Commentary Magazine

The Jewish State by Yoram Hazony

The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul
by Yoram Hazony
Basic. 433 pp. $28.00

Yoram Hazony is the young, American-born director of the Shalem Center, a neoconservative think tank in Jerusalem. He is also a trenchant critic of the post-Zionist—or, as he would call it, anti-Zionist—tendency in Israeli cultural and intellectual life, which holds that Israel is now “mature” enough to acknowledge its many sins against the Arabs, jettison its specifically Jewish baggage, and become a multicultural “state of all its citizens.” That such a contention is, at best, premature, and that it is in fact seriously endangering Israel’s ability to resist its would-be destroyers, is something Hazony has argued cogently and passionately both in his institute’s publication, Azure, and in a number of American magazines, including COMMENTARY. In the Israeli context, his is an important voice that deserves to be heard.

In this very timely book, Hazony now aims to deepen his critique of post-Zionism by focusing essentially on one point: namely, that the post-(or anti-) Zionist understanding of Israel derives not solely from currents outside of, or formally opposed to, traditional Zionist discourse. Rather, it stems in large measure from strains of that discourse that have been a Trojan horse within Zionism itself. The point is a serious one, and it is seriously argued, though in developing it with singleminded intensity Hazony ignores the vantage of other points that are equally serious if not more so.



The Jewish State has a circular structure. It begins with a survey (divided into sections called “Literature,” “The Arts,” “Education,” “Foreign Affairs,” and so forth) of contemporary Israeli intellectual life, which Hazony views as a disaster zone, an environment controlled by “a tight-packed and intellectually monochromatic herd whose cynicism with regard to the idea of the Jewish state has been a fixture for decades.” Indeed, these “establishment figures,” he writes, are knowingly and deliberately “paving the way to the ruin of everything [Theodor] Herzl and other leading Zionists sought to achieve [and] pushing us toward the dismantling of Israel’s character as the Jewish state.”

Next, moving back a century, Hazony sets out to trace the history of Zionist thought from Herzl to the present. His version of this history has two heroes and one villain. The heroes are Herzl, the author of the original The Jewish State (1896), and David Ben-Gurion—both Zionist leaders who grasped the need for a distinctively Jewish homeland for the Jewish people and for the resolute forging and wielding of the diplomatic and, if necessary, the military power required to attain it.

The villain is Martin Buber, the renowned German-Jewish philosopher and theologian who worked closely with Herzl for a brief period as a young man before breaking with him but remaining identified with the Zionist movement. As the most intellectually prestigious spokesman for a school of Zionism that harshly criticized Herzl and Ben-Gurion’s realpolitik in the name of a universal, “prophetic” morality, and that condemned as “un-Jewish” all use of coercive force against the Arabs even if this meant renouncing hope for a Jewish state, Buber more than anyone (Hazony argues) laid the intellectual groundwork for the sense of guilt about Israel’s past, and the denial of its right to a particularistic future, that are post-Zionism’s hallmarks.

Finally, having circled back to the contemporary scene, Hazony ends with a brief epilogue. This concludes:

The Jewish state is undergoing a cultural disintegration, the result of decades of neglect and hostility at the hands of its own intellectual and cultural leadership. If we wish for the Jewish state to end otherwise than did the Soviet Union, then we must turn our attention back to the motivating idea that has grown faint and unintelligible.

Only an idea can move a people. But an idea can move a people—and this means that the present, difficult circumstances of the Jewish state may be altered by the same kind of effort that originally brought them about.



These are strong words to apply to Israel’s situation—and, alas, partially true. Although “disintegration” exaggerates a complex reality that is neither monolithic nor herdlike, Hazony’s anxiety is no mere hypochondria. The idea of a Jewish state is in bad trouble today, and it is most in trouble, as he powerfully shows, among the state’s wealthiest and best-educated classes. Nor is the invidious comparison with the Soviet Union so far-fetched. Soviet Russia is indeed an instructive example (South Africa is another) of how unexpectedly quickly a country under severe pressure can collapse once its top echelons lose faith in it. The fact that Israel’s cause is a good one may not matter on the day Israelis cease to believe in it.

