Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict

Overview

A probing look at one of the most incendiary subjects of our time—the relationship between the United States and Israel

There has been more than half a century of raging conflict between Jews and Arabs—a violent, costly struggle that has had catastrophic repercussions in a critical region of the world. In Genesis, John B. Judis argues that, while Israelis and Palestinians must shoulder much of the blame, the United States has been the principal power outside the region ...

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Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict

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Overview

A probing look at one of the most incendiary subjects of our time—the relationship between the United States and Israel

There has been more than half a century of raging conflict between Jews and Arabs—a violent, costly struggle that has had catastrophic repercussions in a critical region of the world. In Genesis, John B. Judis argues that, while Israelis and Palestinians must shoulder much of the blame, the United States has been the principal power outside the region since the end of World War II and as such must account for its repeated failed efforts to resolve this enduring strife.

     The fatal flaw in American policy, Judis shows, can be traced back to the Truman years. What happened between 1945 and 1949 sealed the fate of the Middle East for the remainder of the century. As a result, understanding that period holds the key to explaining almost everything that follows—right down to George W. Bush’s unsuccessful and ill-conceived effort to win peace through holding elections among the Palestinians, and Barack Obama’s failed attempt to bring both parties to the negotiating table. A provocative narrative history animated by a strong analytical and moral perspective, and peopled by colorful and outsized personalities, Genesis offers a fresh look at these critical postwar years, arguing that if we can understand how this stalemate originated, we will be better positioned to help end it.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
11/25/2013
Judis (The Folly of Empire), senior editor at the New Republic, examines the important turning points that led to the establishment and administration of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, with a focus on President Truman's failure "to resolve the conflict between Zionism and Arab nationalism." From the 1880s through the wars of 1948, Judis provides detailed accounts of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by international players and politicians. He shows that the American Zionist movement, by involving the U.S. government in the Palestine question, made it much more difficult for the Zionists and Arabs to resolve the issue peacefully. And once they achieved statehood, the Israelis themselves were just as uncompromising as the Zionists had been in their clashes with the Arabs. Judis forcefully argues for broader recognition of the fact that the rights of Palestinian Arabs have long been denied and shows how the historical rationalizations employed to deny such rights are devoid of substance. One minor qualm is that, given the conflict's complexity and the myriad individuals and organizations involved, it would have been helpful to include a timeline of events and a section with short biographical notes on the key players. Nevertheless, Judis succeeds admirably in taking a deeply divisive and multifaceted issue and explaining it in an accessible way. (Feb.)
Kirkus Reviews
2013-11-11
Dogged, exhaustive survey of the rocky road from late-19th-century Zionism through President Harry Truman's recognition of the state of Israel. By the time New Republic senior editor Judis (The Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush Could Learn from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, 2004, etc.) arrives at Truman's travails over how to handle Jewish-Arab Palestine at the end of World War II, the author has already slogged through the complicated history of Zionism in late-19th-century Europe. He depicts Palestine both as a refuge from anti-Semitism, as envisioned by Theodor Herzl, and as a "spiritual center" coexistent with non-Jewish inhabitants as envisioned by Ahad Ha'am and the Lovers of Zion. Yet the "holy land" was not a place of "desolation" as per the mythmaking of the Western imagination. Rather, it was inhabited by hundreds of thousands of constantly feuding Muslims and Christians who lacked the political organization or money of the evolving Jewish Agency for Israel. The intransigence of both sides, Jew and Arab, is astounding, especially in the course of the early history, when there were actually moments when a binational solution might have been possible. The Balfour Declaration's support for a "national home for the Jewish people" without affording the "non-Jewish communities in Palestine" any political rights furnished the validation that the Zionists needed for boosting Jewish immigration, purchasing choice agricultural land from the Arabs and rejecting Arab labor, all of which tipped the balance of power in the region. Moralist Truman's hesitations about a Jewish state at the expense of the Arabs were overridden by the American Zionist lobby, led by the combative Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver of the American Zionist Emergency Council. As Judis painstakingly delineates, Truman's continually "passing the buck" allowed the Arab-Israeli War to inevitably unfurl. A valiant, detailed effort to establish some clarity around the murky historical underpinnings of the Arab/Israeli conflict.
From the Publisher
Praise for Genesis

