u_topn picture
Books & Authors
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar
cover picture

A Century of Zionism

British journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft takes stock of Theodor Herzl's "mad" idea.

November 1996

WITH a twist of irony that has become typical in Israel's history, this year's hundredth anniversary of the birth of Zionism is also a time of renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence, faltering peace negotiations, and deep divisions within the Jewish community.

In his new book, The Controversy of Zion: Jewish Nationalism, the Jewish State, and the Unresolved Jewish Dilemma, (Addison-Wesley, 1996) Geoffrey Wheatcroft, an Atlantic contributor, marks Zionism's anniversary by examining the intellectual traditions, people, and events that have led to today's Israel. The book, the winner of a National Jewish Book Award, begins with Zionism's genesis in nineteenth-century Europe, when Theodor Herzl argued that the Jews of the Diaspora would never be able to assimilate fully and that therefore the creation of a Jewish state was the only way to solve the "Jewish Question." Wheatcroft follows the story of Zionism until 1995, when the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin made appallingly manifest the divisive conflicts plaguing the nation that was supposed to be a source of healing and pride.

Wheatcroft recently spoke with The Atlantic Monthly's Katie Bacon.

Why did you decide to write about Zionism?

Excerpts from
The Controversy of Zion

  • The Jewish Question -- from the Preface
  • Theodor Herzl's Vision -- from Chapter Four: 'I have the solution . . .'
  • The Great Adventure -- from Chapter Seven: 'America is Our Zion'
  • A Jewish State is Born -- from Chapter Thirteen: Victors, not victims
  • Groping Toward a Jewish Solution -- from Chapter Sixteen: Fractured friendships

    * * *

    Related articles from The Atlantic's archive

  • "Zionist Aspirations in Palestine," July 1920. Anstruther Mackay, a military governor of Palestine during the First World War, argued that a Jewish State would cause long-term violence with the Arabs, who have a right to the land.

  • "The Creed of an American Zionist," February 1945. As the dimensions of the destruction of European Jewry were just being realized, Rabbi Milton Steinberg defended the right of Jews to form a commonwealth in Palestine.

  • The Atlantic Report: Israel. January 1952, June 1953, November 1957. Three articles by the editors of The Atlantic on the progress of the new nation during the fourth, fifth, and tenth years of its existence.

  • Flashback: The State of Israel, November 1995. Articles from 1949 to 1993, by David Ben-Gurion and others, look at various aspects of the spiritual and national project that is Israel.

  • The best answer to that is something Disraeli said: "When I want to read a book I write one." I just became deeply interested in the story of Zionism and its effect on the Jewish people, and there wasn't a book that seemed to say what I wanted to read. I grew up in an upper-middle class family in Hampstead, near London, which in England is almost shorthand for mildly left intellectual progressivism. I'm not Jewish, but my parents had a lot of Jewish friends and colleagues. And I lived through some of the period I'm writing about. I can remember when -- in the fifties and sixties -- Israel was still a universally popular cause among liberals. That has ceased to be the case in the past thirty years, and I wanted to try to explain why. So I started to work backward to the founding of Zionism to see where the story came from.

    In what ways is being an outsider to this story an asset?

    It's difficult for me to say that it's helped me, but other people have said so. In particular, I've been touched by the generosity of Jewish scholars who might possibly have resented an outsider's stepping in on their subject. Several have said that I've brought a fresh eye to the story precisely because I'm outside the loop and therefore am not committed in the way that someone who is Jewish inevitably would be.

    After Theodor Herzl came up with the "mad" idea of creating a homeland for Jews, many people compared Zionism with anti-Semitism. Why did they make this comparison?

    In the early years of the Zionist movement, after Herzl wrote The Jewish State, most Jews were indifferent to the movement. But there was one minority of Jews that was passionately caught up with the Zionist idea, that supported and worked for it, and there was another minority that was opposed to it with an extraordinary vehemence that is now difficult to recapture. These Jewish anti-Zionists argued that Zionism was the other side of the coin of anti-Semitism: anti-Semites were saying that Jews couldn't be absorbed successfully into the broader secular societies of the western countries in which they lived, and the Zionists were saying exactly the same thing. Of course after the Second World War this, like all other forms of Jewish anti-Zionism, faded away.

    Did the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine change the way Jews were thought of in Europe?

