An overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews, unwilling to accept the restoration of a Jewish state in Palestine by means other than divine intervention, considered Zionism a false messianic movement. Most Jewish liberals and socialists, having accepted the ideals of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on optimism, reason, and progress, rejected Zionism as a reactionary philosophy. Acculturated Jews in Western and Central Europe who regarded themselves simply as members of a religious community, rejected the notion that their nationality was not English, French or German—but “Jewish.”
Reform Judaism’s position was quite contrary to that promulgated by Zionism. The most articulate spokesman for the German Reform movement, the distinguished rabbi and scholar Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), argued that Judaism developed through an evolutionary process that had begun with God’s revelation to the Hebrew prophets. That revelation was progressive, with new truth becoming available to every generation. According to Geiger, the underlying and unchangeable essence of Judaism was its morality, and the core of Judaism was ethical monotheism. He considered the Jewish people a religious community, destined to carry on the mission to “serve as a light to the nations,” to bear witness to God and His moral law. The dispersion of the Jews was not a punishment for their sins, in Geiger’s view, but a part of God’s plan whereby they were to disseminate the universal message of ethical monotheism throughout the world. Indeed, in a Reform prayerbook, he edited in 1854 Geiger deleted all prayers about a return to Zion.