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Liberalism and Zionism

“Liberalism is always being surprised.” That was how Lionel Trilling used to describe the characteristic liberal failure to imagine what reason and seductive common sense appeared to gainsay. During the past century, few things have surprised and offended the liberal imagination more than the weird persistence of the Jewish nation.

Liberal friends of the Jews expected that their emancipation would put an end to Jewish collective existence. Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre, the French revolutionary, told the French National Assembly in 1789 that “the Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals.” Wilhelm von Humboldt, the great liberal reformer of Prussia, whose ethical idealism is celebrated in John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, considered the disappearance of the Jews as a distinct group a condition for taking up the cause of their emancipation.

When the Jews failed to live up to their sponsors' expectations, the reaction against them could be fierce. George Eliot wrote in 1878 that modern English resentment of Jews for maintaining themselves in moral isolation from their fellow citizens was strongest among “liberal gentlemen” who “usually belong to a party which has felt itself glorified in winning for Jews . . . the full privileges of citizenship.” George Eliot had herself once belonged to that party, and in 1848, when her revolutionary ardor was at its height, predicted that the Jews as a “race” were “plainly destined to extermination.” But between 1848 and 1874, when she began to write Daniel Deronda, her liberalism had been tempered by a wider experience of mankind and a deeper reflection on the meaning of nationality in general and of the organized memory of Jewish national consciousness in particular.

George Eliot came to cherish the idea of “restoration of a Jewish State planted on the old ground,” not only because it would afford the Jews a center of national feeling and a source of dignifying protection, but because it would contribute to the councils of the world “an added form of national genius,” and one of transcendent (though not Christian) meaning. At the conclusion of her essay on the Jewish problem (“The Modern HEP! HEP! HEP!”), she pleads with John Stuart Mill's liberal disciples to enlarge their master's ideal of individuality to nations: “A modern book on Liberty has maintained that from the freedom of individual men to persist in idiosyncrasies the world may be enriched. Why should we not apply this argument to the idiosyncrasy of a nation, and pause in our haste to hoot it down?”

The relation among liberalism, democracy, and the Jewish nation is directly addressed in two ambitious new books by liberals on Zionism and Israel. In one of these, Bernard Avishai, author of The Tragedy of Zionism1 and self-styled elegist of Zionism, has cast himself in the role of Epimenides coming to Athens or Plato to Syracuse, sternly ignoring the contemptible traditional and local idiosyncrasies of the natives in order to bestow upon them the blessings of the “British liberal tradition,” “secular democracy,” “liberal decency,” and “a written constitution.”

In his prologue Avishai describes how, in 1972, he and his wife left Canada to become Israelis. But by 1973 they began to feel that they were victims of “cultural enslavement” whose “English spirit” was being blotted out by Hebrew. The instrument of their deconversion from Zionism was American and English television programs which revealed to them that they were “living among foreigners” and that their true home, to which they soon returned, was Canada and the English language. Although he momentarily blamed himself for failing to become an Israeli, Avishai quickly decided that the blame lay with Israel, which, if you are American, turns your children into strangers, and with Zionism, which, “like old halakhic [Jewish legal] norms,” represses “individual life . . . equivocation, sexuality,” desiderata of the “culture of liberalism” that he now pursues as a teacher of writing at MIT.

Five pages after describing how he saved himself from the clearest and most dangerous siren call he had ever heard, Avishai announces that it is time “to retire” Zionism in favor of democracy. Ten pages later he contemptuously describes early political Zionists such as Leo Pinsker, Theodor Herzl, and Vladimir Jabotinsky as people who invented an ideology to assuage “personal disappointment,” for they “were themselves people who had tried to assimilate and . . . failed.” The ironic vision of this tragedian-elegist does not extend to himself.


Conor Cruise O'Brien also begins his massive study of Israel and Zionism, The Siege,2 by describing those elements in his national, religious, and family background that drew him to the subject. In the late 1950's that most unphilosophical principle called the alphabet conspired with destiny to situate O'Brien, as Ireland's UN representative, between Iraq and Israel, a revealing perspective for a shrewd observer. In 1961 he left Ireland's foreign service but subsequently went into politics at home, where he served four years in opposition and four years as a member of the Irish government.

