The Making of Modern Zionism

The Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State


By Shlomo Avineri

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An expanded edition of a classic intellectual history of Zionism, now covering the rise of religious Zionism since the 1970s

For eighteen centuries pious Jews had prayed for the return to Jerusalem, but only in the revolutionary atmosphere of nineteenth-century Europe was this yearning transformed into an active political movement: Zionism. In The Making of Modern Zionism, the distinguished political scientist Shlomo Avineri rejects the common view that Zionism was solely a reaction to anti-Semitism and persecution. Rather, he sees it as part of the universal quest for self-determination. In sharply-etched intellectual profiles of Zionism’s major thinkers from Moses Hess to Theodore Herzl and from Vladimir Jabotinsky to David Ben Gurion, Avineri traces the evolution of this quest from its intellectual origins in the early nineteenth century to the establishment of the State of Israel. In an expansive new epilogue, he tracks the changes in Israeli society and politics since 1967 which have strengthened the more radical nationalist and religious trends in Zionism at the expense of its more liberal strains. The result is a book that enables us to understand, as perhaps never before, one of the truly revolutionary ideas of our time.




NACHMAN KROCHMAL’S THE GUIDE TO THE PERPLEXED OF OUR Time (Moreh Nevuchei Ha-zman) is one of the first and most intriguing intellectual attempts to confront the problems of modern Jewish existence within a conceptual framework drawn from the dominant European philosophical traditions of the nineteenth century. The title of the book consciously evokes echoes of Maimonides’s Guide to the Perplexed, and the parallel is obvious. Maimonides’s great achievement was to integrate a rational understanding of Judaism into the dominant medieval Aristotelian tradition. Similarly, Krochmal wished to guide the perplexed of his generation by the light of idealist philosophy from Kant to Hegel. His aim was to try to answer the problems besetting the first Jewish generation after Emancipation by referring to the general philosophical Zeitgeist. He attempted to show that maintaining a Jewish identity did not necessarily contradict universal philosophical imperatives; on the contrary, he attempted to vindicate the validity of Judaism through idealist philosophy, in some cases referring to the traditional philosophical objections to Judaism. Trying to prove the validity and legitimacy of Judaism according to Hegelian principles was the main achievement of Krochmal’s impressive volume.

Nachman Krochmal (1785–1840) was born in Galicia, then under the Hapsburgs, and until his early death he witnessed the vicissitudes that overtook this region in the wake of the Napoleonic wars. Living in an area where most people spoke Polish but where the Kultursprache was German, Krochmal wrote his philosophical treatise in Hebrew—one of the first attempts to adapt modern philosophical discourse to this language. The book was published posthumously in 1851, and if Hegel once boasted that he had taught philosophy to speak German, one can say that Krochmal taught Hegelian philosophy to speak Hebrew.1

Krochmal was a typical progeny of the first generation of emancipated Jews. From his traditional background he received his religious Jewish education, and through his own efforts he became acquainted with general culture, mainly German letters and philosophy. According to a biographical sketch, written in Hebrew by his disciple Meir Halevi Letteris, Krochmal studied “Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic, German and French; he learned the history of many nations and studied the philosophy of Spinoza, Mendelssohn . . . Lessing and especially Kant . . . until he arrived at the magnificent scholars of our own age, mainly Schelling, Fichte and Hegel.”2

The structure of Krochmal’s Guide is indeed Hegelian. Human history is not conceived as a series of meaningless occurrences; there is a structure and a telos to history. Man is a social animal, and man’s achievements are expressed in collective entities possessing a common denominator. Society, the nation (uma), are the subjects of history. History is the story of these cultural entities, and this heritage common to groups of human beings is what creates culture. Following Herder and Hegel, Krochmal calls these cultural entities ruah ha-uma, the spirit of the nation.

Judaism also has to be considered within such a historical understanding. Judaism should not be viewed, as Orthodox rabbinical thinking has it, as an unchanging and frozen entity, existing in its crystallized form from time immemorial, but as an outcome of an unending chain of events, embedded in world history.

