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Was the Chief Rabbi right on Zionism?

    The Chief Rabbi made his strongest public statement since coming into office two and a half years ago when he intervened in the Labour antisemitism controversy, warning that the party had a “severe problem”.

    But one point he made has particularly generated over the past week – the relationship of Zionism to Judaism.

    This is what Rabbi Mirvis wrote: “Zionism is a belief in the right to Jewish self-determination in a land that has been at the centre of the Jewish world for more than 3,000 years ago. One can no more separate it from Judaism than separate the City of London from Great Britain.”

    I take “it” in the second sentence to refer to Zionism rather than the “land”.

    The centrality of the land of Israel, the ultimate restoration of Jewish sovereignty, the ingathering of the exiles – these are, indisputably, cardinal beliefs in traditional Judaism handed down from generation to generation.

    But the religious return to Zion is not quite the same thing as Zionism. Zionism was a 19th century political movement to establish a modern Jewish state which was influenced by the secular nationalism of the times. There may have been proto-Zionist groups who tried to found Jewish colonies in Eretz Yisrael but it was Zionism that led to Jewish statehood.

    From the perspective of Mizrachi, the Orthodox national-religious movement, Zionism is an integral part of Judaism. There are religious thinkers who argue that when it is possible to return to the land of Israel, Jews have a religious duty to do so.

    The Chief Rabbi clearly was aiming his remarks at those, particularly on the left, who would try to decouple attachment to the land of Israel from Judaism.

    But one can’t forget that Zionism was not, and is still not, universally accepted within Orthodoxy.

    Some of the most prominent rabbis of the early 20th century opposed the movement for two main reasons. They feared – not without justification – that it would replace the primacy of Torah commitment with secular nationalism. Some also argued that the exile was divinely ordained and that the return to Zion must await messianic times, until which Jews must bear their fate in the diaspora.

    Those views still persist in parts of the Charedi world, even if the diehard opponents represent only a minority trend. That doesn't make them more "authentic" than any other intepretations of Judaism. But it remains true that love of Zion and Zionism are not quite the same thing.

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