“A morally serious and thoughtful work.” —Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“[Judis] is a careful historian.” —Joseph Dorman, The New York Times Book Review

“Judis digs deeply into history, politics and diplomacy to explain the backstory of today’s headlines . . . [A] provocative book.” —Jonathan Kirsch, Jewish Journal

“A standout book that will both teach and productively provoke . . . [An] excellent book.” —Jesse Singal, The Boston Globe

“John Judis has long been one of America's best political historians. Now he's proved himself one of the best historians of American foreign policy towards Israel. You don't have to agree with all of John's conclusions to be powerfully impressed by the extent of his research, the quality of his insight, and his deep empathy for both Jews and Palestinians in the tortured land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. One of the best books about the U.S.-Israel relationship I have ever read.” —Peter Beinart, author of The Crisis of Zionism

“John Judis fairly and carefully explores Harry Truman’s conflicted attitudes toward the establishment of the state of Israel—and he does far more.  A conscientious attempt to deal with the ethical paradoxes involved in the establishment of the state of Israel, this book makes us aware of the implacable moral ambiguities with which we all must live as we make choices in a deeply flawed world.” —Alonzo L. Hamby, Distinguished Professor of History, Ohio University; author of Man of the People:  A Life of Harry S. Truman

“This is the best kind of history—taking a historical episode we think we know about (Truman recognizing the new state of Israel) and probing what really happened and what it meant for the future. John Judis is one of America's best journalists. In Genesis he brings together both lucid writing and passionate insight in a way that sheds light on current American policy in the Middle East.” —James Mann, author of Rise of the Vulcans and The Obamians

 

Genesis, John Judis's history of the Truman administration's relationship to Israel and its neighbors, is a smart, unsentimental, and independent-minded rendering of a complicated tale. His arguments and evidence challenge the comforting myths that sustain all sides of this tragic conflict and, in doing so, have the potential to point all its actors in a more hopeful direction in the future.” —Eric Alterman, author of The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374161095
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 2/4/2014
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 82,250
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and has also written for GQ, Foreign Affairs, Mother Jones, The New York Times Magazine, and The Washington Post. He is the author of The Folly of Empire and The Emerging Democratic Majority, among other books.

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Read an Excerpt

1

THE ORIGINS OF ZIONISM: HERZL, AHAD HA’AM, AND GORDON

 

 

If you had been alive in the mid-nineteenth century and visited the land that would become Palestine and then Israel, you would have found few signs of the conflict that would later tear the country apart. You would have heard references to “Palestine,” but you wouldn’t have found a nation with its own laws and government that corresponded to Palestine or Israel. The Turks, who ruled the region, divided the land into three parts for purposes of collecting taxes. The West Bank was part of the province of Syria; northern Palestine was part of the province of Beirut; and Jerusalem and its environs had their own district.

According to one estimate, the area corresponding to Palestine had about 340,000 people, of whom 300,000, or 88 percent, were Muslims or Druze, 27,000, or 8 percent, Christians, and 13,000, or 4 percent, Jews.1 Many of these Jews lived in Jerusalem, Nablus, and Hebron. A few were well-to-do descendants of Sephardic émigrés from Spain, but many were more recent émigrés from Europe who devoted themselves to religious study and prayer and survived off donations from abroad.

The Jews of Palestine suffered religious persecution, but no different from that inflicted on Christians in a society dominated by Muslims. For instance, both Jews and Christians were officially prohibited from building new houses of worship, but both groups were able to use bribes to get around the law. There was nothing like the wave of anti-Semitism that would sweep Europe during the late nineteenth century. “Jews enjoyed a higher standing in Muslim society and enjoyed a greater affinity with the culture of their surroundings than the Jews in Eastern Europe,” wrote the historian Yosef Gorny.2

There was also little of a Western presence in the region. Americans were preoccupied with the Civil War and its aftermath. The great powers of Europe were just beginning to divide up Asia and Africa. The British had an interest in allying themselves with the Turks against the Russians, they were about to gain a foothold in Egypt, and they had begun to consider Palestine and its environs as a path eastward, but they had not done anything about it, and would not do so for the rest of the century.

