Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University, and author of Should Israel Exist? A Sovereign Nation under attack by the International Community.
Author: Benzion Netanyahu
Publisher: Balfour Books
Author: Benzion Netanyahu
Publisher: Balfour Books
In recent years the very legitimacy of the state of Israel as a Jewish state has been challenged not only by foreign critics, Jewish and non-Jewish, but also by so-called “post-Zionists, ” Jewish academics and writers, of whom the most well known are Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappe, Shlomo Sand, and Danny Rubinstein. Their criticism is essentially a denial of the whole Zionist enterprise, a denial which in effect undermines the national foundation on which Israel rests.
The main themes of these Jewish post-Zionists are that Zionism, the movement of Jewish self-determination which led to the establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948, is a colonial enterprise; that a Jewish state is by nature undemocratic; that the state is basically immoral as it was based on the domination, or even the removal by force or other means of another people; that the establishment of the state was a nakba, a catastrophe for the Arabs living in the area; that Israeli occupation, after the series of wars against it, of occupied territory is a gross violation of human rights; that Israel is an imperialistic power and a threat to world peace.
Despite the nay-sayers who wallow in the “crisis of Zionism” or the doubting Thomases, living in Oxford, Geneva, and Washington, who are troubled by the perilous state of the “soul” of Israel, the miracle in the desert is not only flourishing but is making extraordinary innovative, scientific and economic, contributions to the world. These critics misinterpret or deliberately distort both the nature and behavior of the state of Israel and the ideology of Zionism on which it rests. They disregard the fundamental premise that the area that is now the state of Israel is the birthplace and the ancestral home of the Jewish people, linked by historical ties and by religious and cultural traditions. This reality, in addition to the approval of the establishment of the state by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 (II) of November 29, 1947, is the basis of the existence and legitimacy of the state.
Appropriate criticism of the actions and policies of Israel is certainly justifiable, but the inchoate mélange of disproportionate charges against and condemnations of the state by post-Zionists go far beyond any reasonable commentary. Those charges suffer from two problems: they are fancifully naïve in their expectations of a perfect society and perfect people in the sixty four year old state; and they discount the continual physical attacks and rhetorical hatred that forces Israel to defend itself and take measures to ensure its security. The essential problem is that many Arab countries and Palestinians still refuse to recognize the legitimacy and legality of Israel.
Zionism, a word coined by Nathan Birnbaum in 1891, is a nationalistic movement for Jewish self-determination of people with a common heritage. Zionism was not monolithic one but has included a pluralistic variety of different approaches, some tactical and some based on different visions of the nature of the state to be established. It is therefore never clear what particular aspects of the different views of Zionism are unacceptable to the post-Zionist critics?
It is therefore fortuitous that the book, The Founding Fathers of Zionism by Benzion Netanyahu, the eminent historian who died recently at 102, has been translated from Hebrew and is being published for the first time in English by Balfour Books. He was the patriarch of an important Israeli family, including Jonathan the celebrated hero who was killed while leading the mission to rescue Jewish hostages held by the PLO at Entebbe airport on July 4, 1976, Benjamin, Prime Minister of Israel, and Iddo, a prominent physician. Benzion, born in Poland in 1910, the son of a rabbi, went to Eretz Israel in 1920. His career embodied a rare combination of characteristics: an original, if controversial, scholar, and a passionate advocate of a minority Zionist political point of view on whose behalf he was a strong advocate.
The scholarly opinions of Benzion were consonant with his more overtly political ones. His advocacy began with his revulsion at the murder by Arabs of 67 Jews in Hebron in 1929. Believing that the mainstream Zionist organization did not react enough to this outrage, he became an activist in the Revisionist Zionist movement that was the rival of the mainstream Zionist Organization. The Revisionist group was founded and led by Vladimir (Zeev) Jabotinsky, whom Benzion served for a time as secretary. He was also editor of the Revisionist paper HaYarden in the 1930s. In 1940 Benzion supported Jabotinsky’s campaign to create a Jewish military force to fight against Nazi Germany and helped create a Committee for a Jewish Army. Jabotinsky had already formed the Haganah in 1920 as an independent Jewish army to protect settlements in the Yishuv, the area of Jewish settlements in Palestine.
