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The Birth of a Tragedy

The Tragedy of Zionism

by Bernard Avishai
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 389 pp., $19.95

Conflicts and Contradictions

by Meron Benvenisti
Villard Books, 210 pp., $15.95

In my youth I read a story about an old newspaper proofreader, trained in the classics, who could not stand the trivializing use by young reporters of the sublime word tragedy. Eventually he died in a road accident, and, sure enough, the morning paper announced his death as a tragedy. Bernard Avishai calls his book The Tragedy of Zionism—and immediately one’s attention is drawn to the question of fit between title and book. Is it a sloppy or trivial use of the notion of tragedy, or is the story of Zionism indeed a story of a fall, whose fatal inevitability and whose weighty heroes justify it?

It is not fair of course to judge a book by whether its title is apt or not. All the more so, because often it is the publisher who decides the matter. In fact, with regard to the book under review the title is perhaps the book’s greatest asset. It adds punch, if not point, and gives unity to its story. After all, one of Aristotle’s explicit requirements of a good tragedy is unity of plot. Were it not for its unifying title, Avishai’s book would be a less than coherent assemblage of events and ideas.

It seems therefore a useful strategy to examine this book by the degree to which its content justifies the attribution of tragedy. Moreover, the term “tragedy,” to judge from the book’s prologue, might seem to have a personal meaning as well. Avishai describes his private disappointment in the realization of Zionism, when he attempted to become an Israeli and then decided not to do so. But, to return to Aristotle once more, tragedy requires heroes of weight and substance and Avishai doesn’t pretend to be writing about himself as embodying a large idea.

Avishai (né Shaicovitch) first arrived in Israel from Canada as an enthusiastic young visitor after the 1967 war. Later he “made Aliyah,” i.e., decided to emigrate, and even joined a kibbutz. There he and his wife discovered the people were strangers to them, “fine people but not our own.” The birth of their first son, instead of launching them into the subtleties of purchasing disposable diapers in Israel, made them “reexamine the normative justification of Zionism.” Eventually, realizing that their sabra son was growing up a Hebrew-speaking creature alien to them, they packed and went home to Canada.

Avishai’s book has recently led to his being accused of disloyalty to his Zionist past, and to Israel. This is a cruel and unjustified accusation. In spite of his criticism of Israel from the West, his heart is clearly in the East. Moreover, the views that led some members of the American Jewish community to refer to him as a “Jew against Zion” are the very ones that are exchanged every Friday evening among the secular intelligentsia in Israel. The difference is that in Israel no one bothers to lay them out in 359 closely printed pages. If Avishai is disloyal, then so are many of those living in Zion and defending its existence.

Yet Avishai’s personal story is some-what sad as he tells it, even if short of tragic. He goes on to explain the book’s title:

In calling this book The Tragedy of Zionism, I do not mean to suggest that Zionism is some historical misfortune. Rather, that Labor Zionism is a good revolution that long ago ran its course, that it stopped short of its liberal-democratic goals, and recent efforts to reinvigorate Zionism in Israel have only brought Israelis more misfortune.

The tragedy, then, is that of Labor Zionism; the author does not explain why he emphasizes this rather than any other of the strains that have made up Zionism. But it is clear that he regards Labor Zionism as the leading strain, as well as the most promising one, in the founding and building of the state of Israel. Hence the disappointment. The disappointment concerns the failure of Labor Zionism to fulfill its vision of establishing the state of Israel as a liberal democracy.

Avishai seems here to touch a raw wound, with Kahane and his followers supplying the infection. Since Kahane’s election to the Knesset the frequency with which the word “democracy” has been heard in Israel surely exceeds by far that of its use in all previous years put together. The timing of Avishai’s claim, then, seems to be perfect. However, in my opinion it is misleading to conceive of the challenge Kahane presents to Israeli society as a matter of democracy, or even of racism. To be sure, Kahane and his followers are indeed rabid racists and pathologically antidemocratic, but the problem they present—and represent—is different: the problem is their solution to the so-called demographic problem in Israel, which is to expel the Arabs. On this point Kahane’s support goes beyond the lunatic fringe that won him his parliamentary seat, and this is crucial for understanding the current Israeli scene—much more so than the issue of whether or not the state is a democracy according to the liberal theology of Avishai.

Democracy, however, is a hotly debated subject in Israel today. “Democracy or Zionism?” asks the title of one of Avishai’s chapters, the chapter from which we are to learn about the dimensions of the tragedy of Zionism. The “or” in the question is to be taken as exclusive: either democracy or Zionism. Not both. The chapter is replete with strange assertions, mostly about the liberal semantics of the Jewish heritage and of the Hebrew-speaking people.

Significantly, there was never a word for democracy in the Hebrew tradition, except for the borrowed word “democratia.”

