Commentary Magazine

Zionism Revisited: The Historic Enterprise

Though a voluminous literature exists by now on the Zionist movement, it is one that has plainly generated a good deal more heat than light. Good, bad, or indifferent, few of the hundreds of books that have been written about Zionism to date have been free of the polemical tone—surely a sign that the subject is still too much with us to encourage disinterested inquiry. Indeed, the very nature of the material has for the most part rendered it inaccessible to professional historians who do not tend by their origins to be partisans to the debate. It is impossible to write about Zionism in any depth without a knowledge of modern Hebrew and Jewish history, a desideratum that tends to exclude all but the more Jewishly-minded of Jewish scholars, just as one cannot really deal with the Palestine question without a similar grounding in the Arab world. Furthermore, while the number of serious historians who are at home in both of these relatively exotic areas is small to begin with, and most of these are Israelis, even in Israel, where some excellent studies have been written on various aspects of the Zionist experience and of Arab resistance to it, a serious overall history of the Zionist movement from its 19th-century inceptions to its culmination in the establishment of the State of Israel has yet to be attempted. It would be superfluous to insist, therefore, that Walter Laqueur's A History of Zionism1 is the best work of its kind to be written so far, inasmuch as it is also the first. Yet such are its virtues of comprehensiveness, readability, and common sense that one may safely predict that it will continue to be a basic text in its field long after it has been joined by rivals as ambitious as itself.

Professor Laqueur too, of course, has a “background,” one which he does not hesitate to admit may have ultimately predisposed him toward his subject. A German Jew by birth who came to Palestine as a young refugee from Nazism in 1938 and is currently director of the Institute of Contemporary History in London and professor of contemporary history at the University of Tel Aviv, Laqueur holds an attitude toward the Zionist phenomenon which is not, as he puts it, one of “Olympian impartiality,” but of unconcealed, if often critical, sympathy. Even the confirmed anti-Zionist reader, however, should be able to agree with Laqueur's opening statement that his book “is, I believe, a truthful account in the sense that I have not knowingly suppressed historical evidence and that I have tried to discuss dispassionately views which are not my own and which I deplore.” A History of Zionism does have a point of view, which comes closest perhaps to identifying with the moderate, cautious, and always humane politics of Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader whom one senses the author most admires. Yet this never obtrudes on its ability to consider the other side of the question, whether this be the anti-Weizmannian militancy of a Jabotinsky or the violent anti-Zionism of the Jerusalem Mufti. Indeed, it is above all in his discussion of the Arab-Jewish conflict that Laqueur writes with a most commendable empathy for both sides. “Arab intransigence,” he observes in the ninth of thirteen “Theses on Zionism” that constitute a kind of epilogue to the volume, “was the natural reaction of a people unwilling to share its country with another.” How simple, how true—and yet how difficult to accept to this day for so many friends of Israel who believe that affirming the Zionist claim to Palestine necessarily means casting the Arabs in the role of refractory villains who were simply too wicked, or stubborn, or blind to their own interests, or even anti-Semitic, to sit down in good time and work out a reasonable settlement with the Jews.


It is likely in tact that as historians of the future come to write about the Palestine question with increased detachment, they will more and more tend to the conclusion that if a reasonable settlement was not reached, this was less because of Arab or Jewish refusal to compromise than because such a settlement was never possible in the first place given a conflict which saw two peoples fighting for possession of the same piece of land. In this regard, “extremists” like the Mufti or Jabotinsky may simply have been more clear-sighted to begin with than “moderates” like Weizmann or Feisal. This has never been, of course, the “official” Zionist position, nor is it that of Laqueur, who writes: “The Arab thesis of inevitable Zionist expansion is a case of self-fulfilling prophecy: the Arabs did everything in their power to make this prophecy come true by choosing the road of armed resistance—and losing.” Yet the assumption that, had the Arabs settled for three-quarters, or even half, of the Palestinian cake when it was offered them, they would still be in possession of it today, seems to me a dubious one. “Had the Arabs accepted the Peel Plan in 1937,” Laqueur writes, “the Jewish state would have been restricted to the coastal plain between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Had they not rejected the UN partition of 1947, most of Palestine would still have remained in their hands.” In light of the subsequent history of the region, however, does it not seem more probable that even if the 1947 partition plan had somehow been put into effect, to say nothing of the Peel Commission's implausible recommendations a decade earlier, the borders imposed would in any case have been redrawn by an eventual Arab-Israeli war?