Benzion was part of a group, which included Peter Bergson, which went to the United States in 1940 to seek funds and support both to rescue Jews in Europe, and to create a Jewish state in Palestine. As a result he became director of the American branch of the Revisionist movement and editor of its magazine. His editorials were critical of mainstream American Jewish leaders, such as Rabbi Stephen Wise, a friend of President Roosevelt, for being too cautious and too willing to accept Western appeasement policies towards Nazi Germany. Benzion attempted to influence the leaders of the Republican Party during the 1944 Presidential election to demand their support for a Jewish state as a refuge for the millions of European distressed Jews.
At the same time as this engagement in political activity Benzion had completed a doctorate in medieval Jewish history and began teaching in the U.S. where he remained until 1976. His scholarship is closely related to his political outlook. His first major work in 1953, stemming from his dissertation, was a biography of Don Isaac Abravanel, philosopher and financial expert who was the leader of the Jews in Spain in 1492, Benzion describes the inability of Abravenel to prevent the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and their sad fate as they sought refuge elsewhere. Reading the work, it is not possible to avoid the parallel inherent in it between the Spanish episode and the Holocaust and the fate of Jews attempting to seek refuge after escaping from Nazi Germany.
Even more telling was the argument in his major 1,400- page, controversial, revisionist, and tendentious book, The Origins of the Inquisition in 15th Century Spain, published in English in 1995, which is dedicated to Jonathan. This book challenged the prevailing scholarly view that the accusations by the Inquisition about “conversos” (Christianized Jews) were true. The Inquisition accusation was that these conversos and their descendants who supposedly had converted to Christianity were still secretly Jews, and therefore could be tortured, deprived of their wealth, and murdered. Benzion disagreed with this interpretation , and argued that the Inquisitors were motivated not so much by religious passion or profession of faith but more by hatred of Jews. They killed loyal Christians because of their Jewish blood. The Inquisition, in Benzion’s view, had introduced and laid the groundwork for a argument for antisemitism based on what it considered racial differences. According to this Jews were different; they did not have purity of Christian blood, limpieza de sangre. The relevance of this argument to the contemporary world of Nazism and 29th century antisemitism is clear. The actions of the Inquisition were a forerunner of genocidal Nazism and of the laws, which also treated Jews as if as they constituted a separate race, in Vichy France during World War II. Netanyahu’s argument is compelling; the Jewish people would never be accepted if they were regarded as a separate group of people.
Another controversial aspect of Benzion’s book was his criticism of the conversos themselves. Instead of praising the conversos as Cecil Roth had done in writing of the “incredible romance” of their story because of their unique devotion to tradition, which they transmitted from generation to generation, Benzion censured them for their lack of loyalty, and as traitors to Judaism. Indeed, Benzion, in a powerful comparison with the conversos of Spain, praises the Jews of medieval Germany for their religious devotion and readiness for martyrdom. His criticism can be construed as a comment on the inactivity of American Jews during World War II regarding the suffering of European Jews.
Netanyahu’s book The Founding Fathers of Zionism is a series of essays, some based on lectures, written at different times, before and after the Holocaust. They deal with five major writers, from Leo Pinsker, Theodore Herzl, Max Nordau, Israel Zangwill, to Vladimir Jabotinsky who are seen as contributing to the intellectual foundation of Zionism and thus to the establishment of the state of Israel. In spite of Benzion’s own political stance in favor of Jabotinsky, the essays that are elegantly written and highly original, are also eminently fair in the evaluation of the five individuals, their policies and personalities.
