The Secular Ethos Of Labor Zionism

Categories: Letters From Leadership

Labor Zionism began as a secular and socialist movement. It now calls itself social-democratic. Its Zionism is still secular, although many of its adherents are synagogue members, some of them even suspected believers. Which puts me in mind of a sermon a year ago by the rabbi of the Reform synagogue into which I married. He said, ?There can be no Zionism that is not theologically based.? I turned to my wife and said, ?Oops.?

And yet some years ago I translated from the Yiddish Nachman Syrkin?s 1917 essay, ?What is Socialist Zionism?? In it he invokes such images as shivas tzion, return to Zion, and geulah, redemption, along with byas hamoshiakh, the coming of the messiah, akhris hayomim, the end of days, and even tkhias hameysim, resurrection. While not theological, Labor Zionism is surely driven by Jewish spirituality. The Labor Zionist dream is more than simply the founding of a state?mamlakhtiut. Labor Zionism is committed to building a state which will promulgate the best in Judaism and in Jewishness. The state is to be democratic?politically, socially and economically; it is to hew to Hillel?s maxim that we not do to others that which we find hateful when done to us. It is to be, if I may appropriate a theological term, redemptive for the Jews.

Thus, Labor Zionism has had from its inception a dual agenda and a dual ethical origin. The agenda is to build a Jewish homeland and to struggle for social and economic justice in the world. The origin is both the Jewish tradition and social democratic ideology. Labor Zionism has always had to struggle against anti-democrats in the traditional Jewish community. This does not make us anti-religious. Religious Jews who have accepted modernity struggle to reconcile their belief in a just God with the injustice they see around them, and they fight against that injustice. ?My? rabbi and I first met, not at synagogue, but as allies in the struggle for justice in Israel and in America. His Zionism is based on theological ethics, mine on secular ethics. We both draw inspiration from the Jewish tradition and from the Enlightenment; we both arrive at the same place. Such religious Jews are our allies.

But we are not the allies of the Jewish anti-democrats, who are busy quoting religious sources to justify anything, from the oppression and murder of Palestinians (?Amalek?) to the stealing of land (?God gave it to us?) to the deaths of poor African-Americans in New Orleans (?Blacks don?t read Torah?).

Yet Labor Zionists have tended to play into their hands, by shying away from secular justifications for our agenda. In our search for a chimerical authenticity, we often constrain ourselves to trolling for Biblical or Talmudic proof texts. This is a bad idea. It?s bad as a strategy, because the Devil can quote Scripture for his own purposes. The anti-democrats on the religious right can always out-quote us?that?s all they know. But it?s also bad because it is a self-betrayal. Since when is religion the benchmark of morality? What about our own secular Jewish and universal ethics? A few years ago, an Orthodox rabbi shamed some young Israelis because, said he, they knew so much less of the religious Jewish tradition than did their Zionist grandfathers. The answer should have been, ?Our grandfathers (and grandmothers) knew that tradition, and chose to reject much of it. That?s the origin of modern Zionism, about which you should be ashamed to know so little.?

The connection between religion and morality is spurious. There is not a shred of evidence correlating religious belief and ethical behavior, at least ethical behavior as understood by modern civilized people?and I use those two adjectives without apology. Indeed, I could make a good case for negative correlation. Secularists do not receive messages from God telling them to commit massacres.

Modern social democracy is just what it says: modern. Sure, one can find some of its roots in Jewish sources, as did Syrkin, but it is fundamentally a secular ideology, as he well knew. Humans, made in the image of God or not, have progressed over the last few millennia. At least some of us have. And a secular moral code, sometimes complementing, sometimes opposing religious tradition, is a large part of that progression.

If the dual Labor Zionist ethos comprises not only the Jewish tradition, but also secular social democracy, then we should trumpet it, rather than soft-pedal it. If the dual Labor Zionist agenda comprises the building of a Jewish democratic homeland and struggling for justice around the world, then that means breaking the Orthodox stranglehold on Israeli law, supporting ?territory for security and peace,? opposing the Bush ?faith-based? agenda, and aiding the unfortunate without regard to whether they are Jewish. I want the hurricane relief money I sent to Jewish organizations to go first to housing people (of all faiths or none); then?if there?s any left over?to housing Torahs. And if that?s not how some religious chauvinist interprets God?s will, tough. The moral triumph of Labor Zionism was to reject those parts of Jewish tradition that had become antithetical to human progress. If we demand this of Christians and Muslims, then we must demand it of ourselves.
We should give no quarter to pious bigots such as former Israeli Chief Sephardi Rabbi Ovadiah (?Blacks don?t read Torah?)Yosef, or to the zealots in Israel and America who call for a Jewish crusade against territorial compromise and peace. Nor should we accept their racism, sexism, and homophobia because they tell us they are following Torah. Let them quote Scripture for their own purposes. We shall quote Hess and Pinsker and Borochov and Syrkin, and all the modern secular philosophers, political thinkers, and ethicists whose world view undergirds our actions.

About Jeffry V. Mallow Ph. D., Immediate Past President

Jeffry V. Mallow is Emeritus Professor of Physics at Loyola University Chicago. He does research on science education and on quantum physics. He is a member of the Forward Association and honorary chair of the Chicago YIVO Society. His articles on Jewish themes have appeared in numerous publications.  He is the author of Zionist Diarist and Other Polemics. He is also a standup Jewish comic.
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