The Myth of Jewish Pining for Return to Palestine

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by Neil Godfrey

For readers interested in a few notes from The Pity of It All by historian Amos Elon.

Herzl envisaged a modern Exodus organized on a “scientific” basis. He would go to the kaiser and say, “Let us depart! We are strangers here. We are not allowed to merge with the Germans, nor are we able to. Let my people go!” The kaiser would understand him; he was trained to understand great things. The Jews would depart, taking the German language with them; it would flourish in the new land, wherever that would be. Herzl was neither sentimental nor nostalgic when it came to the choice of a suitable territory: the homeland could be Argentina or elsewhere, preferably far from the imperial rivalries of the European powers. The place would be chosen by a committee of rational, scientific geographers and economists; the mass of Jews, how­ever, would settle for whatever place they were offered. The new national home would not be “Jewish” but a multicultural, multilingual state like Switzerland, even though most citizens would probably con­ tinue to speak German. (285-86)

And the reaction to Herzl’s plan?

Bismarck never answered Herzl’s letter. Herzl was not surprised. . . . The reaction of most German and Austrian Jews to Herzl’s plan was hardly more forth­ coming. A Lovers of Zion movement of a few small, loosely organized proto-Zionist groups had existed, mostly in Russia and Romania, since the pogroms of 1882. In the West it counted no more than a dozen or so sympathizers in Cologne and a few romantically inclined Viennese Jews of Eastern European origin whose purpose was to help settle Russian and Romanian Jews as farmers in Palestine on a nonpolitical basis. . . . Nevertheless, in the fifteen years since its inception the project had attracted few candidates and was an eco­nomic failure. (286)

The reaction among Jews to Herzl’s plan ranged from ridicule to ignoring it to outright hostility.

Opposition to Herzl’s Zionism seemed more vehement in Germany than elsewhere in Europe. It was certainly more shrill. His program seemed to threaten German Jews to their very core, and German Zion­ists remained few and isolated for many years. Herzl tried in vain to interest Walther Rathenau in his cause. “The Jews are no longer a nation and will never become one,” Rathenau responded. German Jews were now a German tribe like Saxonians and Bavarians. “Zionist aspira­tions are atavistic. (288)

The myth of an empty land waiting for a people without a land had not yet been born.

In Cohen’s opinion, the Jews’ task was “to go on living among the nations as the God-sent dew, to remain with them and be fruitful for them.” The Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums reproached the Zionists for assuming that the Arabs of Palestine would welcome an influx of Jews — one of the earliest warnings against the widespread assumption that Palestine had, in effect, no politically conscious native population; as a land with­ out people it was thought to be ideally suited for a people without a land. (289)

Up till 1909 nothing really changed.

With few exceptions, even those who were registered Zionists were “third-party Zionists,” that is, one Jew soliciting funds from a second so that a third might be able to settle in Palestine. German Zionists continued to be ardent German patriots. Their love of the fatherland was only “enhanced,” they proclaimed, by their love of the ancient Palestinian homeland: what they had lost there they had found again in Germany. The noted economist Franz Oppenheimer joined the Zionists despite the fact that his emotional and intellectual makeup, as he put it, was “ 99% Kant and Goethe and 1%Old Testament via Spinoza and Luther’s translation of the Bible.” In sum, few were touched personally by the cause, and even when they were, it was pri­marily as an activity “German Jews would lead and direct but in which the Jews of Eastern Europe must be the actors. (289-90)

From 1909 a new Jewish generation reacted differently to an evolving social situation in Germany but that’s another story.

Elon, Amos. 2002. The Pity of It All a Portrait of Jews in Germany 1743-1933. New York: Picador.


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14 thoughts on “The Myth of Jewish Pining for Return to Palestine”

  1. If you want to argue that the notion of “Jewish pining for return to Palestine” was a myth, I really think you’d have to do rather more than cite the attitudes of the assimilated middle-class Jews of late 19th Century post-Emancipation Germany, who, as the saying goes, had never had it so good.

    1. • Jewish pining or Zionist pining?

      Alan Hart ap. “How We Can Solve the Palestinian Israeli Problem (Official Version)”. YouTube. HWCSTPIP. 13 December 2012.

      In my view there is one key to almost complete understanding and that is knowledge of the difference between Judaism and Zionism. So let’s look at them separately.

      • Judaism is the religion of Jews, not “The Jews” because not all Jews are religious and like Christianity and Islam, Judaism has at its core a set of moral values and ethical principles.

      What is Zionism?

