Shabbat Goy: The ‘Altneuland’ book club

Ignoring my usual nonsense, I’ve made a New Year resolution I may actually keep – to get to grips with Zionism, once and for all.

311_Herzl with confused black dude (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_Herzl with confused black dude
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I guess there are two ways of looking at it. On the positive side, the fact that I get to celebrate the New Year twice a year – Rosh Hashana round about this time each year, and the “civilian” start of the year on January 1 – means that I have two shots at making meaningful New Year resolutions.
The negative side is pretty obvious if you know me well: I get to break my New Year resolutions twice a year.
The trick, I’ve come to understand, is to set myself an achievable target, something reasonable and within my (limited) capabilities. So I’ve decided this year to ignore my usual nonsense – stop smoking, exercise more, be nice to my wife and child – and rather to aim for something that I may actually do at some point over the next (Jewish) year.
I’ve decided to finally get around to reading Altneuland.
When I moved here, someone suggested I read Theodor Herzl’s utopian text as a useful starting point for understanding the modern State of Israel. I never did, of course; the first few pages read like the start of a set text for high-school exams, and I’ve had more than my fill over the years of reading classics written by dead white males.
So the book vanished gracefully into my bookcase, unread. But then I came across it while sorting out my books ahead of a move a couple of months ago, and I thought to myself, why not?
Actually, I’m not sure that I would have given it much more thought – the road to hell being paved with good intentions, and all that – had it not been for a political interview I read in one of the newspapers a few days later. I forget what exactly it was in the feature that exasperated me, but I do remember that before launching into self-important cant, the interviewee described himself as a “Zionist.”
Now, this isn’t particularly unusual in itself. Given that Israel is the realization of the Zionist dream, it seems reasonable for a good patriot to describe himself thus. But what puzzles me is the range and depth – well, perhaps lack of depth, but we can talk about that another time – of opinion to which the description “Zionist” is appended.
For example: We have Zionists on the Left and Zionists on the Right, secular Zionists and religious Zionists. There are Zionists for a two-state solution and Zionists for one state. I presume – although I’m not sure it has ever been explicitly stated – that there are Zionists in favour of a three-state solution. (But we won’t dwell too much on that at the moment. Gaza tends to give everyone a headache.) And then there are post-Zionists, too... this can’t be right, can it? Everyone, it seems, seeks to claim ownership of the Zionist cake. But given the wildly divergent views on display, surely there can’t be enough of it to go round?
ANYWAY, THE thing is that with the range of contradictory definitions on offer, I’m sometimes tempted to conclude that these days, the word “Zionism,” more often than not, serves as useful cover for a range of otherwise socially unacceptable behavior. Kind of like what Samuel Johnson said about patriotism being the last refuge of the scoundrel. But that’s just me being both cynical and uninformed.
But then, what is a man supposed to do? Since I don’t have the benefit of being schooled in the historical antecedents of the creation of the Jewish state, all I have to rely on is what has been offered by people who claim to to be. And I’m not sure they’re doing a particularly good job.
In the last few months, criticism of Israel and Israel’s policies has reached something of a crescendo – the cover story of Time magazine a couple of weeks ago being merely the most high-profile example.
Israel, of course, is accustomed to having its policies and behavior scrutinized – correctly or not – in the minutest detail. But what seems to have changed recently is that it is not Israel’s policy and practice under the microscope, but the underpinning philosophy – Zionism itself, the intellectual foundation of the creation of Israel. That is what is now being criticized as fundamentally flawed.
Things aren’t quite as bad as in the 1970s, when the United Nations – in a moment of inspiration – decided to equate Zionism with racism. But it may not be too far away, especially if the current round of political jaw-jaw fails to come up with something substantive.
And if it does happen, one reason will be because a lifetime of incoherent and inconsistent behavior has been dressed up and presented to the world as representing Zionism. Because of this, it becomes easy for those who do not wish the country well to cherry-pick the most egregious of accusations and present them as evidence of Zionism in action; and how does one even begin to defend against this when the definition of Zionism itself remains so elusive, so inchoate? But I digress.
My New Year resolution is to read Altneuland and try to get to grips with Zionism once and for all. Actually, now I think about it, perhaps I should start an Altneuland Book Club, get a few people to read along with me. Then I’d be obliged to stick to my resolution (given the obligation to talk sensibly about the book with others once I’ve finished reading it).
And who knows, perhaps the next time someone describes themselves as a Zionist, I might be able to actually engage with them having some appreciation of what they claim to be in favor of (or not).
Do you fancy joining me? Let’s all claim back Zionism. Or am I setting the bar for my New Year Resolution a bit too high once more?