Commentary Magazine

The Israelis: Founders and Sons, by Amos Elon

Portrait of a Nation

The Israelis: Founders and Sons.
by Amos Elon.
Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 359 pp. $10.00.

In the flood of recent works on Zionism, Israel, and the Middle East, Amos Elon’s The Israelis stands out as a uniquely valuable book—valuable for its searching portrait of the classical Zionist character and the temper of Israel today, valuable also as an impressive document of the unflinching critical self-consciousness one sees more and more among younger Israeli intellectuals. Sketching the outlines of a collective personality is inevitably a risky business, but Elon brings to the task unusual resources of perception, a stylistic gift for the evocation of concrete predicaments and felt experience, and an admirably sound method. His argument, built around vivid anecdotal illustration, reads so easily that it may seem casually put together, but in fact it is very carefully conceived, much of it on the basis of patient research.

Because of the research, the first half of the volume, devoted to the ideologically fervent immigrants who shaped the Zionist settlement in the early decades of this century, is especially illuminating. Elon has gone through dozens of volumes of memoirs, correspondence, kibbutz and movement records, and other documents of the period, in order to penetrate to the psycho-historical realities behind the ideological stances. Scraping away the patina of propagandistic stereotypes that obscures our vision of the Zionist Founders, he uncovers human faces that are far more troubled, more ambiguous, and more interesting than the cherished clichés. The Second Aliyah,1 for example, is likely to call to mind notions of lofty idealism, selfless dedication to the task of national rebuilding, unswerving commitment to the principles of a progressive ideology of redemption. Elon discounts none of this, but he is also quick to remind us that at least 60 per cent, perhaps as many as 90 per cent, of all those who came in the Second Aliyah subsequently re-emigrated, and that those who stayed, paying a predictable human price for their ideological steadfastness, “were marked by a terrible sincerity and by an almost inhuman sense of rectitude.” (Elsewhere, Elon comments shrewdly on the persistent strain of moralism in Israeli political thinking and Israeli public discourse, a moralism that would seem to be a direct and abiding result of that “inhuman rectitude” of the Founders.) Elon is keenly aware that not all that issues in ideology is ideological in origin. Using the memoirs and letters of the Founders as evidence, he argues convincingly that there was a large component of pure filial rebellion in the Zionism of the early settlers, a desire to break away from East-European fathers and the oppressive values of hearth and home for a life of adventure in exotic climes, of footloose (or even barefoot) freedom in a bohemian style that has something in common with later youth rebellions elsewhere.

In another direction, where we still tend to perpetuate the stereotype of the joyful pioneer, indefatigably draining swamps through the day, dancing an exuberant hora half the night, Elon uncovers a vein of bleak fanaticism, even of despair, in the halutz movement. His evocation of Bittania, an extremist commune of Hashomer Hatzair founded in the early 20’s, is a haunting case in point. Bittania was later described by one of its members who had broken away as a “monastic order without God.” Each evening, intense discussion-sessions were held lasting from three to six hours, which included a half-hour of silent meditation, castigations of members for their moral failings, insistent exhortations to true utopian consciousness, confessions by couples of the details of their sex lives and their struggle to separate sex from the hedonistic snares of bourgeois privatism. It is hardly surprising that some of the members of Bittania should have expressed death-wishes in their public confessions, or that one comrade in fact shot himself, a copy of The Brothers Karamazov by his side.



A book devised solely to explode old Zionist myths would offer a facile and finally superficial account of its subject. One of the most impressive qualities of The Israelis is Elon’s ability to see the greatness in Zionist madness, the large historical necessity in Zionism’s tragic failures of perception. Thus, he documents with unswerving rigor the inability of the Zionist Founders—from Herzl and Nordau to the Ben-Gurion of the Mandatory era—first, simply to take in the fact that Palestine really had several hundred thousand Arab inhabitants, then, to imagine concretely that these Arabs could have powerful national aspirations of their own. (With a characteristic eye for the telling detail, Elon notes that in 1881, the very year when Pinsker composed his Auto-Emancipation and when members of the “Lovers of Zion” movement in Russia were writing of Palestine as a “wasteland,” Arab nationalists in Beirut and Damascus were circulating clandestine pamphlets calling for Arab independence in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.) Nothing could be cheaper than the quick condemnation of this crucial Zionist blindness on the strength of historical hindsight. Elon’s empathetic imagination, however, leads to a fine understanding that for a late-19th-century European—and classical Zionism was a profoundly European movement—any other perception of this unknown extra-European terrain was scarcely possible. The final balance Elon draws of the Founders’ failure to see the Arabs before their eyes is a model of humane, historically realistic judgment: “The Zionist leaders were frightened men seized by the vision of a world that could be both better and infinitely worse. An almost uncanny clarity of vision in one field—the coming apocalypse in Europe—came at the price of myopia in another. Like most visionaries their eyes were hung with monumental blinkers.”

