Like environmental sludge seeping into the groundwater, anti-Zionist toxins are poisoning standard discussions about Zionism. The latest example of how the campaign delegitimizing Israel insidiously undermines the Zionist narrative is a serious, non-polemical New York Times article quoting nine Zionists and no anti-Zionists. Steven Erlanger’s article “Who are the true heirs of Zionism” reflects the new (ab)normal: an inability to discuss Zionist history without wrapping it around the Palestinians’ self-serving, one-sided tale of national woe. Increasingly, consciously or unconsciously, many American elites, including Jewish intellectuals, are parroting the Yasser Arafat school of (anti-)Zionist history at worst, or the equally wrong, if less genocidal, post-Zionist school at best.
Just as environmental engineers construct clay barriers to prevent seepage into the soil to protect the groundwater, we need substantive Zionist education to detect and refute these distortions. Zionism has truth and fairness on its side. American history isn’t just about Native Americans or African Americans – and Zionism isn’t all about Palestinians.
The Times article begins by charging that “Zionism was never the gentlest of ideologies. The return of the Jewish people to their biblical homeland and the resumption of Jewish sovereignty there have always carried within them the displacement of those already living on the land.” Erlanger then provides this bizarre, distorted perversion of Zionist history: “The earliest version of Zionism based the creation of a Jewish nation on the revived language of Hebrew, to unify the huge variety of dispersed Jews. Beginning in the 1920s and especially with the Holocaust, suggests Bernard Avishai ... came the idea of ‘political Zionism,’ which required a state and a military both to protect Jews against anti-Semitism and to transform them into a modern state, to defend themselves and, if necessary, to defy the world.”
Erlanger’s crackpot chronology is like starting the history of the American republic with Andrew Jackson in the 1820s, three decades after George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Even Avishai’s Tragedy of Zionism contradicts Erlanger, discussing nineteenth-century political Zionists such as Leo Pinsker and Theodor Herzl. Avishai confirms that for these “political Zionists the main point of politics was creating the state apparatus itself.”
Beware: here are two subtle slices by intellectual stiletto, not the usual scattershot shotgun blasts against Israel. Taking Ahad Ha’amism to the extreme denies Jews’ compelling political need for a state. Ahad Ha’am, the liberal American’s favorite Zionist – and Herzl’s rival – imagined Israel as a spiritual and cultural center more than a sovereign Jewish state. He wanted to “unify ... Jews” culturally. Herzl was more political, popular and prescient about the Jewish need for self-determination – although Ahad Ha’am better anticipated our contemporary Diaspora- Israel dynamics.
While delegitimizing Zionism, post-Zionist- style, neutralizes the historic need for a Jewish state, reading Theodor Herzl out of early Zionist history makes it easier to blame Zionism as the big bad wolf pushing out Arabs. Here, the Arafat historical school kicks in, Palestinizing Zionist history. Herzl envisioned Jews and Arabs living together peacefully – but his major concern was Jewish survival and Jewish national redemption.
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Recognizing Herzl’s dominance in the Zionist mainstream forces observers to confront the sweetness of Zionism, Zionism’s optimistic, generous vision of living peacefully with the Arabs – and redeeming the world by redeeming the Jews.
The PC police decreed that even though Jewish nationalism was forged in opposition to European anti-Semitism, Zionism must be described in terms of Palestinian nationalism.
And even though Palestinian nationalism was forged in opposition to Jewish nationalism, it must be described on its own terms, to validate Palestinians’ claim to having a longstanding national consciousness, despite these former nomads’ ongoing tribalism and enmity.
Without demeaning Palestinian nationalism – because I know how painful it is when others insult my national expression – Zionism blossomed forth from the Jewish people’s 3,500-year vision of a Jewish commonwealth compounded by the 2,000-year yearning to return, rebuild, resume. Anti-Zionists can’t decide between accusing Jews of pretending that no Arabs lived in Palestine and alleging that Jews came to bully them.
Yes, Zionism was not your typical European nationalism. Most inhabitants of Palestine were Arabs – but these tribal nomads lacked a national consciousness and descended from the Muslims who displaced Jews during the 7th-century conquest. The left-wing binationalist Zionist Martin Buber, in Israel and Palestine: the History of an Idea (1952), called Zionism unique, in that “this national concept was named after a place and not, like the others, after a people,” which emphasizes the Jewish people’s “association with a particular land, its native land.” And, unlike “the national concepts of other peoples,” Zionism “was no new invention, not the product of the social and political changes manifested by the French Revolution, but merely a continuation, the re-statement of an age-old religious and popular reality adapted to the universal form of the national movements of the nineteenth century.”
Zionism, Buber concludes, “was the holy matrimony of a ‘holy’ people with a ‘holy’ land, the local point of which was the name of Zion.”
Buber understood that Zionism wasn’t an accidental national movement. It wasn’t randomly connected to the land of Israel.
And it wasn’t motivated by anti-Arab enmity.
Post-Zionist Ahad Ha’amism denies two Zionist fundamentals – the justification for a Jewish state and Jewish collective rights to self-determination. “Professor” Arafat’s Whodunnitism – weaving false charges into Israel’s founding story – makes history a prosecutor’s brief and mobilizes the Blame Israel Firsters, treating Zionism as the one form of nationalism that is artificial and inherently aggressive.
In negating our basic story and basic rights, the Palestinians and their enablers reveal that they aren’t simply skirmishing in a border war that can be resolved by easy compromises.
Theirs is an existential war to destroy the Jewish state. And when it comes to our basic rights to live, Israelis cannot compromise.The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. He is professor of history at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.www.giltroy.com
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