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 …

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