Benzion traces Zionism back to late 19th century Russia and the rise in Eastern Europe of Jewish nationalism and national consciousness, partly the outcome of religious longings and aspirations but largely as a result of the pogroms and manifest antisemitism. He views the dawning of Zionism, the emergence of a Jewish national consciousness, in the context not only of the pogroms in Eastern Europe but also as relevant to international issues of the time, especially the role of Britain in gaining Cyprus after the Russo-Turkish war, its control over Egypt in 1882, and general British interest in the Palestine area.
All five writers he chose were conscious of the problems of assimilation, and of Jewish identity in modern states. One solution to these problems has been total assimilation along with abandonment of traditional ritual. A more moderate and difficult approach was integration into mainstream society while retaining religious faith and the distinctiveness of a separate culture. This approach has long perplexed the Jewish community in the past and still does today. Moses Mendelssohn in his work, Jerusalem, (1783) was one of the first of many beginning in the Emancipation period to address the complex problem of remaining distinctive, in the modern world whether it is based on religious or ethnic or cultural factors. At the core is the tension between Jewish particularism and universalism.
It is of course true that some in the Jewish community do not approve of Zionism. Some significant scholars preferred other resolutions of the “Jewish problem.” Essentially these views, if not a denial of the existence of a “Jewish people,” are a rejection of the principle of Jewish self-determination, of Zionism as a solution to the Jewish question, and do not acknowledge the land that is now Israel as the necessary homeland for all Jews.
The five founders in Netanyahu’s book thought otherwise. Their arguments, which played a major part in shaping the intellectual foundations on which the state of Israel was built, were based on the prescient understanding that European Jews would be doomed without a Jewish state in which they would be protected and could defend themselves. For Netanyahu the motivation of Zionism as expressed by his founders was political, not religious.
Leo Pinsker a doctor for the Russian army during the Crimean War 1854, who was decorated for bravery, wanted to make the world conscious of the Jewish problem. Instead of using the word “antisemitism,” first used in 1873 by Wilhelm Marr, he coined the word “Judeophobia”, a psychological disease to refer to the pathological fear, disrespect, and dread of Jews. This was part of the general disease of the age. The 1871 pogrom in his hometown of Odessa, instigated by the Russian and Greek intelligentsia and more vehement than previous outbreaks, led him to believe that assimilation was futile. At this time and during the 1881 pogrom Jews received no protection from the Russian police. Pinsker’s pamphlet, Auto-Emancipation, written in 1882 was a call for a Jewish national movement based on the view that the Jews were a race and a historical group, not a religious sect. He argued that the Jewish people had no fatherland, no center of gravity, no government of its own, and no official representation.
In view of the ongoing persecution there was an immediate need for national salvation and territorial concentration. Anticipating the Holocaust, Pinsker argued that it was necessary for Jews to act or it would be too late. That was why at first Pinsker suggested Argentina as the place for the Jewish homeland. His appearance at the first Jewish National Congress in Kattowitz (Upper Silesia) in November 1884 was in effect the start of a political national movement, organizing Jews in Europe and petitioning the great powers to help the establishment of a national home. Pinsker wanted to put the Jewish question on the international agenda rather than be satisfied with the purchases of land and settlement by small groups in Palestine.
The generally acknowledged founder of Zionism is Theodor Herzl the charismatic, secular playwright and journalist for the Neue Freie Presse who was in Paris during the Dreyfus Affair. The cosmopolitan Herzl was largely uninterested in Jewish matters until he became aware of the outbreaks of antisemitism in Europe. This led him to the belief that assimilation was not possible due to the fact that there was continuing hostility towards Jews because they were regarded as aliens.
What is important about Herzl is that while others preceded him in understanding the Jewish problem, he, with his powerful personality put the national idea into practice with his founding of the Zionist movement in Basel in August 1897, and with his call in Der Judenstaat (1896) for the creation of a Jewish state, rather than gradual immigration of Jews into the selected area.
