Snap Judgment: The Zionist idea man

calevbendavid88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
"Zionism exists, and it has important consequences, but historical theory does not know what to do with it." That's the opening line of Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg's 85-page introduction to his anthology The Zionist Idea, first published a half-century ago. Hertzberg went on to become one of the most important American-Jewish leaders and intellectuals of his generation, before passing away last month at age 84. Brilliant, outspoken, opinionated, and some charged egocentric, he remained an influential and controversial figure on the American-Jewish scene right until his final years. Among the many achievements - and perhaps occasional transgressions - of his long career, it's likely that his introduction to The Zionist Idea will prove to be his most lasting work. "The most perfect and comprehensive description of ideological Zionism that has been written," noted Reform Movement leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie in Haaretz, also calling it "an essay that influenced an entire generation of Jews who had known nothing about Zionism." He's right, and I'm one of them. Although I never knew Hertzberg, and took issue with some of his views, back in the period when I was deciding to make aliya I read this work, and it did indeed have a profound impact on me. I wouldn't claim it as a real factor in my moving to Israel, a decision that was certainly more emotional than intellectual. But it did, as all great works of philosophical and historical inquiry should do, help provide a theoretical framework in which I could better understand for myself, and explain to others, the ideological justifications and consequences of my individual decision. Not that Hertzberg's work was at all a call for aliya in the manner of Hillel Halkin's brilliant polemic Letters to An American Jewish Friend. Hertzberg himself, despite being arguably the finest Zionist historian/theorist of his time, preferred to remain in his native America, describing himself "a creature of the Diaspora." NOR WAS this seminal piece by any means meant as either a celebration or defense of Zionism or Israel. Indeed, one of the ironies about Hertzberg's career is that despite being so closely associated with Zionism, he was also one of the American-Jewish leadership's severest critics of Israeli policy, especially as regards settlement-building in the territories. He earned the title bestowed on him in several obituaries as "the last ideological Zionist" not because of any uncritical appreciation of the Jewish state, but rather because he gave more serious thought than most of his contemporaries about what Zionism really means, both in its historical context, and in this day and age. To put it succinctly, Hertzberg's signal achievement inThe Zionist Idea was his recognition long before it became common wisdom that "from the Jewish perspective, messianism, not nationalism, is the primary element in Zionism." Despite the rhetoric of political Zionism that the establishment of a state for the Jews would allow them to become a "normal people" no different from other nationalities, Hertzberg correctly diagnosed traditional Jewish-messianic beliefs as a guiding force in the ideologies of even the most secular Zionist thinker/leaders, such as Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion. (In this regard, it's also striking to re-read The Zionist Idea and notice how Hertzberg presciently places considerable importance on the thought of Rav Kook, at a time when his messianic-religious philosophy was still a marginal force in Israel and the Jewish world at large.) As Hertzberg noted, Zionism's internal ideological contradictions led it into "… the realm of paradox. On the one hand, the State of Israel continues to insist on its political sovereignty, conceived on the model of 19th-century liberal ideals; on the other, it proposes this sovereignty as the clinching argument for its unparalleled right to command the Jewish Diaspora and offers this very secular life, at its highest, as the modern religion to unite and invigorate a scattered world community." This is not simply intellectual wool-gathering. As the global Jewish community continues to invest vast sums of money in programs such as birthright israel designed to strengthen Jewish identity and the connections between Israel and the Diaspora, and also expends considerable energy rallying to the defense of the Jewish state in the face of its numerous enemies, not much deep thinking is really done about just why this is all so important. Hertzberg thought that thinking about such issues was itself important, not just for its own sake but on the practical level. One reason is that he correctly foresaw that attachments between Israel and the Diaspora based largely on emotional appeal - such as reliance on the Holocaust as a primary means of defining Jewish identity, a tendency he rightly deplored - would not stand the test of time. Also, despite Hertzberg's best efforts, conventional historical theory still does not quite know what to do with Zionism, a national movement that fails to fit into most accepted categories. Partially as a result, such academics as Noam Chomsky, Tony Judt and Norman Finkelstein are able to get their anti-Zionist screeds published in respectable outlets, while the response never gets much deeper than the necessary, but not particularly profound, Israel-defense books by Alan Dershowitz and Yaacov Lozowick. At a time when "the Zionist idea" is under attack from the ravings of the hate-crazed leader of an Islamic state on the verge of obtaining nuclear capability, to the halls of some of the Western world's most respected academic institutions, those willing to stand up and defend the Jewish state would do well to learn just why it was that those who created it believed it was truly an idea whose time had come. Reading - or re-reading - Arthur Hertzberg's The Zionist Idea might be a good place to start. The writer is director of The Israel Project's Jerusalem Media Resource Center.