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.

Like England, Israel has no constitution, but it has a number of basic laws. Avishai claims that among these basic laws are explicit discriminatory laws against the Arabs, and that these are evidence for the fact that the Zionist revolution stopped short of realizing its vision of establishing a liberal-democratic state. Thus he repeats without examining it, the charge, prevalent in the American press, that the basic law of the Israeli Land Authority precludes Arabs from leasing “95 percent of cultivated Israeli land.” This charge is unfounded. There is certainly discrimination against Arabs in leasing land, but it is not at all codified in the land law. Moreover, Avishai errs in holding that the law was passed in the first Knesset: it was passed in 1960, and was considered one of the greatest achievements of socialist Zionism in that it made most of the land in the state of Israel the property of its entire citizenship, and protected it from private ownership. In fact Begin and his cronies opposed the law, in the name of free enterprise.

The charge of legal discrimination against Arabs goes back to an article in the Keren Kayemet charter (Keren Kayemet being the branch of the Jewish Agency responsible for purchasing land in Palestine), which limits the lease of Keren Kayemet land to Jews only. Now Keren Kayemet land comprises 5 percent of the state land, according to one calculation, and 14 percent according to another (the discrepancy has to do with the fact that 9 percent of the land was given to the Keren Kayemet between 1948 and 1960). But even for this part of the land, Israeli law does not recognize the Keren Kayemet rules on leasing to Arabs—much as it does not recognize another Keren Kayemet regulation that demands that the Sabbath be observed on all Keren Kayemet land. (This last regulation was in fact contested in court, and the Keren Kayemet lost.) The discrimination against Israeli Arabs, then, is not in the law but in the discriminatory practices of the officials in charge of land administration.

However, the dialectics of the history of Israel’s land policies are even more complicated. The policy of the Begin government of settling the West Bank and channeling resources from within the Green Line marking the pre-1967 order toward this end brought about the collapse of Israel’s agriculture, which was until then, of course of of Israel’s most impressive successes. Many collective settlements (Moshavim), mainly in the south, went bankrupt. Much of their land was consequently leased to Arabs, so that the extent of Arab cultivation of land in the state of Israel today much exceeds any known in the past. The urgent problem of the Israeli Arab population today is not agricultural land, but rather land for housing. It is here that Arabs are discriminated against to an appalling degree.

Democracy as a “Zionist” issue is relatively new. The attempt to create a democratic civic religion in Israel belongs roughly to the last two years. Ever since Meir Kahane’s election to the Knesset every child in Israel has been bombarded with talk of “democracy.” A prominent Israeli educator tells of visiting a class-room recently. When he asked the children what they would like to discuss, they answered in unison, “Anything but democracy.” Kahane has frightened many Israelis, including those who are ideologically close to him. To the Israelis he is aesthetically repulsive, an outsider (although so were a certain Austrian, Georgian, and Corsican in their own time); but Kahane evokes comparisons that are too embarrassing, and in too explicit a manner.

The campaign against Kahanism turned into a campaign for democracy. Many organizations of good-to-medium will mobilized for voluntary work “among the youth.” Democracy was given something like a numinous status in civil life. Young jingoists learned that their more blunt opinions have to be camouflaged. But when Kahane declares, “I’m only saying out loud what you are thinking,” he is right. Like him, many would like to expel the Arabs. Unlike him, they do not think that football games should be banned on the sabbath, and they do not want the traditional Halachic religious law to be imposed on the country. But they go along with his central creed.

Since the 1967 war the right wing in Israel has been speaking of the “Greater Israel,” and the Labor party of the “demographic problem”: the former in the name of the pleasure principle, the latter in the name of the reality principle. The expression “the demographic problem” is monstrous, of course. It sounds like a disturbance of ecological equilibrium as a result of an increase in the birthrate of rats. However, the idea that today there are in greater Israel about sixty thousand non-Jewish births annually, as against about fifty thousand Jewish births, is alarming to the Israelis. (According to the latest report presented to the government by the statistician Professor Bacchi, 43 percent of the population of greater Israel in the year 2000 will be non-Jews.) The right wing talked for a while about the hope of a mass Jewish immigration from the USSR, and then about an “awakening” among the Jews in the West. But they were merely playing for time, not daring to say aloud what they realized was embarrassing to hear, that they wanted the Arabs to be expelled. “First let us settle the West Bank, then we shall see,” was their expressed attitude.

