The best thing about my university library is not its imposing neo-Gothic architecture, nor the contemplative bronze statue of Confucius, but rather its wonderfully expansive section on Zionist literature. I recently had the pleasure of making use of the works of Martin Gilbert (Z”l) et al for an essay I had chosen to write about the early Zionists – that is, those individuals who wrote about modern Jewish nationalism, and in most cases actively advanced the Zionist cause, in the period 1860-1948. Despite being a committed Zionist, during the course of my research it became embarrassingly clear to me how little I knew about many of the Zionist thinkers whose works I was reading.
After quizzing a couple of friends and fellow bogrim (both with an equally rigorous Bnei Akiva upbringing) it transpired that they were similarly ignorant (you can see where I’m going with this). No doubt most bogrim have heard of both David Ben Gurion and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, but could they explain the radical differences in their respective Zionist philosophies? We learn about Theodor Herzl’s journey from Paris to Basel, but barely touch on Ahad Ha-Am’s visions for a Jewish state. As for religious thinkers, ask a HaKotel boy about Abraham Isaac Kook and he may politely look up from his Gemara and reach for Orot, but ask him about Yehudah Alkalai or Zvi Hirsch Kalischer and expect a blank face.
For more than sixty-six years before there was a state, there was the idea of a state. Yet the entirety of formative modern Zionist thought – which constitutes over half of the history of modern Zionism – is almost completely overlooked in the BA curriculum. We learn about the influence of Herzl and Rav Kook, but not about their own influences. We learn about the militias and the kibbutzim, but not about the ideologies which drove them (nor, for that matter, the atrocities which scarred them). Ben Gurion should be presented to chanichim not superficially as ‘the first Prime Minister of Israel’, but more accurately as the leader of the Labour Zionist movement and pioneering socialist that he was. Particularly given that (unlike Ben Gurion) most of the early Zionists never saw the establishment of the state, learning about their differing visions for a Jewish homeland will both deepen our understanding of it, whilst simultaneously increase our appreciation for it.
Perhaps educating chanichim about the different strands of Zionist thought would also provide an effective prism through which to engage in contemporary Israeli politics in an impartial way. For example, bringing in a speaker such as Naftali Bennett, a political descendant of Jabotinsky, could be preceded by a peulah discussing the ideology and influences of revisionist Zionism. Providing this historical, ideological contextualisation performs a dual-role of deepening chanichim’s understanding of Zionism, whilst making them aware of the multitude of different viewpoints that fall under the modern religious Zionist umbrella, and importantly, that no one individual’s views uniquely represent religious Zionism.