Books: Welcome to the Promised Land

Eyal Chowers struggles with the ideology behind the creation of the Jewish state.

Kibbutz Hanita (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Kibbutz Hanita
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Any book that includes more than a passing uncritical reference to the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger and his Jewish anti- Zionist mistress Hannah Arendt ought to be judged then and there on the inclusion of these two demagogues in its text.
In The Political Philosophy of Zionism, Arendt gets an entire chapter devoted to her deceitful theories. Writing of the early Zionists, she claimed that “absurd as it may sound today, they had not the slightest suspicion of any national conflict with the present inhabitants of the Promised Land; they didn’t even stop to think of the very existence of the Arabs.” The author notes that this is an exaggerated statement.
It is not exaggerated. It is a massive fabrication. In almost every Zionist writing and in the discussions of every Zionist political leader, from Theodor Herzl to Israel Zangwill, the Arabs figured as potential allies or enemies. The failure to confront this nonsense is but one example of a flawed, albeit interesting and erudite, new text on Zionism.
Eyal Chowers, a senior lecturer in political science at Tel Aviv University, spent many years crafting this manuscript.He worked variously at the Shalem Center and Van Leer Institute, two think tanks in Jerusalem whose ideologies do not usually connect.
“This book is about the crises of the Jewish people in modernity, and especially about the radical politics some of them have embraced in the form of Zionism,” he writes. He sets out to “move the discussion on Zionism to a different level of inquiry,” above the debates of whether it is a liberal movement or a colonialist one. He wants to delve into its uniqueness.
“Was Zionism a movement aimed at Jews’ survival – indifference to the historic nature of the territory it settled – or was it committed to a genuine national revival, to a restoration of the triangle of people, ancient land, and the Hebrew language?” he asks.
Those expecting to find an introduction to Zionism or a book that is a stroll in the park to read will be disappointed.
Chowers’s prose is jargon-laced and complicated, and he expects the reader to have an intimate knowledge of philosophy and modern history.
He begins by discussing the Jews, the German thinker Immanuel Kant, and the modern state.
“The Jews were among the first not only to embrace the creed of progress and especially the political principles of liberalism but also to experience the failures of this worldview, the shadows of modernity, if you will,” he writes.
The author takes the reader on a tour of European political thinkers and earlier Hebrew and Zionist writers, such as Josef Berdyczewski and Ahad Ha’am.
Most of this is a well-traveled road – Herzl at the Dreyfus trial, Vladimir Jabotinsky’s “iron wall.”
Where the book becomes interesting is in Chowers’s discussion of two major Zionist projects: the resurrection of the nation through the building of the state, and the resurrection of the language through the birth of modern Hebrew. Opening a chapter on the notion of building in Zionist culture, the author digresses: “The entire settlement project in the West Bank, in fact, demonstrates that in Israel, the enterprise of building is often associated with the nation’s political goals.”
He connects this modern project, in the West Bank, with the original Zionist notion that “attempted to overcome their homelessness, cement their bond to the land, and create a new society through what could be termed building.”
However, the national project of building took away the individual’s ability to design his own house, acquire his own little land and do things his own way. This was in contrast to the “indigenous Palestinian inhabitants… [who] took great care in situating their houses and fitting them to the preexisting landscape.”
Chowers is also critical of Hebrew’s role in the new state. While Hebrew was revived as a living language, it was also a weak language whose speakers did not craft great works with it. “To this day there is hardly a political text, a document, or a public speech (with the possible exception of the 1948 Declaration of Independence) that has become entrenched in Israeli political culture,” he asserts.
In this chapter, the author launches into another digression, condemning Zionism’s use of Hebrew place names in the landscape to the extent “that the entire history of the Arab civilization and settlement in the country has been concealed.” Except apparently Jaffa, Haifa, Nazareth, Wadi Ara, Taiba, Tira, Jisr e-Zarka, etc.
In addition, he claims that the official Hebrew of the state “often becomes vague, abstract, detached, cleared of blood, horror, and brutality of actions and their tangible meanings.” Thus the invasion of Lebanon was called milhemet shlom hagalil, the war for the peace of Galilee. Targeted assassinations are called “forced liquidations.”
The reader might pause here and wonder how precise the English term “collateral damage” is for civilian deaths in war, or perhaps “man-caused disaster,” the Obama administration’s term for the massacre at Fort Hood.
The author sees a Zionist uniqueness in the Jewish crimes against the land and language. As he notes, the Israeli creation of new place names is unique in the “systematic, thorough and allengulfing way this naming project has been done.”
It seems that Political Philosophy is not so much a history of Zionism as a history of the author’s own concerns for the Zionist project. He identifies it as a vibrant and unique idea in his opening chapters, but quickly begins to unearth what he views as its dark side as the book progresses. His concluding paragraph argues that the quality of Israeli democracy will depend less on the ability to put facts on the ground than to translate morals into action.
The Political Philosophy of Zionism
By Eyal Chowers
Cambridge University Press
274 pages; $99