O'Brien is a liberal, but it was not his liberalism that made him see the Return to Zion, which took place under “harsher necessities” than any ever imagined by liberals, as “the greatest story of modern times.” As an Irish Catholic he had no trouble recognizing, at the heart of Zionism, a powerful bond between religion and nationality. As the child of a lapsed or “enlightened” Catholic father, whom he labels a maskil (Hebrew for “enlightened one”), O'Brien grew up sufficiently “alienated” from Catholic society to feel yet another link with Jews living as strangers in Exile. Finally, he was moved by the conviction that “Irish Catholics . . . have had a greater experience of persecution, oppression, and stigmatization than any other people in Western Europe except the Jews.”

Throughout his book, O'Brien freely and candidly uses his experience as an Irishman and a diplomat to shed coruscating light on the story of the Zionist movement as well as on the play of forces around that movement. This means that in his view of the British Mandatory government that ruled Palestine from soon after the end of World War I until 1948, the British Anglo-Saxon constitutional system, which to Avishai is a second (and superior) revelation from Sinai, sometimes appears to be just what Matthew Arnold called it: “A colossal machine for the manufacture of Philistines.” O'Brien remarks that among such Philistines, “anti-Semitism is a light sleeper,” and offers as an instance the use in British official circles, starting in 1941, of the epithet “Jewish Nazi state.” For Avishai, anti-Semitic remarks by the British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin are “tactlessness,” something akin to eating soup with a fork.3

O'Brien's saga of Israel and Zionism is in two parts. The first recounts the story of Zionism from the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 through the expiration of the British Mandate in 1948 and includes detailed analyses of the whole spectrum of Zionist ideologies, portraits of such central actors as Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, and Jabotinsky, and accounts of the Dreyfus Affair, Eastern European pogroms, and British motives and actions in Palestine. The second, longer part tells the story of Israel from its bloody beginning through the completion of the withdrawal from Lebanon in summer 1985. It comprises lengthy chapters on the inner life of Israel as expressed in its literature, on Israel's Oriental Jewish population, on the Arabs of Israel and the administered territories, and on the complex relations between international diplomacy and Israel's wars. The Siege is the work of a writer of flexible intelligence and boundless curiosity. The book therefore has a kind of noble imperfection, like that of large Victorian novels lovingly called loose and baggy monsters.

Avishai's “tragedy,” by contrast, has the completeness of a limited mind. The first part of the book analyzes the development of Zionist ideas, especially in relation to certain crossroads in the development of the yishuv (Palestinian Jewish community) and with favorable emphasis upon cultural, as opposed to political, Zionism. The second part traces, in just three chapters, the rapid disintegration of Labor Zionism from its victory at the 1931 World Zionist Congress to “the end of Zionism” on the eve of the Six-Day War of 1967. The last, most aggressively polemical section of the book presents what Avishai sees as the various tragedies and failures, from 1967 to the present, that resulted from Ben-Gurion's “post-Zionist matrix” of “power, Bible, defiance, settlement, economic growth.”

Avishai's is a much narrower book than O'Brien's in scope because it tells comparatively little of what the Gentiles, apart from Palestinian Arabs, are thinking and doing. His description of the 1938 Evian conference on Jewish refugees, for example, includes a polite, passing allusion to the failure of the Western democracies to accept Jews, followed by a detailed, acerbic description of Labor Zionist hopes that the conference would fail. This is also a narrower book in its quality of mind. O'Brien's discussion of Israeli literature ranges widely from Abba Kovner, Aharon Appelfeld, David Shahar, and Yehuda Amichai to Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua. Avishai's is limited to books and plays that illustrate “the liberal, post-Zionist curve of Israel's leading writers,” especially if these “leading writers” deal with an Arab-Jewish love affair or depict Israelis as Nazis.