There were rabbis and some notable Christians in Europe and the United States who thought the Jews should return to Palestine. The Christians were called “restorationists,” and in Britain they were able to attract support for their views among high officials who saw a Jewish Palestine in commercial or imperial terms. But most Jews accepted the Diaspora as an enduring condition. The Orthodox thought that the Jews would eventually return to Zion, but by a Messianic act of God rather than by an organized mass migration. Jews declared “Next year in Jerusalem” annually during Passover dinners, but few took these words literally.

Then, over the next forty years—from the 1880s to the end of World War I and the early 1920s—the region was utterly transformed. The Ottoman Empire was dissolved, a casualty of Turkey’s alliance with Germany during World War I. Through a League of Nations mandate, Britain assumed control of Palestine, an area that initially included what became Transjordan and later Jordan, but it administered the two areas separately. As a result, the western part of the mandate, administered through Jerusalem, became known again as Palestine, the name the Romans had originally given the country, but that also had a more ancient root in the seafaring Philistines who were contemporaries of the Old Testament Jews.

By 1922, according to a British census, Palestine’s population had grown to 752,048, of which Jews accounted for 83,900, or 11 percent. The sevenfold increase in the Jewish population had been spurred by the development of a Zionist movement in Europe, particularly in the Russian Pale of Settlement, which was in response to the simultaneous growth of nationalism and anti-Semitism in Central and Western Europe. Zionism was Jewish nationalism, but unlike German or Romanian nationalism, it was not centered on an existing homeland but on one that Jews had once inhabited and now wanted to return to.

The outward logic of Zionism was impeccable. The nations of Europe, where Jews had dwelt for hundreds of years, were treating them as a nation in their midst. Nationalist politicians and intellectuals in Central and Eastern Europe called for purging their countries of this alien nation. In response, Jews wanted a genuine nation of their own where they could be secure from persecution and oppression. The trouble came when Zionists specified where that nation should be. Two thousand years before, most Jews had lived in Palestine, and a few thousand still did. But other peoples had also inhabited Palestine over the millennia, and Arabs had lived there for 1,400 years. If Zionism’s objective was to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, that meant ruling over or driving out the Arabs who already lived there.

In justifying their attempt to colonize Palestine, some Zionists—who cited the influence of the Russian Zionist Ahad Ha’am—tried to come to terms with the Arab presence in Palestine. But many Zionists, following the example of Theodor Herzl, the Viennese author of The Jewish State, fell back on the same kind of rationalizations that the great powers had advanced in attempting to extend their reach over Asia and Africa, and that Christian Europe, and that Christian restorationists, and even before them, the Crusaders, had used to justify the conquest of Palestine. They promised to reclaim Palestine for the religion of the Bible, to civilize the Arabs, and to revive the land that, they claimed, the Arabs had allowed to become a desolate wasteland. Most American Zionist leaders would trace their lineage back to Herzl rather than to Ahad Ha’am and would adopt a distorted understanding of Palestine and its Arab inhabitants.

Anti-Semitism and Zionism

The idea of a Jewish return to Zion (which originally referred to Jerusalem) goes back to the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C.E. and was promoted over the centuries by a succession of Jewish rabbis and mystics. The English Puritans, including those who settled in New England, believed on biblical grounds in a Jewish return to the region of Palestine. Napoleon advocated a Jewish state during his eastern campaign in 1799. And in the early nineteenth century, British officials, led by the Christian revivalist Lord Shaftesbury, called on Britain to promote a Jewish return to the Holy Land.