It is difficult, to say the least, to imagine the State of Israel as we know it existing today within the three barely-touching patches of Palestine allotted to it by the 1947 UN partition map rather than desperately trying to break out of them at some point. This does not mean that men like Weizmann or Ben-Gurion were being hypocritical when they offered to accept partition in 1947 and urged the Arabs to do the same, for they undoubtedly thought that they were getting the best bargain that they could under the circumstances (although in private Ben-Gurion, at least, refused to rule out the possibility of expansion at some future date). It is easier to compromise, after all, over what one doesn't already possess. By the same token, the identical Israeli leadership that would have been sincerely ready to sign a peace treaty in May 1967 based on the 1949 armistice lines was unanimous in rejecting such a settlement a few months later—which is not necessarily proof, however, that the Six-Day War or its equivalent was ultimately avoidable. Our perspective on such questions tends to be a function of time. It is already possible for us to view the 1948 Arab-Israeli war as tragically preordained in a way that the 1967 fighting cannot be. The latter rather appears to us a product of well-remembered contingencies: what would have happened, we ask, had not Russian intelligence fed the Egyptians false reports in May 1967 concerning a purported Israeli troop build-up near Syria; had not U Thant precipitously withdrawn the UN peacekeeping force from the Sinai; had Nasser not announced the closing of the Straits of Tiran? Yet to historians of the future, such questions may seem largely irrelevant. The 1967 war, they may decide, broke out because it had to, that is, because the results of the 1948-49 fighting were by their very nature so unstable that they were sooner or later bound to lead to another round.

Of course, they may be wrong about this, and we, as recent “eyewitnesses,” may be right in our sense that there was a great deal of meaningless accident about what happened in 1967. Distance may be a great clarifier, but the clarity it offers can easily be that of an illusion. This of course is the historical theme of Tolstoy's War and Peace, which portrays the infantryman in battle who sees nothing but blind chaos around him as being closer to the truth than the generals, who perceive what is happening at a sufficient remove to be able to resolve it into a pattern that seems to them comprehensible and even in a sense inescapable. One can view any part of the past deterministically or not, and perhaps every historian must adopt one or the other basic attitude toward his material before sitting down to write. Laqueur tries to keep his History of Zionism away from such metaphysical shoals—“This study is not,” he writes in the preface, “an exercise in the philosophy of history”—but on the whole it is clear that he takes a “contingencist” view. Though Zionism, as he sees it, was perhaps an inevitable response among a certain sector of the Jewish people to a number of modern trends and developments, there was nothing inevitable about its final success. On the contrary, without the intervention of certain “chance” events—“chance” in the sense that there was nothing foreseeable or inherent about them in the dynamic of Zionism itself—the Zionist movement, Laqueur intimates, might have never developed real strength, and would certainly not have achieved its goal of a Jewish state.


Of such events, Laqueur singles out three for special attention, making each a central strand of his narrative: the career of Herzl, the Balfour Declaration, and the Nazi destruction of European Jewry. Each of these, he argues, was in its own way an indispensable condition for Zionism's success; moreover, the Zionist cause would have been struck a mortal blow had each not occurred exactly when it did, for “Being a latecomer among the national movements, Zionism was from the very beginning a movement in a hurry, forever racing against time.” There can be no quarrel with this last statement, nor with the proposition that Herzl, the Balfour Declaration, and the Holocaust must indeed be assigned a central place in any responsible history of Zionism. And yet, I should like to play the devil's advocate here and ask if any of these events was indeed the necessary ingredient of Zionism's success that Laqueur assumes it to have been, and whether the processes leading to the creation of a Jewish state were not perhaps more historically “determined” than his study suggests.