Herzl believed that the Jewish problem had to be solved on the political level. The agricultural settlements founded in Palestine by European Jewish philanthropists were important but insufficient. The declaration at the First Zionist Congress that Herzl convened in Basel was that “Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law.” This statement implied an international charter for Jews to return to Palestine: the result, Herzl believed, would be not only a state but also the ending of antisemitism. Herzl later wrote that in Basel he had founded the Jewish State. Herzl emphasized the need for the Jewish people to rule, to believe in their own powers. Netanyahu sums up Herzl in three words: believe, dare and desire. Indeed in Herzl’s novel, Altneuland, a character concludes, “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Herzl’s contributions to Zionism combined realism and optimism. He appreciated a fact that post-Zionists question, that Jews “are a people, one people.” The Jewish connection was one of peoplehood. Affliction Herzl said “binds us together, and thus united, we suddenly discover our strength.” With historical allusions, he urged the restoration of the Jewish state, one in which a normal society would exist. The new state must have an assured right of sovereignty, a legal right, agreed to by the international community. That explains his persistent diplomatic efforts to get international approval. At first Herzl was prepared to accept other areas than Palestine: Cyprus, South America and especially Uganda, were mentioned as the location of the state on a temporary basis. At first he thought that because of the continuing pogroms it was essential to find a location that was immediately available, but he soon realized this was unsatisfactory and that the state must be in Palestine.
Interestingly, Lord Balfour expressed a similar view. In his introduction to the book by Nahum Sokolow, History of Zionism, 1600-1919, Balfour recounts he first supported creating a Jewish settlement in East Africa under the British flag to avoid any further persecution of European Jews. Well-intentioned though this might be, it was not Zionism. Balfour realized in 1906, two years after the early death of Herzl, that the Jewish national home had to be in Palestine, the historical and religious location associated with Jews.
One of the people converted to Zionism by Herzl was the Hungarian physician and psychiatrist, an avowed atheist, the strong and stubborn character, Max Nordau (1849-1923). A talented writer, Nordau’s earliest writings focused on the corruption of Parisian life, on modern civilization as a disease, on degeneration in society, and on decadence in Europe, the mental and moral pathology of modern civilization. He had been present at the event on January 4, 1895 when Alfred Dreyfus was stripped of his army colors after being falsely convicted of espionage. He realized that emancipation, specifically in France, had not ended antisemitism, a world -wide disease, and he foresaw that Jews had to leave Europe quickly for their survival. In their own historic country Jews would be able to employ all their powers and skills for development. Even after their emancipation in European states, Nordau argued, Jews were suffering from alienation from labor and led an unhealthy life. With their return to Palestine they would be transformed, physically and spiritually. He was unconcerned about Judaism in that transformation. With a state of their own Jews could participate in a European progressive culture from which they were precluded. Zionism was good for that non-Jewish culture and the countries in which Jews would no longer be present, as well as for the Jews themselves. Like Herzl he thought that antisemitism would decline. Nordau, a persuasive speaker, influenced a number of important figures in literature and politics, including Georges Clemenceau, and was in effect the unofficial head of the Zionist Organization after the premature death of Herzl.
Israel Zangwill, the noted British journalist, publicist, and author is a surprising choice for Netanyahu’s fourth founder. Though well known for his novels on British Jewish life in the ghetto, as well as for his political activism on feminism and other issues, he was a strong Jewish nationalist who made the Jewish question central to his work. For him it was crucial for Jews to get out of the social and spiritual ghetto. At first he worked to accomplish this goal by helping to form the Maccabi club in 1893, and bringing artists and writers together to participate in British patriotism and thus become an integral part of the larger society. He soon realized this direction would never result in full acceptance of Jews, and with Herzl as his hero he became an advocate of Zionism. He promoted Zionism to prominent political and literary figures, including David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Lord Robert Cecil, Lord Lansdowne, Theodore Roosevelt, and Hall Caine, and perhaps influenced Lord Balfour. Zangwill was not loath to attack British Jewish leaders for their subservience to civil servants. On the contrary independent action was necessary, and the Zionist movement, he thought, must follow the route of national liberation; the model was what Garibaldi had done for Italians.