True to the Hegelian meaning of Volksgeist, Krochmal views the spirit of a nation not as a mystical and irrational force but as the aggregate of specific qualities common to a given group of men which distinguish this group from others. It is the spiritual root common to the historical creativity of any given human group. According to Krochmal, the observer who looks into the differences between nations will discover a key or a code which characterizes all the institutions and cultural expressions of any given entity:

Just like the individual spirit, so the spirit of a nation has specific traits in every single entity, and it can be discerned in all its acts. In arts and crafts, in customs and laws, in the education and upbringing of children, in the knowledge of the divine and in religious worship—in all its acts in peace and war, in all its periods and vicissitudes, a nation could always be distinguished and differentiated from other nations. It is nevertheless true that sometimes it is difficult—and much understanding would be necessary—to discover the relationship between these spiritual phenomena, their value and their interconnections.3

Like Herder, Krochmal sees three stages in the development of all nations: growth, great historical achievement, and decline. These stages are linked dialectically with each other: out of a nation’s struggles during its time of growth there emerges its historical significance in its apotheosis, and it is the elements of its power that bring about its internal corruption and decline, for “when splendour and glory abound in a nation, the love of luxury develops and art will be subjugated to mere sensual stimuli.”4 Thus it happens that every nation goes through a period of grandeur to be followed by decline and disintegration.

Yet the specific contribution of each nation becomes integrated into the totality of world history and lives on as the universal heritage of mankind even after the disappearance of a nation. Again following Hegel, Krochmal maintains that despite the disappearance of the Greeks and the Romans from the historical stage, their contributions persist. Greece endowed mankind with the aesthetic spirit, while Rome bequeathed a political and juridical tradition. Thus, while individual Volksgeister disappear, their contributions persist within the universal Weltgeist. Dialectically, every Volksgeist is thus only a moment in the ever-unfolding Weltgeist, itself an expression of the Absolute Spirit. This is the dialectical synthesis of the particular and the universal in the Hegelian tradition. National culture is not an end unto itself but only a step in the development of universal culture, and the mounting series of national cultures expresses also a mounting order of an ever-widening universality—from the polis in its closeness and apartness to the modern world with its universalistic structures and content.

The Jews are seen by Krochmal as a nation, as one of the many nations that contributed the world history. However, their historical existence spans much of known world history; while other nations have appeared on the world stage, made their contribution, and taken their bow and disappeared, the Jews continue to exist. Does this need a special explanation, or are the Jews, as the Orthodox rabbinical tradition maintains, living completely outside history, a nation unto itself, untouched by world history and thus also uncontaminated by it?

Krochmal rejects the Orthodox view. To him, the Jewish national spirit has characteristics similar to those of other national spirits, “a nation among the nations.” Yet the question persists: why did the Jews not disappear like the ancient Egyptians and the Persians, like the Greeks and the Romans? The question goes back to Hegel himself. Both Herder and Hegel viewed the Jews as a nation, a Volk, not as a mere religious community. Yet Hegel’s view allocated to the Jews a role described in terms of the historical past, and ultimately he did not give an adequate answer to the survival of the Jews into present times.

Krochmal develops his philosophy of history by going back to what Hegel said about the Jewish contribution to history, and out of it he develops his own, rather startling, synthesis of Judaism and Hegelianism. According to Hegel, the Jewish people introduced the concept of monotheism and made this belief in one God a historical reality. The chosenness and holiness of the Jewish people was the political and historical actualization of the idea of monotheism, and its objective historical reality was expressed in the notion of a Holy Nation, a people of priests.5

Yet, according to Hegel, this monotheism was still bound by the particular historical limitations of the Jewish people and did not have any impact outside its own very restricted boundaries. Moreover, because the monotheistic idea was so novel, it did not become implanted immediately in the active consciousness of the people of Israel—hence the frequent lapses, during the period of the Judges and Kings of the First Commonwealth, back into paganism. This tenuous and precarious monotheism therefore had to be buttressed and sustained by an intricate structure of rigid and formalistic legislation. The Mosaic code, with its numerous formalistic and highly technical commandments, was intended to serve as a substitute for the lack of real belief.

Hegel thus maintained that Jewish monotheism needed a complement that would both take it out of its particular attachment to the Jewish people as well as emancipate it from the thralldom of the Mosaic code and turn it into a creed based on internal, subjective conviction, not on external codification. This was, according to Hegel, what Jesus did. He emancipated Jewish monotheism from its tribal attachment to the Jewish people and turned it into a world religion. By anchoring it in the subjective belief of the individual soul he freed it from a crushing obedience to the formalistic Mosaic code.