Herzl, certainly, was a far more ambiguous figure in the history of the Zionist movement than Laqueur or most other writers have allowed. Laqueur, for instance, writes, “But for him, Zionism would have remained a movement of fairly narrow appeal, aiming at a cultural renaissance which incidentally also engaged in philanthropic-colonizing activities. Herzl transformed a mood into a political movement and put it on the European map. . . . Through his efforts a tremendous uplift was given to the self-confidence of hundreds of thousands of Jews in Eastern Europe who could not be integrated into their countries of origin. . . .” Yet it would probably be truer to say that without the Jews of Eastern Europe, many of whom were already Zionists when Herzl was still writing comedies for the Viennese stage, and many more of whom were sociologically and psychologically ripe for Zionism in any case, Herzl himself would be remembered as little more than the celebrated crank most Central and Western European Jewish intellectuals assumed him to be when he published his Die Judenstaat in 1896. East-European Jewry was Herzl's one ready-made constituency, but it was not a constituency without gifted Zionist leaders of its own, men like Weizmann, Sokolow, Ussishkin, and Jabotinsky, all of whom, it must be said, Laqueur deals with fairly and at length. Such men, for the most part, were Zionists before they had ever heard of Herzl, fought him tooth-and-nail at the early Zionist Congresses (particularly at the famous sixth one in 1903, which Herzl nearly wrecked trying to carry his Uganda resolution), and naturally assumed leadership of the movement after his death. They did not have Herzl's glamor, to be sure, which admittedly fired the imagination of many a shtetl Jew, but neither did they have his megalomania, his aristocratic pretensions, his admiration for imperialism, his impatience with careful organizational work among the Jewish masses, his lack of real roots in Jewish culture or tradition, his unrealistic sense of how political decisions are made.

If there was something romantically grand about the figure that Herzl cut there was also something faintly ridiculous about it, and it is more than likely that had he not died prematurely at the age of forty-four, he would have become an increasing embarrassment and hindrance to the movement that he headed. How would the history of Zionism have differed had he never became a Zionist at all? I would suggest, at least, that the answer may be: very little. Perhaps the speedy internationalization of the movement—prior to Herzl it was confined almost entirely to the Jews of the Russian Empire—might have been retarded but there is no reason to suppose that it would have been indefinitely postponed. It was Weizmann, after all, who first won, in the form of the Balfour Declaration and the League of Nations Mandate, the international charter for Zionism that had been Herzl's great dream, and Weizmann would have existed even if Herzl had not.


We come, then, to the Balfour Declaration, which arrived, Laqueur writes, “at the last possible moment,” meaning, I suppose, that if the Zionist claim to Palestine had not been recognized first by the British in 1917 and later by the Versailles Peace Conference in 1921, the chances for such recognition would have been permanently lost. Supposing this to be the case, however: does it follow that the chances of Zionism itself would have been lost as well? Again let me suggest an answer in the negative. The truly urgent need of the Zionist movement at the commencement of the Palestine Mandate was not formal recognition so much as the guaranteed right of unrestricted immigration and colonization, which had been severely curtailed by the Turks, and there would have been strong pressures on the British to grant this even without an official declaration of intent. Indeed, the case can be made that in the early 1920's it was in Great Britain's imperial interest as conceived by the British themselves to welcome Jewish immigration to Palestine, which among other things facilitated the tactics of divide-and-rule on which the British colonial administration was based: a Palestine without Jewish settlement would have been one without a Jewish-Arab conflict, but it would also have been one in which Arab demands for independence would have arisen far sooner and been far more difficult to reject. In any case, it is far from obvious that the Balfour Declaration was particularly effective either in encouraging Jews to settle in Palestine or in safeguarding Zionist rights there. The Declaration may have been received euphorically by Jews all over the world, but Laqueur himself points out that only 30,000 of them chose to immigrate to Palestine in the first five years after it was issued—barely double the amount that came during the last five years of pre-war Turkish rule, when conditions in the country were incomparably more difficult. (Immigration picked up significantly only in 1924, possibly as a result of the new immigration restrictions passed that year in the United States.) On the other hand, the period of the 1930's, during which worsening conditions in Europe made Palestine an increasingly crucial haven for Jews, was precisely the time that the British chose to renege on their commitments to Zionism, a process that culminated in the 1939 White Paper, which effectively put an end to both immigration and colonization in one stroke. Clearly the British made use of the Balfour Declaration when it suited them and ignored it when it did not, and would in all likelihood have followed much the same policies in its absence. Is this to say that the Declaration was of no service to Zionism at all? Obviously not; but it is to suggest that neither was it necessarily a sine qua non of the movement's success.