Where would that route lead? The Ottoman Empire controlled Palestine. Zangwill recognized the need to rescue Jews from persecution in Europe. As a result he broke with the official Zionist movement and founded in 1905 the Jewish Territorial Organization, looked for an emergency solution anywhere. He first advocated Uganda as a home for the Jews, a proposal that was rejected by the 7th Zionist Congress. When Zangwill realized that the Ottoman Empire would soon come to an end he argued for Palestine as the site for a Jewish homeland. In 1915 he proposed that Jewish brigades be part of the Allied Forces in World War I. After the Balfour Declaration he called not simply for a home for Jews in Palestine but for a state to be established in Palestine for the Jewish people. He was critical of Zionist leaders who had not demanded the establishment of a state. Zangwill’s most controversial argument was for Arabs in the area to be transferred to neighboring Arab countries.
Not surprisingly, the longest essay in Netanyahu’s book is on his hero Jabotinsky, orator, writer, and philosopher, a master of languages, literature, and history. That hero welcomed Herzl as a liberated, strong personality who was a model of the proud, independent, Jew able to command, qualities necessary in a new Jewish entity to be established. Jabotinsky was disappointed by the official Zionist organization, especially its chair Chaim Weizmann, who did not speak of the establishment of a state in Palestine with sufficient urgency. Both Herzl and Jabotinsky saw as unacceptable the poverty and the powerlessness of Jews in the Diaspora.
Jabotinsky is important for a number of reasons but particularly for advocacy of aggressive policies, and resistance to subjugation. He was a realist, regarding politics as tests of strength, aspiration, and domination. He spoke on behalf of Jewish resistance, calling to action people who had not known resistance for hundreds of years. He demanded political and military resistance to concession of any right to which Jews were entitled, as individuals or as a people.
To this end he championed Jewish self-defense in Russia, created the Jewish Legions in World War I as a private individual, and after the War the Irgun Zva’i Leumi (National Military Organization). Netanyahu points out that he urged both a political and military struggle against British rule. The political struggle would be one of constant public pressure, going beyond diplomatic niceties. The military one would be a way of educating Jewish youth; at an extreme it would be the basis for an armed uprising against Britain. In this aggressive attitude he differed with Weizmann on of tactics and strategy, especially on the question of putting pressure on the British. As a result he resigned from the Zionist Organization, which he found too cautious, too moderate, too self-restrained, in January 1923, and founded his organization in January 1923.
The most controversial argument of Jabotinsky was his policy toward local Arabs. He had predicted the Arab pogroms against Jews of April 1920 and he organized defense against them, an act for which he was jailed for 15 years, though soon released. He recognized that Arabs would not voluntarily consent to the establishment of a Jewish state, and would fight against Jewish immigration, even though it would bring them cultural and economic benefits. Hence his famous advocacy of an Iron Wall, which Arabs would be “powerless to break down,” and a strong legal military and political force to convince the Arabs that they could not force Jews to leave the area. For him the land of Israel would be obtained only through force. This forthright view of Arab opposition was not agreeable to many, but Jabotinsky was realistic in his appraisal of world wide historical processes. In the late 1930s he predicted the Holocaust when he argued that the catastrophe was coming closer for the Jews.
All these Zionist writers called for a national home, a state for the Jewish people. They believed that normalization of Jews would only occur if Jews were citizens of a sovereign state that could exercise power. At the present time the question is how Zionism is related to the state of Israel in both internal and external matters. The inescapable internal problem is the presence of a considerable and growing Arab minority. The Zionist pioneers were aware of this problem, and proposed different policies. The state of Israel still grapples with the problem of Arab assimilation and with the implementation of individual and collective rights for that minority.
Post-Zionists argue that Zionism is a colonialist concept built on a foundation that institutionalizes injustice towards local Arabs and that the differences in Israel now in status, income, and rights between Jews and Israeli Arabs means that the state is undemocratic. These critics argue would be that Israel would be more democratic if it were less Jewish. For them the fact that Israel is a Jewish state means it is undemocratic.
