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The Ben-Gurion Option: Strategic Lessons for Christians from Early Zionists

Updated: Nov 5, 2023

1935 poster created by Lu Kimmel for United Palestine Appeal, now called United Israel Appeal, to encourage Western Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine.

"The Jews [of the State of Israel] will be able to hold out no longer than two years.

—CIA report, 1947

Can Christians learn strategic lessons from the early leaders of the Zionist movement and the founders of the State of Israel? This question may strike many people as offensive. That is what makes the question novel and helpful.

Christians hold a wide spectrum of theological and political views on the modern State of Israel. Two broad groups of Christians might balk at my question for opposite reasons: some because they are wary of the way certain American Christians have closely identified with Israel, and others who will chafe at the sense that I am trivializing Israel's legacy or status by asking if Christians can learn from its creation.

To consider my question fairly, put these standard theological and political debates about Israel temporarily to the side. This is not a column about dispensationalism or America’s foreign policy. It is not even about Israel as such. Instead, let's consider the founders of Israel as strategic actors and ask if their successes impart lessons that Christians can apply.

You might ask whether Israel’s relationship with powerful Western governments dooms this comparison at the outset. I can empathize with this question. From the time I was in middle school until I read Daniel Gordis’ 2016 book Israel: A Concise History, I naively assumed that Israel had been almost unilaterally created and equipped by Western governments in the aftermath of World War II.

While I can’t endorse A Concise History unequivocally—it contains some convenient omissions and serious misrepresentations—Gordis did succeed in blowing my old assumption out of the water. From the time of the 19th-century Zionists until at least 1952—and arguably as late as the Six-Day War in 1967—my assumption was nearly the opposite of the truth.

For one thing, World War II and the Holocaust—which together occurred from 1939-1945—shaped but did not create Israel. The First Zionist Congress occurred in 1897. The first four waves of Aliyah, or Jewish immigration to Israel, took place from 1881 to 1928: the communities these immigrants built were together known as the Yishuv (“Settlement”). Long before declaring itself to be fully independent in 1948, this Jewish Yishuv saw itself as a de facto nation-state. Beginning in 1920, it had an elected Assembly of Representatives and an organized military force, Haganah (“The Defense”).

"Strengthen the Youth" poster created by artist Franz Krausz, a follower of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, for the World Zionist Organization in 1940.

The Yishuv, and eventually Israel, were neither spawned by Western governments nor dependent on their military aid. During Israel’s War of Independence—waged against an onslaught by numerous Arab states from 1948 to 1949—one of the Haganah’s main sources of bullets was an underground factory hidden beneath a kibbutz. Until Britain ended its military occupation of Mandatory Palestine in 1948, this factory had illegally churned out 9 mm bullets beneath a working laundry and bakery.

Although some of Israel’s early weapons were purchased from the US, its largest source of rifles, machine guns, and bullets in 1948-1949 was Czechoslovakia, which sold Israel black-market weapons in violation of an embargo. These Czech rifles had originally been manufactured for the Germans and had swastikas on them. Israel’s Air Force was also created illegally, as American pilots privately purchased US surplus planes and then flew them to Israel. Again, Israel dressed its first pilots in left-over German uniforms that sported Luftwaffe patches.

After Israel had won the War of Independence, the West became, if anything, even more reticent to send weapons to Israel. President Eisenhower told French Prime Minister Guy Mollet that selling weapons to Israel would be pointless because the state could not possibly continue to survive in the face of 40 million hostile Arabs. Even in the lead-up to the 1967 Six-Day War, Gordis writes, the White House “simply ignored Israel’s pleas for missiles, tanks and jets.” Although AIPAC existed at the time, he explains, it “would achieve genuine influence only a decade later.”

1948 poster by the General Council for Hebrew Aviation in the Land of Israel.