It is at this turning point, when Judaism became—through its offspring, Christianity—a world religion, that Hegel also placed dialectically the end of historical Judaism. Once Israelite monotheism became, via Christianity, open to the whole of mankind, a separate and distinct existence of the Jewish people lost its justification. The rationale for the existence of the people of Israel was in its separation and apartness from a world of paganism. Now that the message of monotheism had been universalized through Christianity, what justification could there be for this distinctiveness? The New Testament, complementing the Old Testament, made the separate existence of the Jewish people superfluous. According to Hegel’s dialectical reasoning, the victory of Jewish monotheism in the form of Christianity eliminated the raison d’être for the historical carrier of this idea—the people of Israel. Once the Jewish people had achieved its mission on a universal scale, it had to disappear from the historical scene as the Greeks and the Romans disappeared after their contributions had been integrated into the course of world history.

Here Krochmal discovers a problem which had faced Hegel and which he had been unable to solve. Anyone following Hegel’s argument up to this point would have to deduce from it that the Jews did indeed disappear from the historical scene after the emergence of Christianity. However, unlike the Greeks and the Romans, the Jews did not disappear from history. In fact they continued to survive under extremely difficult conditions. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans had their political structures destroyed in a way similar to what had befallen the Jews with the destruction of their Temple. Yet despite losing every shred of political autonomy, having their holy places devastated, and being exiled from their country, the Jews continued to exist for two millennia. Traditional Christian theology could, perhaps, find some explanation and even justification for the continued existence of the Jewish people even after the Jews rejected Jesus; yet for someone like Hegel, who viewed history as a succession of peoples contributing to world history and then disappearing, the continued existence of the Jews after making their historical contribution did pose a serious philosophical question.

Hegel had no answer to this problem. Krochmal suggests that if the whole Hegelian schema of world history has validity, it cannot overlook such a conspicuous case of a people not fitting into its overall pattern. Either this exception is an indication of a serious flaw in the whole argument, or there is need to supplement the general pattern by some special explanations about the deviation of the course of Jewish history.

Here Krochmal uses Hegel’s own theories to refute him while constructing his argument within the Hegelian framework itself. Krochmal concurs with Hegel that the Jewish contribution to world history has been the idea of monotheism, yet he develops this idea in an original way. While all the contributions of other nations to world history have been of a particular nature, the Jewish contribution has been of a universal nature. The Greek contribution in the field of aesthetics, like the Roman contribution in the field of statecraft, basically relates to the world of externalities and, hence, is particular. The Jewish contribution of monotheism directly relates to the Absolute Spirit, which is the content of history itself. Thus the Jewish contribution is not bound by time and space because it is itself absolute and universal and not subject to the ebb and flow of historical development. The content of Judaism is therefore equal to the content of philosophy—the Idea—and this is the reason for the ability of the Jews to transcend time and place.

Like Hegel, Krochmal maintains that all religions try to confront the Absolute. Primitive religion tries to do it in an undifferentiated form, and only historical development brings forth more complex and more adequate expressions of this idea:

You should know that all religion is grounded in the spiritual realm, so that even the basest religion of savages is not related to something material, which is particular, finite and perishable, but is ultimately related to its sustaining power: and this transcends the ephemeral changes of the particular and is universal and infinite. . . .

[All nations have therefore spiritual elements in their religion,] yet they could not transcend particular spiritualities [and identify them] with what is still particular, related to time and space, and therefore transient. These nations have not yet reached the truly universal, which has actuality in the Absolute Spirit: this is pure reason and cannot have an external form. . . .6

Only in Jewish monotheism is this spirituality, which is found in every religion but is still imprisoned within particularism, raised to the level of universality. Since the material and the particular are transient by their very nature, the nations which introduced such particular spiritualities (like the Greek and the Roman) disappeared in the course of history, whereas the bearer of Absolute Spirit, the people of Israel, can transcend the temporality of history:

Such is the case with all nations whose spirituality is particular and hence finite and perishable. But in the case of our nation, though we too are subject to the laws of [finite] nature with regard to material aspects and sensuous externalities . . . our universal spirituality saves us from perishing. . . .7

Jewish history, because of its universal content, is thus different from other histories. Krochmal discovers in it not only the three stages of the historical development of all nations but also a cyclical pattern in which the three stages are repeated again and again in every cycle. Every time the third stage arrives, the Jews, rather than disintegrating and disappearing, start a new cycle and like the legendary phoenix, proceed again to a new first stage.