Herzl would have disagreed with this. He wrote, in his diary on June 12, 1895, that Jewish settlement in the area of Palestine would bring immediate benefits to the land, and that “we shall respectfully tolerate persons of other faiths and protect their property, their honor, and their freedom with the harshest means of coercion.” In a famous letter of March 19, 1899 to Yussuf Ziah el-Khaldi, former mayor of Jerusalem and then member of the Ottoman parliament, Herzl wrote regarding the non-Jewish population in Palestine that “their well -being and individual prosperity will increase as we bring in our own.”
The fundamental external reality which seems to escape post-Zionists, who challenge the legitimacy of Zionism and of Israel itself, is that Arab countries, with some exceptions, and Palestinians have warred and engaged in constant hostility still refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel. Necessarily, security is vital and the problem is to what extent should this interfere with Arab claims to the land and rights. The mainstream view is that a secure Israel is better than a territorially extended one.
Certainly a variety of opinions exist within Israel on the nature of the economy and the free market, on the cultural identities of the mosaic of communities that make up the society, and inequalities both within the Jewish community and between Jews and non-Jews. But to conclude on the basis of these issues that Zionism has fulfilled its ideological mission or that it is a colonialist or racist movement is to go far beyond rational analysis, and to touch on the edge of antisemitism.
Whatever the different formulations of Zionism all proponents share the view that the area, whether one calls it Palestine, the Holy Land, or Eretz Israel, is the birthplace and the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people linked by historical ties and by religious and cultural traditions shared by all Jews. Zionism is a national movement, not a colonialist one. It classes with Arab opposition and with the relatively new Palestinian nationalist movement. But it does not call for expelling the non-Jewish population in the disputed land. Neither is Zionism a racist concept in spite of the declaration of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination,” a Resolution that was revoked in 1991. Nor is Zionism, except in the eyes of those who are antisemitic, based on the concept of the Chosen People, a people engaged in a conspiracy to rule the world.
Netanyahu’s book makes a persuasive case for the idealism of the Zionist founders although its comprehensiveness suffers from omission of others who have contributed to the Zionist mansion. A number of conclusions can be drawn from his work. Implicitly by his choice of thinkers Netanyahu emphasized the political aspect of Zionism. Jews have been, since the days of David and Solomon, a homeless and politically powerless people. Benzion believed that Zionism is national, not religious. Netanyahu’s founders were not observant Jews. He also clarifies that the suggestions of these early Zionists for a Jewish home outside Palestine was always seen as a temporary proposal due to the immediate need to remove Jews from the increasing persecution in Russia and Eastern and Central Europe. The ultimate goal was always Palestine. The Zionist writers differed in attitudes towards and proposals about the Arabs in the territory, but there was no official Zionist policy to expel them.
Nevertheless, critics of Israel persist in the allegation that Zionism promoted this view. They are also averse to the exercise of Israeli power to defend the country, while at the same time neglecting to propose any alternative realistic proposals. Furthermore these critics deplore the decline in socialist ideology in the country and the diminishing role of early institutions and policies associated with left wing politics, the Histadrut, the kibbutzim, the role of the state in the economy, and the increasing place and electoral power of the orthodox religious groups, but again do not offer alternative proposals.
Left wing groups and ideas did dominate from the early years of settlement in Palestine and then Israel until 1977 when Menachem Begin became prime minister. The expectation of those groups was the creation of a secular socialist state that would be part of the international socialist movement. The main assertions of critics now are that Israel is too nationalistic, that it should no longer be a Jewish state but rather a democratic one, implying an incompatibility between the two, and that Israel should end its occupation of captured territory. Usually forgotten in these assertions is the continual Arab rejection of any compromise solution to end the conflict and Arab rejection of partition proposals and resolutions. Post-Zionism tends to become anti-Zionism, in its denial that the state of Israel has a legitimate right to exist. Benzion Netanyahu has played a valuable role in reminding us of the motivation behind the Zionist movement and of the concern of his five founders for a safe and secure state in which Jews can live a healthy and normal life.
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