October 22, 2019

A look at the fragmented history of Zionism

“Zionism” is a word that has come to mean many different things to different people, which is why veteran foreign correspondent Milton Viorst decided to take a fresh look at the origins and the destiny of the Zionist project in “Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal” (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press). The conclusion he reaches is deeply unsettling, and it can be ignored only at our peril.

“The Zionism we know today is not a unified idea, but a composite of bitter rivalries between stubborn men and their visions of Jewish statehood,” Viorst writes. “Zionism has created a successful country, but it has not made the Jews more secure. The absence of peace, in my judgment, keeps the Zionist achievement in jeopardy.”

Viorst served as a Middle East correspondent for The New Yorker and has contributed to publications ranging from the New York Times Magazine to Haaretz.  He has written six previous books on the Middle East, most recently “In the Shadow of the Prophet.”  He is a critic of certain strains of Zionism — engaged and compassionate, but a critic nonetheless. For that reason alone, I suspect that his point of view (and his book along with it) will be dismissed by some Jews in both America and Israel. But anyone who regards him- or herself as a Zionist ought to be able to answer the hard questions that his book poses.

“Zionism” looks back at eight foundational figures in Zionism, not only Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, Vladimir Jabotinsky, David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and Benjamin Netanyahu, but also Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Zvi Yehuda Kook, father and son, both of whom played a leading role in Religious Zionism. Each of these men, in his own way, shaped an aspect of the diverse movement that we call by a single name.

Indeed, Viorst’s book is a useful and important reminder that Zionism has not always been a shared value among Jews; indeed, Herzl started out as a highly assimilated Jew of Vienna who was capable of expressing contempt toward many of his fellow Jews. It’s also important to recall that Zionism started out as a solution to a European problem, the so-called “Jewish question.”   The answer, of course, was national sovereignty. “A flag, what is that?” Herzl wrote in one especially stirring letter.  “A stick with a rag on it?  No, sir. A flag is more than that. With a flag one can lead men wherever one wants, even into the Promised Land.  For a flag men live and die.”

The problem of European Jews was to be solved on Palestinian soil, and when the map of the Middle East was redrawn after World War I — an act of imperial hubris that ultimately resulted in the invention of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq — the future site of a Jewish homeland was planted among them. Yet the earliest Jewish pioneers, Viorst notes, “scarcely took note of their settling on land for which they had no legal title. They were not hostile to Arabs; some even emulated the Arab style of life.  Rather, their ideals contained no room for contemplating Arab possession. They deeply believed Palestine was their land.”

Significantly, it was a dissenting faction of Zionists who spoke out loud what the Labor Zionists preferred not to talk about. “Our peace-mongers are trying to persuade us that the Arabs are either fools, whom we can deceive by masking our real aims, or they are corrupt and can be bribed to abandon to us their claims to priority in Palestine,” Jabotinsky, founder of the Revisionist faction, wrote in 1923. “We may water down and sweeten our aims with honeyed words to make them palatable, but they know what we want, just as we know what they do not want.”

Jabotinsky, according to Viorst, was a crucial figure in the making of modern Zionism. “His huge impact lay in the ideology that he created, which produced a tougher, more rigid, heavily militaristic and deeply divided Zionism,” Viorst writes. So we should not be surprised by the new generation of maximalists like Avigdor Lieberman, who flank Likud on the far right. “Revisionism thrives today with an ideology that has changed little since Jabotinsky’s time,” Viorst warns.

But he does not spare the Labor Zionists from some of the same criticism. When the British first began to consider the formal partition of Palestine among Jews and Arabs in the 1930s, the Labor Zionist leader Ben-Gurion publicly embraced the idea of partition, but privately explained why he saw it as only a tactical concession: “By the time we complete the settlement of our state … we shall break through these frontiers,” he wrote at the time. “All our aspiration is built on the assumption … that there is enough room for ourselves and the Arabs … but I regard this scheme as … an unequaled lever for the gradual conquest of all of Palestine.”

Ironically, it was Ben-Gurion’s great adversary, Begin, who started a process that ultimately supplanted the Labor Zionist leadership that had long dominated the politics of the Jewish state. “His Revisionism succeeded largely because Labor Zionism failed,” Viorst writes. “Over time, he won the approval of the black-hatted haredim and the post-Communist Russian immigrants, who took their place alongside Jabotinsky’s Revisionists and Rav Kook’s Religious Zionists.”

By the end of the book, we are not surprised to learn that Viorst refuses to blame the current generation of Israeli leaders for the stalemate in what we used to call, in more optimistic days, “the peace process.”  Indeed, he insists that it “derives from competing visions of Zionism, dating back to the bitter struggles between Vladimir Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion.” And, intriguingly, he expresses hope rather than despair about the fact that the Middle Eastern frontiers that the Western powers dreamed up in 1920 are now collapsing. 

“No one can say how the pieces will come back together, or how long it will take,” Viorst concludes. “But it is reasonable to say that in the interstices between the fragments, there is probably room to maneuver on behalf of a new Israeli-Palestinian relationship.” Exactly here is the best evidence that Viorst sees the whole sad and frustrating picture through authentically Jewish eyes. 

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