Finally, we come to the painful subject of the Holocaust—and it is here that I feel most compelled to take issue with Laqueur for his espousal of a thesis which in its more benign form has become an accepted axiom today even among pro-Zionists, and in a more malignant manifestation has led to such vicious distortions of history as the current Soviet calumny that Zionism and Nazism were conscious wartime allies. “The birth of the Jewish state,” Laqueur writes, “was the fulfilment of the Zionist dream. But it had taken the destruction of European Jewry to realize this aim. Zionism had not been able to prevent the catastrophe. On the contrary, the state owed its existence to the disaster.” But did it really? Laqueur explains that the Holocaust made the creation of Israel possible both by creating a Jewish refugee problem in Europe that put pressure upon the world powers to open the gates of Palestine to the survivors of the death camps, and by enabling the Zionist leadership to play upon widespread feelings of sympathy and guilt in order to mobilize world public opinion in favor of a Jewish state. The argument concerning the refugees seems to me fundamentally misleading. True, World War II did leave in its wake several hundred thousand displaced Jews, a large number of whom wished to go to Palestine. Yet let us undertake a simple exercise of the historical imagination and ask ourselves what the situation of European Jewry would have been had the Second World War been commenced, fought, and terminated exactly as it was with only one exception, namely, that the Nazi regime had not been insanely anti-Semitic and that the Final Solution had not been carried out. The answer seems clear: instead of several hundred thousand dislocated Jews at the war's end, many of them knocking on the doors of Palestine, there might well have been several million.

One must remember, after all, that the large Jewish communities devastated most completely by the Nazis, those of Poland, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and to a lesser extent, Rumania, were precisely the least assimilated and the most rooted in Jewish tradition, the most affected by economic hardship and indigenous anti-Semitism even before the war, and the ones in which the Zionist movement had traditionally had its greatest strength. Even without the death camps, many of these Jews would have been uprooted and made destitute by the war itself, by local pogroms, and by the postwar Communist takeover, which economically liquidated the classes to which they largely belonged. To a good percentage of them, Palestine would have seemed not only the most desirable, but the only possible solution. Can it really be argued that Zionism emerged from the war in a stronger position because several million of its potentially most committed adherents were dead rather than alive? I think not.

As for world public opinion, it undoubtedly did play a role in abetting the creation of Israel, yet even in the late 1940's the plight of European Jewry was hardly a “gut issue” among large blocs of voters in the democratic world—with the exception, that is, of the Jews of America, who might have been counted on to be pro-Zionist without the Holocaust too. Of the five major powers asked to vote on the establishment of a Jewish state in the General Assembly in November 1947, Britain and China abstained, the Soviet Union voted yes for reasons of foreign policy which had nothing to do with pro-Jewish sentiment, and only France and the United States were conceivably swayed by considerations of public opinion at all. Public opinion did not influence any major power to come to Israel's aid after it was attacked by the Arab states in May 1948, nor is it evident in what way history would have been changed had the United Nations never voted for partition at all. The British would in all likelihood still have withdrawn from Palestine, the Arab-Jewish war would still have broken out, and the State of Israel would still have been established within roughly the same boundaries that it occupied until 1967. True, a Jewish state without United Nations sanction might have, as Laqueur says, “come into existence . . . under very inauspicious circumstances,” but what of it? The UN as a resolution-passing body has been almost unremittingly hostile toward Israel since the mid-1950's without this preventing the Israeli government from effectively asserting its legitimacy or conducting normal diplomatic relations with most of the world. Presumably Israel could have survived such an attitude had it begun several years earlier too.

I do not raise these objections in a spirit of dogmatic certainty, or to detract in any way from the excellence of Professor Laqueur's book, but simply to propose that there is an alternative reading of Zionist history to the one he provides. Such a reading would be more concerned with the question of continuity between Zionist feeling and thought and the 19th-century modernist crisis in the religious and intellectual life of East-European Jewry; it would seek to examine more deeply the forces that made Zionists out of some Jews and non- or anti-Zionists out of others; and it would emphasize Zionist politics less and the social processes underlying them more. In a sense it would also take more seriously the Zionists' own analysis of the modern Jewish condition, and ask whether, despite their myths and their many simplifications, the Zionists may have succeeded not because they were “lucky,” or because history took an unexpected turn in their direction, but because they were essentially right. I do not mean by this that their success was any more “inevitable” than Laqueur assumes it to have been (it is possible, after all, to be right and fail miserably too), but rather that it was determined by the same objective historical factors—anti-Semitism (particularly in its secular, nationalist form) and Jewish economic vulnerability, on the negative side, and Jewish nationalism and the sheer will for group survival, on the positive—that Zionism had counted on all along. It is indeed one of Zionism's peculiarities that while it cannot boast among its followers a single outstanding intellectual theoretician of the type produced by so many other contemporary social and political “isms” (an indication perhaps that it is not really an ideological “ism” at all), its basic predictions concerning the fate of the Jewish people in our time have turned out to be far more accurate than those of any of its numerous detractors. There is still a book to be written about why this should have been so.


1 Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 640 pp., $10.00.

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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