And None Shall Make Them Afraid
by Rick Richman
Encounter Books (2023). 363 pages
Imagine hosting a dinner party with the following guests: Theodor Herzl; Louis D. Brandeis; Chaim Weizmann; Vladimir Jabotinsky; Golda Meir; World War II-era writer Ben Hecht; Abba Eban; and present-day former Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer. The eight—four from Europe, four from America—swap stories about the paths that led them to Zionism. They compare thoughts about assimilation, sketch their evolving relationships with their Jewish identities. Brandeis remarks he was in his mid-50s before he saw himself as Jewish, prompting Herzl and Hecht to give their own accounts of embracing a Jewish identity late in life. They discuss the relationship between antisemitism and authoritarianism and the role of a Jewish state in keeping liberal values alive. Herzl grows passionate speaking about the horrific Kishinev pogrom of 1903, which prods Meir to describe being a little girl in Kyiv that year, “listening in terror to the hooves of Cossack horses thundering through town”. Yet when Herzl says the world must remember Kishinev, the other guests grow quiet, knowing that although he is right—the victims of Kishinev must be remembered—unimaginably worse was to follow. Yet from their differing positions in history, personalities and politics (unsurprisingly, the conversation grows heated at times), all are emphatic that Jewish survival, not to mention autonomy and dignity, requires a Jewish state.
None of your guests monopolizes the conversation, and as you return their coats to each of them and bid them farewell, you’re filled with regret that you couldn’t persuade them to keep talking into the night over coffee.
In his latest book, “And None Shall Make Them Afraid,” Rick Richman doesn’t quite bring these eight prominent Zionists to the same dinner party, but he compels you to read about each one. The portraits are short and punchy, often focused on a particular episode from the subject’s life. Each can be read as a stand-alone account, but taken together they provide a rich glimpse of Zionism and the complicated and miraculous birth of Israel.
The chapter on Herzl debunks the common belief that Herzl became a Zionist in response to the Dreyfus Affair. Instead, Richman argues convincingly, the catalyst was the 1895 electoral triumph in Vienna of the vehemently antisemitic Christian Social Party. This was the event that prompted him to plunge into feverish study of “the Jewish Question” and, soon thereafter, publish The Jewish State. As Richman comments, the goal Herzl arrived at “was not only to lead the Jews out of Europe, but also to take European liberalism with them—to use it in a land where the Jewish spirit could flourish, as Europe began to destroy liberalism (and eventually itself) with its Jew-hatred.”
On the other side of the Atlantic, Brandeis similarly concluded that history proved “liberalism alone could not solve the Jewish Question” and a Jewish homeland was necessary to save not only the Jews, but liberal values. Jews had been emancipated over the centuries, Brandeis wrote, yet antisemitism flourished; only a Jewish homeland could provide security and liberty. Brandeis’s road to Zionism had come “through Americanism,” as he put it, because a Jewish homeland would further American democracy:
“In time, practical experience and observation convinced me that Jews were, by reason of their traditions and their character, peculiarly fitted for the attainment of American ideals. Gradually, it became clear to me that to be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.”
The Weizmann chapter focuses on the post-World War I agreements between Weizmann and Arab Prince Faisal: a salutary reminder of a time in which an Arab leader not only accepted the idea of a Jewish homeland in what would become Palestine, but actively embraced it. A hundred years later, it is impossible to be unmoved by a speech Faisal gave in London:
“No true Arab can be suspicious or afraid of Jewish nationalism. … We are demanding Arab freedom and we would show ourselves unworthy of it, if we did not now, as I do, say to the Jews—welcome back home.”
The Jabotinsky account describes the terrible disappearance in the 1920s and 1930s of that hope for peace in the region, with Arab violence increasing at the same time as Nazism grew and triumphed in Germany. Here the focus is Jabotinsky’s desperate 1937 appeal to Britain’s Peel Commission to allow large-scale immigration into Palestine in order to save Jewry:
“We are facing an elemental calamity, a kind of social earthquake. … We have got to save millions, many millions. I do not know whether it is a question of re-housing one-third of the Jewish race, half of the Jewish race, or a quarter of the Jewish race; I do not know, but it is a question of millions.”
The sense of urgency and doom intensify over the next two chapters. The focus of the Golda Meir chapter is the Evian Conference of 1938—an august nonevent that had fateful consequences in its nothingness. One hundred and forty representatives from 32 countries gathered in France to address the plight of the German and Austrian Jews, but were so intent on maintaining their countries’ neutrality that they spent the nine days engaged in what Richman calls a “cascade of euphemisms”—to the point of not once using the words “Jews,” “Hitler,” or (except fleetingly on the final day) “Palestine.” Of course it achieved nothing, but as Richman remarks: “Silence and inaction can send a message of their own, as clear as a resolution of homage.” Meir watched the proceedings with what she called “a mixture of sorrow, rage, frustration and horror,” and concluded from Evian that “Jews neither can nor should ever depend on anyone else for permission to stay alive.”
The chapter dedicated to Ben Hecht—screenwriter, novelist, reporter and playwright—gives a fascinating description of Hecht’s transformation from totally assimilated Jew and self-described “literary whore” for Hollywood, to one of America’s most passionate and eloquent Zionists. It’s an agonizing chapter as well, replete with governmental and institutional inaction—more, refusals to act for fear of being “provocative”—as the extermination of Europe’s Jews first threatened, then became an undeniable reality. Hecht did what he could to mobilize public opinion to defend the Jews. His February 1943 article “The Extermination of the Jews” placed accounts of the Nazi atrocities against the Jews—each paragraph beginning with the chilling refrain “Remember us”—in countless hands; a stage pageant (“We Will Never Die”) dramatizing the mass murder of the Jews was seen that same year by over 100,000 people. After the war, with six million murdered Jews gone, Hecht turned his attention to securing a state for the surviving Jews. It’s truly unfortunate that Hecht’s writings are out of print and his legacy largely forgotten; if Richman’s book helps reverse this, that would be a good thing.
The final two chapters take the reader from the birth of Israel to the present day. Richman describes the meteoric rise of Abba Eban, one of Israel’s most famed diplomats and orators, and the cause of his being abruptly edged out of politics after the formation of Yitzhak Rabin’s government in 1974. Richman poignantly describes a brilliant statesman who in his final decades wrote, lectured and otherwise remained productively occupied; but who was retired against his wishes, endured a horrific illness and died poor. Richman attributes what he calls Eban’s tragedy to the fact that “while he spoke eloquently about peace,” he failed to draw the necessary conclusions from the Palestinians’ repeated rejection of the formulation “two states for two peoples”—that they denied the Jews were a “people” entitled to a state. The final chapter, highlighting Israel’s former ambassador Ron Dermer, a close confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, takes the reader through the harrowing and still-burning issue of how to deal with a nuclear Iran.
Richman has written an absorbing account of Zionism through eight fascinating individuals. It may just leave the reader hungry for more.
Kathleen Hayes is the author of ”Antisemitism and the Left: A Memoir.”