But Hazony is too caught up in his own analysis to ask how true it all is. Is it really the case, for example, that “only an idea can move a people”? Peoples, after all, are moved by many things, among them social codes, cultural attitudes, moral values, communal ties, and economic interests and opportunities. One need not be a Marxist or an anti-intellectual to acknowledge that ideas reflect realities as well as create them, and in any case are only part of what determines a nation’s fate. An economically prosperous Israel at peace with its neighbors and without a large and hostile Arab minority in its midst—admittedly, a prospect not in the offing at the moment—could get along without much of a guiding idea at all.

In fact, were Hazony himself entirely consistent about the primacy of ideas, he would have picked as his second Zionist hero not Ben-Gurion but Ben-Gurion’s great political rival, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, who is hardly mentioned in this book. Not only was Jabotinsky the more serious intellectual of the two, it was his ideas about the inevitability of a military confrontation with the Arabs, the need for a pro-Western orientation, the importance of democratic institutions, the promotion of national over class interests, and the advancement of a free-market economy that the originally socialist but pragmatic Ben-Gurion came to adopt. Hazony’s choice of Ben-Gurion is itself pragmatic, made partly to advance his historical narrative (Jabotinsky died a decade before the establishment of the state that Ben-Gurion headed for fifteen years), and partly to seize the high ground in a polemic against an Israeli Left to which Ben-Gurion, at least in a formal sense, belonged.



As for the choice of Buber as Ben-Gurion’s chief foil, that seems at first glance less logical. A relatively marginal figure in the Zionist movement after 1910 or so, Buber did not move to Palestine until 1938 and, apart from a small circle at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he taught, remained an isolated figure until his death in 1965, viewed by Israeli intellectuals as a diasporic anachronism even as his renown spread in Europe and America. The two Palestinian/Israeli political organizations in which he was active, Brith Shalom and Ihud, never numbered more than a few hundred active adherents. How justify considering him the foundation stone of post-Zionism?

Here, however, Hazony is true to his belief in the seminal power of ideas. Although Buber’s contribution to Palestinian/Israeli intellectual life may have seemed outwardly slight, it was, Hazony claims, cumulatively enormous; for as a political ally of Judah Magnes, the first president of the Hebrew University, and later as a faculty member, Buber set that institution’s tone and influenced several generations of its students who went on to form their country’s elite. True, from the 1930’s through the 1950’s, this elite supported Ben-Gurion’s Zionist activism and not the views of Buber and his associates; but on an unconscious level (Hazony holds) it assimilated those views, and when the political tide turned against Ben-Gurion in the 1960’s, culminating in the scandal known as the Lavon affair that led to his resignation, they surfaced in prominent places. It was thus Buber—himself heavily influenced as a young man by the neo-Kantdan philosopher Hermann Cohen, a sharp anti-Zionist and critic of Herzl—who was the historical conduit by which fundamentally anti-Zionist presuppositions were smuggled into the mainstream of Israeli life.

Even for someone as unadmiring of Buber as myself, the well-documented case made against him in Hazony’s book is surprisingly damning. Episode by episode, quotation by quotation, Hazony puts together a portrait of a man so deeply hostile to the Zionist struggle for Jewish empowerment that his alleged “Zionism” seems an exercise in hypocrisy When one reads of Buber, speaking to the Twelfth Zionist Congress in 1921, at a time when the first outbreaks of anti-Zionist Arab violence in Palestine had claimed dozens of Jewish lives, accusing the Zionist movement of “power hysteria” for calling on Great Britain to implement the Balfour Declaration, the analogy with post-Zionist attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict clamors to be recognized.

But does this mean not only that the intellectual line from Buber and his followers to post-Zionism is a direct one but also—for this is the crux of Hazony’s argument—that post-Zionism owes its existence to such a chain of transmission and would not have developed in its current form without it? Here Hazony is on shaky ground, both as a historian and as an observer of contemporary Israel.



