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Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Excerpts from The Controversy of Zion
(Addison-Wesley, 1996)

From the Preface

'Some people like Jews and some do not,' Winston Churchill once said. 'But no thoughtful man can deny the fact that they are beyond question the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world.' They have also had the most extraordinary story. After their return twice from exile in Antiquity and their generations of greatness in their own land, the destruction of their kingdom by the Romans led to a Third Exile which lasted nearly two thousand years. For most of that time they were spurned and all too often persecuted in the lands where they had been dispersed; they were despised outcasts, sometimes useful to the societies among whom they lived, but never granted equality, in law or of respect. Then, from the Enlightenment and the Revolutionary era onwards, they were slowly emancipated and many of them tried to become what they had never been allowed to be before, loyal citizens of the countries where they lived.

And yet, as the nineteenth century wore on, emancipation increasingly appeared an illusion. The Jew was still a stranger, contemned and disliked if not actually persecuted, his position the more false and humiliating for his attempt to try and shed his identity and change his colours. This was the 'Jewish Question', to which, at the end of the nineteenth century, a drastic solution was proposed: Jewish nationalism, or Zionism. In 1896, Theodor Herzl unveiled his plan for a Jewish state where the Jews could live as free men and take charge of their own destiny.

His idea startled Jewry, and shocked many Jews. Quite apart from its apparent impracticability, it seemed to threaten the position of Jews who considered themselves faithful Austrians, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Americans, and leave them open to the charge of disloyalty or dual allegiance. Jewry as a whole was converted to Zionism not by arguments but by events. Warnings about the increasing threat to the European Jews came unimaginably and appallingly true when what had appeared to be the most advanced of countries placed itself in the hands of a tyrant who conquered most of Europe and murdered most of its Jews. In the aftermath of that catastrophe, a Jewish state was born, and survived through a series of fierce wars. It attracted, and depended on, the support of those Jews -- and they were much the larger part of the surviving Jewish population of the world -- who chose to continue living outside its borders. In turn, Israel became a source of healing pride for Jews everywhere.

But this relationship could never remain painless or untroubled. The Balfour Declaration which created a Jewish homeland in Palestine thirty years before the Jewish state was born had optimistically denied that such a homeland, let alone a state, would prejudice either the rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights of Jews in other countries. That pious aspiration apart, Herzl had earlier hoped that a Jewish state would answer the Jewish Question. A century earlier still, a debate had been held in revolutionary France on the topic, 'How can we make the Jews happier and more useful?' and it became the purpose of Zionism to answer that question also. It was a scheme to resolve the Jewish Question, and to make the Jews happy.

Did it? This book is prompted by that query. It is not a history of the Jews, or of antisemitism, or of Zionism, or of Israel, examples of all of which can be found in the bibliography. It is a discursive examination of the debates which were provoked by the Jewish Question and Zionism, and of the way in which the Jewish national movement and the creation of a Jewish state have affected Jews everywhere.

  • Return to A Century of Zionism: An Interview with Geoffrey Wheatcroft

    Copyright © 1996 by Geoffrey Wheatcroft. All rights reserved.