Commentary Magazine


A History of Israel, by Howard M. Sachar

The Jewish State

A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time.
by Howard M. Sachar.
Knopf. 883 pp. $20.00

Howard Sachar’s monumental study, which deals with the history of Zionism, the rise of Arab nationalism, British diplomacy in the Middle East, and the military, political, social, and cultural vicissitudes of the state of Israel from 1948 to the present, is an extraordinary work, a triumph of comprehensive scholarship which is also a delight to read. Sachar’s treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict is especially noteworthy: while he appears to sympathize with Israel’s “doves,” he does not underestimate the depth of Arab hostility to Israel, and he is sharply critical of Zionism for its early failure to gauge the true nature of Arab nationalism. Sachar is also a stern critic of modern Israeli society, though here his powers of judgment and analysis occasionally desert him.

As Sachar shows, the early Zionist leaders assumed that Jewish-Arab relations in the newly-arisen Jewish state would be harmonious not because they were unaware of an Arab presence in Palestine or looked down on the Arabs as their cultural inferiors but rather because, like most 19th-century liberals, they assumed that material progress could reconcile even the most serious conflict of interests. The persistent and seemingly intractable “Jewish problem” was also, in their opinion, amenable to rational solution. In his lengthy essay, Selbstemanzipation (“Auto-emancipation”), published in 1882, Leon Pinsker explained that relations among peoples were based on mutual respect, not love, and that Jews would not be accorded the respect they demanded until they attained national equality. “There is something unnatural about a people without a territory, just as there is about a man without a shadow. . . .” With the achievement of statehood, however, Jews would no longer constitute a “phantom people” and anti-Semitism would consequently disappear.

It was in Europe’s interest, moreover, to facilitate Jewish immigration to Palestine. With the departure of the Jewish population, argued Theodor Herzl, Jewish economic competition in Europe would decline, and anti-Semitism with it. Besides, the Zionist movement would harness energies that might otherwise find an outlet in revolutionary agitation. And because Zionism was clearly the rational solution to the “Jewish problem,” it followed that European governments would lend the movement their support. “The world needs the Jewish state,” Herzl wrote in Der Judenstaat, “therefore it will arise.”

Herzl’s historical legacy was twofold: his poise and charisma restored to the persecuted Jewish masses in Eastern Europe a sense of national dignity, and his diplomatic machinations put Zionism “on the map” of international politics. In Chaim Weizmann, Herzl found a worthy successor. The eminent British diplomat, Sir Charles Webster, who first met Weizmann at the War Office in 1917, considered him the greatest statesman of his time. Like Herzl, the young Weizmann was wary of socialism. In a letter to Herzl in 1903, for example, Weizmann lamented the growth of “radicalism” among Russian-J e w i s h youth. “Our hardest struggle everywhere,” Weizmann noted, “is conducted against Jewish social democrats.” Although Weizmann became friendlier to socialist Zionism in later years, at this point he regarded it as “a kind of pestilence.” A genuine Anglophile, Weizmann found in British society, with its combination of liberalism and tradition, a model worthy of Zionist emulation.

It was in large part due to Weizmann’s diplomatic skill that the Zionist movement achieved its first great breakthrough: the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in November 1917. Ironically enough, “it was the obsessive desire to win the friendship of world Jewry that influenced the War Cabinet’s decision” to issue the Declaration. British leaders simply took it for granted that “international Jewry,” with its legendary financial power and political connections, would return the favor by bringing the United States into the war on the side of the Allies and by preventing Russia from dropping out of the Entente. (In the event, the United States was already at war when the Balfour Declaration was issued, and the new Bolshevik regime was hardly susceptible to Zionist pressure.) Even so, there was formidable opposition to British sponsorship of a Jewish National Home within the War Cabinet, and without Weizmann’s extraordinary powers of persuasion the Balfour Declaration might never have seen the light of day.

But while Weizmann, Brandeis, Nahum Sokolow, and the other leading figures of the Zionist movement who had won the great political victories of the war and immediate postwar period were all liberal “General Zionists,” political power in Jewish Palestine itself was coming increasingly to rest in the hands of the socialist Zionists who despised the middle-class liberalism of General Zionism. Gifted theoreticians like Nahum Syrkin and Ber Borochov had achieved the not inconsiderable feat of reconciling socialism and Zionism. Basically, they argued that anti-Semitism was a consequence of the abnormal Jewish class structure. The “Jewish problem” would not be solved until a Jewish proletariat emerged, but a landless people was unable to generate a proletariat. Thus, Zionism was justified from a socialist point of view. “From the contemporary vantage point,” writes Sachar, “Borochov’s formulation may seem riddled with inconsistencies. But for the intensely class-conscious Jewish proletariat of early 20th-century Russia, it appeared as if he had devised a theory of Zionism that evolved deductively, almost mathematically, from Marxist premises.”

____________

 

The early socialist-Zionist pioneers favored a policy of aggressive class warfare. In 1906, David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, and other Labor Zionists issued a demand for “public ownership of the means of production” in Palestine. Since Palestine was an impoverished wasteland at the time, the demand was somewhat premature, and to middle-class Zionists it must have seemed rather bizarre. Yet given the complicated system of electing delegates to Zionist congresses, whereby double weight was accorded to votes cast by Zionists residing in Palestine itself, it was not long before the Labor Zionists came to dominate the Zionist movement.

