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Zionism and Zelensky

03/28/2022 01:47:43 PM


Rabbi Samuel Gordon

Rabbi Sam Gordon Headshot

Once again during this week, I have been drawn to the war in Ukraine and the personality and leadership of Volodymyr Zelensky.

What I try to do, as best as possible, is not repeat what you can get at PBS or NPR or The New York Times or The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal. Rather, I want to offer some insights that perhaps offer a different perspective that you wouldn't normally hear elsewhere. Tonight, I want to provide something of a mash-up, if you will, between the history of Zionism and Volodymyr Zelensky and how they intersect.

First, let’s look at what the origins of Zionism, represented philosophically.  I am sure you know the story of how Theodore Herzl, an assimilated Viennese journalist, went to Paris and witnessed the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfuss, He was shocked by what he saw because Dreyfuss was the ultimate assimilationist, a true Frenchman, a captain in the army. He was totally French, and Herzl realized that even Dreyfuss could never be accepted as fully French because he was a Jew.

Herzl wasn't the first to come up with this idea. Leon Pinsker, who lived in Odessa, was part of an enlightened, intellectual, progressive society, yet such acceptance did not prevent the anti-Semitic pogroms of Ukraine.  Odessa was one-third Jewish; Kyiv was one-third Jewish. It was true of Warsaw, Budapest, and Berlin, but still, the Jews were not fully accepted, even in these liberal, sophisticated places. Pinsker wrote a book called 'Autoemancipation,' which dealt with "The Jewish Problem” of Europe, both in Western and in Eastern Europe. The Jewish problem” raised the question of what were modern societies going to do with these Jews, who are living in the cities, who are sophisticated, who are educated, but they still don't fit in? So, what are we going to do with them? The people didn’t fully fit in because they were stateless people that needed a state, a nation of their own. Only then could they be like the other people who had their own nation-states. That really is the core of the beginning of Zionism, that there had to be a place or a nation for a people.

Another key figure who lived in the area near Kyiv was A.D. Gordon, a follower of Tolstoy. He believed that there had to be a new definition of a Jew, a person of the land.  Instead of being a petty bourgeois businessperson, a professional, a tailor, or peddler, they were living in what he called a “parasitic condition.” Following the teachings of Tolstoy, the Jews had to get back to the land and be laborers and physically brave.

The European image of the Jew was of the ashen, pasty-complexioned, bent-over-yeshiva-student mixed with the globalists and the cosmopolitans of sophisticated Jewish society. But there had to be a new Jew that was none of those kinds of images. So, what was the solution? Zionism. If the Jews could have their own land, they could return to being a normal people, as opposed to these luftmenschen not ever quite fitting into France or Germany or Belgium or Russia or Ukraine.

These early Zionists believed that once there was that solution to the Jewish problem, every Jew in the world would of course come to where they were and there would be the in-drawing of the exiles. The Balfour Declaration said that Palestine would be A homeland for the Jews, but Weitzman wanted a different word. Weitzman wanted it to say THE homeland for the Jews. What he meant by that was that the Land of Israel would be the homeland for all the Jews.

The great Cleveland Reform Rabbi, Abba Hillel Silver, established the Zionist Organization of America, but David Ben Gurion thought that was an oxymoron. How could you be an American and a Zionist? Zionism meant that life in America for Jews didn't exist, and that too, is a core Zionist belief. It's called shlilat hagalut, the denial of the Diaspora, the denial of exile. One of its chief proponents was the historian, Ben Zion Netanyahu, the father of Benjamin Netanyahu. He believed that anything that happened outside of the borders of the Land of Israel really didn't matter.  Shlilat hagalut taught that there was no real legitimacy of Judaism outside of that strip of Middle Eastern land. Of course, four these one hundred and fifty years, we have lived with this great tension, because the truth is not everyone came to Israel. Even today America and Israel are each home to about the same number of Jews.

