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From one father to another

Benzion Netanyahu’s final book shows the reverence with which he holds Zionism’s architects.

Founding Fathers of Zionism by Benzion Netanyahu
Photo by: Courtesy
When Theodor Herzl was on his way to Istanbul in 1896 aboard the Orient Express, he happened upon Ziad Pasha, a Turkish statesmen. Chatting with the Ottoman official, the first one he had ever met, Herzl immediately explained the Zionist program. “We want Palestine as an absolutely independent state,” he said. This was the essence of the Jewish national movement, though not every Zionist leader agreed. Practical and cultural Zionists saw things differently. In The Founding Fathers of Zionism, author Benzion Netanyahu seeks to show readers the pantheon of Jewish thinkers who not only created and articulated Zionism but also forged what became known as its political and revisionist paths: Max Nordau, Israel Zangwill, Leo Pinsker, Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

The book is made all the more pertinent by the fact that its author is the recently deceased Benzion Netanyahu, a confidant of Jabotinsky, scholar of the history of the Jews and Spain and father of the prime minister. This monograph is not laid out as one work but is a collection of five essays that were published between 1937 and 1981. The essays are presented chronologically. It is not altogether clear whether the author would have assembled this cast if he had written a book on the subject after 1981. It appears from the reverence he shows for these men that he views them as part of a particular Zionist tradition, but he notes that “the national movement could not come into being merely by the will of a few individuals, however forceful, convincing and persistent they might be.”

Netanyahu begins his book by discussing Leo Pinsker. Pinsker, although born in Poland, grew up in Odessa. The author notes that while other nationalisms developed between 1815 and 1878, the Jewish nationalist movement began later. “The development of the movement was even more hampered by the fact that it was initiated and centered in Russia,” he writes. While the Jews were an ancient nation, the realization that they needed a national home “needed external pressure to be crystallized into a movement. This pressure was provided by the pogroms of 1881.”

Pinsker, like many of the other leaders profiled, was a writer, but he had first wanted to be a lawyer. He “realized clearly that the field of his vocation was tightly closed to him only because he was a Jew.” This set him on a radical course, first to Moscow and then outside Russia, where he preached for reviving “the great past of the Hebrew nation.”

Netanyahu admired Pinsker for his rejection of the Jews who were arguing for assimilation. Pinsker asserted that “in the great majority of cases, the Jew is treated as a stepchild… never is he considered a legitimate child of the fatherland.” Netanyahu examines early Zionism in light of the major problems it faced in that period. Not only was it up against the enlightenment, which sought to deracinate the Jews from their religion, but Marxist and socialist postnationalism was eating away at the notion of a national homeland as a solution. Jews involved themselves in the politics of the day in Europe, forsaking their own national needs. “Jewish influence was the eternal flame which kept the national revolutionary movements from being extinguished,” Netanyahu writes.

Max Nordau knew this when he noted that “from every age of history of the Risorgimento [in Italy], Jewish names shine forth.”

Yet, paradoxically, Jews found inspiration in the writings of men like Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini, and in witnessing the activities of Russian Slavophile conservatives they saw a path to their own redemption. Nordau was the curmudgeon of the Zionist movement. A Hungarian Jew and citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he traveled to Berlin and Paris where he became a philosopher and a writer. Arguing that European thought had stagnated and morality was degenerating, he became a companion to Herzl and co-founder of the First Zionist Congress.

When Netanyahu writes about Israel Zangwill, the English Zionist, it is clear that he identifies strongly with the man as well as with his vision. A “journalist and a publicist, author of novels and novellas, reviewer and essayist, poet and playwright,” he followed in the footsteps of Nordau and Herzl. Yet his political path bridged the gap to the one Jabotinsky would eventually undertake. “He did not believe in European Humanism, which was at the root of European Jewry’s Emancipation. He did not believe in Cosmopolitanism,” Netanyahu writes about Zangwill. He admired the Boers, who had fought the British, and disdained the British Jewish elites who identified too strongly with their country over their people. He eagerly struggled against the cultural Zionists, like Ahad Ha’am (Asher Zvi Hersch Ginsberg), who wanted a “spiritual center” in Jerusalem. Netanyahu notes that “Jerusalem had been a spiritual center for 1,800 years, and such it continued to be.”

His essay on Jabotinsky is in some ways the weakest, for it focuses primarily on the revisionist’s break with Chaim Weizmann and the betrayal of the Balfour Declaration by the Mandate authorities. This is interesting, but more interesting are his comments about the Arab opposition to Israel. Paraphrasing Jabotinsky he notes that “the answer is the Iron Wall. That is, a strong military and political force that in the last analysis will convince the Arabs they will not succeed in driving us out of here… their opposition will not cease as long as they have even a spark of hope of erasing out political presence.”

These were prescient words when he wrote them in 1981, and are certainly still meaningful today.


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