By midcentury, there was some stirring among Jewish intellectuals. In the 1860s, the German Socialist Moses Hess, a former comrade of Karl Marx, and the Polish rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, both of whom were deeply impressed by the Italian movement for national unification, Il Risorgimento, advocated the gradual creation of a Jewish state. But the birth of a Zionist movement—and the beginning of emigration—had to wait until the 1880s, till the outbreak of anti-Semitism in Russia and Eastern Europe and its spread westward. This turned Jewish Zionism from a religious fantasy into a political movement.

Jews, of course, had suffered persecution for centuries, but much though not all of it was based on their beliefs and what they were reputed to have done to Jesus Christ. It was religious persecution. By contrast, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century anti-Semitism was primarily a toxic blend of nationalism, racism, and imperialism directed at Jews as an alien national group within nations or empires rather than as a religious group among other religions. It coincided with the rise throughout Europe of the unified nation state and of national rebellions against empires.

In the nineteenth century, Italians and Hungarians sought to free themselves from the Austro-Hungarian Empire; Romanians and other Balkan peoples from the Ottoman Empire; the Poles from the Russian Empire; and Germans from the Hapsburgs and from the legacy of defeat in the Napoleonic wars. They defined their national aspirations along ethnic and quasi-racial lines that led them to see Jews as an alien nation. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a father of German nationalism, described Germans as a race that nature “joined to each other in a multitude of invisible bonds” and Jews as “a state within a state.” Fichte infamously declared that he could only imagine granting civil rights to Jews if one were “to cut off all their heads in one night, and to set new ones on their shoulders, which should contain not a single Jewish idea.”3

In Austria and Russia, defenders of the empire invoked their own brand of nationalism against the secessionists and against Jews, whom they blamed for the unrest. In Austria, George Ritter von Schönerer built a pan-German movement based on the premise that Austria had to rid itself of Jewish influence.4 In Russia, the Black Hundreds swore loyalty to the czar and Russian absolutism while leading violent assaults against Jews.

This fusion of religious intolerance, national chauvinism, and what the Russian Zionist Leo Pinsker called “demonopathy” inspired new laws threatening Jews’ livelihood and led to a succession of violent pogroms in Russia and the Russian Pale of Settlement—the western edge of the Russian empire to which the czarist regime restricted Jews. In the spring of 1881, massive anti-Jewish riots took place in response to false rumors that the Jews had assassinated Alexander II. These riots, in which Jews were killed and homes and synagogues destroyed, spread to 160 cities and villages in the Pale and recurred over the next four decades. The American ambassador wrote, “The acts which have been committed are more worthy of the Dark Ages than of the present century.”5

In Eastern and Southern Europe, nationalist movements, seeking to throw off Austrian or Turkish rule, turned violently against the Jews. In Central and Western Europe, where Jews were no longer confined to ghettos, anti-Semitic movements and parties, typified by Karl Lueger’s Austrian Christian Social party and Adolf Stoecker’s party of the same name in Germany, directed their ire at the least and most successful Jews. They stirred fear that poverty-stricken Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe were creating new ghettos while at the same time they excoriated wealthy, successful Jews who had lived in Germany and Austria for generations and who were assuming high positions in the professions, government, and the media. These parties called for restricting immigration and setting quotas for Jews in professions and universities. In France, an upsurge in anti-Semitism in the 1880s and ’90s culminated in the frame-up, trial, and conviction of the Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus for treason.

By stigmatizing Jews as an alien nation rather than as a religious group, the new anti-Semitism inspired Jews to consider whether, if they were a national group, they needed a land-based nation of their own. And the pogroms lent urgency to the task. While the first great Zionist tract, Hess’s Rome and Jerusalem, was ignored during his lifetime, the Russian Zionists of the 1880s, writing in the wake of the pogroms, were able to parlay their readership into an organized following.