Both books are unusually personal and enlivened by anecdote. O'Brien's invocations of experience often reveal the hypocrisy or hatred that is part of the burden Israel must bear. Recalling how in 1974 the UN delegates of every Western European nation, including Ireland, joined in the standing ovation for Yasir Arafat, O'Brien writes: “I asked our Foreign Minister, Garrett FitzGerald, whether it was altogether wise for Ireland to be so fulsome about the PLO: might there not be a precedent in relation to the IRA? Garret thought not. . . . Arafat and his Fatah were the moderates.” On another occasion, as Ireland's representative at the 1946 conference on refugees in Geneva, O'Brien had to meet with a Monsignor representing the Vatican who frankly told his interlocutor of his feelings about Jews: “I'm not anti-Semitic. I just hate them.”

Avishai's anecdotes, by contrast, serve mainly to cast a warm glow over his debating skills marshaled in combat against illiberal, supposedly paranoiac Jews. In Israel, he vanquished a taxi driver whose experiences in Lebanon had embittered him toward Palestinian Arabs. In North America, he joined an Israeli in heaping scorn upon Diaspora Jews who still brood over the Holocaust and “now need to invent anti-Semites to feel like Jews, to perform the commandment of Auschwitz.” (It is characteristic of Avishai to suppose that the power exercised over ordinary Jews by this commandment—as Emil Fackenheim phrases it—not to give Hitler posthumous victories is merely that of a smart syllogism, on the order of “since Hitler didn't want Jews in Germany, we must live there.”)


The stark contrast in method, tenor, and tone between the two books is everywhere apparent. For O'Brien the Jews, for all their political inaptitude, are a great people, and the state of Israel, despite its “Panglossian” professors, its proud, overweening politicians, and a national character “so democratic as to be almost unworkable,” is the culmination of a movement whose power over Gentiles as well as Jews is a “mystery” that cannot be explained except by the divine power of the Bible. For Avishai, full of acrid contempt for those who sense “something mysterious and wonderful about Jewish history,” the Jews are a small people, but a nasty one. Their country has become the devil's own experiment station, where the state is “superior to all other moral values,” where young people increasingly succumb to their primordial instincts for “domination, lockstep, revenge,” and where the Bible impedes peace by deluding “new” Zionists into calling the West Bank Judea and Samaria (always enclosed by the author in quotation marks) and impedes “liberal democracy” by imposing upon Hebrew speakers an archaic vocabulary in which the word for freedom (cherut) is national rather than individual in meaning.

O'Brien expresses admiration for the heroism of the outnumbered Jewish defenders of the early settlements of Yad Mordechai, Degania (helpfully identified, by Avishai, by its Arab name Umm Juni), and Geulim. Citing several sources, he writes that in the War of Independence, “the numbers actually engaged on the two sides seem to have been about equal. But the Arabs had a huge initial superiority in . . . equipment and firepower, heavy weapons, armor and aircraft.” Avishai, judging the paltry efforts of the Jews by the high and severe conceptions of gallantry that obtain at MIT, is unimpressed. He writes, citing no sources at all, that “Jewish forces outnumbered the combined strength of the Arab forces and Palestinian irregulars by 2 to 1—a fact which should dispel misty notions about how courage alone vanquished the Arab Goliath.”4

In both books the large immigration to Israel in the 1950's of Oriental Jews, strangers to democracy, receives detailed attention. O'Brien describes the lives these people had led as second-class citizens in their lands of origin, where they were held in contempt by the aggressive “triumphalist creed” of Islam. He argues persuasively that they were something more than a mixed multitude, incapable of appreciating the socialism and atheism of Israel's founders. Rather, they were Zionists, from “national traditions kept alive through religious observance.”

For Avishai, the Oriental Jews were not merely, like many of the children of Labor Zionist veterans, not Zionists—they were also destitute of liberalism, hence poor material for secular democracy. It was in order to mobilize such a rabble, he argues, that Ben-Gurion had to sacrifice the revolutionary ideas of Labor Zionism in favor of statism and militarism, and diplomacy in favor of retaliation. Their best people, i.e., their “liberal intelligentsia,” having gone to Montreal or New York rather than Israel, the Oriental Jews were deaf to the blandishments of socialism and democracy. They had come to Israel because of their “vivid understanding of the modern world's tribal and dark side.”

