Leo Tolstoy Archive


An Argument against the Ambition for Separate National Existence -- A Plea for Devotion to the Idea of Common Humanity

Translated from the Russian by Herman Bernstein

Written: Dec 9, 1906.
Source: New York Times (1857-1922); Dec 9, 1906.
Transcription/Markup: Transcription by Hasim V., Markup by Andy Carloff.

Leo Tolstoy

HIS movement has always interested me, not because it offers to the Jews a way out of their painful condition -- it offers them no way out of it -- it has interested me because of the example of the enormous influence to which people, who have suffered great deal and have experienced all the vanity of a certain project, will occasionally submit. Before our eyes an old, wise, and well-experienced people, which had gone through one of the most terrible maladies of mankind, is now falling back into the same malady. There is an awakening of the thirst for imperialism and an evil desire to govern and to play an important part. Again they want to provide themselves with all this show of outward nationalism, with armies -- with banners and inscriptions.

The leaders, without realizing it themselves, have fallen into the terrible sin of separating themselves from others, and they are eminently battering this sin into the consciousness of the people to whom they represent the matter not at all as it really is.

They are forever repeating that Zionism is a progressive movement of the national spirit which is eager to throw off at last the chains of captivity and to give the nation an opportunity to live a free and independent life on the sacred mounts where their great past is buried. I have been told of a Jewish preacher who in one of the synagogues of Tula struck himself on the chest and, sobbing, called the people to Palestine, saying: There we will see the rock in which Jacob had rested, and we will walk along the same path that Abraham had trodden. This awakens our feelings!"

But the horror of it all is that this movement is neither progressive nor national, nor does it awaken any feelings.

Jacob's rock and Abraham's path are such distant things that they cannot stir a people and make them take up the wanderer's staff. A nation is not an archaeologist, and to break new ground it will not go in a horde of ten million from the places where they have lived for many centuries, and where they feel more at home than amid the rocks of Jacob and the paths of Abraham. This can be seen on those that go to America, and, tortured with homesickness, exhausted, they return and kiss the ground of their native land, the black soil of the same Russia they still love, notwithstanding that the terrible oppressors are shamelessly trying to make of the life of the Jews here a hell of suffering.

If their memory of the sacred pieces of Palestine were really so strong and their eagerness to live there had been inherent in the Jewish people, they had numerous occasions during these 1800 years to return there and to live once in those ancient places.

But the people consciously never wanted it, even as they do not want it now. And that is why I do not regard Zionism as a national movement. The real Jewish spirit is against a separate territory of their own. It does not want the old toy of empire, and it has renounced it once for all. I cannot think without emotion of the beautiful saying about a certain Jewish sage of the times of the destruction of the Temple. He had rendered a great service to Vespasian, and Vespasian told him to ask for anything he pleased, and he would grant his request. It would seem that that was an excellent opportunity to ask him to raise the siege and restore the freedom to his land. But the sage said:

“Allow me to go with my pupils to the town of Jamnia and to establish there a school for the study of the Torah."

This answer seemed strange to the Roman, who had become brutalized in wars and slaughters.

But it was a conscious, powerful, and beautiful answer of the entire nation.

The sage understood correctly the secret of the people's spirit and asked for something which seemed insignificant. This voluntary fate of the sage -- this substitution of the spiritual for the corrupt -- the grandest moment in the history of Judaism, something which has not as yet been sufficiently appreciated, and of which even the Jews have not entirely availed themselves.

And this nation feels it and resists it with all its powers, unwilling to rush into the old adventure which is foreign to its soul.

It is not the land, but the Book, that has become its fatherland. And this is one of the grandest spectacles in history, the noblest calling man can only hope for. Absorbed by this Book, the Jewish people did not notice how centuries had passed over their heads, how nations had appeared and then been wiped off the face of the earth, how new lands had been discovered and steam power invented, while the black, heavy smoke of the factory chimneys had overcast the clear sky, hiding it from the people who walked in darkness under a dense network of wires along which a mute but cruel power carried tidings, one more cruel than the other, one more bloody than the other--such tidings as the world had never heard before.

This roaring noise of civilisation which is rushing like a waterfall toward the perception which kindles in men only wretched desire for worthless comforts, had not reached the ears of the great Wanderer who was absorbed reading the great Book. And the foam of the gushing waterfall is striving to besprinkle the holy pages and to cover them with rusty stains of mockery and unbelief.

And the leaders of Zionism are helping on the work of this foam, majestically ignoring the religious question and putting forth only immigration and politics.

“Let us first come together from all sides of the globe,” they say, “and then we shall also work out a religion.”