Kahane in effect broke the taboo surrounding the right wing’s unspoken solution to the so-called demographic problem. Following came Yuval Ne’eman, the leader of the “Renaissance” (“Tehiya“) party and a well-known professor of physics—a Kahane in evening dress who, at the opening of his party convention, spoke of the “resettlement” of half a million Arabs in the Arab countries surrounding Israel—a local version of the German plan to settle Jews in Madagascar. In view of this version of the expulsion of the Arabs, all the rest of the talk about “tragedy” sounds too melodramatic.

However, there is another interpretation of the “tragedy of Zionism,” as Bernard Avishai presents it. It seems to me even more interesting than the claim that the tragic element has to do with the failure to found in Israel a liberal democracy roughly in the American style. The Aristotelian scheme calls for a clear distinction between beginning, middle, and end in the development of a tragic plot. This sequence is preserved in Avishai’s story of the fall of Labor Zionism from a laborers’ society, centered on the Histadrut labor federation, to statism, and finally to the new Zionism of the Greater Israel. Moreover, the Aristotelian requirement that each stage is the necessary consequence of the preceding one is here complied with: the new Zionism is a necessary development of the Ben-Gurion statism that preceded it, and the statism derived from the Histadrut society of the early Zionists. Indeed, this three-stage version of the development of Zionism is accepted by the labor movement intelligentsia today, especially as a story of decline and fall.

But there is now a great deal of cloying and idealizing nostalgia toward the Histadrut society. True, it was an impressive society in its emotional power as well as in its achievements. At the same time, however, Histadrut promoted feudal socialism on a broad scale. It was, as Avishai sometimes suggests, a federation of political groups each comprising institutions that could almost entirely encompass the domain of the individual. Schools, newspapers, sport associations, youth movements, settlement movements, social funds, enterprises, everything. Liberalism in the sense of free access to sources of information and to material resources was conspicuously absent. But oppressive ideological collectivism was present in abundance.

The story of the three stages told as the story of the fall of Zionism is to me the strongest part of Avishai’s book; it also corresponds to the book’s structure. While the first act of this story is well told, the last is like the narration accompanying a TV documentary, which is determined by what material is available. In Avishai’s case the last act follows the various articles on Israel he published in these pages over the past few years. Though good in themselves, their value as reportage is not sustained within the frame of the book. The result is fragmented.

The title The Tragedy of Zionism can, in my view, be justified. But not as Avishai’s book would have it. Zionism is a tragedy in the Hegelian sense, that is, in the sense of a collision between two moral forces with powerful but conflicting rights. The position of each of the conflicting parties is in itself justifiable, but the outcome is one of mutual destruction. This is the tragedy of the Zionist movement in its encounter with the Arabs in 1948. In Zionism today the tragedy is one of physical victory alongside severe moral failure.

The book that succeeds in conveying this failure is not Avishai’s but Meron Benvenisti’s. Conflicts and Contradictions is the ideological autobiography of a reliable and sensitive witness. A wise Irish writer, Sean MacPhiliny, said once that when a person claims that he has a solution to the problem of Northern Ireland this is a sure sign that he has not understood the problem. It seems to me that this, applied to the Israeli case, is Benvenisti’s view.

Meron Benvenisti is a high priest—as well as the son of a high priest—in the Zionist rite of moledet in the land of Israel. Moledet is the Hebrew equivalent of homeland, or Heimat, with the connotation of one’s having been born there (as in the Russian rodina, which seems to have been the source of inspiration for the revived biblical term). The members of the order practicing this rite were the members of the youth movements of the laboring Israel. An understanding of the youth movements in the Israel of those days is immeasurably more important for an understanding of Zionism than reading the texts of the founding fathers of Zionism—texts which only in the latter-day propaganda war came to have a readership.

