with extra-judicial violence and torture — and the Arabs were now enraged at British support for the creation of a Jewish majority in the area. This was made worse by the discovery of a shipment of British arms being sent to Jewish militias.

In the ensuing violence between Arabs and Jews hundred of Jews and thousands of Arabs died. Buber published a pamphlet of essays critiquing the shape of Zionist activities in Palestine in response, warning again that an “egocentric nationalism” would destroy the moral and spiritual health of the Jewish people rather than healing it.

After his visit to Palestine in 1935, leading Jewish intellectuals including Gershom Scholem [the great scholar of Kabbalah] and Hannah Arendt [the great philosopher of politics] pleaded with Buber to move there, where he could have a voice in the Zionist project. In 1938, after all of his writing and teaching activities in Germany were made illegal by the Gestapo, he agreed and emigrated to Jerusalem, taking up a teaching post at the Hebrew University. He was almost 60.

Buber helped to found Ichud, which focused on Arab-Jewish peace. Buber allied himself with Judah Magnes and Hans Kohn, two important Jewish socialists. Along with the ailing Ahad Ha’Am, Buber was by then one of the two lights of “cultural Zionism” outside the increasingly political-military-financial focus of the mainstream. Buber taught sociology at Hebrew University in an activist spirit.

It was around this time that Buber entered into a controversy with Gandhi. In 1938 Gandhi counseled the persecuted Jews of Europe to practice satyagraha (nonviolent reliance) to the Nazis. He also argued against Zionism, stating that Palestine belongs to the Arabs who have lived there for centuries and Jewish claims would be an imposition that harmed Palestinian Arab rights. Buber wrote an open letter to Gandhi, who he greatly admired, where he argued that satyagraha only works against people who have a conscience. He also claimed that residence in the Holy Land was bound up with the divine mission of the Jews, but they still have a “duty to understand and honor the claim that is opposed to ours [that of the Arabs] and to endeavour to reconcile both claims.”

As World War Two raged on, the leaders of the Yishuv intensified their work getting Jews to Israel. This had long been a goal in order to create a Jewish majority in Palestine and provide a justification for a Jewish state. Now, with the Shoah, there was an urgent need for safe haven. The British were trying to slow Jewish immigration to Palestine to prevent war with the Arabs, and to protect their growing concerns for better ties with the Arab world. Buber advocated work to get Jews out of Europe, but opposed bringing them to Palestine specifically if anywhere else was possible. He thought the creation of a Jewish majority in Palestine was morally and politically wrong, and would lead to “endless conflict with the Arabs.”

For the same reason Buber favored a binational, egalitarian state in the whole of Palestine and was against partition into separate Jewish and Arab states. In 1946 Buber, representing Ichud, appeared before the Anglo-American Inquiry Committee, which aimed to find a solution to the simmering Jewish-Arab conflict. The Yishuv forbade any of its members from appearing before the committee, but Buber did anyway, arguing that the Zionist project must not be “gained at the expense of another’s independence” and that Jews must not only aim to “live peacefully next to the Arabs of the land but also with them….”

The UN voted for partition, a result enthusiastically welcomed by the Yishuv even as intercommunal violence broke out between Jews and Arabs. Ben-Gurion declared Independence and war broke out between the nascent Jewish state and five Arab countries. Buber bemoaned the state being “built in blood” and stated that even if the Yishuv won it would be a false victory, as it would be a defeat of the true Zionist ideal- “not simply the secure existence of the nation” but the revival of its ethical mission. For Buber the Jewish state was tantamount to assimilation. Jews were succeeding in becoming a normal state, he wrote, to “to a terrifying degree.” “I cannot be joyful in anticipating victory,” he wrote, “for I fear that the significance of Jewish victory will be the downfall of Zionism.”

At the time of the war the Bubers were living in Abu-Tor, a largely Arab neighbourhood they could afford. They loved it there. They had great views of the Old City, Mt Zion and the Dome of the Rock, and the neighbourhood was one of friendly co-existence between Jews and Arabs. According to Mendes-Flohr, one of Buber’s Jewish neighbours often observed him “in conversation with members of his family, with his Arab servant Jalil, with Jewish students and Arab neighbours, with notables, scholars, and clergy from many countries and of many creeds, and even — especially — with children. In observing his phenomenal gift of communicating, I cannot recall one instance when Buber would have withheld himself.”

In November 1947 the War of Independence broke out and Abu-Tor was seized by the Arab Liberation Army. Graham Brown, the Anglican Arch-deacon, drove the Bubers safely out of the area in a car flying the flag of the Church. Buber’s Palestinian landlord hid Buber’s precious books in a locked room just days before the Jewish Haganah took over the apartment for military uses. Once in Jewish Jerusalem Buber’s books were smuggled to him.

Once the war settled down Buber was assigned a large house in Talbiya, an upscale neighbourhood. The Arab owners had fled to Turkey, and Buber, who was uneasy living in their house, contacted them to have their remaining possessions sent to them. The house now belonged to the state, held in ESCROW until the legal status of the refugees could be decided, as was the case with most Arab property. In fact this infamously became a way to confiscate the property for Jews through “lawfare” and would lead to decades of court cases, some of which are still ongoing.

The thieving intent of the state was immediately clear to Buber, who launched a determined campaign to convince the new government to allow the refugees to return to their home or at least get them compensated for their loss. He was unsuccessful. Ultimately this would bring him into conflict with Ben-Gurion. In an article in Ha’aretz Buber called upon the state and the Israeli public to confront the “bitter reality” of the acts and policies towards the Palestinian Arabs, to look at the “robbery and plunder, anti-Arab discrimination, the destruction of their villages….as painful as this will be.” We must look, he wrote in a newspaper article at the time, at “the brutal face of truth.” The architects of the new country, faced with complex and pressing problems on every side, viewed the Arab refugees as a security threat and an unwanted population, and Buber’s pleas went unheard. At the end of his days, as life slipped from Buber he roused his strength for one final act: he amended his will to double the amount of money he was leaving to a scholarship fund for Arab students at Hebrew University.

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