Jewish history appears, therefore, to Krochmal not as linear but as cyclical, and most of the second part of his Guide is dedicated to this dialectical periodization of Jewish history. Krochmal discerns three cycles in Jewish history, and each cycle encompasses within itself the three stages of youth, maturity, and decline that characterize all historical development. Jewish history in that way is the meeting point of the temporal and the transcendental, the finite and the infinite, the historical expression of the Absolute Spirit.

Krochmal’s three cycles in Jewish history are (1) from Abraham to the destruction of the First Temple; (2) from the Return from Babylon through the destruction of the Second Temple to the death of Rabbi Akiva and the fall of Betar during Bar-Kochba’s revolt against the Romans; and (3) from the composition of the Mishnah until the 1648–49 pogroms of Chmielnicki in the Ukraine. Since then, a new era has begun, heralded by the Enlightenment and Emancipation. What characterizes this periodization, true to the Hegelian tradition, is the rise and decline of political structures among the Jews. This is a highly politicized and national periodization of history, and Krochmal is the first Jewish modern thinker not only to propose an outline of Jewish history but also to make political criteria into the cornerstones of its structure. With minor modifications, Krochmal’s construction of Jewish history would remain intact in later generations and would constantly accompany the Jewish national renaissance.

Krochmal’s tour de force is intellectually brilliant and stimulating. He takes Hegel and judges him by his own criteria and finds him wanting in supplying a satisfactory answer to the survival of the Jewish people beyond the moment at which its contribution had been integrated into world history. The question is asked, and the answer proposed in Hegelian terms but through an internal Aufhebung of the qualities attributed by Hegel to the Jews. If Hegel viewed the Jews as having made a significant contribution to world history in the past, and in the past alone, and their continued existence remains for him an inexplicable aberration, Krochmal needs to prove the absolute essence of Judaism. While Hegel and the Left Hegelians could thus criticize the continued existence of the Jews as being particularistic and hence irrational and superfluous, in Krochmal’s writings the Jews themselves appear as the bearers of absolute universality. The Jews, not the nations of the world, are truly universal; it is the Gentiles who are particularistic. For Krochmal, the people of Israel is elevated to the only historical phenomenon which is simultaneously metahistorical. Hence the very historical existence of the Jewish people, far from being an anachronism and an aberration, is itself of philosophical significance. The people of Israel link the eternal and the temporal, the philosophical and the historical. The roots of the Jewish people are, like those of all other people, in history, yet its telos transcends the temporalities and externalities of mere historical existence. The Jewish people is hence am olam—in the double meaning of the term—a universal as well as an eternal people.

The attribution of Hegelian qualities to the Jewish people thus becomes a key to Krochmal’s restructuring of Hegel’s own philosophy of history. It is not the gentile peoples, who reached their hegemony through material, terrestrial, and temporal means, who are the bearers of true universality: each of these world historical nations (welthistorische Völker) is transient. Only the Jewish people, whose power is the power of the spirit, is truly universal. Hence it could survive without political power, without a state. In the spirituality and continued existence of the Jewish people, the Absolute Spirit of Hegelian philosophy finds its true subject. The Jews are thus not to be seen as a historical quirk, drawing out their existence through mere stubbornness generations and millennia after their role has been exhausted; they have an eternal universal telos in the realm of the Absolute Spirit.

Such a Hegelianization of Jewish history, carried out through a dialectical Aufhebung of certain elements of Hegel’s philosophy itself, is, undoubtedly, a highly original intellectual breakthrough in the Jewish self-consciousness in the era after the French Revolution. This integration of Jewish history into a revised reading of Hegel’s philosophy of history, whose subjects are nations and their cultures (Volksgeister), views Jewish history as the history of a nation, not of a mere religious community. Hence there can be a Hegelian legitimacy to writing Jewish history, while no such legitimacy could be found for writing Christian history as such. In the emerging world of nations, Krochmal gives a universal significance to Jewish history much the same as Alexander Herzen did to Russian history. In this way Krochmal was one of the first to answer the problems of Jewish identity in a community of nations and to give that particular answer its universal dimensions.



