Dispersion and the Longing for Zion, 1240-1840

By Arie Morgenstern

Did the Jews in exile really long for the Holy Land? A response to the new historiography.

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It has become increasingly accepted in recent years that Zionism is a strictly modern nationalist movement, born just over a century ago, with the revolutionary aim of restoring Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. And indeed, Zionism was revolutionary in many ways: It rebelled against a tradition that in large part accepted the exile, and it attempted to bring to the Jewish people some of the nationalist ideas that were animating European civilization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But Zionist leaders always stressed that their movement had deep historical roots, and that it drew its vitality from forces that had shaped the Jewish consciousness over thousands of years. One such force was the Jewish faith in a national redemption—the belief that the Jews would ultimately return to the homeland from which they had been uprooted.
This tension, between the modern and the traditional aspects of Zionism, has given rise to a contentious debate among scholars in Israel and elsewhere over the question of how the Zionist movement should be described. Was it basically a modern phenomenon, an imitation of the other nationalist movements of nineteenth-century Europe? If so, then its continuous reference to the traditional roots of Jewish nationalism was in reality a kind of facade, a bid to create an “imaginary community” by selling a revisionist collective memory as if it had been part of the Jewish historical consciousness all along. Or is it possible to accept the claim of the early Zionists, that at the heart of their movement stood far more ancient hopes—and that what ultimately drove the most remarkable national revival of modernity was an age-old messianic dream?
For many years, it was the latter belief that prevailed among historians of Zionism. Its leading proponent was Benzion Dinur, a central figure in what became known as the Jerusalem school of Jewish history. Dinur, a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who was also Israel’s minister of education from 1951 to 1955, understood the relationship between the Jewish people and the land of Israel to be a basic element of Jewish consciousness, and believed that messianic longing had played a decisive role in aliyot, or waves of Jewish immigration to the land of Israel, throughout history. For Dinur, the driving force behind the aliyot of the medieval and early modern periods was the “messianic ferment”that cropped up in Jewish communities from time to time, precipitating widespread efforts to predict the exact date the messianic era would begin; the appearance of charismatic leaders in various Jewish communities, who were seen as heralding the end of days; and, most notably, efforts to organize groups of Jews who would go to live in the land of Israel in order to hasten the redemption. “These two phenomena,” wrote Dinur, “messian­ic ferment and movements of immigrationto the land of Israel, are among the basic phenomena of Jewish history throughout the generations….”1
Animated by this perspective, Dinur and his colleagues succeeded in uncovering much of the lineage of Jewish nationalism. Against the commonly held belief that Zionist activism was a rejoinder to the “passivity” of traditional Judaism, scholars of the Jerusalem school stressed the dynamic and activist quality of the messianic impulse in Jewish history. In every generation, it was shown, there were a great many Jews, including communal and spiritual leaders, who were not content with passively hoping for divine intervention, and who instead took action aimed at bringing it about. Of the means at their disposal, aliya was often seen as the most potent way to bring the redemption: For centuries, despite the danger and hardship involved in making the trip to Palestine, Jews from all over the diaspora continuously attempted to reestablish the presence and even sovereignty of the Jews in the land of Israel—efforts that stemmed from a longing for Zion that had suffused the prayers and practices of Jews around the world. In Dinur’s view, the Zionist awakening was not motivated primarily by modern European ideas, but by this same longing, which flowed from the deep springs of Jewish historical consciousness.
In recent years, however, this view of Jewish history has been subjected to relentless criticism. Dinur and his colleagues have been accused of allowing their Zionist ideology to inflate the importance they attributed to the land of Israel as a part of the Jewish consciousness, and as a goal for practical action. One of the most prominent critics of Dinur’s approach is Jacob Barnai of Haifa University. In his study on nationalism and the land of Israel, Historiography and Nationalism (1995), Barnai argues that Dinur’s belief in the centrality of aliya cannot be reconciled with the fact that Jews did not succeed in establishing an uninterrupted presence in Palestine. Moreover, those who did come were hardly the elites of the Jewish peoplewhom Dinur had depicted—and therefore could not be said to reflect anything essential regarding the Jewish experience in exile. “The definition of the yishuv as the elite of the Jewish people… was not subject to a clear analysis and definition in [Dinur’s] thought, and contradicts what we know about the land of Israel at different times as the place where precisely the ‘lower’ elements of Jewish society were concentrated.”2