The same fullness of moral imagination informs Elon’s account of the Israeli character and the present predicament of Israel. He is unhesitantly candid in his frequent comments on the real injustices suffered by Palestinian Arabs through the mere fact of Israel’s existence, but, eschewing the currently popular gratifications of self-flagellating political moralism, he firmly observes that “it is easier to evaluate the injustice suffered by the Arabs than it is to devise means of correction that would not only be acceptable to Arabs but would also preclude an even greater human tragedy.” The leading emphasis in his description of Israeli society involves, not surprisingly, a repeated calculation of the “price” of Zionism. He argues persuasively that the consciousness of the Holocaust—and, perhaps, the apprehension of future Holocausts—exerts a decisive influence on Israeli character. He observes the importance of rites of mourning, both individual and collective, as a central means for the achievement of a sense of national identity in Israel. He contends that there is a quality of “latent hysteria in Israeli life”—perhaps this might offer the real key to the insane driving habits of most Israelis?—directly connected with the Holocaust.

Less speculatively, Elon pointedly characterizes the Israeli’s image of himself in the contemporary world as “a picture of utter loneliness,” again because of the bitter experience of the Nazi years, in an eerie way confirmed by the long military and diplomatic encirclement that has followed. In regard to the state of siege, he notes the profound distaste for militarism that persists in Israeli society but offers some sobering reflections on the unpredictable effects of a long-term exposure to physical danger and the continuing exercise of armed violence. Elon’s moral seriousness naturally leads him to give special weight to the worrisome aspects of the Israeli condition, sometimes perhaps at the cost of skimping data that may be honestly encouraging. Thus, four monitory pages are devoted to the portrait of Meir Har-Zion, a Jew turned hardened killer through his service in the Israeli army, while only passing mention is made of the generally extraordinary record of humane restraint—certainly in comparison with other armies—of Israeli fighting men, or of the manifestation of pacifist consciousness within the army itself. In any case, this is no sin of omission but merely a matter of emphasis, and Elon is surely right in preferring occasionally to risk the quaver of a Cassandra-note in order to avoid the danger of sounding like a voice from the local chamber of commerce.



Politically, culturally, historically, The Israelis is a ruthlessly realistic book, but it is by no means a grim one, because Elon sees his subject in all the richness of its contradictions and uses a lively wit of analysis to convey his perceptions. The wit serves to bring many incidental details into sharp focus, like the characterization of Davar, the Mapai daily newspaper, as “a curious mixture of early Pravda and old-style Quakerism,” or the contention that “gevaltism2 is the chief quality of the Israeli press in general. On a larger scale, his witty sense of illustration and comparison becomes an ideal instrument for a full description of Israeli society. It is hard to think of another society that is such an improbable, outrageous, yet coherent patchwork of disparities, and no writer has seen this more clearly nor conveyed it more vividly than Elon. Israel, he observes near the end of his study, is both intensely “future oriented” and uniquely committed to the memory of the past, like someone “racing ahead with his eyes turned back in a gaze transfixed by a landscape that constantly recedes into the distance.” The new nation, he goes on to say, “is also badly orchestrated, like a band simultaneously playing an old Hasidic tune, a Wagnerian march, the ‘Internationale,’ and an atonal symphony by Schoenberg.” It is the chief virtue of Amos Elon as a commentator that he can attend acutely to the separate and disparate strains, duly note the atrocious orchestration, yet never lose a sense for the peculiar strength and liveliness of the ensemble.




1 The second wave of pioneers to Palestine—the first was the Bilu movement of the 1880's—which started in 1905, in the wake of the abortive October revolution in Russia and the subsequent pogroms, and which lasted until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

2 From gevalt, the Yiddish expletive denoting a cry for help and suggesting the Israeli penchant for, as Elon puts it, “pessimistic prophesy.”

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