September 20, 2018

The Eternal Debate on the ‘Idea’ of Israel

We are still arguing among ourselves over whether the two-state solution is dead, but here’s a question that is rarely, if ever, asked: Exactly when did the idea of peaceful co-existence between a Jewish state and an Arab state first enter the international diplomatic conversation?

The surprising answer is 1936, 12 years before the State of Israel was declared. That’s when the British government, which then ruled over all of Palestine, proposed the so-called Peel Plan, which would have carved out a Jewish state between Tel Aviv and the border with Lebanon, reserved Jerusalem and Nazareth to Great Britain, and turned over the rest to the Arab community. Even then, the plan immediately sparked a rhetorical civil war among Labor Zionists, Revisionists and religious Zionists that is all too familiar to us today.

So we learn in Michael Brenner’s “In Search of Israel: The History of an Idea” (Princeton University Press), a timely and useful survey of the differing and sometimes diametrically opposed points of view that have been asserted by men and women who all regard themselves as good Zionists. He allows us to see that the core idea of Zionism has always been situated somewhere between two poles — the aspiration toward a sovereign Jewish state “like any other” state, and the belief that the Jewish state is destined to be exceptional, a divine gift bestowed on a Chosen People and “a light unto the nations.”

“[Our heart] … lies with the heart of the Jewish people in Eretz Israel and the Diaspora in fearing the royal commission’s conclusion regarding partition of the Land of Israel, which amputates our land, cuts off entire limbs and robs us of Jerusalem,” declared one group of Hebrew writers in a public manifesto when the Peel Plan was first proposed.

Brenner, the Seymour and Lillian Abensohn Chair in Israel Studies and director of the Center for Israel Studies at American University, and a professor of Jewish History and Culture at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, points out that the debate goes all the way back to the first stirrings of political Zionism in the 19th century, when Theodor Herzl offered his own solution for the “Jewish Problem” in “The Jewish State.” Notably, Herzl did not regard the Holy Land as the only place to create one. Herzl believed that “[if] a Jew is refused a normal life in Paris or Vienna, then he or she has to create a path to normality elsewhere, and in a Jewish society — be it in Palestine or in Argentina,” Brenner explains.

The core idea of Zionism has always been situated somewhere between two poles — a sovereign Jewish state “like any other” state and one destined to be exceptional.

The tension between normality and exceptionalism, as Brenner shows us, is a thread that runs throughout the history of Zionism. Early Jewish socialists like Jakob Klatzkin believed that only by working on the land and in the factories of a Jewish state would the Jews “leave behind elitist Jewish traits and become a real people.” The Jewish state should not only include “peasants and craftsmen but also soldiers and armies,” as Brenner writes. Thus did Yosef Trumpeldor famously fall in the defense of the Jewish settlement of Tel Hai in 1920 with stirring words on his lips: “It is good to die for our country.”

Of course, the Labor Zionists were not alone in embracing secularism. Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, Trumpeldor’s comrade-in-arms and the founder and leader of the Revisionists, “expressed his conviction that the fight for a Jewish state would not be decided through prayer or negotiation, but only through a bloody struggle,” Brenner writes. Jabotinsky, who is the founding father of the movement that now finds political expression in the Likud party, wrote a hymn that captured his vision of how the Jewish state would come into existence: “From the pit of decay and dust / With blood and sweat / Shall arise a race / Proud, generous and cruel.”

While Brenner’s book is essentially the history of an idea, it is enlivened and enriched by the fascinating details and incidents that he has retrieved from the historical record. He recalls that Herzl himself did not believe that Hebrew could become the national language of the Jewish state: “Who amongst us has a sufficient acquaintance with Hebrew to ask for a railway ticket in that language?” Herzl famously observed. Brenner points out that the name of the Jewish state that was declared in 1948 was a matter of much debate — Zion, Judah, Canaan and Eretz Yisrael were all considered and rejected in favor of State of Israel. And David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, insisted on regarding the Jews of the Diaspora as nothing more than raw material: “We have turned human dust, gathered from all over the world, into an independent, sovereign nation, occupying a respectable place in the family of nations.”

Even when the “human dust” is gathered in, however, Zionism is faced with another vexing and often heartbreaking problem: Who is a Jew? The Law of the Return, which assures citizenship to any Jew who reaches Israel, has been the occasion for a long and continuing debate. “[A] person might be considered a Jew by a rabbi even though he had converted to another religion, but the same rabbi would not consider him a Jew when he was called to the Torah in the synagogue,” explains Brenner, citing the writings of Avishai Margalit.

As Brenner explores the contradictions and contentions that make up the history of Israel, he encourages us to see the commonalities, too. Religious Zionists demanded “a state based on religious principles,” for example, while Labor Zionists embraced “the notion of a Zionist movement under entirely secular leadership and with a secular language.” Yet even Labor Zionism can be seen as “a secularized version of traditional messianism,” and “the socialists’ talk of the redemption of the soil provided the basis for claims by some in the Labor Party after the Six-Day War that the whole of the Land of Israel was sacred.”

Ben-Gurion embraced something of the same idea: “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.” Brenner quotes Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, vice president of the American Jewish University, for the proposition that “Israel’s existence is a miracle.” And so, when Brenner ends his book with a series of provocative questions about the future of Israel (“Will it be a democracy with equal rights for all its citizens or an ethnocracy that favors one group over another?” “Will the society remain a dominantly secular one, or will religious groups make more inroads?”), we are left with the notion that even something as miraculous as a two-state solution is not yet entirely out of the question.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.