The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel's Soul
by Yoram Hazony
New York: Basic/New Republic Books, 2000. 417 pp. $28.
Reviewed by Meyrav Wurmser
Middle East Quarterly
June 2000, pp. 73-75
The Zionist Counterattack
Yoram Hazony, president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, has written one of the first serious attempts to describe and battle post-Zionism - the trend that in recent years has become so important a part of Israel's cultural and intellectual life.
Post-Zionism is not easy to define, but it is a set of beliefs held by some Israelis who attack Zionism as an inherently immoral project, one that throughout the twentieth century led to unjust acts toward the Arab and Jewish inhabitants of today's Israel. A particular form of post-Zionism, which Hazony calls post-Judaism, portrays Judaism as a teaching of universal humanism which can only be sullied through a particular national and political expression.
Hazony's book argues that post-Zionism is on the rise in Israel. Israelis, "an exhausted people, confused and without direction," (p. xvii) are now actively engaged in the destruction of their own national spirit. Hazony finds that expressions of post-Zionist and post-Jewish ideas can be found today in most walks of Israeli life, including the military, media, art, literature, academia, and more. As these ideas spread, they pose a real danger to "everything [Theodor] Herzl and the other leading Zionists sought to achieve." (p. xxvii). In other words, if post-Zionism spreads, Israel will at best stop being the "Jewish state," or at worst, cease to exist.
The great strength of Hazony's deeply researched and thought-provoking work lies in its alerting Israelis and Americans to the challenge of post-Zionism and the ideological threat this poses to the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish state.. His is one of the first expressions of the Zionist counterattack. As post-Zionists return to and rewrite the past to undermine the idea of the Jewish nation, its defenders must also look to the past and reexamine the world of Zionist and anti-Zionist ideas, both to understand the attack and to respond to it.
Hazony's main premise—that ideas shape political realities—is intellectually refreshing in an age characterized by the notion that power and interests alone move politics. It implies that in order to understand politics one must investigate the ideas and beliefs of individuals who constitute the elite. This premise is particularly true vis-à-vis the Zionist movement, which, armed only with a powerful idea, was able to create the new state of Israel.
Hazony's central argument is that the current Jewish assault on Zionism is not a recent phenomenon; its roots go back to approximately the early 1900s, near the very beginning of the Zionist movement. He sees contemporary post-Zionists as the intellectual heirs of Martin Buber and a group of leading German-Jewish (and, to a lesser extent, American) intellectuals, including professors Hugo Bergman, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Joshua Prawer, Gershom Scholem, and Jacob Talmon. Many of them were members of Brit Shalom (Peace Association), a small but vocal political movement in pre-Israel Palestine that called for a bi-national Arab-Jewish state. They opposed Zionism from its outset because they believed that political power would necessarily corrupt the Jewish settlement and lead to injustice toward the Arab population.
Hazony offers a parsimonious and seemingly powerful explanation for post-Zionism. Buber and these other intellectuals, he points out, dominated the faculty of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem from its foundation in 1925. They infused their research and teaching with their anti-Zionist paradigm. Their students adopted these ideas and formed the next generation of Israel's educators and intellectuals, who in turn trained today's post-Zionists. In other words, today's post-Zionism comes from "the hub of a great intellectual contrivance" created by Buber and his associates who "succeeded in creating the course of over forty years."(p. 298).
But this explanation is too parsimonious. When (p. 79).the author writes that "One would not be far off the mark in saying that today's highly successful movement to do away with virtually everything that distinguishes Israel as a Jewish state is nothing more than Martin Buber's revenge for a wound inflicted on him by Theodor Herzl," he is reducing (p.xxix). one of Israel's most important intellectual trends to a personal spat between two personalities a hundred years ago. In addition, this contradicts Hazony's premise that ideas move politics.
Likewise too parsimonious is Hazony's implication that that there was one, and only one, Zionist leader after Herzl's death who was a man of ideas—David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel. Yes, Ben-Gurion was indeed a great Zionist leader, but he was not Israel's "only commanding advocate and theorist." (P. 334). In contrast, Hazony belittles that that other great Zionist leader, Chaim Weizmann, as just "an industrial chemist—which is to say that, to put it kindly, he was no great thinker." (p. 166) Indeed, Hazony dismisses all prime ministers since Ben-Gurion as "[not] idea makers of any significance." (p. 328). He regards as a Zionist tragedy the ending of Ben-Gurion's political career in the mid-1950s, leaving Israel barren of ideas and vulnerable to anti-Zionist intellectuals like Buber and his disciples. This reads Israeli history too narrowly.
Nor is this the only problem with The Jewish State. Second, Hazony hardly discusses to what extent, if any, post-nationalist thought in Israel had roots in other political developments, such as Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the moral dilemmas that resulted from it. Israel's 1967 victory and the fact that it came to rule another people caused many in Israel—particularly in the left-wing of the Zionist camp—to question the morality behind the actions of the Jewish state. Sometimes their criticisms crossed the line into what could be considered post-Zionism. Hazony ignores this as a factor contributing to the crisis of nationalism in Israel today. Indeed, his work largely disregards the influence of the nation's security dilemmas on its intellectuals and searches for the root-causes of post-Zionism almost exclusively in intellectual history.
Third, Hazony attributes the rise of post-Zionism wholly to intellectuals outside the Zionist camp and does not see any weakness within the socialist-Zionism of Israel's founding fathers that might have contributed to the growth of anti-nationalist sentiments. In fact, Labor Zionism contained anti-nationalist seeds that later developed into post-Zionism. It pointed away from, and tended to contradict, national attachments, instead preferring the international fraternity of all men, and even a potential withering away of the state.
Fourth, Hazony dismisses as uninteresting the intense disputes between the Zionist Left and its Right, both because in his view the differences were not great and because "neither movement believed much in the power of ideas." This view would also seem not to be compatible with the author's belief in the power of ideas; and, by applying this approach to intramural Zionist disputes in the 1920s and 1930s, he misses an important aspect of Zionism and a source of today's post-Zionism.
Fifth, Hazony does not clearly define post-Zionism, even though that is the central object of his inquiry. The reader is left to wonder whether the term refers to anti-nationalism, anti-Judaism, or more generally to the beliefs of the Israeli Left. Thus, the chapters that describe post-Zionism as a broad cultural trend discuss not only self-proclaimed post-Zionist writers, but also leading left-wing (though not necessarily post-Zionist) intellectuals, the justices of the Israeli Supreme Court, leading artists, and more. This approach leads Hazony to overlook or not address the schism developing on the Left between Zionists and post-Zionists. The former minister of education Amnon Rubinstein and the author Aharon Megged are just two vocal examples of leftist opponents of post-Zionism.
Despite these weaknesses, Hazony's book is a must-read for any student of Zionism and Israel. He is one of only a handful of writers (including Ephraim Karsh and Anita Shapira) who challenge the post-Zionists. He has also challenged those who would defend Zionism in the intellectual realm: Choose a part of this large problem and start writing, or we all may not have much of a Jewish state to write about.
Meyrav Wurmser, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute, is the author of The Schools of Ba'athism--A Study of Syrian Schoolbooks (Middle East Media Research Institute, 2000).
Related Topics: Israel | Meyrav Wurmser | June 2000 MEQ
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