I first encountered the book as a high-school senior writing an essay about Zionism and later read it in full at Columbia University, where I was a student of Hertzberg’s before serving as his research and teaching assistant for several years. What I learned from him was that Zionism is a natural outgrowth of Judaism’s bifurcated quality as both a religion and a national identity. And there was no room for that national identity in post-Enlightenment Europe. As Comte de Clermont-Tonnere famously made clear in a speech to the French National Assembly in 1789, “the Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals.”
When Hertzberg published The Zionist Idea, Israel was barely a decade old. It was still a land of pioneers and socialist kibbutzim, and its newest immigrants were mostly survivors of the Holocaust and Jews fleeing North Africa. Israel had been tested in battle twice, first in its 1948 War of Independence and then in the Suez Crisis eight years later, and both times the nascent Israel Defense Forces had overcome U.S. arms embargoes to vanquish much larger foes. The American Jewish audience for whom Hertzberg was writing by and large romanticized the new Jewish state in terms that would become familiar to millions the following year with the successful screen adaptation of Leon Uris’s Exodus—with a blue-eyed 35-year-old Paul Newman the embodiment of every Israel-born sabra.