Wednesday, January 02, 2013


It is generally understood that Religious Zionism  (at least the kind espoused by Rav Kook, and which has dominant since at least 1967) is messianic at its roots and acts as such.

What is less clear is the role messianism has (and is) playing in mainstream secular Zionism. Witness the letter below. It was written by then Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to then Housing Minister Mordechai Bentov. The date is June 24 1967 -  3 days before the Israeli Government formally annexed East Jerusalem (and 70 sq km of surrounding territory.) We don't have Bentov's communication to which Eshkol is responding, but one can fairly imagine that Bentov is dragging his feet on having his ministry draw up the technical maps and additional documents that would be needed for the formal annexation. (Bentov is from the left wing Mapam party, so it would not surprise that he might have qualms about the annexation - though in the end Bentov and Mapam voted for it.) Clearly, Eshkol is impatient with Bentov's deliberate foot dragging and/or excessive care in preparing the needed paperwork.
To: The Minister of Housing
From: The Prime Minister 
You can imagine that I know a bit about creating new townships, and the distinction between founding a town and baking bread is clear to me. Yet even bread rolls need to be baked properly, but sometimes they're baked hurriedly as our fathers baked on their way out of Egypt. ...
History will forgive us if we miss by a centimeter or two, and it won't be important. I took umbrage at the complacence in your words when you said that there's no hurry, ... The reality is that the ground is burning under our feet and any delay could cause us to miss the footsteps of the Messiah. 
Levi Eshkol
(source: here

"... the footsteps of the Messiah" !!  Eshkol is a secular social democrat - the crusty head of Mapai - who, as he has alludes to, has spent the past decades founding new moshavim, kibbutzim and development towns first as Minister of Agriculture, then Minister of Finance, and finally as Prime Minister (a position he had held for 4 years when this letter was written.) He opposes religious legislation and shows few signs of religious observance in his personal life. What does he mean when he says "any delay could cause us to miss the footsteps of the Messiah."

I offer four theories:

  1. Its just a fanciful literary allusion to Jewish tropes. Like the reference to bread "baked hurriedly as our fathers baked on their way out of Egypt."
  2. He really believes in the Messiah - or at least the classical Jewish Messianic era. At some level he remains a religious Jew.
  3. He believes - not in a religious messiah - but "the arc of history" in which the Jews, and their return to sovereignty in the Land of Israel - plays a significant role. In this sense he is in the tradition of Hegel and Marx, who also believed in "the arc of history" and the special role of various groups and/or ideas. (Christianity in the case of Hegal, and the Proletariat in the case of Marx.) This is also not far removed from the theology of the Reform Movement.
  4. Messianism is a useful metaphor in Zionist polemics, and Eshkol has gotten so used to using it, that it just flows out of him - even in a letter to an avowedly hard core socialist political colleague.

I personally believe that 3 and 4 are closest to the truth here.

Two additional thoughts in this regard:

Modecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, also believed in "the arc of history" - or at least the inevitable march of human civilization towards "progress". But he emphatically rejected any special status or pre-determined role for Jews. Whatever role we play is strictly based on our own choices he believed, and Jews are just as capable of playing a role for good as for bad.

Margaret Thatcher once said (and I paraphrase): All politicians must use metaphors to explain and persuade. The danger is when they start to believe in them.

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