Kaplan, Zionism, and Us

 by Rabbi Toba Spitzer

In The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (published in 1937), in the chapter on Chanukah, Mordecai Kaplan reflected on Jewish survival in the face of competing cultures. He wrote: “Paradoxical as it may seem, if a nation wishes to survive, it must not make survival itself its supreme objective, but rather aim at the achievement of the highest intellectual, esthetic and social good that alone makes national survival important to its individual members.” (p. 352). He then goes on to talk about the Zionist project in what was then Palestine:

“The motive that has been the dynamic force behind Jewish achievement in Palestine has been a faith in the destiny of [humanity] to achieve a better social order that has not yet been achieved anywhere, one in which nationalism would function not as an aggressive military or economic force in the hands of predatory interests, but as a civilizing agency utilizing the cultural traditions of the various peoples for intellectual growth, esthetic enjoyment, and social communion. Combined with this motive has been the faith that the Jewish people, if given a chance to develop in contact with nature and under autonomous political conditions in its own land, could and should make a significant contribution to this goal… Were this faith to become inoperative, Palestine would soon become but another Jewish ghetto, with no more appeal to the loyalty of the Jew, with no more power to stir our imagination or to elicit from us that self-forgetful devotion with which the Palestinian enterprise has so far happily evoked, than any other center of Jewish population” (p. 354).

Lately I have been musing on Kaplan’s prophetic words, and wondering what he would make of the challenge that present-day Israel poses to “the loyalty of the Jew” in the diaspora. Kaplan is held up as the archetypal Zionist, both within the Reconstructionist movement and beyond. And it is certainly true that he was devoted to the creation of a Jewish homeland in the historic land of Israel, and had deep personal connections to the state of Israel after its founding. Yet as Noam Pianko powerfully illustrates in his 2010 book, Zionism and the Roads Not Taken, Kaplan’s brand of Zionism—a non-statist, idealistic vision of “ethical nationhood”—was never incorporated into the mainstream of  Zionist thought or practice. Kaplan and his circle  differentiated between a Zionism that would function as an international movement binding together Jews wherever they lived, and the creation of a sovereign Jewish political entity in historic Palestine. Writing in The Reconstructionist in February 1949, the editors argued that the flag of the new state of Israel should not be the blue and white Zionist flag, but rather a flag that represented “the aspirations of all the citizens of Israel,” and would acknowledge the “Arab minority” in the state (and that there should be a separate flag to represent global Jewry). In 1955, in A New Zionism, Kaplan wrote: “The State of Israel cannot be a Jewish State, nor can world Jewry continue to be a nation in the modern sense. The State of Israel will have to be an Israeli State, and world Jewry will have to be metamorphosed into a Jewish People which is rooted in Eretz Yisrael and which has its branches wherever it is allowed to live” (p.page 93).

As Pianko illustrates in his study, Kaplan was wary of the “bellicose” nature of state-based nationalisms as they manifested after World War II, and he criticized “the sort of irresponsible and obsolete national sovereignty that modern nations claim for themselves,” going on to argue that this concept of sovereignty “is liable to bring about a catastrophe that will destroy the very foundations of human civilization” (Future of the American Jew, p. 125).  Pianko explains that “Kaplan proposed peoplehood to stand in for nationhood after his initial term became too closely associated with statehood.” (Roads Not Taken, p. 198).

All of which is to say, we should be honest in admitting that none of us have any real idea of what Kaplan would be saying about the current state of affairs in Israel or where he would come down on present-day debates about Zionism. His thinking about issues of Jewish peoplehood and nationalism in general were complex, and one could make a plethora of arguments grounded in Kaplan’s words and deeds. Rather than making speculative claims about “what would Kaplan say?”, those of us who consider ourselves Kaplan’s intellectual heirs (and I consider myself among that group) would better be guided by Kaplan’s ability to interrogate the conformist thought around him, to pose radical questions, and to stay current with the debates roiling his—and our—communities today. Having said that, I will allow myself,  for the sake of argument, to wonder what indeed Kaplan might be  thinking in this moment.

In my imagination, Kaplan would be wrestling with the growing trend of non- and anti-Zionism among many American Jews, especially those of a younger generation, and inquiring into its origins. In the wake of the passage of the Nation-State Law, which formally enshrined Jewish supremacy in Israel as a Basic Law, I can also imagine him questioning whether it is still possible to consider Israel  both a Jewish and a democratic state, or one still capable of reflecting the universal values which he held up as the raison d’être of “ethical nationhood.”

I also imagine Kaplan challenging the reactivity of aspects of anti-Zionist thought, which in many ways is defined by mainstream Zionist assumptions and simply replaces them with their opposite. He would not question the Jewish right to self-determination or the assertion of Jewish peoplehood/nationhood, nor would he tolerate reducing the Zionist project to a maleficent extension of European settler-colonialism. But I do believe he would wrestle seriously with the facts of the ongoing Nakba, the erasure of Palestinian ties to the land and the destruction of Palestinian society and culture which began in 1948 and which continue today, both within the bounds of Israel proper and in Gaza and the West Bank. 

When I articulated the “new mitzvah” of ahavat yoshvei ha’aretz, an obligation to care about and remain engaged with all who dwell in the land of Israel/Palestine, I was doing so from what I consider a Kaplanian perspective. What are the demands of this historical moment in which we Jews find ourselves? What do our values ask of us? How do we follow Kaplan’s early admonition that “if a nation wishes to survive, it must not make survival itself its supreme objective”? In my mind, the radical, visionary Kaplan of the 1930s and ‘40s would not be litigating the past, nor wasting time on the binary of Zionism/anti-Zionism. He would be seeking to provide new answers for all Jews everywhere, and especially in his beloved Israel and his beloved America. He would understand that the simple fact of Jewish and Palestinian existence upon and devotion to the land necessitates new models of confederation and partnership. He would be committed, I have little doubt, to the understanding that in this moment, Jewish and Palestinian liberation are bound up together, and must be striven for together. And we, following in his footsteps, can help cultivate new thinking about how Jewish culture and values can be nurtured in a state where Jews continue to build a home, but which would not be a “Jewish state.” A place where Jews, Palestinians, and all others can live with full dignity, equality, freedom, and security.  

May we who are inspired by Kaplan wrestle together to create new visions and new possibilities, with open hearts and minds, for the sake of all who dwell in Israel/historic Palestine, for Jewish communities around the globe, for all who dwell on Earth.