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Zionism At 100

Zionism was a necromantic dream, using necromancy in the apt dictionary definition of "the conjuration of the spirits of the dead for the purposes of magically revealing the future or influencing the course of events." It had three unique components:

The rise of a collective messianism. Post-exilic Judaism begins with Ezra and Nehemiah and the return from the first Babylonian captivity. Jews had survived by becoming a people, practicing apartness and being united by the Book. It was a belief in national redemption rooted in the prophets and their system of ethical and social values. But prophecy was overtaken by messianism. The word "messiah" to designate an expected redeemer does not appear either in the Hebrew Bible or in the Apocrypha. It appears first in the Book of Enoch and in that part of the Pseudepigrapha composed in the time of Herod the Great. The theme is no longer the redemption of a people but individual resurrection and judgment at the End of Days. In Judaism, after the false messiahs in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the belief arose in a collective messianism, the redemption of a people through the resurrection of a nation.

The people as a race. The designation of race as collective identity had been the theme of almost every major thinker in the nineteenth century. In Jewish thought, the central figure, indeed the first proto-Zionist, was Moses Hess. Hess was the third man in the original Marxian triad: he had converted Engels to communism and had collaborated with Marx on early drafts of The German Ideology. But, as one who had returned to Judaism, he felt that Marx was wrong on the animating spirit in history. In his passionate Rome and Jerusalem (1862), Hess argued that Jews would never find a home in Europe, especially Germany, and as an "historic people" could only survive by " national redemption." As he wrote, "Social institutions like spiritual outlooks are racial creations. All of past history was concerned with the struggle of races and classes. Race struggle is primary; class struggle is secondary."

The skein of history. History is opposed to modernity. If one asks a " modern" person, "who are you?," the reply would be, "I am I, I make myself anew." The traditional person says: "I am the son of my father." In the continuity of history, beginning with the covenant, is the collective identity of a people. One can claim a future only by the integration with its past.

But the whiplash of history has been anti-Semitism. From the Greco-Egyptian author Apion in the first century B.C., and Tacitus a century later, down to T.S. Eliot in our day, the Jew has been regarded as an alien element in a homogeneous culture. It was anti-Semitism--the Dreyfus case--that led Herzl to Zionism.

Herzl's The Jewish State, published in 1896, is one of the strangest works of its kind. The brochure--it is little more than that--reads like a blueprint for a real estate development. Its central idea of "The Jewish Company," which would organize commerce and trade, would be a "Chartered Company," framed according to English laws. Though Palestine was preferable, one might consider Argentina. Since few Jews could speak to one another in Hebrew, each person would retain his own tongue, and Switzerland afforded proof that such a federation was possible. There is little, if anything, on history; there is a passing reference to religion and faith; and there is nothing on culture. Herzl's book is probably the most unideological document in the history of politics, nationalist or socialist. And yet what lingers is its emphasis on practicality, something that neither Marx nor Engels ever attempted.

The bedrock of historic Zionism was ideological: the idea of aliya, the making of a "new Jew." There were two divergent currents in that history. The dominant one, derived from the ideas of A.D. Gordon, was the cultivation of the land, of physical labor and a communal life--the kibbutz. The second aliya in 1904-1905, which gave Israel its first political leadership, put these ideas into practice. In 1933, half the Jewish community, about 120,000 persons, lived in agricultural settlements. Most of Israel's commanders-- Dayan, Allon, Rabin--came from the kibbutzim. The trade union movement, the Histradut, formed the political base of the movement, and the Labor Party, uniting the two, dominated the country until about ten years ago.

The second current was the revisionism of Ze'ev Jabotinsky. Its conception of the "new Jew" was a militancy embodied in territorial expansion by military means, a view that Ben-Gurion branded as "fascist." The children of Jabotinsky were Begin and Shamir and Sharon, but their political base, a new sociological element, was the Sephardic Jews from the Arab countries, whose feelings were fueled by their fear of those countries and their resentment against an inferior status in a society dominated by the Ashkenazim.

Common to both currents was the rejection of the Diaspora as galut, exile, the home of the "old" features of Jewish existence. Yet Israel today is an anomaly. The ideology sought to "normalize" Jewish life, but the society has become a garrison state. The kibbutzim have been declining steadily and much of the early pioneer spirit has gone. The centennial of Zionism is approaching, yet it coincides (as The Jerusalem Report has put it) with the end of aliya.

And there are the Palestinians. Twenty or so years ago, some Zionist leaders denied that there was such an entity as "the Palestinian people." But a national consciousness has emerged. Fleeing or expelled from Israel in 1948, driven from Jordan by King Hussein when their majority threatened his rule, forced out of Lebanon by the Syrians, they have sustained themselves by the emotion of race hatred against the Israelis, and the desire for a state of their own.

Zionism began as a dream and a practicality. The dream has been achieved, though not as the dreamers imagined. Yet there remains the practicality of Herzl. (In his utopian novel Altneuland, he sketched a society based on technology, and today technology has replaced physical labor as the strength of Israel.) A national unity government in Israel, combining the centers of the two parties, would be able to deal with the urgent issues in a way that neither party alone can. It would not be hostage to the religious parties, whose theocratic views limit the life of all. It would not be cowed by the zealots who play the race card and lead the country into guarding small settlements, as in Hebron, which only inflame a very tender situation. And it could accept a viable Palestinian state, through partition, as Israel was created by partition, without being subject to partisan cries of betrayal. And, as a normal state, Israel would have to accept the normalcy of the Diaspora, without demanding its children as the price of allegiance.

I have never been a Zionist. Yiddish was my first language and socialism was my first political allegiance. (Though fifty years ago, against my socialist comrades, I wrote that nationalism, not class, would be the shaping feature of the State of Israel.) I grew up in galut, with the double consciousness and double identity of being Jewish and American. If a people is defined by history, then galut has been the major shaping experience, and the proudness, of being Jewish. Today, no one is an anti-Zionist, but I do not feel that my sense of Judaism is diminished by being American and pro- Israel in the kinship of my people.

In politics, men need to learn to limit their hopes. Hopes, like dreams, are always necessary to go beyond the mundane. But hopes without limit lead to the betrayals of extremism; and these are the destroyers of hope, on all sides.