    It didn't greatly affect the position of the European Jews up to the 1930s. Many tried to leave Europe, but they found it increasingly difficult to get to Palestine -- and to get to America, which is where most of them would have gone if they'd had the opportunity. In many ways the most important event in the Jewish story in the period between 1910 and 1930 wasn't the Balfour Declaration, which created the Jewish homeland in Palestine; instead it was the American legislation of the early 1920s that ended immigration into America. If it hadn't been for that, there would have been millions more Jewish immigrants to the United States.

    You say that "Jewry as a whole was converted to Zionism not by arguments but by events." Is there any way that the state of Israel could have been created, perhaps years later, without the events of the Second World War?

    More to the point, Israel would have been different if it had been created many years before. It would have been established like New Zealand, or the United States, or Australia. At the time these countries were created, nobody really gave any thought to the rights of the indigenous peoples. The misfortune of Zionism was precisely that it belonged to the twentieth century. When I say that Jewry was converted to Zionism by events, I don't mean that Hitler created Israel, but what Hitler and the Final Solution unquestionably did was to create this identification between western Jewry and the new Jewish State, with the result that Jewish anti-Zionism, which had had a very strong tradition before then, really became morally impossible.

    Could violence and dispossession have been avoided in creating Israel?

    That's hard to imagine. Jewish settlement of a completely peaceful kind could only have taken place very, very slowly. But another misfortune of the Zionist project was that it coincided with an emerging Arab nationalism, particularly Palestinian nationalism. Some Israelis say that there's no such thing as Palestinian nationalism, to which the answer is that there was certainly no such thing as Palestinian nationalism a hundred years ago -- but that there is such a thing today, and to some extent it was created by Zionism and the advent of Israel.

    How does the secular state of Israel now perceive the Judaic tradition and culture that led to its creation?

    Zionism was a secular movement, very specifically so, and most of the early Zionists were aggressively secular and anti-religious. They saw Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, as something different from the traditional Jewish religion, which they either ignored or positively rejected. To some extent the enthusiasm for Zionism among the Jewish Diaspora was a kind of surrogate nationalism, in that it allowed them to maintain Jewish identity while no longer being very involved in Judaism. This has led to great complications today, because although Israel is technically a secular state, Jewish identity is invariably connected with religion. Paradoxically, you have a secular state where the religious leaders determine who can live there.

    When Israel was created, did its leaders hope or expect that a wave of assimilated western Jews would move there?

    I'm not sure whether they really did believe that would happen, but what happened was this. David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, was not a stupid man. He must have realized that western Jews, in particular American Jews, had by the middle of the twentieth century achieved remarkable social ascent, stability, and prosperity. It was likely -- and indeed proved to be the case -- that very few of them would want to come live in Israel.

    There was a most interesting moment, just after the creation of Israel, when Ben-Gurion said publicly that it was the duty of all western Jews to come live in Israel. The Jewish-American leadership called this a deplorable and insulting thing to say and told Ben-Gurion that if he didn't change his tune, crucial Jewish-American groups would stop supporting Israel. Ben-Gurion, who wasn't normally an apologetic sort of guy, did more or less apologize. Thereafter there was an unspoken agreement that the Israelis would no longer campaign for mass immigration from America to Israel and that in return they would expect the uncritical support of Jewish-Americans for the Israeli state, which they got.

    What has Israel come to mean for Jews who don't live there? Has that meaning changed substantially since Israel's creation? What about since Yitzhak Rabin's assassination?

    What Israel came to mean for Jews of the Diaspora was a great sense of pride and exhilaration -- a place they liked to think about, and in some cases to visit. But it must be said that not many of them actually wanted to go and live there. Certainly the pinnacle of identification with Israel by Jews who don't live there came in 1967, after the Six Day War. But since then, things haven't quite worked out as they should have done. Although most Jews today unquestionably feel some emotional identification with Israel, often a very strong one, it is not as uncomplicated as it was thirty years ago. In 1967 the idea was, "we are one" -- we western Jews, we American Jews, and we Israelis. Rabin's assassination demonstrated in a very dramatic and dreadful way that the Israelis are not one themselves -- they are a very deeply and bitterly divided society. If you're a Jewish-American, you cannot be one with an Israel that itself is not one.