For one thing, his account of the Hebrew University and its politics is badly skewed. It is true that, under Magnes, the university was a hotbed of “Buberian” Zionists—professors like Hugo Bergmann, Gershom Scholem, Richard Koebner, Ernst Simon, and Hans Kohn, most of them German Jews, who despised Ben-Gurion, were opposed to an aggressive Jewish majoritization of Palestine, and favored a binational Jewish-Arab state. But to maintain, as Hazony does, that this group was the university and controlled its curriculum and appointments throughout the British Mandate years is simply false.

Although unmentioned by him, numerous pro-Ben-Gurion and even right-wing Zionists taught at the Hebrew University in these years, too: noted scholars such as Avigdor Tcherikover, Harry Torczyner, Benjamin Mazar, Ben-Zion Dinur, Mo-she David Cassuto, Jacob Nahum Epstein, Simha Assaf, Samuel Klein, Gedalyah Alon, Joseph Klausner, and others. In fact, in the one open showdown between the two camps, an acrimonious debate in 1927-28 over the proposed establishment of a university chair in Yiddish, the pro-Yiddish “Buberians” were soundly defeated by the militant Hebraists led by the fervently pro-Jabotinsky Klausner. If the Hebrew University had such influence over Israel’s subsequent elites, why, it must be asked, should the Scholems, Bergmanns, and Simons have wielded more of it than the Klausners, Mazars, and Dinurs? The answer may be that they did not: in an excellent recent article in the New Republic, Hazony himself mentions Dinur’s enormous influence on several decades of Israeli education.

Hazony’s account of the Lavon affair, which he views as a historic turning point that pitted a losing Ben-Gurion against a winning coalition of left-wing intellectuals, Hebrew University professors, and dovish Labor-party leaders, is similarly unbalanced. (Pinchas Lavon was a former minister of defense who in 1960 claimed to have been unfairly accused by Ben-Gurion of ordering a badly conceived Israeli intelligence operation in Cairo in 1954.) Although the anti-Ben-Gurion Left was happy to support Lavon for its own reasons, the decisive opposition to the prime minister came from his own Labor-party bosses—figures like Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, whose background and views were identical with his own. (Not only that, one of the few members of his cabinet to take his side was its greatest dove, Abba Eban.) Nor was Ben-Gurion forced out of the premiership by anyone but himself; his resignation was something that the political establishment of the day neither sought nor expected. Although the Lavon affair indeed spelled the end of the Ben-Gurion era, it was more about power politics than about the legitimacy of Jewish power.

Why, then, does Hazony insist on putting it at the center of his narrative? For two reasons, I suspect. One is that old bane of creative minds, the desire to be original. The conventional wisdom has it that it was the Six-Day war of 1967 that first brought post-Zionism out of the closet, as a reaction to the Israeli occupation and settlement of conquered territory: if so, here is a book that will show that it emerged earlier. (Indeed it did, in the “Canaanite” literary movement of the 1950’s and in earlier Hebrew writers like Yonatan Ratosh—but this had nothing to do with Buber or Lavon.) More to the point, Hazony, it strikes me, chooses to dismiss the war and its consequences, which are totally overlooked by him in this book, for the same tactical reason that he overlooks Jabotinsky—that is, because, as a religiously observant Jew and a West Bank settler himself, he does not wish to be perceived as writing from a position of political partisanship. Though understandable, this is fatal to a full treatment of his subject.



It can be maintained, of course, that even without the watershed of the Six-Day war, the inner dialectic of Israeli culture would have produced a post-Zionist antithesis to the Zionist thesis. Still, the cumulative changes wrought by this war were so momentous that challenging the conventional wisdom about them is a sterile pursuit.

