“And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying: ‘We came to thy brother Esau, and moreover he cometh to meet thee, and four hundred men with him.’ Then Jacob was greatly afraid and was distressed. And he divided the people that were with him, and the flocks, and the herds, and the camels, into two camps. And he said: ‘If Esau come to the one camp, and smites it, then the camp which is left, shall escape.'” Genesis 32.

The Bible (Torah) tells us the story of Jacob who, returning to Canaan after having been fourteen years away, was worried about meeting his brother Esau from whom he stole his birthright. The messengers that Jacob sent forward to announce his brother’s return came back with the news that Esau was coming to meet him with four hundred men. Jacob did not know if he was coming in a spirit of war or peace and was afraid that all his people might be destroyed. So he divided his camp insuring the survival of at least half of his people.

The Bible continues to tell us that Esau came in peace and that the people of Jacob who were also named Israel lived and thrived. However we learn from this story that when one is in an unknown situation and a danger of destruction exists, it is then rational to split your camp and ensure the survival of at least some of your people.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai is considered a great hero in Jewish tradition. He lived at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Romans approximately in the year 70 C.E.. The Talmuld tells us that he realized how futile it was to resist the Romans, but that it was possible for the Jewish People to survive even when exiled from their spiritual center, Jerusalem, its heart – the Holy Temple, and its homeland – the Land of Israel. That ability was based on his belief in the fact that the Jewish People had in its possession the Torah, the religious tradition that could not be taken from them. He asked his students to smuggle him out of the besieged town in a coffin and managed to meet with Vespasian, the Roman General and soon to be Emperor. Rabbi ben Zakkai prophesied that the general would indeed become general and therefore Vespasian offered to grant him three wishes. Ben Zakkai did not request the salvation of the City nor the Temple, for he understood that the Romans were too deeply committed to pursuing their destruction and would never grant him these desires. He did however request that the Romans spare Yavneh, the new home of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court, and it’s Torah Sages. The Talmud1 explains that he realized that the study of the Torah and the keeping of the tradition, would allow the Jewish People to continue living wherever they may be exiled to in the world. Ben Zakkai’s wisdom, compromise and his approach of going against the nationalist zealots in Jerusalem, is the base for the Judaism as we know today, in which communities of learning and praying are very different from the centralized religion and its belief in sacrificing animals at the temple in Jerusalem.

The early Zionists were thinking in a very similar way to Jacob and Ben Zakkai, however this time their besieged Jerusalem could be Vilnius, Warsaw, Vienna and Berlin. They saw the danger coming and looked for alternatives, to build another camp. Millions of Jews were already finding ones, such as by escaping the oppression through their emigration to the Golden Medina – America, as well as countries like Argentina, Australia or South Africa. Many, believed in the revolutionary solutions, such as communism, anarchism and in most cases, socialism, while others tried to escape there Jewishness via assimilation. The Zionists who were a very small minority in the Jewish communities, believed that all these alternatives will not solve the terrible situation; they argued that creating an independent Jewish homeland was the only way to beat anti-Semitism.

“The Jewish question persists wherever Jews live in appreciable numbers. Wherever it does not exist, it is brought in together with Jewish immigrants. We are naturally drawn into those places where we are not persecuted, and our appearance there gives rise to persecution. This is the case, and will inevitably be so, everywhere, even in highly civilized countries – see, for instance, France – so long as the Jewish question is not solved on the political level. The unfortunate Jews are now carrying the seeds of anti-Semitism into England; they have already introduced it into America.”2 Theodor Herzl


1 Babylonian Talmud, Gittin, 56 
2 Theodor Herzl , The Jewish state (Der Judenstaat), 1896

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Splitting the Tribe


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