September 18, 2019

Yoram Hazony and Zionism

Like Gene Lichtenstein (“The New Jewish State,” May 19), I am fascinated by Yoram Hazony’s new book, “The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul.” I am particularly fascinated by the wide coverage it has received in the national Jewish press, coinciding with a book tour that included a recent stop in Los Angeles.

There is something touching in Hazony’s underlying thesis: that Israeli Jews have lost contact with the guiding ideal of Zionism; namely, the belief in the existence of a Jewish state. Hazony yearns for the halcyon days of old when Zionists operated in a world free of moral ambiguities and political tempests. That world was forged by heroes such as Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion, who, we might add, were men of dramatically different background, temperament and vision. Such differences do not concern Hazony, whose nostalgia for a singular and clear-cut Zionist stance leads him to divide the universe into two diametrically opposed camps: Zionists (an ever-shrinking group) and their enemies (an ever-expanding group). Hazony laments that in today’s Israel the hand of the latter is clearly ascendant, and the consequences are dire.

As touching as Hazony’s sentimental yearning is, it reflects an unrealistic and flawed vision of Jewish history and indeed, of history in general. Lichtenstein appropriately picks up on this when he notes, contra Hazony, that change is an unavoidable but constant feature of history. No ideology known to humanity has been able to preserve its original purity beyond the founding generation, nor has any revolution – American, French, Russian, or Zionist – retained its initial impetus to uproot the status quo over time. Yoram Hazony wants to fight against the ironclad rule of change in history, to preserve Zionist ideology in a time warp, to keep it in a protective incubator free of historical exigency.

But this is not the Zionist or Jewish way. Zionism is, if nothing else, committed to dynamic historical change. In fact, Zionism has been throughout its history a boiling cauldron of diverse ideas. Hazony is wrong when he depicts the Herzlian view as the only legitimate form of Zionist expression; many other visions of Zionism other than Herzl’s goal of creating a Jewish state informed the movement from its inception. Among them was Martin Buber’s desire to renew the Jewish spirit within the framework of a revitalized Jewish community in Erets Yisrael. This is hardly anti-Zionist, as Hazony, and Lichtenstein following him, argue. Indeed, the indictment that Hazony brings against Buber and the German Jewish professors of the Hebrew University for national betrayal is not only provocative – it is nonsensical. This cohort of intellectuals, passionately devoted to a Jewish renaissance in the ancestral homeland, was NOT anti-Zionist. Nor, for that matter, was it an especially potent force in Yishuv and later Israeli politics. To suggest then that the German-Jewish elite exerted a powerful and pernicious influence on Israeli culture is a distortion of breathtaking audacity.

But Hazony is right in arguing that the Herzlian vision of Zionism won the day, besting other visions (e.g., socialist or messianic) of Zionist fulfillment. And to a great extent, Zionism is the victim of its own success. Having seen to the creation of the state of Israel, Zionism effectively discharged its historical mission. A new era of Israeli history was inaugurated in which concern shifted from attaining a state to defending, stabilizing, and enriching it. The remarkable human effort that went into these tasks yielded a modern country secure in its borders, affluent in its marketplace, and bubbling over with cultural vitality. Is all of that energy to be forgotten or discarded in the name of a return to Herzl? I, for one, would hope not.

It may well be that Israel lives in a post-Zionist era – that, in fact, it has lived in such an era since Herzl’s vision of a state was realized in 1948. But this is no tragedy, as Yoram Hazony bemoans. It is a function of Zionism’s historic triumph. Moreover, if post-Zionism means profound meditation over the nature of Israel today – for example, whether it should be a Jewish or democratic state – this is not to be excoriated. It is to be celebrated. For these meditations reflect the remarkable maturity of Israeli society which, a mere half-century after its creation, countenances and even encourages challenging introspection.

To avoid such introspection is to live outside of the dynamic current of history. But even more significantly, it is to deny the new Israeli reality born of Zionism; at the same time, it is to refute the long-standing Jewish impulse to self-reflection. While we should welcome and embrace new voices in the Jewish public square, I fear that Yoram Hazony’s anxiety-ridden and atavistic perspective has little toadd.

David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA and is the author of “Re-Inventing the Jewish Past: European Jewish Intellectuals and the Zionist Return to History.”