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Israel and the End of Zionism


In the seclusion of a cardiac clinic outside Vienna, a few months before he died there in 1904, Theodor Herzl, the father of secular Jewish nationalism, set down his thoughts on the Zionist movement he had founded in 1896. It would undoubtedly triumph, he thought. In fifty years’ time, at the very latest, there would be a Jewish state. In an ironic aside, he added, “Don’t commit any follies while I’m dead.”

At that early stage, “Zionism” was not yet appropriated by regressive nationalists or transformed by religious fundamentalists into a messianic goal. Nor was it as yet challenged by Palestinian nationalists, Islamic fundamentalists, or terrorists. “Zionism” was simply a fancier term for “Jewish nationalism.” Like other European movements of national liberation—the Czech, the Irish, the Italian, the Polish—it was a child of the Enlightenment and the ideas of the French Revolution. It called for the separation of Church and State. Its immediate aim was to provide persecuted Jews with a safe haven that would be recognized in international law, a National Home established through peaceful means.

It is tempting today to look back on those early years with wonder but also with some irony, and perhaps some bitterness. Instead of safety there was ceaseless war. History or, if you like, ideology invariably defeats or overshoots our aims by realizing them in a radically different form, or only partially, or too well.

In the years after Herzl’s death, there was, of course, no shortage of folly among his followers, or of critics to point it out. The first Zionists ignored or belittled the presence of another people in the land they were trying to repossess after an absence of almost two millennia. The political imagination, like the imagination of the explorer, often invents its own geography. The early Zionists suffered from the common Eurocentric illusion that territories outside Europe were in a state of political vacuum. They took it for granted that the native population of Palestine would willingly assimilate with the Jewish newcomers; at the very least they would welcome the arrival of the Jews as promoting their own economic prosperity.

The Zionists were fervently, and at great sacrifice, pursuing a national, social, and cultural renaissance in their ancient homeland; they were blind to the possibility that the Palestinians might entertain similar hopes for themselves. It is always difficult for one people to understand the nationalism of another. Hindsight makes all this sound unbelievable today, but the fact is that there was little evidence of Arab nationalism before 1908 and none at all of a specific Arab-Palestinian variety. Before 1918, few if any of the Jewish settlers ever contemplated the possibility that Arabs and Jews might clash one day in bloody battle as Germans and French did, for almost a century, over Alsace-Lorraine, or as Catholics and Protestants still do in Northern Ireland.

This early innocence ended in the 1920s, following the first civic disturbances in Palestine. After this rude awakening, arguments proliferated about how to achieve peace and reconciliation. The liberal and secular tradition prevailed. To meet the Arabs of Palestine halfway, David Ben-Gurion in 1924 favored a bi-national state. Echoing a famous line in The Brothers Karamazov, he asserted that the Zionists had “no right whatsoever to deprive a single Arab child even if through this deprivation we shall realize our aims.” There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of this sentiment at that time. Others proposed limits on Jewish immigration. Unfortunately, all such compromise solutions, including several schemes to partition the country, were rejected by the Arabs.

In the resultant deadlock, in the early Forties, Hannah Arendt went further than most critics and declared the entire Zionist enterprise a tragic miscarriage because of the failure to achieve a peaceful modus vivendi in Palestine between Arabs and Jews. Two decades later, Jacob Talmon, another prominent historian of nationalism, pondered the same question. He too was disturbed by the seemingly irreversible move to all-out war. But he concluded that even though the Jews might have acted more wisely or more tactfully in detail, in style and tone, it would not have made much difference in the final analysis. The same could not be said about the Arabs, Talmon thought. By adopting an attitude of absolute and total intransigence, the Arabs had reduced the Jews’ alternatives to two: either give up their aspirations—this would have seemed quite unthinkable in those years, immediately after the Nazi Holocaust—or build the National Home in the face of Arab opposition. Since no give-and-take was possible and even modest forms of Zionism based on limited immigration and limited settlement invariably met with maximum Arab resistance, there was no choice, Talmon wrote, but to aim at maximum results with maximum strength.

It was after the Six-Day War of 1967 that the view of Zionism as a secular liberation movement, in the liberal European tradition, was first seriously challenged in Israel by aroused nationalists and religious fundamentalists. The nationalists—they were by no means confined to the traditional political right wing—spoke of “manifest destiny” and believed that might was right. Even though more than a million Palestinians lived in the newly occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel, they said, was justified in suppressing their national rights. Israel was said to have a valid legal and “historic” claim to the entire territory west of the River Jordan—and to much else besides. Settling this territory was, in the words of General Ariel Sharon and other spokesmen of the new nationalism, the “Zionist answer” to Arab enmity. The religious fundamentalists euphorically shared this view. They knew exactly what borders God and Abraham had agreed upon in the Bronze Age and claimed they could hear the footsteps of the messiah that heralded the End of Days. Settling the newly occupied territories was a meta-political, divinely ordained task.

