A new Zionist canon

Here Zionism is showcased in a way that is accessible to the scroll-and-swipe cohort.

Justice Louis Brandeis (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Justice Louis Brandeis
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THERE COULD not have been more than a handful of undergraduates in Arthur Hertzberg’s “Seminar on Zionism” in Brooklyn College’s Judaic Studies Department circa 1975. He would invariably arrive late with a good excuse — something like “I was talking to Henry Kissinger.” The president of the American Jewish Congress, in those days a major organization, Hertzberg (1921-2006) would enter, don a black yarmulke, bite into a sandwich, and commence.
His lectures were extemporaneous and scattershot but he had written the book — literally. “The Zionist Idea” was published in 1959 when Dwight Eisenhower was president and well before pro-Israelism swept the American Jewish community in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War. Even if he had only created the first collection of Zionism’s big-name thinkers and doers in English, dayenu. However, the book’s intellectual standout was in large measure Hertzberg’s dense 97-page introductory essay. My marked-up copy of “The Zionist Idea” came along when I moved to Israel in 1997.
Hertzberg was a puckish, clever, Polish- born contrarian from a Yiddish-speaking Hasidic background, who transitioned to historian and Conservative pulpit rabbi.
He was also a kvetcher. It annoyed him that Israeli prime ministers from Levi Eshkol to Ariel Sharon did not heed his dovish advice, starting around 1967, advocating the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state alongside Israel (never mind that at the time the Arabs rejected the idea). It was advice that went hand-in-hand with his worldview.
In 1978 he wrote: “Jews have survived in history best by accommodation and not by confrontation unless circumstances were so dire that there was no alternative.” By 2003, Hertzberg was calling on the US to curtail aid to Israel as a punishment for its continuing refusal to withdraw to the 1949 Armistice Lines.
Eleven US presidents and maybe a dozen Arab-Israel wars, big and small, later, it is time to retire Hertzberg’s baby boomer collection and give English-reading post-millennials their own Zionist anthology. For those now entering university, their Dwight Eisenhower is Bill Clinton. Jewish identity is not axiomatic for them but a matter of sometimes uninformed personal choice.
Embracing Jewish civilization, let alone Israel, is hardly a given. It is in this context that Gil Troy, Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, has ably stepped up to the plate with “The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland —Then, Now, Tomorrow,” on behalf of the Jewish Publication Society and its University of Nebraska Press partner.
Here Zionism is showcased in a way that is accessible to the scroll-and-swipe cohort.
The specter of Arthur Hertzberg hovers over this work and Troy embraces it. A self-defined centrist, an unabashed Zionist and a top-notch scholar who now lives in Israel, Troy has made his mark by rethinking what a Zionist anthology should be when Israel’s permanence is (absurdly in my view) taken for granted. The result is remarkably adroit — although the extent of its inclusiveness reminds me of the schlepped-out Simchat Torah davening — everyone, but everyone, gets called up to the Torah.
Thus, this is a much more comprehensive, egalitarian and ambitious reader (“Ideas”) than Hertzberg’s classic (“Idea”). Troy was tasked with nothing less than editing a new Zionist canon. Where Hertzberg has 37 pieces, Troy has nearly 170 with just 26 reprised from the original. I may quibble but clearly there were tough choices to be made. I would not have banished Meir Kahane and would have included a contribution from his pre-Kach book “Never Again” (1971). Having myself only lately discovered it, I would have counted in Yitzhak Epstein’s far-sighted talk “The Hidden Question” delivered at the 1905 Seventh Zionist Congress in Basel that warned against making enemies of the Palestinian Arabs.
Moreover, shouldn’t there be a cameo appearance by the Creator to make explicit the ancient origins of Zionism, perhaps Genesis 17:2-9 or Exodus 23:31? The arrangement is unavoidably arbitrary and by no means seamless since people and ideas cannot be neatly pigeonholed.
Part I starts with the “pioneers” — among them Leon Pinsker, Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, Moses Hess, Vladimir Jabotinsky, Abraham Isaac Kook, Ahad Ha’am and Henrietta Szold. Together these and others embody the anthology’s six recurring intellectual streams: political, labor, Revisionist, religious, cultural and Diaspora Zionism.
Part II, slugged “builders,” presents material that moves us from theory to action after Israel’s creation in 1948. Using the same six divisions, Troy sensibly includes Israel’s Declaration of Independence, The Law of Return and Chaim Herzog’s 1975 talk-down to the UN shortly after the General Assembly passed its odious “Zionism is Racism” resolution (repealed in 1991).
We also get, inter alia, Natan Sharansky (who wrote Troy’s introduction), Abba Eban, Amos Oz, Golda Meir, Shulamit Aloni, Menachem Begin, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Esther Jungreis, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Hertzberg himself, and Hillel Halkin. For the cerebral crowd, there are impenetrable pieces from Joseph Ber Soloveitchik and David Hartman.
