Tag Archives: Zionism

Jew of the Week: Nathan Birnbaum

The First Zionist (and the First Modern Ba’al Teshuva)

Nathan Birnbaum (1864-1937) was born in Vienna to a traditional Jewish family of Hungarian and Galician heritage. He studied law and philosophy at the University of Vienna, where he founded Kadimah, the first nationalist Jewish student association. He also started a new magazine called Selbstemanzipation! (“Self-Emancipation!) In fact, it was in an 1890 article for his magazine that Birnbaum coined the terms “Zionism” and “Zionist”. Two years later, he coined the term “political Zionism”, as distinct from the religious Zionism that has always existed in Judaism. Birnbaum’s writings were hugely popular and helped ignite the modern Zionist movement. They also played a role in inspiring Theodor Herzl. At the First Zionist Congress in 1897, Birnbaum was elected Secretary General. However, he soon had a change of heart when he saw how Zionism was becoming too secular and too political. Instead, he began to advocate for “Jewish cultural autonomy”, also called golus (or galut) nationalism. He hoped Jews would be recognized as a distinct and semi-autonomous people within the countries in which they dwelled. Birnbaum ran for Austrian parliament and while he did win the election, corruption and anti-Semitism prevented him from taking his seat. Birnbaum was a huge proponent of “Yiddishism”, and to make Jews proud of their culture and language. In 1908, he convened the first Conference for the Yiddish Language, and even traveled to America to promote the revival of Yiddish. During this trip, he had a meeting with US President Teddy Roosevelt. Birnbaum eventually realized that true salvation for the Jews can only come from adherence to Torah and Jewish law. In 1916, he became a ba’al teshuvah and began to live a strictly Orthodox life. Three years later, he became the General Secretary of Agudas Yisroel (originally an umbrella organization for Eastern European Orthodox Jews, and today also a political party in Israel). He wrote a popular text called Gottesvolk (“God’s People”), where he outlined his plan for reviving Judaism and laid out a vision of the ideal Jewish community. He argued passionately against “modern paganism” and warned about the dangers of godless secularism, quite accurately foreseeing how it could destroy society. He affirmed that settling and living in Israel was still important, of course, but for spiritual reasons, not political ones. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Birnbaum fled with his family to the Netherlands, where he lived out the last few years of his life. Today there is a street in Jerusalem named after him. He has been called a “prophetic personality” and the “first modern ba’al teshuvah”.

Yom Kippur Begins Tuesday Evening – Gmar Chatima Tova!

9 Yom Kippur Myths and Misconceptions

The Kabbalah of Yom Kippur

Words of the Week

When one stands in prayer, he should place his feet together side by side. He should set his eyes downwards as if he is looking at the ground, and his heart upwards as if he is standing in Heaven.
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (“Maimonides”, 1138-1204), Mishneh Torah

Jew of the Week: Gamliel Cohen

Father of Israeli Espionage

Gamliel Jamil Cohen (1922-2002) was born in Damascus to a religious Syrian-Jewish family, and grew up in the city’s Jewish Quarter. Yearning to live in the Holy Land and inspired by the Zionist vision, he left Damascus at the age of 21 and literally walked to Israel. He joined a kibbutz started by Ashkenazi immigrants. Despite being the odd one who was darker-skinned and spoke no Yiddish, Cohen quickly fell in love with the sense of unity and brotherhood, as well as the important pioneering work of developing the Jewish ancestral homeland. His uniqueness caught the attention of the Palmach, the commando unit of the pre-IDF defence force, the Haganah. The Palmach sought to launch an intelligence unit that could infiltrate Arab governments, and were looking for talented and dedicated Arab Jews. In 1944, Cohen became their first recruit. Together with Iraqi Jew Shimon Somech, they created the first unit of Mista’arvim (recently popularized by the show Fauda). The term itself came from the name of the ancient Mizrachi Jewish communities living in Arab lands that were distinct from, and pre-dated, the Sephardic Jews that joined them after the Spanish Expulsion of 1492. After several years of training, Cohen moved to Beirut in 1948 and set up Israel’s first official intelligence outpost, living undercover as Yussef el-Hamed, a textile shop owner. By this point, his operation was overseen by the newly-formed Mossad. Cohen’s trailblazing work and espionage innovations paved the way for more famous later spies like Shula Cohen and Eli Cohen. In 1954, Cohen married a fellow Syrian Jew who also worked for the Mossad. Together, they moved to Paris undercover as Arabic journalists. Cohen managed to get hired by the Syrian Embassy in Paris, from which he sent critical intelligence to the Israeli government. In 1958, the Cohens moved to Vienna to continue their work as “journalists”. In addition to infiltrating the embassies of Arab states, they also found information on neo-Nazi groups and exposed war criminals in hiding. Cohen retired from active duty in 1964 and went on to train the next generation of Israeli spies. In his last years, he wrote the book Undercover: The Untold Story of the Palmach’s Clandestine Arab Unit. Almost all of Cohen’s work remains classified. He has been called the “father of Israeli espionage”.

