When the Zionist movement occurred in the 19th Century in the context of liberal nationalism and growing Anti-Semitism, the Hasidism was dominant in the regions of Galicia, Congress Poland, northeast Hungary, Transylvania, and Bukovina.
Hasidic society was based on a system of individual leader (i.e. their Rebbe). Each Hasidic court was basically a closed independent society, and had no commitments to one another. Therefore there was in fact no one Hasidic position against Zionist movement. Generally speaking, there are five attitudes towards Zionist movement:
1. The first is „the Ostrich Attitude“: The leaders of some Hasidic societies had ignored the Zionist movement. They never followed the public media and, of course, had not the least knowledge with modern Hebrew literature. So, they had no firsthand knowledge of the Zionist movement, whatever they knew about it was from rumors originating among Hasidim who lived in the holy cities of Jerusalem and Safed. The new sense of urgency felt by the maskilim after the pogroms of the early 1880s made no impression on the Hasidic Rebbes.
For example: When in 1887 Menahem Ussishkin visited Schneur Zalman Schneerson of Kopys (1830-1900), the leader of the Byelorussian branch of Habad, Ussishkin tried to persuade the Rebbe to support Hibbat Zion, the Rebbe confessed his almost total ignorance of the movement.
2. The second attitude is the strong opposition against the Zionist movement, which is the prevailing attitude in most Hasidic societies.
The Zionist movement faced strong opposition from the Hasidic Rebbes from its very beginning. Some Hasidic Rebbes expressed opposition to the very idea of immigration to Palestine even prior to Zionism. In fact, Hasidic symbolism contains the seeds of neutralizing the physical Palestine as a spiritual concept. The Rebbe became the redeemer, replacing the traditional messianic Redeemer; acceptance of the conditions of the Exile was implicit in this new version of redemption. Hasidism preferred to concern themselves with the inner redemption of the individual rather than with the external, historical redemption of the community.
The relationship between Zionism and Messianism soon became a central issue. The view, that Zionist movement was antimessianic, first expressed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe Schneersohn, the highly influential leader of the Habad movement during the early period of Zionism. Apart from the Zionist movement’s secular character, the two main arguments of Rebbe Schneersohn against Zionist movement were:
First, the Zionist movement sought to bring redemption through human efforts, to „force the End“ prematurely.
Second, it stopped short of the perfection of the original messianic vision.
(1) Forcing the end
According to Schneersohn‘s opinion, the fulfillment of the messianic expectations should depend solely on the transcendental and miraculous intervention of the Savior of Israel. The Zionist sought to realize messianic expectations through human efforts, through a collective incursion into history, so it appeared to be a betrayal of the religious norm of exile, a violation of the oath sworn by the Jewish people to wait patiently until the End of Days. He said: „we must not heed them in their call to achieve redemption on our own, for we are not permitted to hasten the End even by reciting too many prayers, much less so by corporeal stratagems, that is, to set out from exile by force.“ The theological argument against Zionism thus stands on its own. It required the Jewish people to practice complete historical and political passivity until the coming of the messianic redemption.
Schneersohn regarded the passivity and spirituality of Jews as a positive virtue. He said:
„Our God-fearing brethren know that they are under the yoke of the Exile and that they need to be submissive in every situation … For this [reason], even after the heavy yoke that has been imposed upon them at various times, and despite all the persecutions and oppressions they have suffered, they are able to find themselves an [existential, internal] ‚Place‘. It is the nature of the soft to resist the hard [and to overcome it].“ So according to Schneersohn‘s opinion,, „softness of soul“ and political submissiveness are the guarantee of Jewish existence in nonmessianic times, the traditional passivity of Jews most faithfully expresses devotion to the final redemption.
Schneersohn regarded Zionism as a complete secularization of the traditional messianic concept, that is, a transfer of initiative from divine to human hands. Now secularization cannot be partial; since the messianic vision has always been rooted in a comprehensive religious matrix, the Zionists are compelled to destroy that matrix, denying traditional religious faith in its entirety. Schneersohn explained: „In order to infuse our brethren with the idea of being a ‚nation‘ and an independent polity … the Zionists must give nationalism precedence over the Torah, because it is known that those who cling to the Torah and the commandments are not likely to change and accept another identity, especially such as is implied in leaving exile by force and redeeming themselves by their own power … Hence, in order to implement their idea, the Zionists must distort the essence [of Jewishness] in order to get [the Jews] to assume a different identity.“ That is to say, the Zionists tried to escape Jewish destiny, and to do so they must first abandon the Torah and faith of Israel.
(2)Stopping short of the perfection
According to Schneersohn’s opinion, all human activity is incomplete, relative, and transient, and therefore must fall short of the yearned-for messianic redemption. So the redemption by Zionist movement is partial, the final and full redemption can be initiated and completed only by heavenly power. Schneersohn stresses the utopian character of such redemption, rejecting even the Exodus from Egypt as models: „The redemption that took place through Moses and Aaron was also not a full one, for the Jewish people were once again [to be enslaved, to Babylonia]; … In the present exile we must expect redemption and salvation only at the hands of the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself, not by flesh and blood, and thus will our redemption be complete.“
Schneersohn disagreed also the prevalent view of religious-Zionist, that the ingathering of the exiles and the rebuilding of Jerusalem were to be part of a gradual process, to be initiated „little by little“ by human beings but completed by God. Basing himself on certain classical religious texts, he declared that the ingathering of the exiles to Zion would depend entirely on a miraculous, revolutionary, and decisive messianic revelation.