If some of these names do not ring a bell, and Troy assumes no prior knowledge, read his stage-setting outlines ahead of each section. Wisely, he sometimes employs an edited version of Herzberg’s original preambles.
Part III presents “torchbearers” who carry the movement forward. Political Zionist torchbearers include Michael Oren, Aharon Barak, Asa Kasher and Michael Walzer.
The Labor Zionist torchbearers are epitomized by Ruth Gavison, Ari Shavit, Nitzan Horowitz (who also carries the Queer Zionism mantle) and Alon Tal (the resident Green). For the Revisionists, the offerings include Benny Begin, Caroline Glick, Ruth Wisse and Reuven Rivlin. Under the rubric of religious Zionism, there is Benjamin Ish-Shalom, Benny Lau and Yaacov Medan.
The section for cultural Zionists brings us Micah Goodman, Saul Singer and A. B.
Yehoshua. The legion of torchbearers who address Diaspora-Israel relations includes Jonathan Sacks, Alan Dershowitz and Yossi Klein Halevi.
Now to the selections themselves. I wonder what today’s readers will make of Herzl’s lament in 1896 that assimilation was not working: “We have honestly endeavored everywhere to merge ourselves into the social life of surrounding communities and to preserve the faith of our fathers. We are not permitted to do so.”
Even earlier, 35 years before the First Zionist Congress, socialist-nationalist Moses Hess’s 1862 pamphlet “Rome and Jerusalem” pronounced assimilation a failure: “The beautiful phrases about humanity and enlightenment which he [the Jew] uses so freely to cloak his treason, his fear of being identified with his unfortunate brethren, will ultimately not protect him from the judgment of public opinion.”
Can millennials and post-millennials relate to these two disillusioned cosmopolitans talk about the failure of assimilation? In “My Country” (1926) the poetess and pioneer Rachel [Bluwstein] offers this contribution to nation-building: “But on the shores of the Jordan / my hands have planted a tree / and my feet have made a pathway through your fields.” Indeed, Troy places women’s voices front and center. There is also Rahel Yanait Ben-Zvi (1931) explaining the need for women to be part of the agricultural settlement enterprise.
THE OFFERINGS under pioneers include the 1925 declaration by Jabotinsky’s Revisionists making explicit, in the face of British backtracking on the 1917 Balfour Declaration, that “the aim of Zionism is the creation of a Jewish commonwealth that is, above all, a Jewish majority in Palestine.”
Earlier, in “The Iron Wall” (1923), Jabotinsky promises that a future Jewish majority in Palestine will never expel the Arabs and will guarantee their equality. However, the Arabs must be convinced that the Jews will not be overwhelmed. As if speaking of today’s intransigent PLO and fanatical Hamas, Jabotinsky writes, “Only when not a single breach is visible in the iron wall, only then do extreme groups lose their sway, and influence transfers to moderate groups.”
The most influential religious Zionist pioneer of the British Mandate era was Abraham Yitzhak Kook, a mystic who would become Palestine’s first chief rabbi. To him there was inherent holiness to the land which he called “Divine stuff.” With Meir Bar-Ilan, we are introduced to the land-people- Torah mantra of the Mizrachi movement and the melding of religion and state. What, I wonder, would he have made of today’s barely Zionist ultra-Orthodox rabbinate.
The chief pioneer of cultural Zionism was Ahad Ha’am who wanted a future Jewish state also to be the cultural wellspring of Jewish civilization. Martin Buber, who saw in Israel a tool for the renewal of Judaism, follows in his footsteps. In a telling letter to Gandhi (1939), for whom the idea of a national home for the Jews had no appeal, Buber — by no means a hawk — asks the Mahatma, “But by what means did the Arabs attain the right of ownership in Palestine? Surely by conquest, and in fact a conquest with intent to settle.” It was the eve of the Second World War and Gandhi recognized that Hitler’s persecution of the Jews had no parallel. Nonetheless, his advice to the Jews was to stay put in Europe since for the “God-fearing, death has no terror.”
Troy also gives voice to pioneers of Diaspora Judaism such as Louis Dembitz Brandeis who famously declared, “Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with patriotism. Multiple loyalties are objectionable only if they are inconsistent.”
It is fitting, too, that Henrietta Szold — instrumental in implementing Youth Aliya and creating the Hadassah Women’s Organization, not to mention being the first editor of the Jewish Publication Society and ultimately a believer (like Buber) in the binational state idea — is given her say by Troy.