Gordis’ Israel does neglect to emphasize the full extent of German reparations to Israel after the War of Independence. By 1956, German reparations payments made up around 86% of Israel’s GDP. But while the reparations payments do help explain Israel’s flourishing, they cannot explain its survival. The Yishuv had been built with private philanthropy—Edmond de Rothschild contributed the equivalent of $150 million today—and sheer dedication. Before German reparations began, Israel had already militarily secured its own survival without depending on foreign aid from governments. Even after 1956, Britain continued to impose an embargo on any military aid to the region. America’s current regime of continually sending billions of dollars to Israel is a relatively recent development, with roots in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

These facts make Israel’s story applicable to a wide range of other minority groups intent on securing their autonomy and realizing a grand vision in the face of larger hostile or indifferent forces. That would’ve been welcome news to the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, who always intended Israel to be a model for others: “Whatever we attempt to accomplish [in Israel] for our own welfare will have its powerful effect,” he wrote, “promoting the happiness and wellbeing of all Mankind.”

Perhaps Zionism’s most immediate lesson for Christians is its demonstration that a subculture like Western Christendom could be dramatically reformed and strengthened in a short period of time through civic institutions, great art, and political migration. In Israel’s case, this happened at a time when Western Jews appeared to be within two or three centuries of extinction at the hands of oppression or liberal assimilative pressure.

David Ben-Gurion—Israel’s first prime minister— warned that “the Judaism of Jews of the United States is losing all meaning and only a blind man can fail to see the day of its extinction.” Without Israel, he predicted, Western Jews faced “the kiss of death and the slow… decline into the abyss of assimilation.”

Israel, despite being on the whole extremely secular, has in certain ways achieved a kind of reverse assimilation. The modern revival of the Hebrew language—which had been entirely dead outside of Jewish liturgy and biblical scholarship—only began in earnest during the Second Aliyah of 1904-1914. Yet, as Gordis explains, Israeli bookstores now boast “hundreds of linear yards of shelves holding books written in a largely abandoned language that [a modern Hebrew linguist] had revived.”

A 1950s poster encouraging Jewish emigration from the United States to Israel.

The unprecedented resurrection of Hebrew was only one part of Israel’s rapid political evolution from an activist pipe-dream to a powerhouse nation-state. After organizing the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland in 1897, Herzl presciently wrote: “At Basel I founded the Jewish state. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will admit it.” 51 years later, Israel declared its independence.

I’ve recently seen or heard several active and intelligent Christians speak of creating a “500-year vision” to achieve meaningful cultural and political results. Should these Christians lop a 0 off this “500”? If Zionism had been a 500-year vision, it would have begun during the European Renaissance. Instead, it began in the 19th century.

Contrast the resources of the Zionist movement in the mid-20th century to those of Christians today. When Israel won its War of Independence, the total Jewish population of the entire globe was perhaps 11 million people—equivalent to about half of one percent of the 2 billion self-identifying Christians now on Earth. Even if a vanishingly small minority of these Christians are truly dedicated to advancing the Kingdom of God, that minority still dwarfs the mid-20th-century Zionist movement, which had the support of only a subset of Jews. Any of the spectacular feats of cultural and geopolitical leverage achieved by Zionism—at least from 1897 to 1948—are therefore eminently possible with even an obscure minority of today’s Christians.

The example of early Zionism shows that, no matter how dire our current crises may sometimes seem, there are few inherent limits on our ability, within a generation, to reform the culture of the Kingdom and to place more of the world under its feet.

A poster in the pre-state Yishuv for the Maccabiah, an international Jewish athletic competition still held every four years in Israel.

Like Christians today, the Zionists faced cultural as well as logistical obstacles to their vision. I am not the first person to observe that, before Christians can once again transform the world order, they will need to cast off their endemic passivity and the shallow modern theology that has created it. Great Zionist thinkers and leaders like Ze’ev Yavetz, Hayim Bialik, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and Uri Zvi Greenberg likewise saw Jewish culture at the time as endemically passive and in need of a heroic revitalization.

In response, these men sought to create the “New Jew” or “New Hebrew.” Contemporary Israeli politician Ruth Calderon has described the “New Hebrew” as an archetype “created by educators from the country’s founding generation… a courageous, practical, and suntanned soldier.” In a motif that will be familiar to many Christians, this archetype included a call to Ashkenazi Jews—who the early Zionists viewed as sedentary and chronically indoors—to reemphasize agriculture and other activities that would draw them closer to nature.