The word for democracy in Hebrew is indeed borrowed. But why should the fact that the word for democracy in Hebrew is a borrowed one be of any more significance than the fact that it is also borrowed in English, and in the languages of other democratic nations? Avishai here is like the Victorian lady who, not wanting to donate money for the translation of the Bible into Zulu, complains that the natives cannot be bothered to learn to read the Bible in the divine language of God, namely English. Avishai’s etymology does not end here. He also finds that the Israeli consciousness is influenced by the fact that the ancient word for liberty in Hebrew—cherut—does not carry with it the connotations of personal liberty, but rather has to do with collective liberty; while the Hebrew word for freedom—chofesh—is, according to Avishai, a modern one, acquired in Europe.

Indeed, a young Israeli whose parents are from North Africa may have learned the word “cherut” directly from the Bible, the word “democratia” from resented Labor apparatchiks and the word “chofesh” from the Zionist anthem “Ha’Tiqva.”

But neither the young Israeli nor Bernard Avishai nor anyone else can learn the word cherut directly from the Bible for the simple reason that it does not occur there. Not in the story of Exodus, or anywhere else. On the other hand, Israeli youth together with Avishai could find chofesh in the Bible—in the sense of individual freedom, that is the freedom of the slave from his master. If anything, though, the young Israeli learns the word for freedom neither from the Bible nor from the national anthem, but from the prosaic fact that school holidays are referred to in Hebrew as chofesh, the long summer vacation as the “big chofesh.” This sense of freedom as vacation, that is as the opportunity to do as you please and in your own good time and in places other than the usual, certainly conforms to the concrete notion of freedom of most people, and even precedes the notion of freedom as it figures in Avishai’s liberal theology.

The Hebrew word cherut, in the sense of liberation from foreign domination, first appeared close to the beginning of the Christian era. Within Christianity it was given, by St. Paul, a personal meaning, that of liberation from the burden of the Torah. Generations later a similar notion, although with explicitly negative connotations, was used by the orthodox rabbis to describe the secular Zionists as “free Jews.” The founders of Zionism were liberals in the middle-European sense of the term, namely people who aspired to be liberated from the yoke of religion. It is important to remember this: Their notion of liberalism was not primarily associated with rights against the state or with civil liberties in relations with state authority. The state, indeed, was perceived as an ally, as an instrument in the struggle against religion and against the persecution of Jews on religious grounds. In the middle-European conception of liberalism that circulated among early Zionists there was no contradiction, or even tension, between liberalism and statism. This is how matters stood for the first Zionists.

Zionism and the state of Israel were for a long time a junkyard for almost every European ideology. Significantly, however, liberalism in the Anglo-Saxon sense was not one of them. Today of course this ideology has its flag bearers in Israel—the civil rights activist Shulamit Aloni, for example. But this is a relatively recent development. And even though Aloni came from the Labor Zionist movement, Bernard Avishai is wrong to see the liberal outlook as part of the ideology of Labor Zionism. In practice, it was the legacy of the British Mandate, and in particular the British institutions of the courts and the police, that injected some liberal traits into Israel.

Moreover, in the state of Israel, as well as in the period of the immigrant settlement preceding its establishment as a state, democracy was the product of a compromise rather than a component of Zionist ideology. It was a result of the fact that the Jewish community both in the Diaspora and in Palestine has always been so fragmented that no central power could impose its will and its vision on it. This has had its own folklore too, in the contentiousness of the Jewish character, “three Jews—four parties.” The main democratic value to be absorbed by the emerging Israeli consciousness was that of intense political involvement. By comparison, American democracy, with its low proportion of voters, is seen as a democracy of apathy, not a “true” democracy. Democratic rhetoric, as part of socialist rhetoric, had its echo in Labor Zionism, but democracy was understood by Labor Zionists as “guided.” There can be little doubt that the history of the state of Israel is one of increasing democratization. Israel in the time of Begin was, outside the occupied territories, more democratic than Ben-Gurion’s Israel, whether we measure democracy by free expression or by free participation of citizens in public life.

Bernard Avishai rightly accuses Ben-Gurion of missing a great opportunity in not founding the state of Israel upon a constitution. That he gave up the idea of a constitution for reasons of convenience—choosing a coalition with the religious parties who opposed a constitution, over a coalition with the left-wing Mapam which favored it—indeed seems unpardonable. A constitution would have given Israel a legal base as a liberal democracy. I too believe that a constitution—especially one that would have been written in the atmosphere of good will prevailing when the state was established—could have worked as an effective instrument for the protection of civil liberties. But one ought not to succumb to an excessive belief in what a constitution can achieve. As if there had been no slavery in the USA under the Constitution. When a discriminatory interest of the majority against an entire segment of the population is at stake, the effectiveness of a constitution is not so clear.

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