Commentary Magazine

The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader, edited by Arthur Hertzberg

Jewish Nationalism
The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader.
by Arthur Hertzberg.
Doubleday and Herzl Press. 638 pp. $7.50.


Nothing fails like success. The old Zionist activists are mostly apathetic or splenetic, the old theorists mostly silent. Was it dissatisfaction with the present and a desire to recall past glories that prompted the Zionist cultural enterprises in this country to publish a source book of Zionist thought? Whatever the reason, the result is a good reader preceded by a first-rate intellectual history, Rabbi Hertzberg’s long introduction.

It was not an easy history to write. As Rabbi Hertzberg says, for the general historian Zionism is too Jewish and for the Jewish historian too general. Zionism also was different things to different men, offering different satisfactions for different needs. From the points of view of Jewish status and identity, Zionism was revolutionary and conservative—messianic and defensive, in Rabbi Hertzberg’s language—in varying proportions, among varying groups, at various times. Much of the impulse for the revolutionary deeds and words of one group of Zionists, like Mr. Ben Gurion’s generation, might come from rejection of the tradition, but on another group those deeds and words could have the conservative effect of strengthening Jewish pride and slowing the flight from tradition. In short, Rabbi Hertzberg’s subject is slippery with paradox, subtlety, and dialectical inversion, but it is held firmly and we are shown what it is made of.

To know the body of thinking from which the specimens in this book were chosen, and to know modern history, general and Jewish, was not enough. Rabbi Hertzberg also had to know, or feel, how much the Emancipation and Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries marked a break with all preceding Jewish history. He had to know, or feel, how much the crisis brought about by that break was at bottom a crisis of religious faith. And he had to resist the temptation of preaching.

The only significant evidence of his religious outlook that he lets appear is a hint of malice in his treatment of Ahad Ha-am—the agnostic rabbi, as he calls him. He is enjoying himself when he exposes the weak foundations of a moralism, an appeal to the Spirit, and a doctrine of chosenness that are sundered from belief; and he goes perhaps a little too far in linking Ahad Ha-am’s thought with his class bias, representing him as a spokesman for the upper class of scholars and respectable householders against the common mass.

In this Rabbi Hertzberg cannot escape paradox himself, for while the intellectual attack of Ahad Ha-am has been revived in several quarters lately, Hertzberg’s own rabbinical tradition acknowledges a special debt to the agnostic rabbi—another paradox. In the end, however, Rabbi Hertzberg does not let his distaste stand in the way of recognizing an ironical triumph. Herzl’s Zionism was very different from Ahad Ha-am’s, yet Mr. Ben Gurion, a distinctly Herzliam type, has had to become a sort of latter-day Ahad Ha-am.

Herzl is not let off more easily in substance, even if he is (treated more gently in manner. Rabbi Hertzberg clearly admires Herzl for his vision, his temperament, his aristocratic liberalism. He understands how a rational and liberal man of Herzl’s time and place could “understand” anti-Semitism so well that he could negotiate with the Czar’s minister. But in the end, he says, Herzl’s Zionism, so far from being too pessimistic about the future of the Jews in Europe, was too optimistic. Herzl had faith in rational self-interest, which he thought would persuade both the government and the Jews of a land like anti-Semitic Russia to cooperate in Zionism as a solution equally advantageous for both. He could not imagine the anti-Semitism of a Hitler.

One of the most striking regularities that emerges from Rabbi Hertzberg’s history is that of disillusion leading to nationalism. In the early 1880’s the highly Russified Leo Pinsker was stirred not so much by the brute fact of the pogroms that followed Alexander II’s assassination as by the silence or approval or even participation of enlightened and educated Russians, including Populists. The result was his Auto-Emancipation, of which Herzl was to say that if he had read it he would not have felt it necessary to write his own Judenstaat. Herzl himself, the good European, was transformed by the Dreyfus case. Rabbi Hertzberg does not stress it, but much the same sort of thing happened after the Kishinev pogroms in 1903, which many Russian radicals welcomed as a wholesome sign that the peasants were at last expressing their discontent in action. A Jewish radical in America spoke bitterly of the “nationalist epidemic” that followed, and another later wrote that with Kishinev his own “previous cosmopolitanism, internationalism, and similar ideologies vanished at one blow.”

The regularity of disillusion leading to nationalism and Zionism’s victory over competing kinds of Jewish nationalism may account as much as direct evidence for the Israelis’ conviction that the great mass of Jews in the Soviet Union are longing to go to Israel. It is true that while Stalin’s pogrom was hot and Khrushchev’s is cold, Russian Jews remain disillusioned with egalitarian promises. It is also true that they seem to have arrived at a new Jewish self-awareness, though without religious or cultural content. But is it true that most of them long to go to Israel, or to emigrate at all? The Israelis are probably taking a wish for a fact, and they are probably also seeing reality ideologically.

Not so Rabbi Hertzberg. Without discussing the Soviet case at all, he knows a wish from a fact. He feels in his bones how much change there has been since the late 19th century, when power, civilization, and modernity were claimed and conceded as the property of European Christendom. He insists that what is characteristically modern in modern Jewish thought is the blending of messianic and defensive elements; he considers Zionism to be the most impressive example so far; he is certain that the future of Jewish thought is to continue blending messianism and defensiveness, in ever more complex ways; but he is careful not to call that future by the name of Zionism.



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