Both Gordis and Calderon say that the Zionists did in fact succeed in creating the “New Jew.” Yet the Zionists ushered this archetype into reality, not through theological and sociological discussions on podcasts or in intellectual journals, but through art. It was through poetry and literature that Zionist authors worked to extirpate what they saw as modern Jewish passivity and create the “soldier” that Calderon described. For Hayim Bialik’s part in this project, Ze’ev Jabotinsky described Bialik as “the one poet in all of modern literature whose poetry directly molded the soul of a generation.”

Ze’ev Yavetz, for example, wrote literature comparing two Jewish archetypes in the Yishuv: “the Tourist” and “the Resident.” Gordis writes that while Yavetz’s “Tourist” was “physically weak,” the Resident:

… is earthy and active; he… holds a weapon for self-defense… and rides a white horse. He embodies health, confidence, and a passion for life. He is Bialik’s new Jew, who would not hide behind a cask during a pogrom, a new Jew who is determined to break with his victimlike past, the new Jew intends on taking control of his destiny.

Gordis’ mention of Jews hiding “behind a cask during a pogrom” is a reference to an influential Hebrew poem by Hayim Bialik. In 1903, Bialik had been sent by a Jewish commission to investigate a massive pogrom in the Russian city of Kishinev—in present-day Moldova. In addition to preparing a formal report on the program, Bialik wrote the poem “The City of Slaughter”—sometimes described as the most influential piece of Jewish literature in the 20th century.

In narrating the Kishinev pogrom, Bialik’s poem describes the basement of a house where Russians raped Jewish women innumerable times as their cringing husbands hid behind casks. Bialik imagines the voice of God pouring withering scorn on these men by contrasting their passivity with the valor of their ancestors. In English interpretation:

Come, now, and I will bring thee to their lairs The privies, jakes, and pigpens where the heirs Of Hasmoneans lay, with trembling knees, Concealed and cowering, the sons of the Maccabees! The seed of saints, the scions of the lions! … It was the flight of mice they fled, The scurrying of roaches was their flight; They died like dogs, and they were dead!

While Gordis reminds his readers that Bialik was a poet, not a historian, the formal testimony Bialik gathered during his investigation was every bit as grotesque as his poetry. One Jewish woman described to Bialik how her husband had watched Russian home invaders gang-rape another woman and then rape her. The husband gave the Russians a silver watch to distract them as he ran away.

As I first read about Bialik’s poetry, I thought of Christians like John Piper, who counsel men to allow their wives and families to be abused and killed like the Levite in Judges. In the words of Ivan Ilyin, even if a Christian pacifist like Piper is killed in an attack on his family, he “sacrifices his life not for the sake of saving his beloved, but for his own righteousness.”

These Christians are disconnected, not only from the valor woven throughout the Bible, but from the traditions of ancient, medieval, and even modern Christian warfare against evil.

The Zionist movement shows us that recovering and renewing these traditions is practicable.

Critically, Zionist artists did not forge the New Jew through their scorn of passivity alone, but through a positive literary vision of Jewish heroism. Where Bialik had invoked the Maccabees, authors like Jabotinsky and Greenberg drew on the heroes of the Hebrew canon to usher this vision into reality.

Jabotinsky’s 1927 novel Samson the Nazirite, for example, used the figure of Samson to set out the author’s ideal of a heroic warrior. Likewise, Uri Zvi Greenberg’s powerful and influential Hebrew poem One Truth, Not Two draws upon “the Law of Conquest of Moses and Joshua” and “the Shield of David.”

Irgun fighters in 1947.

To be clear, the church today still needs more intellectuals who perceive the problem of Christian passivity, who understand its shallowness, and who will call upon the church to cast it off. Jabotinsky was such an intellectual for the Zionists. The New Christian Man—like the New Jew—can be rooted in the wisdom of a rediscovered past. Yet creating a new Christian is not solely or mostly a project for commentators and scholars. As Jabotinsky understood, cultural renewal requires art—and Christians today are far shorter on good artists than on principled intellectuals

How should we address this problem? Michael Anton has recently urged that right-leaning donors should “work together to identify young [artistic] talent on the Right and give them some money.” I appreciate Anton’s insights but am skeptical that a traditional donor-based model will be a viable solution to this problem in the near future. Unlike donations to political causes, patronizing the arts does not generate measurable quantitative results of the kind the relevant donors would probably like to see. Even if enough donors are willing to overlook this problem, a contemporary donor-based model would lack the selective pressures that produced the great patron-financed art of the past. Ancient Greek and Renaissance Italian art was the result of the patron-rulers of city-states competing with their rivals. Today’s potential patrons do not yet rule cities in which works of art can be publicly fixed—making the identification between a patron and a given work of art too diffuse.