The years after 1967 engendered a national debate that made a sizable section of the Israeli public wonder, for the first time, if it had justice on its side in its conflict with the Arabs. That debate polarized the country politically as it had not been polarized since the Irgun-Haganah split of the mid-1940’s and, by passing the mantle of Zionist activism to the Right, promoted the questioning of Zionist premises on the Left. The same years brought secular-religious tensions to new heights and saw them aligned with political ones as never before. They led to a further series of bloody confrontations—PLO terror, the Yom Kippur war of 1973, the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the intifada—that left much of the country bitterly weary of fighting and resentful of having to do so. They created an increasingly anti-Israel mood in the international community that caused Israelis—particularly the wealthier and better-educated ones who traveled the most—to feel angrily isolated and rejected. And they ultimately produced the 1993 Oslo accords, which first euphorically raised hopes for peace and then (many Israelis felt) dashed them against the rock of right-wing obduracy cloaked in Zionist slogans. To discuss post-Zionism independently of such developments is ethereal.

Furthermore, if one wishes to trace the source of the opposition to post-1967 policies that eventually led to the intellectual rejection of Zionism, there are more obvious places to look than Buber. This opposition started largely in the left-wing kibbutzim and their associated political movements, which were a far stronger element in Israeli life then than they are now, and whose intellectual roots go back not to neo-Kantdanism but to a European socialist and revolutionary tradition no less anti-Zionist than Hermann Cohen. It is worth recalling that, in the first Knesset elections in 1949, in which Buber’s Ihud was too small to bother running (it vanished shortly afterward), the self-declaredly Zionist but pro-Stalinist Mapam party, whose Hashomer Hatza’ir kibbutzim supported a binational state in British Mandate days just as Buber did, won nineteen seats or over 15 percent of the vote. Why dig for underground channels leading from the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus when a heavily-traveled highway was carrying the same freight?

Most remarkably of all, Hazony, in analyzing post-Zionism as a purely immanent development within the history of Zionism, neglects its international context. Surely it is not a coincidence that Zionism most flourished as an idea between 1900 and 1960, when nationalist and collectivist ideologies were highly popular with intellectuals in Europe and (to a lesser extent) the United States; that it went into a decline when these did; and that post-Zionism set in seriously in Israel at the same time that the tenets of deconstructionism and multiculturalism were being proclaimed throughout the West. This was not only natural, it was, ironically, consistent with the logic of Herzl, who foresaw a Jewish state creating the means for Jews to emulate, in an environment of their own, the most advanced features of Western society.

For Herzl, to be sure, this primarily meant modern technology and liberal democracy—but here, too, I am afraid, Hazony evades issues that should most concern him. As a neoconservative rooted in the American political tradition, with its classic doctrine of limited government, constitutional checks and balances, and maximum personal and economic freedom, he clearly wishes to see Israel take the political culture of America as its model (or so, at least, the publications of the Shalem Center would suggest). Yet how can an Israel strongly identified with that culture be expected to reject other aspects of contemporary America—its consumerism, its moral relativism, or its creed of personal fulfillment—that are part and parcel of post-Zionism, too? In many ways, indeed, post-Zionism is the Americanization of Israeli life.

Finally, let us suppose for the sake of argument that only an idea can move a people; what idea is Hazony proposing? His current book does not articulate it. What it does demonstrate, and demonstrate very well (if one takes Martin Buber more as a telling example than as the root of all evil), is how a hybrid Zionism—in Buber’s case, prophetic-morality-Zionism, although one could just as well speak of social-revolutionary-Zionism, asylum-for-the-persecuted-Zionism, or messianic-God-in-history-Zionism—will sooner or later fly apart into its originally discrete and possibly antagonistic elements. The only lasting Zionism is the unhyphenated kind that believes in a Jewish land for the Jewish people as an end in itself and not as a means to anything else.

This was Herzl’s view of the matter; it is also, I think, Hazony’s. Having now told us what he is against, he will, one hopes, take the next step and tell us what he is for. Given the Jewishly demoralized condition of Israel’s elites, not only would this be a highly salutary act in itself, it would also serve as a better test of whether the laudable mission he has taken on himself of reinvigorating Herzl’s Zionism is merely wishful thinking, or has a chance of success.


About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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