    The rise of the Likud Party is important here, too. When Israel was founded, very few Jews outside of Israel had heard of the group that subsequently became called the Likud. Vladimir Jabotinsky, who founded the Revisionist movement that advocated using violence to secure the Jews' position in Palestine, was very much a minority leader. When Menachem Begin, a former leader of the Irgun (which many considered a terrorist force) first visited the United States, in 1948, a letter signed by two dozen prominent Jews -- including Sidney Hook, Hannah Arendt, and Albert Einstein -- ran in The New York Times saying that Begin was a fascist and quasi-Nazi who should be shunned by all Jewish-Americans. Within thirty years he was Prime Minister of Israel, and today his successors are warmly defended on the Op-Ed pages of that same newspaper.

    What has happened in the past fifty years is melancholy because after the Second World War there was a huge welling up of sympathy for Israel -- based on guilt, really, about what happened to the European Jews. The change in attitude in the last twenty years has been a kind of reaction to that. It is unjust, but not in quite the way that Israelis think. In some ways, Israel deserved more criticism in the first twenty years of her existence than in the past twenty years. Since 1967, the Israelis have not physically expelled any of the Arabs in the territories that they have conquered, whereas when Israel was created, in 1948, they did expel Arabs living within the country's original borders. But people at that time chose to overlook that fact.

    Do American Jews share the philosophical or cultural values of Israelis?

    Less and less, I would say, quite simply because Israel's most astonishing achievement has been the creation of a completely new nation, language, and culture. A hundred years ago most Jews who went to America and Palestine were Yiddish-speaking. Now two communities exist -- the American Jews who speak English and the Israeli Jews who speak Hebrew -- and remarkably few Jewish-Americans know Hebrew. There are now, funnily enough, more Arabs than Jewish-Americans who speak Hebrew.

    Another profound difference between American Jews and Israelis is the founding philosophies of their respective nations. The United States is in its essence an absolute rejection of ethnic nationalism. To be an American you do not have to be something by your origin. You can become an American, as all Americans at some stage in their family history have done, almost by a political act of will. Israel is not like that. Israel is an outgrowth, or Zionism is an outgrowth, of the European nationalism that America rejected.

    Does America hold Israel to a higher standard than the other countries it supports?

    That is what Israelis often say. But when Israel says there's a double standard used to judge it, the answer is that Israel asks to be judged by a double standard. Of course it's true that we overlook the fact that neighboring Arab countries go around massacring their inhabitants from time to time, and we, the media, are much more critical of Israel for what in many ways are much smaller crimes. But Israel positively doesn't want to be judged by the same standards as Syria. It wishes to be regarded as a constitutional democracy that takes civil rights and human rights seriously.

    Is the conflict between Israelis and Arabs any closer to being resolved than it was before the peace process began?

    I just don't know what's going to happen, and I'm not at all one for making predictions. Conor Cruise O'Brien likes to say that the whole language of question and solution is not appropriate to matters such as Israel and Ulster. He would say that we're not dealing here with a question that has an answer; we're dealing with a conflict, and conflicts don't have answers, they have outcomes, usually after a good deal of upheaval and turmoil and suffering. In many ways the conflict between Israelis and Arabs looks closer to a solution than it did twenty or even ten years ago. But we saw how fragile it was after the recent outburst of violence. You would have to be very, very sanguine to think that something like that won't happen again.

    You point out that over the past thirty years, the Holy Land, with its seven million people, has attracted more television and newspaper coverage than all of tropical Africa or all of India. Why this world-wide fascination?

    The Israeli affair takes place in what one could almost call the spiritual and mystical center of the world, in a region that was very much in the center of the Cold War and that is peculiarly volatile. But I mentioned the intense media scrutiny not to offer an explanation for it but to present a paradox. The heart of my book is that a hundred years ago, Herzl said that he would resolve the Jewish Question by removing the Jews from the pages of history, normalizing them, and making them like any other nation. All the conflicts and anguish within the Jewish people would come to an end once they had a Jewish state. But have a look at the Op-Ed page of The New York Times any day of the week. It is a very ironical comment on Herzl's vision to see the sheer amount of space devoted to ferocious debate on the future of Israel by western commentators, notably by Jewish-Americans.

    The Jewish question has not disappeared. Zionism has changed and complicated the Jewish question, but it has quite plainly not wound it up.

  • More Books & Authors features in Atlantic Unbound

    Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.