The Israeli youth movements drew their inspiration from the völkisch movements in Germany, as well as from Russian ones. As the forests were to the German Volk culture, and the tundras to the Russian rodina culture, so the Negev and Judea deserts were to Israeli moledet culture. Meron Benvenisti was among the famous hike leaders of the youth movement, the son of a prominent Israel explorer and one of its first Zionist hikers. The hikes in the Negev desert had the quality of exhausting pilgrimages. I remember one such outing from my childhood with Benvenisti the leader, while we dragged after him in the intense desert heat, observing the so-called water discipline that was designed to steel the sabra.

This homeland rite formed the sabra, and especially the sabra myth, more than anything else. The idea was that through those hikes in the country an attachment, not just a bond, to the land would be fostered. (The distinction is this: I have a watch that I inherited from my father. It lies in the drawer, unused. I am attached to this object: it is filled with meaning for me. I also have a fountain pen. I am attached to it: it has no particular meaning for me, but I use it constantly, am used to it, and cannot do without it.) A man like Begin, for instance, has a bond to the land of Israel, but no attachment to it. He does not know and never knew its landscapes, its colors, its smells. He was always a stranger to all these. Even as defense minister he never visited the land. Meron Benvenisti has not an abstract, symbolic bond to the land, but a deep and immediate attachment to the concrete entity called the land of Israel.

The land to which Benvenisti is attached comprises not just the ruins of old synagogues, but Crusader and Mameluke and Ottoman ruins too. This attachment recognizes the love others have of the land as well. In Benvenisti’s consciousness, perhaps more than in anybody else’s, there is room for Palestinians. His empathy for the plight of the Arabs is altogether different from the mechanical enumeration of Israeli atrocities, and also very different from the wish of many doves to distance themselves from Arab life and withdraw to the small, beautiful Israel of yesterday, unspoiled by the Arabs.

When the Al-Aqsa mosque was set fire to by an Australian maniac in 1968, Benvenisti, then deputy mayor of Jerusalem, was among the first to arrive on the scene. His first question to the Muslim guard was what had happened to the pulpit, which dated back to the time of Salahadin’s war against the crusaders. The answer he received was that it had burned down. Benvenisti writes:

I, a non-Muslim infidel and a hated occupier, stood there with tears in my eyes, overwhelmed with grief.

Benvenisti is very much an insider of Israeli life, even when he is a controversial figure to Israelis, doves and hawks alike. When he tells us about how he left the kibbutz it sounds like the story of a monk leaving his monastery. It is a story of strong guilt feelings, worlds apart from a story about “fine people but not my own.”

A large part of Benvenisti’s book is devoted to the period in which he was, as a deputy mayor, responsible for East Jerusalem. During this time he was considered by everyone Teddy Kollek’s certain successor as mayor of Jerusalem. It is tantalizing to think what might have happened had Benvenisti really been the heir. (The potential explosive power of two huge egos like Kollek’s and Benvenisti’s could blow apart more than one city hall, so that the succession had no real chance from the start.) Teddy Kollek could be called Jerusalem’s La Guardia. Jerusalem is a city in which the conflicts and contradictions of Israeli society are probably more amplified and expressive than in any other place. Jews versus Arabs is only one of the conflicts. Twenty-eight percent of the city’s population are ultra-Orthodox Jews, some of them fiercely militant. It is a community in open cultural confrontation with the secular community, mainly with the Ashkenazi section of it. This confrontation is violent on the Orthodox side, and full of hatred—anti-Semitic in some of its manifestations—on the secular side. An increasing number of the city’s nonreligious educated young come to see Tel-Aviv as their hope for a free life. Tel-Aviv’s attractiveness is to be found in its Juniah syndrome—the hedonistic Christian enclave north of Beirut where eating, drinking, and fornicating goes on while Beirut itself is burning.

Another conflict is that between Ashkenazim and Orientals. The Oriental community in Jerusalem traditionally supports the Likud; alone of the Labor leaders, Kollek has attained a majority even in this community. Kollek succeeds in keeping the city in one piece. Benvenisti seemed the only hope of maintaining Kollek’s achievements in the city once Kollek retired. True, Kollek’s “unified Jerusalem” is illusory in many ways. But still Kollek makes the difference between Jerusalem and Belfast. After him, so it seems, the deluge.