So now let’s turn to Ukraine. This was a center for Jewish life and was also a center for Jewish Zionists. Zionism was very strong in Ukraine. For many others, however, the Russian Revolution's ideal of creating a new society also appealed to Jews. And some of the Jews wanted to be part of that revolution, among them were the Bundists. They were Jewish communists, Jewish Bolsheviks. They wanted to be part of that new society, and Ukraine was one of the republics within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic. There actually was even a place that was established for Jewish autonomy called Birobidzhan, a place where the Jews could live and have their own autonomous republic. The Bundists wanted to be Jewish separatists but still live within the Soviet orbit. The Soviet political philosopher, Plekhanov, called them “seasick Zionists.” They were Zionists but they weren't willing to get on a boat.

After the Revolution, many stayed and became loyal to that Soviet system. It didn’t work out well for most of them, but they had a desire to create a Jewish society within this new revolutionary world. They did not emigrate to either America or to Palestine. Let us now confront Jewish life during the Holocaust. Many Jews fought on the side of the Red Army. They sought to defeat Hitler and the Nazis. But it is most instructive to see how Zionism perceived that battle against Naziism.

I offer this example from the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and how narrative is created. For those of us who have studied an Israeli Zionist history of the Shoah, the primary story is of resistance and heroism. To Israel, what was important were those who fought back, those who were brave and courageous. We were taught that the great hero of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was Mordecai Anielewicz. He led the uprising of the Jews against the Nazis, and he was the leader of Hashomir Hatza’ir, the non-Marxist but communist youth group. In Israel, he is seen as the great hero of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. There is a kibbutz named after him, Yad Mordecai.

Ironically though, there was someone else who was a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Marek Edelman. One doesn’t hear much about him. He was head of the Bundists. Marek Edelman survived the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and he lived beyond World War II.  He died relatively recently, in 2009. But until the new Yad Vashem, there was never a mention of Marek Edelman in Israeli history or the retelling of Holocaust history. Why? Because he stayed in Poland. He became a cardiologist in Warsaw. He went to Israel only once when his comrades insisted that he come for a visit. In the new Yad Vashem, there's a small, little plaque that talks about him, but not much more.

Another example, when we in the West think of the female heroine of the Holocaust, we think of Anne Frank. In Israel, however, there is a small memorial in a Jewish National Fund Forest, funded by the Dutch branch of the Jewish National Fund, but that's it. Hannah Senesh is the heroine of World War II and the Holocaust in Israel. Why? She fought back; she had made Aliyah; she was a paratrooper, lived on a kibbutz in Israel, and went back to Hungary to fight the Nazis. Why is Anne Frank largely overlooked? The Frank weren't Zionists. They never intended to make Aliyah. They didn’t resist.

So now I offer this mash-up. I’ve taken you through a very quick history of Zionist philosophy, let’s look now at Zelensky. I assume he grew up in Ukraine. I am speculating that his grandparents could have been Zionist and left early for Palestine. They could have made Aliyah after the Holocaust. The lone family survivor could have gone to Israel. Later, when the Refusenik movement took place in the Soviet Union, he or his family could have left, too. But they didn't. He's still there, and the irony of course is that he's heroic. He is as heroic as the mythic figure Ari Ben Canaan in Exodus, or of Jonathan Netanyahu.

He is a heroic figure. He is the very opposite of the Zionist image of the Diaspora Jew.  He's not pasty-faced, if to be a Jew in Israel is to be a Jew with a suntan. I don't know whether he’s gotten much of a suntan in Kyiv, but maybe he has in Odessa. He represents that sense of heroism and bravery as a Jew in a place that was certainly never friendly to the Jews. He is actually an Israeli ideal of a Jew except he's not in Israel. So, he proves something, I think, that is actually very important. I’m not denying the importance of Israel in any way, but there is a lesson that Jews can be at home anywhere and that Jews can be brave, heroic leaders anywhere. I certainly do not deny the importance of Israel, but I reject its exclusivity.

I think that's the world in which we live as American Jews, and I think Volodymyr Zelensky should be a model and an inspiration to all of us. Finally, it should also remind us that we are tied to one another, that we are really connected to one another, that he is family, and that the people of Ukraine are family. So, let us pray for their well-being, their safety, and their peace.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wed, November 29 2023 16 Kislev 5784