By the 1930’s, moreover, what was left of the early liberal orientation of General Zionism was repudiated again, this time by the Right. In 1935, Vladimir Jabotinsky announced the establishment of a “New Zionist Organization” which would have nothing to do with the older Zionist Organization. Jabotinsky’s “Revisionist” Zionism stressed paramilitary activity, gymnastics, uniforms, and parades. “While its leadership revered Jabotinsky as man and leader,” Sachar writes, “the movement moved further to the Right than he himself would have preferred, and at times came dangerously close to emulating the Giovanni Fascisti of Italy.” Jabotinsky stressed the priority of national over class struggle. “If there is a class in whose hands the future lies,” he wrote, “it is we, the bourgeoisie, the enemies of a supreme police state, the ideologists of individualism. . . . We don’t have to be ashamed, my bourgeois comrades.” Despite its economic “individualism,” Revisionism’s uncompromising militarism repudiated the liberal vision of Weizmann and Herzl no less decisively than did Labor Zionism.

For its part, Labor Zionism gradually moderated its class approach, and in 1930 a new political grouping known thenceforth as Mapai emerged as the dominant party in Jewish Palestine. The guiding spirit of the new party was Berl Katznelson, whom Sachar correctly calls “an authentic giant” of Labor Zionism. “It was chiefly Katz-nelson’s genius that steered Mapai away from the traditional theorizing complexities of Zionist politics and concentrated instead on pragmatic gains for Jewish workingmen in the Jewish National Home.”

Yet while the Labor Zionists were gradually and painfully divesting themselves of their earlier sectarianism, their approach to the “Arab question” was still dominated by traditional Marxist categories of analysis. Even Katznelson, “otherwise an incisive and sophisticated intellect, was convinced that the fellahin, exploited by a rapacious feudal plutocracy, soon would appreciate the importance of economic solidarity with the Jews.” According to Sachar, however, “the ‘class’ approach to Arab nationalism was bankrupt from the outset, as was every other effort to qualify or minimize the depth of this sentiment. Perhaps the one Zionist faction that took the Arab problem seriously from the outset was Revisionism, although the latter’s solution was hardly that of appeasement or compassion.” In defense of the Labor Zionists, however, it must be added that while they were often slow to grasp the true dimension of Arab nationalism, their approach was never characterized by willful blindness or inhumanity. The conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, they admitted, was not between absolute right and wrong, but between the greater and the lesser injustice. Nor is it likely that a more accommodating posture would have substantially diminished Arab hostility to Zionism.

____________

 

For all the diplomatic successes of Weizmann and the General Zionists, the state of Israel could not conceivably have come to be established without the utter dedication and anguished fanaticism of the Labor Zionist chalutzim (pioneers). The very triumph of Labor Zionism, however, has brought serious problems in its wake. In the first place, Israeli political life has become dangerously polarized as a result of the bitter feud between Labor Zionism and Revisionist Zionism, with the balance of political power residing more often than not in the theocratically-oriented religious parties or even in the Communist parties. The once dominant progressive liberalism of General Zionism has been practically discarded.

The ideological conflicts within the labor movement, meanwhile, have led to the relentless politicization of nearly every aspect of Israeli public life. “In time,” Sachar observes,

entire ministries became indistinguishable from party cells. The notion of a politically neutral civil service was so alien to the Israeli mentality that a civil-service commission was organized only after the first great spurt of government activitity had passed, in 1950. . . . In the Jewish Agency and the quasi-governmental Histadrut, depoliticization never really began; from beginning to end, job openings and entire departments of these institutions were staffed on the basis of party proportions.

The role of the Histadrut in Israeli society is especially problematic. It is usually described as a trade union, but it is much more than that. The Histadrut is perhaps the dominant institution in Israeli society, and its influence on almost every aspect of Israeli life is such that it defies simple characterization. From the liberal point of view, such an accumulation of power, no matter how benign in intent, is deplorable. From the socialist point of view, however, it is commendable: since the working class is necessarily progressive, and since the Histadrut represents the working class, the more power it wields, the better. It is certainly undeniable that in its social idealism and concern for the welfare of Israel’s citizens the Histadrut has often set an example second to none. Still, Sachar argues that its very success has undermined the “plain and simple respect for work” which lies at the heart of the Zionist redemptive effort. Israel’s struggle for survival, he concludes, is bound to be mortally close, since it is being waged “less against the surrounding enemy than against the incipient blight within the Israeli people themselves.”

Sachar’s moral condemnation of Israeli society is oddly inconsistent with the generally judicious tone that he maintains throughout the rest of his book. Israel may be far from the austere utopia envisioned by the socialist-Zionist pioneers, but it is misleading to argue, as Sa-char does, that “materialism and self-indulgence had become the mood of the 1960’s and 1970’s.” On all too many occasions, Israel’s citizen-army has given tangible expression to the enormous reserves of idealism and self-sacrifice present at every level of Israeli life. While Sachar’s criticisms are valid up to a point, they are also contradictory: on the one hand, he deplores the persistence of the revolutionary-Zionist tradition in Israeli politics, with its dogmatism, excessive politicization, and concentration of power in the Histadrut; on the other hand, he also deplores the decline of the revolutionary tradition in Israeli society, and the consequent devaluation of the work ethic and loss of egalitarian élan. Yet while a polity retaining the most attractive features of a revolutionary tradition within a liberal framework is perhaps the best of all possible worlds, it is also the rarest, and given all the other problems which beset it, it seems strange indeed to predicate Israel’s survival on the achievement of some secular utopia.

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