EVERY NATIONAL MOVEMENT IN EUROPE WAS ACCOMPANIED—or even preceded—by the emergence of a new and revolutionary historical consciousness, through which the new or renascent nation expressed its self-awareness and its new image. A call for a national future was always voiced in the context of the discovery of a historical past or its reinterpretation. Hence the emergence of historical writing in the post-1789 era was a constant accompaniment to the rising nationalism.1 Heinrich Graetz (1817–1891) was the most influential among Jewish writers in carrying out this historiographical revolution in Jewish thinking.

Like Krochmal before him, Graetz came from a border area between German and Polish cultures. He was born in the Posen (Poznan) district, which was then under Prussian rule and was similar to Galicia, where Krochmal was born, in its linguistic and cultural pluralism and the clash between two national entities. Between 1853 and 1876 he published eleven volumes of his Geschichte der Juden von den ältesten Zeiten bis auf die Gegenwart (History of the Jews from the Earliest Time to the Present),2 in which he proclaims that Jewish history is free from theology and is to be judged according to general historical laws. More than any other piece of writing Graetz’s work contributed to the emergence of a worldview of the Jews as a nation and Jewish history as a national history. No longer is Judaism considered an unchanging, dogmatic religious structure, as maintained by Orthodoxy, nor is it conceived as a religious community merely possessing a moral and spiritual vision, as claimed by the Reform movement. To Graetz, the Jews are a nation, possessing a historical continuity and a story unfolding in time and place, undergoing changes and transformations like all other nations.

The two major influences evident in Graetz are the Hegelian philosophical legacy combined with the tradition of German historical writing, mainly identified with Leopold Ranke. Just as these two traditions greatly influenced and enhanced most Central and East European national movements, so their impact can be traced in Graetz’s work. Like Krochmal before him, Graetz derives his view of history as an unfolding structure from Hegel, and hence he considers the course of Jewish history as successive dialectical stages of Judaism’s own awareness of its spiritual contents. From Ranke he derives the necessity to place historical developments into a meaningful structure. As in Ranke, the need to write “objective,” detached history (wie es eigentlich gewesen ist) becomes itself a polemical enterprise. All historical writing is ultimately polemical—be it the Whig interpretation of history or Rankean research-oriented historiography—and Graetz’s monumental historical effort is no exception.

What Krochmal tried to do in a philosophical context and in Hebrew—in his period still an outlandish medium—Graetz attempted to do in a much more popular vein in German, the Kultursprache of educated Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. Within a short time, his work was translated into most European languages spoken by Jews, and his book truly transformed the image Jews had of their own history. When the political Zionism of Herzl appeared at the turn of the century, the view of Jews as a nation among nations and not a mere religious community, had already been implanted mainly through Graetz’s writings among many educated Jews.

Graetz expresses his view of history in a short essay published in 1846 called “Die Konstruction der jüdischen Geschichte,”3 and from this essay follow the theoretical foundations which would guide him through his decades of work on the multivolume History of the Jews.

Graetz opens his essay with an attack on some of the dominant schools of thought then prevalent among educated Jews in Germany. Each of these schools tries to present Judaism as a religion characterized by definite content. For example, Judaism is presented in one as a rational religion, in another a religion of divine revelation. According to Graetz, all these schools are right—but not exclusively, only if they are presented as different moments in the continuous unfolding of the principle of Judaism in history. To Graetz, Judaism should not be explicated through any particular texts but through the concrete historical behavior of the Jewish people over time. Judaism, like any other human phenomenon, should be perceived only through the totality of its historical praxis and not through any single doctrinal moment of its teachings.

Following his Hegelian premises, Graetz does think that Judaism has a central idea, but this is not an abstract or merely hortatory idea of a moral desideratum. It can be grasped only through its historical manifestations, and mere biblical or talmudic quotations will not suffice to bring out this efficacy. “Every vital idea must create for itself a solid existence. It must work itself out of the monotonous, dormant state of the ideal into the changing, turbulent world of reality. Thus, history is not only the reflection of the idea but also the test of its power.”4 The historical forms are the moments of the idea turned concrete; hence historical study is also philosophical enquiry.

In trying to identify this central idea of Judaism that is evident in its historical development, Graetz echoes the general revolutionary climate of his time as well as some specific elements of the Sturm und Drang


On Sale
Apr 4, 2017
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

Shlomo Avineri

About the Author

Shlomo Avineri is Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. He also serves as Recurring Visiting Professor at the Central European University in Budapest. Avineri was the Director-General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1975-77 in the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He writes frequently for Haaretz and lives in Jerusalem, Israel.

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