No hint is given by Avishai of what is abundantly provided by O'Brien: namely, evidence that Oriental immigrants responded to this “chance to be strong against the Arabs” not from some metaphysical glimpse into the modern heart of darkness but from living among them. Explicitly, Avishai bewails the fact that so few Yemenite cobblers and North African policemen have learned the true, “European” meanings of democracy and freedom at Hebrew University; implicitly, what bothers him is that so many have learned about Arabs from experience and not from, say, one or another of the country's institutes of Middle East studies, where they could receive instruction in how to hallucinate moderation in their enemies.


Ascribing moderation to Israel's enemies and willful extremism to Israel's leaders is characteristic of Avishai's approach. (There are assorted “tragedies” scattered through his account of Zionism, starting with the establishment by the Histadrut [General Federation of Jewish Workers] of a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” But the underlying meaning of the title is that the protagonist, Zionism, has brought about its own destruction by hamartia, or arrogant pride.) He describes King Feisal of Iraq in 1919 “offer[ing] protection for Zionism under a united Arab state.” O'Brien points out that the real intent of this offer was, as even the British Royal Commission Report of 1937 confirmed, that “If King Hussein and Emir Feisal secured their big Arab state, they would concede little Palestine to the Jews.” The agreement, wrote the British intelligence officer Colonel French at the time of its signing, “is not worth the paper it is written on.”

Avishai depicts the present King Hussein of Jordan intrepidly (if vainly) arguing for recognition of Israel at the Khartoum conference of Arab nations following the Six-Day War. But how, asks Avishai, could he dream of making peace without getting back Jerusalem? We are not told why Hussein showed no interest in peace or recognition between 1953, when he came to the throne, and 1967, when he led his country into war against Israel. In any event, the ascendant political figure in Israel by this time was Moshe Dayan, who, allegedly, made any settlement impossible.

For Avishai, Dayan is “a modern pharaoh” who virtually created Palestinian Arab “radicalism.” So fond is Avishai of this conceit whereby Arabs become Jews and Israelis their Gentile oppressors that he tells how Dayan's heart, presumably like Pharaoh's in the Bible, “had been hardened by terrorist attacks such as the one [on a school] at Ma'alot.” This is to say that Arafat does not murder but only executes divine sentence. Avishai claims that “in 1968, Arafat was still an unlikely guerrilla, criss-crossing the West Bank on a motorcycle. . . .” O'Brien, however, reminds us that in March 1968, at Karameh, this pathetically enterprising cyclist, in league with a Hussein who now called himself a fedayeen (commando), murdered 23 Israeli soldiers.

Avishai indignantly reports that in 1976 only the dovish Israeli politician Yossi Sarid recognized that the newly elected pro-PLO mayors of the West Bank, graciously willing to set up a state “in whatever part of the homeland would be liberated,” represented “a new opportunity for Israeli diplomacy.” O'Brien, on the other hand, quotes “moderate” Palestinian Arabs who unblushingly declared that “the step that follows liberation is the dismantling of the racist . . . structure of Israel as a state.” He offers too the sobering reminder that the organizers of the massacre of Israeli schoolchildren at Ma'alot “were well-known Palestinian ‘moderates’ who had been in dialogue with Israeli ‘doves.’”

Avishai's generosity toward Israel's adversaries is epistemological as well as political. He sneers at the argument of Revisionist Zionists that most Palestinian Arabs were as much immigrants to the country as most Jews were. He does not deny the fact, but maintains that Arabs who moved to Palestine from Damascus or Amman were, “in their own eyes, . . . doing no more than moving from one part of the Arab homeland to another.” How such people could consistently also claim, after 1948, to be homeless refugees if they lived anywhere outside the borders of Israel is not a question to interest Avishai, though he castigates Labor Zionists for causing the displacement of Arab residents “from their country.” Later he refers gingerly to Joan Peters's “highly controversial book” about Arab immigration to Palestine, From Time Immemorial, promising that a friend of his will soon explode Peters's thesis. But in the meantime we must rest content with the view that “the number of Arabs who came, and their actual place of origin, beg the question of the subjective feelings of the people who came to call themselves Palestinians.” In other words, it does not much matter what things are in themselves, only what they appear to be to Arabs.