      • Zionism is a form of Jewish nationalism, it’s a colonial enterprise which created a state for some Jews in the Arab Heartland mainly by terrorism and ethnic cleansing and in so doing, it made a mockery of Judaism’s moral values and ethical principles. In reality Judaism and Zionism are total opposites.
      Most Europeans think that Israel came about—Zionism came about—because of the Holocaust I mean that’s complete nonsense. Zionism is a colonial enterprise.

      1. ” Zionism is a form of Jewish nationalism, it’s a colonial enterprise which created a state for some Jews in the Arab Heartland mainly by terrorism and ethnic cleansing and in so doing, it made a mockery of Judaism’s moral values and ethical principles. In reality Judaism and Zionism are total opposites.”

        1) This Arab Heartland of which you speak did not exist. Palestine is a term for the general area of the Levant, and was a land shared by Jews and Arabs. For most of modern history, the word “Palestine” usually referred to Jewish Palestine. The land of Arab Muslims revolves not around Jerusalem but around Mecca and Medina.

        2) What created the the State of Israel was not terrorism or ethnic cleansing but the Mandate for Palestine, which is valid International Law with the imprimatur of the League of Nations. The leaders and proxies of the entire Arab world signed on to the San Remo Agreement, authorizing Great Britain to administer the Mandate for Palestine after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Israel, as well as virtually every current Arab nation in the Middle East had their boundaries and statehood established under this Mandate.

        The land upon which Israel was founded was bought up by the Hashemite Hussein bin Ali family, then of Saudi Arabia (later to be the ruling royalty of Jordan, Syria, Hejaz, and Iraq). It was sold at great profit to the founders of Israel. The Peel Commision looked into these purchases, specifically asking if all the land of Israel was properly paid for, and the answer by representatives of the bin Ali family was “Yes”. Jews bought the land of Israel legally through Arab brokers.

        3) You speak of “ethnic cleansing”. Israel was the only country in the middle east who was specifically *disallowed* under the Mandate to discriminate against people based upon their religion or creed. Arabs who wished to live in Israel were not only allowed to do so, they were made citizens, and to this day their descendants are citizens with representation in the Knesset. However, the Arab countries formed under the Mandate for Palestine DID ethnically cleanse Jews from their states. None were allowed to stay. Jewish headstones were used to construct urinals in Jordan. So your claim that it was the Jews that committed ethnic cleansing is vile, and exactly 180 degrees wrong.

    2. It was not an argument. It was a heading. And a detail that indicated that the appeal of Jews who in fact were not feeling assimilated (it was a time they were not being accepted in society, even those who tried to hide their Jewishness — promises or hopes of assimilation were proving to be false) failed to appeal to their brethren in any significant numbers, whether affluent or poor.

      But the fact that many Jews did increasingly feel at home in Europe, assimilated and well off, so much so that they had no interest in any “return to Jerusalem” is itself evidence that the idea that the “Jews have always pined for a return” is a myth. (Though “assimilation” often only came about through hiding their Jewish roots.)

      The section I quoted came from a chapter titled “Assimilation and its Discontents”. In the paragraph immediately preceding the one I quoted Elon spoke of the problem of assimilation, “the Jewish problem”, facing the political leaders of Germany at that time:

      The emancipation failed, [Herzl] told Bismarck, because it came before the Jews had assimilated. It should have come after the assimilation. “In any case, it is now too late for that.”

      Elon follows with some additional historical background to Herzl’s actions:

      According to Pinsker, Jews were by nature “inassimilable”: “For the living, the Jew is a dead man, for the natives an alien and a vagrant, for property holders a beggar, for the poor an exploiter and a millionaire, for patriots a man without a country — for all classes a hated rival.”

  2. Quoting from a few people who had no interest in Jews returning to Israel, or looking at who was “registered” as a zionist, in no way actually taps into the huge place of Israel/Palestine in Jewish consciousness.
    “Next year in Jerusalem” is said at every passover feast, in every practicing Jewish home, for hundreds if not thousands of years.

    1. Until the end of the nineteenth century, the saying: “Next year in Jerusalem” was more the expression of a spiritual/Messianic ideal rather than a political slogan.

      1. But db, we aren’t talking about a “political slogan,” we are talking about “Jewish Pining for Return to Palestine”, which is not a political category at all; it is a cultural, extistential, emotional one. You seem to think of the Messianic hope as “merely” an airy, academic religious belief, but it was quite different in Jewish experience. A spiritualised, Messianic ideal is no less real in terms of emotional weight as a practical political programme; it’s the corollary of feeling an alien, a frustrated urge for its opposite… projected into the future. It informed prayers, day and night, and it darkened every celebration (the glass broken at a wedding being the obvious example). As Heather states, it was part of Jewish consciousness.