The historian Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin has made a wider claim in his critique of Dinur and his colleagues, arguing that Zionist historiography erred in offering a portrayal of Jewish attitudes towards the land of Israel as being consistent and uniform. According to Raz-Krakotzkin, a distinction should be drawn between positive and even fervent Jewish attitudes towards redemption, on the one hand, and the minimal effect these attitudes had in encouraging a return to the land of Israel, on the other.3 In building his case, he relies on Elhanan Reiner’s study of aliyot in the Middle Ages, which depicted Jewish immigration to Palestine as having been inspired far more by Christian pilgrimages than by any Jewish messianic belief.4 Raz-Krakotzkin argues that the time has come to “reappropriate” the discussion of the Jewish relationship to the land of Israel and to remove it from its Zionist “framing narrative”; he sees Reiner’s study as setting a new course for historians, who will no longer be constrained by what he calls the “principle of return” that characterizes the classic Zionist narrative.5 According to this view, the Jewish conception of redemption related to the land of Israel only in abstract terms, as a spiritualized goal to be reached in a far-off time, whereas the classic Zionist assertion that Jews consistently and actively sought out the physical Palestine is simply wishful thinking.
Of course, this debate among scholars is of far more than academic interest. Scholars such as Raz-Krakotzkin, as well as the sociologists Uri Ram and David Myers, have placed the criticism of the Jerusalem school at the center of a broader critique of the Zionist movement itself.6 These scholars take it as self-evident that Zionism rewrote Jewish historical memory, exaggerating the importance of the land of Israel in order to give its adherents the “false consciousness” needed to realize its colonialist goals. This critique of the Jerusalem school has been central to a larger effort in recent years to assail the foundations of the Zionist movement, and it is on the basis of these criticisms that some Israelis have in recent times come to question Zionism’s founding beliefs, including the very justice of the enterprise. If it turns out that their criticisms are firmly based in the historical record, the implications may be far-reaching indeed.
Today, however, the evidence exists to resolve this historical debate—evidence that was available in only limited measure to Dinur and his colleagues, and that has largely been ignored by recent critics of the traditional Zionist historiography. Indeed, with the opening of archives in the former Soviet Union, and in the wake of archival discoveries in Western and Central Europe and in Israel, much that was a matter of speculation can now be addressed on the basis of well-documented sources.
On the basis of this evidence, it seems that Dinur was largely correct in his understanding of the centrality of the land of Israel and aliyot in the centuries preceding Zionism, while his critics erred. The work of scholars such as Joseph Hacker, Yisrael Yuval, Binyamin Ze’ev Kedar, David Tamar, Elhanan Reiner, and Avraham David, as well as my own research, indicates clearly that the land of Israel served as a focus not only of spiritual longing for the Jews in the exile, but also of continual organized aliyot from all over the diaspora. These efforts brought thousands of Jews, including many important scholars and leaders, to settle in Palestine throughout the six centuries that preceded the appearance of Zionism.
Indeed, from the time of the Crusades until the nineteenth century, Jewish life was infused with a sense of messianic anticipation, which found expression, among other things, in aliya. This messianic anticipation was focused on specific dates, which were endowed with mystical significance. Starting with the year 5000 on the Jewish calendar (1240 C.E.), the beginning of each new century signaled for many the possibility of redemption, leading large groups of Jewsto make the journey to Palestine as a necessary step in bringing it about. Some of these aliyot were unknown to us until recently; in other cases, recent research has added substantial detail to the historical record. The picture which emerges is one of a clear, recurrent trend of immigration to the land of Israel, which was by no means limited to the “lower” elements of society but took with it Jews from all walks of life. Indeed, in many cases, some of the outstanding Jewish figures of their day led the way. Although the number of Jews who succeeded in making the voyage and settling in Palestine never constituted more than a small portion of world Jewry, these messianic aliyot were of enduring significance, partly because of the renown of those who took part, partly because of their regular appearance over the centuries, and partly because of the variety of diaspora communities which participated. The messianic impulse which spawned these waves of immigration, and the belief in the centrality of the land of Israel upon which they depended, were in no way marginal to the Jewish tradition, but in fact became an axis of Jewish spiritual life. Indeed, the story of aliya from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries illustrates the depth and force of the Jewish people’s connection to its ancestral homeland, a connection that was carried into the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when modern Zionism found a new way of giving it voice.

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