A partial solution might be for patrons to create a centralized grant-issuing fund, but this fund would soon feel the overwhelming gravity of grift and make-work. For now, the best solution might be a DAO dedicated to Christian art. This could potentially solve the problem of resources, momentum, and accountability. The DAO could vote on an artistic problem to be solved—for example, there is currently no good visual depiction of Hezekiah on the entire internet—and then vote on which artist to commission from a pool of applicants.

One critical disanalogy between contemporary Israel and an autonomous Western Christendom is that Israel is one of the least religious countries in the world. Demographic trends may one day change this reality: Israel’s Haredim have nearly three times as many children as non-Haredi Jews. Yet Gordis concludes Israel: A Concise History by pointing out that there are also signs of a recent religious revival among Israel’s secular elite.

For example, Gordis relates that secular film director and comedian Uri Zohar was drawn to religion and became a Haredi Rabbi. The daughters of secular Israeli rockstar Arik Einstein also became Haredim and married Zohar’s two Haredi sons. Former pop star Etti Ankri now produces religious music based on medieval poetry. And it is no longer unheard of for secular Israelis to watch television shows depicting “Haredim who love their way of life, their kids and their grandkids.” In Gordis’ words, religion has become something that Israelis still fear but also find fascinating.

"All Ours": 1935 Zionist poster. In 1936, the Peel Commission found that, in 1917, Britain had promised the Transjordan to the Zionist movement in exchange for rallying Jewish support to the Allies in World War I. Only the Zionists held up their end of the bargain.

There are, of course, much better examples of successful religious revivals in secular environments. On the whole, the Maccabean Revolt may have more to teach Christians in this arena than recent developments in Israeli entertainment. Yet Israel’s example does show that religious revivals can catch on even among secular elites when a religion is given autonomous cultural space in which to flourish.

Gordis presents this renaissance of religious Judaism in Israel as, in some sense, a new stage in the evolution of the New Jew. By disconnecting Jews from most history between the Bible and modernity, the Zionists had created what Ruth Calderon has called “an orphan in history.” Today’s Israelis, Gordis argues, have incorporated the insights of the Zionist New Jew into a broader sense of Jewish religious history.

Christians should likewise remember that creating a more active church should be understood, fundamentally, as a rejection of recent innovations. The sappy effeminacy and kitsch that characterize the contemporary evangelical world are a rust to be polished away, not a weed that must be uprooted. Christians have never had a more dire need to reconnect with the breadth and depth of church history.

This brings me to a parting lesson from the Zionists: their example of well-roundedness. Gordis observes that “Even in the high-tech nation that Israel has become, Israelis are still farmers.”

When Christians today seek to rediscover a sense of providential mission, they too often think they must choose between returning to a more natural lifestyle or—in the words of one of Benedict XVI’s favorite theologians—“claiming a place among those who work for the greatest advancement of the earth.” In contrast, Zionism’s quasi-eschatological perseverance, dedication to culture-making, and emphasis on energetic activity have created a place where there is no contradiction between a return to the soil and a flowering of high technology rooted in the physical world.

Shortly before Israel’s War of Independence, a CIA report concluded that, faced with tireless and overwhelming Arab opposition, Israel would exist for “no longer than two years.” Yet as Israel has shown—and as all Christians should know—history is not a linear unfolding of blind trends. Whether or not you think Israel’s re-creation was an outworking of God’s will, we can all look to the State of Israel as one symbol of how God might work through the will of His church to accomplish more than we can ask or imagine.

Ian Huyett is a litigation attorney and a commentator on law, religion, and technology for Staseos and other outlets. You can follow him on Twitter at @IanHuyett.



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