The Gaon of Vilna was the foremost intellectual leader of non-Hasidic Jewry in eighteenth-century Europe; his legacy is claimed by religious Jews, both Zionist and not. In the mid-twentieth century, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Rivlin wrote several books advancing the myth that the Gaon was an early progenitor of Zionism. Following the 1967 War in Israel, messianic sentiments spread in some circles of the national-religious public in Israel, who embraced this myth and made it a central component of the historical narrative they advanced. For those who identified with the religious Zionist enterprise, the myth of the Gaon and his disciples as the first Zionists was seen as proof of the righteousness of their path.
In this book, Israeli scholar Immanuel Etkes explores how what he calls the "Rivlinian myth" took hold, and demonstrates that it has no basis in historical reality. Etkes argues that proponents of the Rivlinian myth seek to blur the distinction between Zionism as a modern national movement or a religious one—a distinction that underlies many of the central conflicts of contemporary Israeli politics. As historian David Biale suggests in his brief foreword to this English translation, "what is at stake here is not only historical truth but also the very identity of Zionism as a nationalist movement."
About the author
Immanuel Etkes is Professor Emeritus of the History of the Jewish People at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
"Immanuel Etkes's meticulously learned study demolishes the revisionist history of the origins of Zionism. Not only has Etkes set the historical record straight, but he has also exposed the falsifications of history that serves the pernicious political turn towards messianic and antidemocratic religious fundamentalism in Israel today. An exceptional work of sober historical scholarship that makes a real difference in our understanding of the contemporary world."
—Allan Nadler, Drew University