Happy Israel Independence Day!

Zionism Before Zionism

Words of the Week

The U.N. did not create Israel. The Jewish state came into being because the Jewish community in what was Mandatory Palestine rebelled against foreign imperialist rule. We did not conquer a foreign land.
– Yitzhak Shamir

Jew of the Week: Menachem Begin

In Memory of an Israeli Founding Father

Menachem Begin (1913-1992) was born in what is today Belarus to a religious and Zionist family that came from a long line of great rabbis. Interestingly, the midwife that delivered him was the grandmother of fellow Belorussian Jew Ariel Sharon! Begin went to a religious cheder elementary school, and then a religious Zionist high school, and was also a member of Hashomer Hatzair, the Zionist youth movement. In law school at the University of Warsaw, he organized a Jewish self-defence group to fight rampant anti-Semitism. After graduating, Begin joined Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Betar organization and soon became the head of its Polish and Czech branches. When Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, Begin fled to Lithuania. The following month, Lithuania was invaded by the USSR and Begin was imprisoned for his Zionist activity and for being a supposed “British imperialist”. Begin was tortured and sentenced to 8 years in a labour camp. He was released in 1941 and put into a Polish resistance force to fight the Nazis. By the end of 1942, Begin’s commander issued him a leave of absence so that he could go to Israel to fight for the Zionist cause. Begin arrived in the Holy Land and joined the militant Irgun, arguing that the Zionist leadership was too soft and that the British had to be expelled. Against the wishes of the Jewish Agency, Begin organized a revolt against the British, with a step-by-step plan that he modeled on the Irish independence movement. The insurgency was launched in February 1944. Begin’s plan worked, and the British would leave three years later, allowing Israel to declare independence. Throughout this time, Begin was Britain’s “most wanted” man and stayed in hiding, appearing in public rarely and usually disguised as a rabbi. Begin went on to sign a deal with Ben-Gurion to combine their forces and create the IDF, though the process was far from smooth. He then formed the right-wing Herut party, winning 14 seats in Israel’s first election. The Herut party was sidelined as “extremist” and only participated in the governing coalition briefly following the Six-Day War. It only became more prominent in 1973 when, following the Yom Kippur War, Herut joined several other parties to form the new Likud coalition. In the 1977 election, Begin won a landslide in what has been called the mahapakh, a “revolution” in Israeli politics. The main reason for his win was that Begin reached out to Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews, who long felt like second-class citizens under Israel’s Ashkenazi establishment. Begin did not disappoint, and as prime minister started a “Project Renewal” to inject major funding into Mizrachi communities, transforming 82 “slums” into thriving towns. He also pioneered major education reform in Israel, making secondary education compulsory and removing tuition fees for it. Begin’s “economic transformation” shifted Israel away from a socialist economy towards a free-market economy (which saw several hiccups, and admittedly came with both positives and negatives). Most famously, Begin met with Egyptian president Sadat to negotiate the Camp David Accords, resulting in Israel’s first peace treaty with an Arab adversary, for which he won a Nobel Peace Prize. Nonetheless, Begin was severely criticized within his own party, accused of no longer being the hawk he once was, and reneging on his own principals. Perhaps to mitigate this, Begin launched a massive campaign of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria (the “West Bank”) and Gaza, quadrupling the Jewish population in these regions, and later formally annexed the Golan Heights. Begin’s other famous achievement was Operation Opera, in which Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor was destroyed by the Israeli Air Force in 1981. This gave rise to the “Begin Doctrine”: that Israel would never allow an enemy state to develop nuclear weapons. In November 1982, Begin’s beloved wife passed away and he fell into a deep depression. Together with his own failing health, and Israel’s quagmire in Lebanon, Begin resigned as prime minister and left the post to Yitzhak Shamir. Begin lived out his life in seclusion, leaving his apartment only to say Kaddish at his wife’s grave. Begin died of a heart attack and had requested a simple Jewish funeral, with no state honours. Unlike other leaders who are buried at Mount Herzl, Begin asked to be buried at the Mount of Olives. His funeral was attended by some 75,000 admirers. Altogether, Begin served on the Knesset for 34 years, and over that time had stints as Minister of Communication, Justice, Labour, Transportation, Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Agriculture. He wrote two books. Next Monday is his yahrzeit.

Historic Footage: Menachem Begin and the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Words of the Week

I am completely and unequivocally opposed to the surrender of any of the liberated areas [of Israel] currently under negotiation…
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe


From the Jew of the Week Archives: Ukrainian president Vladimir Zelensky