      2. I should qualify what I wrote.

        This wasn’t necessarily true for every single Jew at all times. In post-Emancipation 19th Century societies, it’s absolutely true that for many “enlightened” Jews – who were assimiliated to varying degrees, and integrated into Christian/secular society to varying degrees – this “cultural pining” clearly became something abstract; Europe could be their home after all – obviating the need for a return (real or dreamt) to a “Holy Land” they’d only ever read about in holy books. Had new forms of anti-Semitism not reared their ugly heads, it’s conceivable that “pining for the Return to Palestine” would have dissipated even further, and would have died away entirely. But events in Russia and then in Germany burst the bubble, revealing to many the failure of the integration experiment. The old Messianic “pining” revived, albeit utterly transformed, wedded to new ideologies, into an active political agenda.

    2. Reciting a mantra at an annual ritual is not evidence of deep psychological longing that demonstrates its reality by making the move when an opportunity arises. Reciting a ritual mantra is evidence of a mythical backdrop to beliefs and nothing more. The little I have quoted about the earliest of modern efforts to find Jews their homeland is a supporting piece of data in favour of that point.

  3. It should also be noted that while “Zionism” has come to be a heavily loaded word, there are many different types of “Zionism” along the secular to religious spectrum — and some forms of Zionism are not about displacing a native Arab population.

    1. • Some did want a “bi-national community: no state, no Jewish state, just Palestine.”

      Noam Chomsky ap.A portrait of Chomsky as a young Zionist | New Voices: The National Jewish Student Magazine“. newvoices.org. 7 November 2011.

      I was connected to a considerable part of the Zionist movement which was opposed to a Jewish state. It’s not too well known, but until 1942 there was no official commitment of Zionist organizations to a Jewish state. And even that was in the middle of World War II. It was a decision made in the Hotel Biltmore in New York, where there was the first official call for a Jewish state. Before that in the whole Zionist movement, establishing a Jewish state was maybe implicit or in people’s minds or something, but it wasn’t an official call.

      The group that I was interested in was bi-nationalist. And that was not so small. A substantial part of the Kibbutz movement, for example, Hashomer Hatzair, was at least officially anti-state, calling for bi-nationalism. And the groups I was connected with were hoping for a socialist Palestine based on Arab-Jewish, working-class cooperation in a bi-national community: no state, no Jewish state, just Palestine.

    2. • Yes there is a spectrum of different types of “Zionism”, but the prima facie definition is per “Zionist settlement practices”.

      Usuki Akira [now bolded]. To be a National Minority in an Ethnic Jewish State: The Palestinian as the Other in Israel. p. 203:

      The primary victims of the oppressive effects of Zionist discourse were the Palestinian Arabs. In Zionist discourse, Jewish exile can only be ended through the return of Jews to their ‘homeland.’ Consequently, the conflict between the indigenous Palestinian population and the Jews was situated within the context of the Zionist’s teleological reading of history. Contextualizing the Jewish return to the land with corollary that has been precipitated with the palestinians in terms of European Jewish history, Zionist discourse and the historiography that it produced, decontextualized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from its Middle Eastern setting. It thereby neutralized the role of Zionist settlement practices as a precipitating factor in the conflict. At the same time, in framing the Jewish settlement of the land within the discourse of Galut ve Geula (exile and redemption), Zionism had the effect of excluding Palestinians from Israeli public discourse [Silberstein 1999-179].

  4. The facts mentioned are interesting but in my opinion the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is caused by the rich wanting to secure and expand their land. The Balfour Declaration enabled it all. I wish more people were aware of how German Zionists engineered bringing the US into WW 1 and how Hitler was enraged when he found out that Germany had been betrayed by its own Jewish citizens. Yes Hitler was a psychopath and no I don’t hate Jews. More recent destabilisation of the Middle East by the US has further marginalised the Palestinians. If anyone is interested in the global dynamics of how the return of the Jews to the “old country” was orchestrated by Zionist forces, I recommend you listen to a 45 minute version of the speech given by Mr Benjamin Freedman in 1961 in the US, sometimes called “Warning to the West”. Freedman was an adviser to President Woodrow Wilson and renounced Judaism when he realised the manipulation of the presidency by Zionists so that Balfour Declaration could proceed, and then how World War 2 was a consequence of that betrayal, all so that Jews could have their own country again. Freedman also explains in detail how the majority of modern day Jews are descended from the Kazars of the Russian continent and not those of Bible times. The overwhelming theme of today’s conflict is money and power, not religion, which is just a means to an end.

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