O'Brien points out that, among the “subjective feelings” of Israel's Arab adversaries, belief in Enlightenment principles of secular democracy barely exists. Nevertheless, it is in this language that they have chosen to make their case to the West, knowing that it will be music to the inward ear of liberals. “In terms of the governing code of debate, based on the Western Enlightenment value system, this puts the Arab states—and the cause of Government by Consent—permanently in the right, and Israel—with its archaic Right of Return and Jewish State—permanently in the wrong.” Of course, O'Brien adds, Muslim spokesmen who appeal to Enlightenment principles “are engaging in doubletalk, masking the realities of what is fundamentally, on both sides, a religious-nationalist culture conflict.” He notes that the terrorist group Fatah, whose spokesmen repeat “secular democratic state” with the regularity of a steam engine, is an organization whose name means the opening of a country for conquest by Islam.

The archetype of the relation of Palestinian Arabs to democracy is, for O'Brien, their outright rejection of the Palestine Constitution proposed by Palestine High Commissioner Herbert Samuel and then-Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill in 1922. Although Weizmann accepted this commitment to epresentative democracy, the Arab majority scorned an arrangement that did not abolish the Balfour Declaration and bestow on the Arabs the power to exclude Jews from Palestine. Then as now only “the prestige of the absolute” could enrapture Palestinian Arabs.


For both writers the nature of democracy in Israel is bound up with religion; beyond that point they diverge in every particular. In the first part of his book Avishai insists, often to the point of absurdity, on denying Jewish religion any role in the development of Zionism; but his account of events after 1948 alleges that religious influence poisoned Zionism, prevented territorial concession, and maimed by compression, like a Chinese lady's foot, every libertarian impulse of Israeli citizens. On the very first page of his “tragedy,” Avishai states that Czar Nicholas I “had been dismayed by Jewish sympathies for Napoleon's occupation.”

The statement is typical Avishai for two reasons. First, it is wrong. Nicholas, not famous for his love of Jews, wrote of them in his diary: “Surprisingly . . . in 1812 they were very loyal to us and assisted us in every possible way even at the risk of their own lives.” Secondly, it is wrong because Avishai cannot admit that, given the choice, many Jews preferred their traditional religious observance under a tyrant to emancipation under the aegis of French Enlightenment.

Avishai's account of the origins of Zionism is diametrically opposed to that of O'Brien, who insists that Jewish nationalism drew its ultimate strength from the Jewish religion and that even Ben-Gurion and Weizmann were, and could not but be, essentially religious Jews. Avishai never even mentions such early religious Zionists as Yehuda Alkalay and the widely read Zvi Hirsch Kalischer; declares that the Eretz Yisrael of religious Jews “corresponded to no actual territory,” even though Weizmann had somehow got the impression that Jews who in the East End of London prayed for dew in the summer and rain in the winter were attached to Palestine (and not Atlantis); and reports (falsely) that all religious Zionists at the Zionist congresses supported Herzl's scheme for emergency settlement of Jews in Uganda.

Avishai lashes Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir for not entering into a Kulturkampf against religious forces. He depicts Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who as chief rabbi of Jaffa from 1904 held out a welcoming hand to Labor Zionism, as a parasite, but reserves his harshest epithets for the new, religious Zionists who do work the land. Although Avishai's single reference to Jewish daily prayers—“the daily prayers stated that Jews had been exiled ‘for their sins’”—indicates he has not said them for a long time, he is filled with a visceral loathing for those who do, which reminds one that the French Enlightenment whose child he is was not only liberal and secular, it was also anti-Semitic. “Scripture hawks,” “ultra-nationalist settlers,” “fringe romantics”: these people have, in Avishai's view, lost their human status.

