Israel and the End of Zionism

Benyamin Netanyahu.
Benyamin Netanyahu.; drawing by David Levine


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,…

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