The first two prominent Russian Zionists, Moshe Leib Lilienblum and Leo Pinsker, became Zionists in the wake of the pogroms. Lilienblum was a Talmudic scholar who, after breaking with the rabbinical orthodoxy, fled to Odessa, the capital of Jewish modernism. Pinsker was born in Russian Poland, the son of a distinguished Hebrew scholar. He was trained as a physician at the University of Moscow. He practiced in Odessa and was honored by Czar Nicholas I for his treatment of soldiers during the Crimean War.

Pinsker initially advocated Jewish assimilation, or “Russification” through the use of the Russian language and education in Russian culture. He was a leading member of the Society for the Spread of Culture among the Jews of Russia. But the pogroms turned him to Zionism. He resigned from the Society for the Spread of Culture and in 1882 published Auto-Emancipation, which helped inspire the Zionist movement in Russia. According to Pinsker, the Jews’ problem was that “among the nations under which they dwell,” they were the “ghost” of a nation rather than a real nation. Even after leaving Palestine, “they lived on spiritually as a nation,” but “they lack a certain distinctive national character, inherent in all other nations, which is formed by common residence in a single state.”6 That accounted for what Pinsker called “Judeophobia.” “If the fear of ghosts is something inborn, and has a certain justification in the psychic life of mankind,” he wrote, “why be surprised as the effect produced by this dead but still living nation.”7

Pinsker was convinced that Judeophobia was unavoidable as long as Jews were scattered as foreign bodies in the midst of other nations. “As a psychic aberration it is hereditary,” he wrote, “and as a disease transmitted for two thousand years, it is incurable.” Lilienblum, writing in 1883, was similarly pessimistic: “Civilization, which could virtually deliver us from those persecutions which have a religious basis, can do nothing at all for us against those persecutions that have a nationalistic basis.”8

Pinsker’s solution was not to fight Judeophobia. “We must give up contending against these hostile impulses as we must against every other inherited predisposition,” he wrote.9 Instead, Jews must eliminate the ghosts by establishing a real nation of their own. “Grant us our independence, allow us to take care of ourselves, give us but a little strip of land like that of the Serbians and Romanians, give us a chance to lead a national existence and then prate about our lacking manly virtues.”10

Pinsker thought that Palestine was the likely site of a Jewish state, but he didn’t claim Jewish title on biblical grounds. “The goal of our present endeavors must be not the ‘Holy Land,’ but a land of our own,” he wrote.11 Lilienblum was more willing to evoke past ownership. “Why should we be strangers in Gentile countries,” he asked, “while the land of our fathers has not yet disappeared from the face of the earth, is still desolate, and can, along with its neighboring environs, incorporate our people?”12

Lilienblum’s question, which was really an assertion, lay at the heart of early arguments for Zionism. While a few secular Jews like Pinsker eschewed biblical claims to Palestine, most Zionists did not—and that included secular Zionists like the young Pole David Ben-Gurion. Zionists regarded Palestine as the Jews’ home from which they had been unjustly expelled by the Romans in the first and second centuries C.E., and to which they were fully entitled to return and to lay claim as their own.

This conception of Zionism, rooted in the Old Testament, rested on a mythic version of Palestine. In fact, the land from “Dan to Beersheba” that the Jews briefly ruled was home to many different peoples and tribes.13 The area was also a “land of passage” in the Middle East through which different peoples entered and left—some voluntarily, some forcibly. In historical terms, the Zionist claim to Palestine had no more validity than the claim by some radical Islamists to a new caliphate. Nevertheless, this argument for Zionism, based on the Old Testament, carried great weight.

It was reinforced by Christian Zionism and its conception of Palestine as a “holy land” that had been despoiled by Islamic infidels. That idea went back to the Crusades, but it had been reshaped by the Christian Restorationists in the nineteenth century who called for a Jewish return to Palestine. It was as if Palestine had fallen out of history when the Muslims came during the sixth century and that its history would only resume when the Jews returned and reclaimed the land that was theirs.