He said: „Their presumptuous goal of gathering [the exiles] together on their own will never come to pass [!], and all their strength and their many stratagems and efforts will be of no avail against the will of the Lord. They will try one idea after another, like garments, but it is the counsel of the Lord that will prevail. He alone, may He be blessed, will gather us up and assemble us from the four corners of the earth.“
Schneersohn thus combines two classical messianic tenets – the requirement of human passivity and the quest for perfection – and makes them interdependent. According to Schneersohn’s opinion, Zionism is the antithesis of both these principles; it represents both activism and the acceptance of partial fulfillment, and is therefore doomed to fail.
3. The third attitude is to accept the idea of settlement in Palestine, but refuse to cooperate with the Zionist Organization, that is to say, some Rebbes tried to set up haredi Hovevei Zion associations.
For example, the Ahavat Zion association in Galicia, was founded in December 1896. It was headed by hasidic leaders, such as Rabbi Horowitz of Rymanow, Rabbi Shreier of Bohorodczany. One of the association’s greatest successes was to enlist one of the most renowned hasidic leaders in Galicia, Rabbi David Moses Friedman of Czortków. The colony of Mahanayim was founded by this association.
4. The fourth is the positive attitude: in favor of the Zionist movement.
There were undoubtedly Rebbes of Hasidism who support Zionist movement. One of them was the greatest hasidic leader in Rumania, Rabbi Isaac Friedman. An association named Doresh Zion founded in Jassy in 1887 to support Rumanian Jews who wish to immigrate to Palestine. They repeatedly appealed to Rabbi Friedman to instruct his followers to support the association. Finally Rabbi Friedman expressed that in his view, for practical reasons, Palestine could not provide a solution to the present plight of Rumanian Jews. At the same time, he was not against to the idea of settlement but requested that a charter first be procured from the Ottoman authorities for immigration to Palestine. His son explained later that his father had supported the establishment of the settlement Rosh Pina in Palestine, but had made his support contingent on the settlers maintaining a traditional life-style.
Another supporter of Zionist movement was the chief justice of the Warsaw rabbinical court, Rabbi Isaac Feigenbaum. His son reported that he was the only traditional leader in Warsaw to support the Zionist movement. Rabbi Feigenbaum agreed with Rabbi Kalischer’s theory of gradual stages, „that before the advent of the messiah the Jews will be settled on their land,“ As to the participation of nonreligious Jews in the movement, he replied that „if the religious were to take part, everything would undoubtedly go forward according to the way of the Torah.“
The most enthusiastic supporter of Zionist movement was Aaron Marcus (1843-1916), a fervent admirer of Theodor Herzl. He was a German-Jewish intellectual, won over by the charm of Hasidism and became an affiliate of Czortków Hasidism. Marcus convinced that Herzlian Zionism was completely compatible with Orthodox Judaism from the moment that he first read Herzl’s Der Judenstaat. He regarded Hasidic support for Zionism as his own personal responsibility and offered to be the intermediary between Herzl and the Hasidic Rebbes, one of them was Rabbi David Moses Friedman of Czortków (1828-1900), as we have said, the most renowned Hasidic leaders in Galicia. Marcus estimated that these Rebbes could influence over three million Hasidic Jews.
The contact with Rebbe Friedman at first spread the impression that the Rebbe’s attitude was positive, and indeed it would seem that the Rebbe was not troubled by cooperation with secular-minded Jews: „We, the hasidim, will maintain the inner strength of the house, establishing yeshivot to spread Torah and fear of God, while [the secularists] will deal with external matters.“
At the same time, Herzl expressed his respect for „every form“ of Judaism and hoped Marcus could serve as a connection between himself and the Rebbe. In January 1900, Marcus persuaded Herzl to travel to Czortków to obtain Rebbe Friedman’s agreement to convene a conference of sympathetic rabbis. Friedman agreed to Marcus’s request that he ask Rabbi Benjamin Weiss to lend a hand in convening a conference. Friedman proposed to bring the questions before the conference. He believed that if the rabbis of Russia and Galicia agreed, the support of traditional Jewish society would be secured.
However, it appeared that when the matter was discussed by rabbis from Russia and Galicia, the latter demanded clarifications from the Zionist Actions Committee in connection with religious questions. By March there had been no response from the Committee. On March 25, in a bitter letter to Herzl, Marcus condemned the inattention of the Zionist leaders in pursuing a relationship with the eastern European rabbinical leadership and announced his withdrawal from the whole affair. This letter marked the end of the last chance of convincing traditional leaders in Galicia to join the Zionist movement.
5. Other attitudes: Some Rebbes avoided expressing their opinion publicly or offered a indistinct opinion open to various interpretations.
For example: after a long period of evasion, Rabbi Isaac Friedmann of Buhusi (1834-1896) finally replied in 1887 that he would not oppose their aliyah should his Hasidim ask his opinion on the matter.
There were also some Rebbes, like the Belzer Rebbe, who later changed their minds, after the cruel reality of the Holocaust revealed the shortsightedness of their anti-Zionist policy.
In conclusion, the prevailing attitude of Hasidic societies is the strong opposition against the Zionist movement. Although some efforts were made to establish dialogue and cooperation between Zionism und Hasidism, but there weren’t any positive results. Apart from some individual Rebbes, Hasidism remained adversary to Zionism and as time passed became its sworn enemy.