The 1967 war was the great turning point in Israel’s view of itself and in its relationship with its neighbors. The victory in that war astounded public opinion abroad; at home it closed many political minds. The Israelis ignored Abba Eban’s advice to be “generous” victors. The war had given them more secure borders. It had also given them the bargaining chips they had lacked before. For the first time since independence in 1948, Israel could have traded land for peace. This opportunity, we now know, was missed. Few things can be as intellectually debilitating as a great victory. “Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won,” Wellington wrote from the field of Waterloo.

The painful impact of this early missed opportunity still overshadows everything. Underlying it is the tragic tendency of large parts of Israeli society to reinterpret its tradition in the harsh terms of an integralist or religious state ideology still known under the old name “Zionism.” The tragedy reached a particularly grim point last May when, in a mixture of aroused “Zionist” tribalism and religion, power politics, cynicism, and inertia, the Likud was voted back into power. The Likud version of “Zionism” once again became a stumbling block to peace. This happened at the moment when it seemed that liberal, secular Zionism, as originally conceived, had successfully achieved all or almost all of its stated purposes. We still don’t know what effects this tragedy will have on what has been, until now, an open society, a democracy. It would have been difficult, even in the best of circumstances, for Israeli democracy to survive a rigid “state ideology.” Those Frenchmen in 1848 who did not give up in time on “la révolution” helped clear the ground for Napoleon III. As Karl Kraus warned, in the final analysis every “ideology” gravitates toward war.


Last May, an Israeli government, even though it had signed a historic accord with the Palestinians, even though it had achieved formal peace with Jordan and established diplomatic relations with Morocco, Tunisia, and the Gulf States, was narrowly defeated by a coalition of right-wing nationalists and religious fundamentalists. That same government had also, largely because of its peace initiatives, set in motion an economic boom unprecedented in the history of the country.

Before the election, it would have seemed that Israel’s hundred-year-old struggle to exist was almost over. It had successfully broken out of its isolation in the region, in the third world, and in Eastern Europe. It had been able to establish strong diplomatic and trade relations with India, China, and dozens of other countries. The last vestiges of a fifty-year-old Arab economic boycott, direct and indirect, were successfully removed. Moreover Israel was said to be the strongest, most effective military power between France and India. True, Israel was still part of a volatile, unstable region, often said to be a “jungle.” Yet Israel was not a helpless little creature in this jungle, but a leopard or a well-trained lion. It possessed an extremely efficient military machine composed of energetic and highly committed men and women. It relied on a nuclear deterrent and sophisticated intermediate-range delivery systems. It was a regional mini-power in close alliance with the United States and other leading powers in Europe (Germany) and the Near East (Turkey).

The end of the cold war had improved Israel’s strategic position in the regional power game. The collapse of the Soviet Union had deprived Israel’s adversaries of the war arsenals and political support of a superpower. There were still clashes and setbacks but the general trend seemed fairly steady. The “peace process” was said to be irreversible. Syria was the last neighboring state still officially at war with Israel. But the remaining issues with Syria were no longer charged, in Syrian eyes, by seemingly insurmountable psychological, conceptual, or even metaphysical problems. The remaining issues with Syria were the more “normal” ones among neighboring states: over borders and the distribution of water resources.

The conflict with the Palestinians, too, was no longer the zero-sum game it had been for so long. Israel and the PLO had recognized each other. Rabin was the first Israeli prime minister with the courage to remind Israelis that they were not alone in The Land, there was another nation there. For this blasphemy he was assassinated a year later. His murder was a “religious” murder. It was committed with the monstrous innocence and sincerity of the true believer. The killer had been trained by fanatic rabbis. As far as he was concerned, he had pulled the trigger on their behalf.

Rabin and Peres were reconciled to the idea that the Palestinians would eventually establish their own independent state even as the Israelis had established theirs. This cannot be said of the new administration headed by Benyamin Netanyahu. On the contrary, the idea of Palestinian independence is clearly anathema to him. Netanyahu keeps saying that he will honor all international agreements made by the previous government. He also makes it plain that he considers the Oslo agreement a grievous, if not criminal, mistake. The most he seems ready to grant the Palestinians is a form of very limited local autonomy in some two or three dozen Bantustan-style enclaves, on less than 10 percent of occupied territory, surrounded by ever-growing Israeli settlements established on expropriated Palestinian land.

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