This is just as unnatural and unwise as it is not national, especially with regard to the Jews. One recalls the splendid chapter of Deuteronomy, where, after the thundering words of cursings and blessings, the young spirit of the new-born nation utters words of profound significance: “And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, and then shalt call them to mind among all the nations, whither the Lord thy God hath driven thee, And shalt return unto the Lord thy God, and shalt obey His voice -- thou and thy children, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul; That then the Lord thy God will turn thy captivity and gather thee free from all the nations, whither the Lord thy God hath shattered thee. And will bring thee into the land which thy fathers possessed.”

This is the hope of the people. First turn to God, and then God Himself will do His own work and will give the land to the people and will grant them more favors than He had granted their fathers.

The leaders of Zionism reason differently. They seem to have changed roles with God. They want to gather the Jews from among all nations in the land of their fathers, and there God would take care that the people should turn their hearts to Him.

And God says to them:

"Try to do My work."

And He turns away from them.

And thus childish colonial banks are started, toy congresses are held, with small and large committees, which, authorized by nobody, are carrying on unnecessary negotiations concerning childish charters and the Sultan’s favors. The people can see the vanity of these projects and so turn away from this movement. It isn’t God’s work -- there is too much of the human, the invented, the medical prescription in this work.

That is why, I hear, there are some rabbis who curse this work, condemning Zionism doctrine that is foreign to the people and that threatens them with great misfortune. And, indeed, although this view is held by the orthodox rabbis, who usually occupy a dark position on religious questions, yet in this case the orthodox Jews stand upon firm ground, and their opposition is entirely legitimate.

There is no progressive spirit in this movement, which is cut out according to European fashion - it has not even the character of progress of which they speak so eloquently at their congresses. And this is the most amazing feature of it all. If the leaders of Zionism, generally sensitive people and sensible men, were unable to create a healthy national movement, they are not to be blamed. They are eager to do something, but they cannot. But if all these people, with their quick understanding of everything that is progressive and striking, did not understand what really moves the higher life of Europe and what constitutes the power of the summits of the European minds, they cannot be excused under any circumstances. Believing that the strength of Europe lies in its imperialism -- that is, in its gunpowder, with all the horrors of militarism -- they have decided to array their old man also in the armor of a warrior and give him a rifle in his hand. They felt like creating a new Juden-Staat. The best minds in Europe, and also in America, all those that think truthfully and sincerely, are agitated to the very depths of their souls at the madness and horror of this abyss whither savage mankind, so called civilized, is drifting head foremost.

All that is right, sensible, and not enslaved by fear or money is striving with all its powers to undeceive the people and to remind them that the strength of mankind does not at all lie in the cannon power of imperialism, and that the future of mankind is not in the passion to separate themselves and to live in small States. Those that are truly progressive see the happiness of mankind in just the reverse, in broad union and in the complete absence of cannon and mortar and those groups which are now held together only by the power of mortars, thus ruining the life of the people. All the rational work of the rational portion of mankind is against such imperialism. And they, the leaders of Zionism, want to give life to this antiquity and call such a wild aspiration -- progress.

This is a great sin. It borders on blasphemy against the most sacred things that we have in life now.

We need no new Governments; we need loving people who see in their love the mission of life and love of God.

What is it that tempted them, what is it that they like so much in this nationalist, which is really a military, movement among the European little nations which the leaders of Zionism are apparently trying to imitate with all their might? Is it the toy freedom of Serbia, where the word of the Austrian Ambassador is of greater importance than the orders of the King, and where all their freedom comes to nothing but endless slaughter and intrigues among the parties, and finally to the ruination of the peasants and the exhaustion of the land, which is overburdened with taxes in order to maintain the great number of officials and soldiers, who could be mowed down by two or three volleys from a small battery? Do they like this? Or do they like the seeming freedom of Bulgaria, which is also torn asunder by riots on account of their temporary little Czars, and which will soon be swallowed up by some other power? Or do they like Romania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Crete, Greece -- which of these does Zionism like? I say nothing of Italy, France, England, Germany, and some of the countries still nearer to us, where the cry also goes up to Heaven from the tortured people who are becoming savage and impoverished, thanks to militarism and organization.

The healthy seed of immigration which is striving to break up the congestion of the Jews and to bring them back to long-forgotten agriculture -- this undoubtedly pure and beautiful movement, which the Zionists now claim as their own -- does not at all belong to the Zionists. The tendency toward colonization existed before; Zionism has boldly usurped it and given it an unnatural and unnecessary political coloring and has thus completely checked the return of the Jews to agriculture. The vision of a Jewish State was started, and this has only complicated the simple and clear desire of the people to leave the cities and take up the only proper, healthy living, and honest work of God -- the tilting of the soil.