Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Kaplan on Zionism

I am preparing material for a primer course on Reconstructionism to be given at my synagogue, and I was truck by some material in the essay "Reflections on Kaplan's Zionism" in the book "The American Judaism of Mordecai Kaplan." Rabbi Kaplan, of course, was the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, and one of the seminal thinkers of Judaism in the 20th century. It can be fairly said that his central ideas have de-facto won over the majority of Diaspora Jewry.

Not so, however, his understanding of Zionism and the role of Israel in Jewish life. Too bad.

Rabbi Jack Cohen, a disciple of Kaplan, writing from Jerusalem shortly after Kaplan's death in 1982, writes:
When [Kaplan] appealed for a Jewish nationalism that would foster a humane and humanizing way of life, he was putting forth a claim that the natural right [of the Jewish People] to survive must not be construed as an end in itself. Life is meaningless without moral and spiritual purpose ... Kaplan maintained that without naturalistic religion Zionism would produce only another power-ridden society. Without the check upon moral and spiritual arrogance that only an intellectually honest theology calls forth, the Jewish religion would give rise to a coercive and chauvinistic state.
In other words the raison d'etre of the Israel cannot be Jewish survival alone. But rather moral progress. A state (and a religion) based primarily on national/ethnic survival will become fascist.

Later Cohen explains:
... [Kaplan believed that] as a democracy [note: NOT a Jewish Democracy - sn] the State of Israel will have to nourish pluralism, and in the course of time, produce a new Israeli nation - with Jews as its most influential element, but one that also includes Arabs, Druse, and other ethnic and religious groups. Jews in Israel would have to live in two civilizations as they do elsewhere ...
Sounds like "a state for all its citizens" to me.

And in a less theoretical vein:
[Kaplan's] concern for [relationships between Jews and Arabs] is evident in his journals, where he indicates his conviction that success of the Zionist effort would rest upon its resolution. Kaplan followed the tradition of Ahad Ha-Am and A. D. Gordon in urging Zionists to give more and fairer attention to the Arab presence. He criticized discrimination against Arab workers and called upon the yishuv to treat Arabs as partners in the revivication of the land.

"Jews should have realized," he wrote in 1939, " that they have to live with the Arabs, and should not have written into the statutes of the Jewish National Fund the prohibition of Arab labor. No effort should have been spared in devising ways or means of effecting a modus vivendi that would have been satisfactory to all who have an interest in the land."
The latter remarks are particularly ironic given the JNF's current aggressive role in "Judaizing" (i.e. ethnically cleansing) large areas of Israel/Palestine. More about that in a subsequent post.


Anonymous Eric said...

Jack Cohen also remarked that Kaplan and Judah Magnes did not get along mostly because Kaplan was jealous of him and his articulation of Zionist ideas.

9:17 am  
Anonymous Noam Pianko said...

Kaplan's legacy as the classic American Zionist does indeed tend to overlook his critique of political Zionism and attempts to promote peoplehood as an alternate concept to nation-state nationalism. I expand on Jack Cohen's observation in the Kaplan chapter of my book "Zionism and the Roads not Taken" (Indiana, 2010). I also recently wrote a blog entry about Kaplan's intended vision for the concept of "peoplehood" as an alternative to post-1948 Zionism at

1:57 pm  

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