A Tale of Two Zionisms: On Peter Beinart | The Nation


A Tale of Two Zionisms: On Peter Beinart

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Beinart’s claims are not unfamiliar. He edges up to being audacious only insofar as, caring as he does about American Jewish organizational life, he is willing to challenge its leadership from within. In practical terms, The Crisis of Zionism calls for nothing more than boycotting settlement products and refocusing on Jewish day schools, presumably to inculcate a more positive religious-cultural experience. Nor is he writing some new history of Zionism. Rather, he’s explaining contemporary political rifts—between Netanyahu and the peace camp, AIPAC and J Street, and so forth—according to what he understands to be old Zionist ideological antagonisms.

The Crisis of Zionism
By Peter Beinart.
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About the Author

Bernard Avishai
Bernard Avishai lives in Jerusalem and New Hampshire. He is a visiting professor of government at Dartmouth and an...

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Beinart’s most original writing, really, is this tale of two Zionisms: one good, the other not so much; one saying, “Never again,” the other, “Never again to Jews”; one inspiring peace and a two-state solution, the other inspiring the settlement project and, inevitably, either ethnic cleansing or apartheid (Beinart’s parents were immigrants from South Africa). The latter Zionism fits Bibi so snugly, Beinart told Haaretz, “because Bibi wants a Zionism and a Judaism that kicks to the side any notion of the Jews having a special ethical mission, and that’s what the Christians want as well.”

And it’s precisely around this issue—the prestige of each of the two Zionisms—that the lines over The Crisis of Zionism have mostly been drawn. Such different figures as former World Jewish Congress president Edgar Bronfman and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who is typically indifferent to Israel, have jumped to defend Beinart’s right to speak and his bravery. Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, and The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg have assailed Beinart for breaking ranks and being righteous. The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens dismissed The Crisis of Zionism as “factually cavalier and emotionally contrived.” Talking about the Jews’ ethical mission at some distance from the threat is, Goldberg scoffs, just “moral superiority.” Beinart counterattacked with equal fervor: “Does [Stephens] grapple at all with the moral problems inherent in holding millions of West Bank Palestinians as non-citizens for 44 years?” Is he not ignoring the occupation’s incitement because he wants us to think, hell, it isn’t really theft if settlers are taking land from those trying to kill Jews?

I should state here that I know and admire Beinart, who edits a section on the Daily Beast, to which I contribute a column. I am also grateful for the fight he’s undertaken. Jason Zengerle, surveying in New York magazine the often ad hominem attacks Beinart has endured, implies that responsible American Jews should criticize Israel’s occupation “like a mother rather than a mother-in-law.” Israeli liberals—whom one can read daily in the pages of Haaretz—are counting on American Jews to criticize the occupation as Americans; not only Israelis, after all, have died in the sands of the Middle East in recent years. I also empathize with Beinart, in part because I ran into an earlier version of the Jewish organizational buzz saw (as well as insider journalists who, like Goldberg today, accused me of condescension from afar) when I published The Tragedy of Zionism in 1985. Peretz’s New Republic announced on its cover that I was a “Jew Against Zion.” Apart from Arnie Wolf’s, virtually every synagogue and Hillel House in the country was suddenly closed to me.

Still, for all the power and timeliness of Beinart’s polemic, and in spite of my respect for his having acquired the right adversaries, I can’t help but feel that the most remarkable achievement of historic Zionism is elided by this very American framing of Zionism’s old debates. Indeed, what’s missing is the very revolution for which many of us came to Israel in our youth. Missing also is a crucial conceptual pivot. Things are very bad in Israel right now. To ameliorate them, we’ll almost certainly have to think beyond the two-state solution in the ordinary sense and consider the various confederal arrangements that emerge whenever serious negotiations with Palestinians are conducted. And to see why even Israeli centrists entertain such arrangements, while AIPAC’s “Zionists” cannot, we’ll need to understand the Zionism that actually built the country more fully. At the same time, the negative consequences of historic Zionism for Israeli democracy were not just theoretical, and its implications for Jewish life in America were not just mobilizing. The Crisis of Zionism is finally an argument about Israel. The country’s purposes cannot be grasped only through American Jewish experiences.

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Was Zionism at bottom an answer to Western anti-Semitism, and were Zionists divided mainly by attitudes toward liberal standards? Not really, though it could certainly look that way from this side of the twentieth century. Beinart is right that there never was one Zionism and that liberal ideas were in some sense defining. But the real rift, at least since the first Zionist Congress in 1897, fell not between Herzl and Jabotinsky, but between Herzl and Eastern European activists like Ahad Ha’am and his disciple Chaim Weizmann who, in their majority, hijacked the institutions of what is now called the World Zionist Organization within the decade after the grandiose Viennese journalist died in 1904. The divide, in other words, was between Zionists who thought purely in terms of rescue and those who thought in terms of Hebrew cultural revolution, between Zionists who wanted to reshape Jews and those who wanted to reshape Judaism.