Benvenisti’s book makes a significant contribution to the question of democracy in Israel by radically redefining it. He believes it is a mistake to consider the West Bank as a problem of foreign affairs, a matter of territories whose future will be decided in future negotiations, one way or the other, between the obvious claimants. According to Benvenisti the occupied territories have for a long time been an internal Israeli problem. They are already inseparable from the state of Israel from the point of view of politics, economics, transportation, security, and more. In light of the fact that the occupation is now nineteen years old—exactly the length of time that Israel existed within the Green Line—the territories have to be seen as a permanent attachment to Israel. The Israeli regime, in Benvenisti’s view, is not that of a democracy within the Green Line and of a colonial power outside it, but rather that of a Herren Democracy in the Greater Israel.

This difference has political implications. It means for Benvenisti that Israeli doves have to rid themselves of the illusion that the occupation is temporary and will one day end in a single dramatic act. Since annexation has become a fact, even if it is not yet legally entrenched, the rights of the Palestinians in the territories have to be fought for as much as those of the Galilee Israeli Arabs.

Benvenisti does not err with the facts, but he errs, I believe, with their interpretation. To begin with, the forces working to preserve the status quo of annexation exist within the Green Line, not in the “facts” that have been established over the past nineteen years outside it. These “facts” have, to my mind, a secondary, if not a marginal, importance. I also believe that the forces of annexation are the same ones that will be mobilized for the expulsion of the Arabs, to ensure that under no circumstances will a binational state be formed. In my view it is easier and makes better sense to struggle for the separation of the West Bank and Gaza from Israel than to struggle for liberal democracy for all the inhabitants residing in all areas of the Greater Israel. The importance of Benvenisti’s challenge for the doves is that it forces them to relate themselves to the everyday reality of occupation, not just to an “eschatological” treaty.

Benvenisti does not propose a schematic solution. The power of this book lies in its ability to convey a sense of a living, breathing, suffering reality in the most immediate and concrete terms. It is a book that, in its more intimate sections, is truly moving, and its analytical sections succeed in revealing the deep contradictions in the attitude of Labor Zionism to the Arabs—contradictions that have wellnigh turned it into a stylistic variant of the Likud.

Benvenisti, like Avishai, writes about the West Bank. All eyes are turned toward the West Bank, none toward Gaza (although Benvenisti recently issued a devastating report on conditions there). The Gaza strip is a dark place, out of sight, and out of mind. In a nondemagogical description it is the Soweto of Tel-Aviv. The reality of life in the strip is terrible. A population that explodes in a relatively small area—from a quarter of a million people in 1967 to half a million today. A veritable rag proletariat, of whom the lucky ones, including young Dickensian children, work in Israel in shocking conditions of exploitation, while the unlucky are left to rot in the degenerating conditions of the camps.

Prime Minister Peres has been talking lately of “Gaza first”; his hope being to reach a separate agreement with Egypt concerning the strip. The underlying assumption is that while Israel is not being pressured by the Americans to do anything with the territories of the West Bank, both the US and Mubarak are apprehensive about the future of the peace with Egypt. Hence Peres’s attempt to work out, with US support, a plan for the autonomy of the Gaza strip, perhaps under a trusteeship. Egypt, in return, will get increased American aid. The negotiations will be conducted by Peres during his term as foreign minister, after he rotates his position with Shamir this month. The treaty, if reached, will then be brought to the government, under the Likud premiership of Shamir. If it is turned down, the government will fall, with the Americans backing Peres. If it is ratified, then Peres would take credit for it.

I myself believe that the slogan “Gaza first” is right since it would help educate the Israeli public to come to terms with the evils of occupation. It is the wrong slogan, however, if it spearheads a drive for a solution to the Gaza problem separate from the larger solution to the problem of the occupied territories. Should Peres try to press now for separating the problem of the strip from that of the West Bank, I fear that he may find himself, like Milton’s Samson, “eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with the slaves.”

This Issue

October 23, 1986