Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition

Gali Tibbon / Getty Images / AFP

It’s perfectly legitimate to disagree with how Israel is run—Lord knows, I’ve done my share of that—or even to assert that Jews might have been better off in some ways if the modern State of Israel had not been created (although I disagree).

But the often blood-drenched 1900 years of Jewish statelessness that preceded Israel’s creation demonstrate that Jews need the protection and security that only a Jewish a state and a Jewish army give. That was true in the early 1880s when my great-great grandfather made this argument to his rabbinic colleagues in the midst of a wave of Russian pogroms, and it’s true today.

Theological anti-Zionism, like the kind we still see in extremist ultra-Orthodox groups, might be okay in a perfect world. But it isn’t okay in the real world that does exist where periods of calm are followed by periods of persecution, a world where Jews are bludgeoned to death by marauding hordes of anti-Semites, say, as was the case in 1880s Russia, mid-17th century Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova; in Hellenist Egypt in the First Century C.E.; and even in Poland in the months after the end of World War Two. It is not okay when Jews need police protection in order to attend synagogue, as is the case in much of Western Europe today, or are held hostage by anti-Semitic regimes, as Jews were by the Soviet Union, Syria, Iraq, and Ethiopia until very recently.

Some rabbis agreed with my great-grandfather’s argument. Others did not. But for almost all Jews, that debate was settled in my great-grandfather’s favor by the time the first Jews were turned into smoke and ash in Auschwitz. If the State of Israel had been created in 1928 instead of 1948, tens of thousands of Jews, perhaps many more, could have survived. But they didn’t survive because they had no place of refuge to go to and no state and no army trying to save them.

There are those Jews who would argue that Jews in the Diaspora live in an era of unprecedented safety. We are not persecuted and are in fact well integrated in the societies we live in they say, and so the need for a Jewish state no longer exists. That argument ignores history. It ignores the unprecedented era of safety and integration Jews had in Spain before the Inquisition, in France and Germany before the Crusades, and in Germany in the years preceding Hitler’s ascent to power. And the point of having a country of refuge isn’t to start trying to create one as the cattle cars are deporting you to Auschwitz. The point of a country of refuge is to have it when you don’t need it, so you also have it if you ever do.

I’m not a theological Zionist. I don’t see the “flowerings of the Redemption” in the creation of the state, and I find much of that theology and its political manifestations troubling. But I am a practical Zionist. Against our will, we were forced to try the stateless approach for 1900 years. It failed miserably. And quite frankly, I don’t see how any Jew can defend being an anti-Zionist after that.