The former Zionists—Herzl’s “political” Zionists—indeed tended to focus on the psychology of powerlessness and depict some future state apparatus as therapy. They counted on anti-Semitism to define Jewish national identity and thought of political action as a means of gaining imperial support; if support flagged, then Jews would arm themselves to assure “self-determination.” For political Zionists, all efforts at assimilation would lead to disaster. The key was to get out from under anti-Jewish bigotry. (In these ways, Herzl and Jabotinsky were really not much different.)

Ahad Ha’am’s “cultural” Zionists, in contrast, focused on modernizing a failing Hebrew religious vernacular—they loved the word “modern”—that they considered their patrimony. They were products of the Jewish “enlightenment,” the Haskalah, exposed to the West’s philosophical liberalism after the Napoleonic conquests, yet marinated in the thick brine of traditional life in the Eastern European Pale of settlement. They thought assimilation of Jews into Western liberal society was perfectly possible—and inexorable if mass emigration westward from the Pale continued. But that would be the disaster. Cultural Zionists saw some future national home—the state would come later—as the custodian of a unique cultural opportunity, which could be inclusive of anyone coming to the land and participating in the revolutionary national life. The key was to appropriate the legacy of Halachic life, but with the ironic distance a modern historian might assume. They saw Judaism as bedrock to be quarried, a civilization, yet they were determined to get out from under rabbinic authoritarianism.

The first task for cultural Zionists, then, was to fashion the Jewish nation. Anti-Semitism could be relied on only to create Jewish solidarity. They morphed into “Labor Zionists” when, as colonists, they realized that the old land—and their new selves—could not be developed without socialist principles. To take root in Palestine, the Hebrew language needed self-segregated, contiguous collectives; otherwise, Jewish colonists would become Arabic-speaking overseers of Arab labor. Their liberal ethics were not yet focused on the workings of a modern state apparatus, certainly not on how to create a pluralist democracy with Arabs and non-Jews. Liberal ethics were rather embedded in a general commitment to emancipation, conscience. Hebrew, once revived, would provide Jews with an awareness of a past civilization, its texts, laws and liturgy, all of which would be manna for an unconventional Jew.

From 1905 on, socialist pioneers built the institutions of an independent (hence, separate) political economy—from the Jewish National Fund to the Hebrew University—which continued to influence Israeli civil society after the state was organized. The pioneers assumed civil liberties, and that elections among Jewish colonists in their separate labor unions and political movements would be open and fair. There was a small contingent of “religious” Zionists, and a small ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem and elsewhere, but the Zionist pioneers contained them and assumed they would wither away. After 1948, however, labor institutions absorbed a population three times the size of the pioneering Yishuv: mainly Holocaust survivors and refugees from North Africa, many with religious attitudes that resembled those that the European Zionists had tried to escape (state-supported ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students—a few hundred when Ben Gurion put off a constitution to pander to the orthodox—are now approaching 100,000). Labor Zionists cherished civil and artistic freedoms, but questions of how to promote political liberty in a pluralist, inclusive state, once the separation engendered by Zionist activity ended, seemed a distant problem. It did not really surface until 1966, when the state of Israel finally ended military rule of Arab towns. After the 1967 war, the questions were buried by triumphal euphoria and new territorial conquests.

Thus, in today’s Israel, and in the American debate about Israel, the only official Zionist ideology is “political”—natural enough, since official rites of Holocaust remembrance have made assertive statehood seem to have been Zionism’s purpose all along. Post hoc ergo propter hoc: Zionism is what Israel does. Labor Zionism, for its part, was so successful that if you walk into a Tel Aviv restaurant today, you cannot imagine what it took—dictionary writers, lonely philologists, kibbutz decisions, broken marriages—to make the Hebrew menu possible; fish are the last creatures to notice water.

Israel, in other words, is curiously political Zionist in theory and cultural Zionist in practice. Politicians all bow to the force of anti-Semitism, the “state of the Jewish people,” religious heritage, the diaspora as diplomatic asset, and so forth, but pretty much ignore Zionism’s most radical achievement: couples walking down Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, not in orthodox garb, but in Birks and tank tops, bantering in a Hebrew Moses could understand and pushing their strollers. Theirs is an urbane culture subtending the poetics of Yehuda Amichai, the folk rock of Yehudit Ravitz, the Gesher Theater. Polls show that Israelis now identify with orthodox ways more than they did ten years ago, a trend that would have dismayed the old cultural Zionists. But 68 percent still want restaurants open on the Sabbath, which is probably the best test for “secularism.” Anyway, what appears to be occurring is a fusing of personal freedom with traditional practice—shrimp, then Seders—yet in a popular culture that implies just what the cultural Zionists assumed: that Jews will survive modernity for the sake of being Jewish, but will not be Jewish for the sake of “survival.”

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