From the builders we get an excerpt from David Ben-Gurion’s memoirs in which he grapples with a definition for am segula — literally a treasured nation. For Israel’s first prime minister it meant not supremacy, but that the Jews carried “an extra burden” to perform with virtue. Another builder is Teddy Kollek, Ben-Gurion’s handpicked candidate for mayor of Jerusalem, who declared in 1977, “The thing I dread most is that this city, so beautiful, so meaningful, so holy to millions of people, should ever be divided again; that barbed wire fences, minefields, and concrete barriers should again sever its streets…” Elie Wiesel, also a builder, makes a critical point about the Holocaust and Zionism: “To pretend that without Auschwitz there would be no Israel is to endow the latter with a share of responsibility for the former.”
Hovering over many of the contributions is the matter of who is a Zionist? Is it a person who favors the idea of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine or exclusively someone who makes (or intends to make) their home in Israel? Prudently, Troy does not take sides. Hertzberg did: “I am a Zionist not because I may carry an Israeli passport, but because I am a citizen of world Jewry, Am Yisra’el.” So does Rose Halprin, who dismissed the idea that a Jew needed to live in Israel to be a Zionist. In an exchange of letters with Ben-Gurion during the 1950s, Blaustein of the then non-Zionist (now positively pro-Zionist) American Jewish Committee wrote that “American Jews vigorously repudiate any suggestion or implication that they are in exile… To American Jews, America is home.”
That got me thinking about how I would categorize those Israelis who are Jewishly illiterate to a profound extent or have no particular soft spot for Zionism. But that’s another book.
I am glad that Troy’s omnibus encompasses the 1948 version of the Prayer for the State of Israel; Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s call for the separation of religion and state (1959); Zvi Yehuda Hakohen Kook’s May 1967 oracle-like homily about longing for Judea and Samaria; and a 1988 pronouncement from the Conservative movement espousing “Only in Israel may a Jew lead an all-encompassing Jewish life.” In 2000 the Reform movement’s Richard Hirsch, who helped catalyze the “Zionizing” of the largest stream in Judaism, posited, “In the Diaspora, Jewish life is voluntary…in Israel, Jewish identity is compulsory.” Mordechai Kaplan, who inspired Reconstructionist Judaism, agreed. “Eretz Yisra’el has to be reclaimed as the only place in the world where Jewish civilization can be perfectly at home.”
Excerpts from Asa Kasher’s IDF Code of Ethics are both a guide and an aspiration.
You will not find anything like it anywhere else in the Middle East, a region where from Gaza to Baghdad and Damascus to Aden, the purposeful targeting of noncombatants is standard practice.
Leon Uris, the author of “Exodus,” makes a welcome appearance. Many contemporary readers will not have read his iconic novel nor recognize the lyrics of the 1960 “Exodus” movie song “This Land is Mine” made memorable to baby boomers by Pat Boone.
Also part of the collection is Naomi Shemer’s indelible “Jerusalem of Gold,” composed a month before the outbreak of the 1967 war. On a different note, Stav Shaffir, born 18 years after the Six Day War, delivers a clarion call for social and economic justice in Israel.
President Lyndon Johnson purportedly said of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”
So, it was right for Troy to include Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the late spiritual leader of the Shas Party. He was an odd combination of social reactionary, supporter of territorial concessions and flexible halachic decisor (albeit in an ultra-Orthodox context).
If American Jewish pro-Israelism was at its apex in the wake of the 1967 war, it had ebbed by 1973. Indeed, by the first intifada, which exploded in December 1987, US Jewish-Israel relations had been radically redefined. Support for Israel was dissociated from backing Israel’s retention of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. In practice, this meant pushing for a withdrawal to the hard-to-defend 1949 Armistice Lines (more or less).
In the vanguard of the dissociation movement was Eugene Borowitz whose Zionism, in Troy’s indulgent words, anticipated “today’s robust Reform [movement] criticism of Israeli policies.” I think it did more than that.
Author David Grossman materializes with this fortune cookie aphorism: “Just as there is a war of no choice, there is also a peace of no choice.” I will not say Peter Beinart crosses the line from Zionist critic to anti- Zionist; his compositions are too nuanced for any jury to convict. The same goes for Bernard Avishai who graces the anthology.
They are all here — inside the big tent.
Yossi Beilin, who helped drive the ill-fated 1993 Oslo Accords, pleasantly surprises by emphasizing the need for Jewish literacy among Israelis. “Israel must offer more Jewish content to the younger generation, devote more classroom hours to the study of Jewish thought, Bible, and Oral Law, while at the same time working to prevent religious coercion and the perception of such coercion.” Amen.
Troy has delivered an anthology that will give us plenty to argue about for years to come. The contentious Hertzberg would probably approve.
Elliot Jager is a Jerusalem-based writer. He invites you to follow him on Twitter #JagerFile