The relatively small number of religious Jews in the fledgling state and the much larger number of citizens for whom religious symbols had become, through the agency of the state, a kind of civil religion, kept Israel from becoming a secular, democratic state in two ways, according to Avishai. First, they made it impossible to promulgate a comprehensive bill of rights and constitution, and thus enabled the discriminatory Law of Return, which grants citizenship to all Jews who request it, to be passed and maintained. In the long list of liberal nostrums prescribed by Avishai for the de-Judaization of Israel, abolition of the Law of Return has a high place. He is not, however, a dogmatic egalitarian. He does not want Arabs to be bothered with that little matter of serving in the army from eighteen to fifty-five, and he does not object to the principle of “affirmative action” as such: in fact, he recommends it—for the Arabs. Secondly, the religious and their allies stand accused of fostering an atmosphere of intolerance, especially in Israeli schools, that permeates all aspects of society.5 His complaint that “Israeli schools have taught children much more about the tribes of Israel than about the Enlightenment” will elicit a bitter laugh from people whose children have actually attended these schools, the kind of laugh invited by one who cries fire in the midst of a flood.


In his epilogue to The Siege, O'Brien argues cogently against exchanging the territories of Judea and Samaria for an illusory peace. This notion, he implies, can be espoused only by well-intentioned fools or ill-intentioned rogues. By a strange irony, O'Brien adds, “Those in the West who urge that the effort to rule over large numbers of Arabs may eventually destroy Israel itself might do well to note that Meir Kahane is making the same point, while drawing from it an inference radically different from what the Western critics have in mind.”

Avishai, who favors yet another partitioning of Palestine (“the only democratic solution”), is not exactly making “the same point” as Kahane, yet there is an uncanny resemblance between the mental worlds they inhabit. In both, the opposition between Zionism and democracy is inevitable and Manichean. In both, the “problem” of marriage between Jew and Arab is obsessive. Kahane wants to outlaw it, and Avishai, speaking for those few Israelis who combine the liberal craving for forbidden fruit with the liberal craving for legality, wants Israel to institute civil marriage.

In flagellating Israel with half-understood, misapplied, and uniquely inappropriate slogans about the “tyranny of the majority” that he has gleaned from Tocqueville and Mill while demanding that Israel surrender its Jewish character, Avishai shows a poor grasp not just of his liberal sources but of something far more important. John Stuart Mill once wrote that in the makeup of every state there must be “something which is settled, something permanent, and not to be called in question: something which, by general agreement, has a right to be where it is, and to be secure against disturbance.”

In the state of the Jews, a state (as O'Brien keeps stressing) under siege and likely long to remain so, that “something” can only be Jewish religion and not liberalism—not necessarily the Judaism of the Orthodox parties but a Judaism freely and variously interpreted and always including the conviction that Jewish life leads somewhere because it began somewhere. This religion may not suit the most refined tastes, and some of its devotees may be raw and blind in their gropings. But men live and, if need be, die for values, not for procedures; for beliefs, not for conclusions. Early Labor Zionists seemed to do very well without religion because, as O'Brien recognizes, they were sustained by the very Judaism they denied. The same was not true for their children and grandchildren, for whom no traditional faith existed that could endow gestures of rebellion with meaning.

It is a gloomy thought that the enemies of Israel neither slumber nor sleep. But there is comfort, too, in remembering that the first elegist to crow over the demise of Zion was a fellow named Merneptah, a ruler of Egypt who announced that “Israel is desolated; its seed is no more.” That was in the year 1215 B.C.E.


1 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 389 pp., $ 19.95.

2 Simon and Schuster, 800 pp., $24.95.

3 Avishai is equally charitable toward the constitutional democracies of the U.S. and Canada, which, he says, closed their doors to mass immigration “in the depths of economic depression.” In fact, those doors were closed in the boom years of the 20's. Irving Abella and Harold Troper (None Is Too Many) have demonstrated that Canada's distinction of admitting fewer Jewish refugees from Hitler than any other Western country had nothing to do with economics, everything to do with that “tactlessness” called anti-Semitism.

4 According to the American military historian Trevor Dupuy, the Arabs committed 40,000 men to the conflict, the Jews had 30,000 men under arms, 10,000 more ready for mobilization.

5 For his information on the “anti-democratic views” of Israeli high-school students Avishai relies on the tendentious polls conducted by Jerusalem's Van Leer Institute. The biased, unreliable character of these surveys has been analyzed by Shlomo Sharan of Tel Aviv University. See Ma'ariv, International Edition, September 27, 1985.

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