Lilienblum, who had never set eyes on Palestine, assumed that if the Jews were to reclaim Palestine, they would discover a “desolate” land that was “desolated.” The term “desolate” has had two meanings: that Palestine was largely uninhabited (and therefore open for colonization), and that those who inhabited it had desolated it (and therefore didn’t deserve to inhabit or own title to it). Lilienblum seemed to use the term “desolate” primarily to imply a lack of inhabitants, even though in 1880 Palestine had about 500,000 inhabitants.14 This idea of a desolate Palestine would permeate early Zionist thought. The historian Anita Shapira writes, “The conception of return was closely related to another, namely, that the land was desolate, pining away in expectation for Jews to come and settle there.”15

This kind of thinking was common among Europeans who set out to colonize lands where the inhabitants were not Christian and at a lower level of economic development. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, English colonists and would-be colonists described North America as a “wasteland.”16 In 1702, the Puritan Cotton Mather described the migration into New England as “some thousands of Reformers [sailing] into the Retirements of an American Desert.”17 The English saw Africa and the West Indies as “barren” and therefore open to Western exploitation.

As applied to the “holy land” of Palestine, the concept of desolation rendered the Arab inhabitants virtually invisible. That was the thrust of what Christian Zionists, biblical scholars, and travel writers wrote about Palestine in the early nineteenth century. One English scholar, for instance, wrote of Palestine in 1838 that “the cup of wrath and desolation from the Almighty has been poured out upon her to the dregs; and she sits sad and solitary in darkness and dust.”18 Fifty years later, an emerging Zionist movement would echo these conceptions, promising to bring happiness and light to a forsaken and deserted land.

Ahad Ha’am and the Lovers of Zion

In 1884, Pinsker summoned thirty-four delegates to Kattowitz in German-controlled Silesia (and out of the czar’s reach) to the founding conference of the Lovers of Zion. About a score of Russian Jews had already made their way to Palestine; and the new organization was intended to send more. Although Pinsker was a secular Jew, the organization attracted the religiously devout who viewed the return to Zion in biblical terms. The Lovers of Zion established chapters across Europe and even a support group in the United States. But after initial reports of hardship, it had difficulty inducing Jews to emigrate to Palestine.

That changed somewhat after Baron Edmund James de Rothschild began investing—about $6 million from 1884 to 1890—in colonies in Palestine. In 1890 the Lovers of Zion was also able to win recognition from Russian authorities by defining itself specifically as a support group for émigré families; the Russians were happy to permit a group that encouraged Jews to leave. And in 1890–91, three thousand Russian and Romanian Jews left for Palestine.

As the Lovers of Zion was organizing, Russian Zionism acquired a new intellectual voice. Ahad Ha’am (meaning “one of the people”) was the pen name of Asher Ginsberg, who shunned publicity and who, as a result, has become known by his pen name rather than his given name. Ahad Ha’am articulated better than anyone before or after Zionism’s spiritual and emotional bonds with Palestine. And unlike many of his fellow Zionists, he also recognized the pitfalls of colonizing a country where people of a different nationality (and two different religions) already lived.

Ahad Ha’am, who was born in 1856, grew up in a rural estate in Ukraine that his father, a well-to-do farmer, rented from a Russian landowner. He even had his own bedroom and a separate study. His parents were members of the Hasidic religious cult that had sprung up in Poland during the eighteenth century. Hasidism was comparable to the Christian awakenings that date from the Reformation. It rejected an emphasis on textual interpretation and rote recitation in favor of emotional affirmation through faith and prayer. But it was also opposed to the Jewish enlightenment, which welcomed European science and culture. The precocious Asher Ginsberg was chastised for trying to learn algebra and Russian. Possessed of omnivorous curiosity, he eventually broke with Hasidism and acquired the learning and languages of a European intellectual. But in his conception of Zionism, he retained something of the emotional and cultural kernel of Hasidism.

Like other Russian Zionists, Ahad Ha’am seems to have come to Zionism in reaction to the pogroms of the early 1880s. When they occurred, he was, he wrote later, “like a man stunned … my world began to totter.”19 In 1884, while staying in Odessa, he joined Pinsker’s Lovers of Zion. In 1886, after the czar forbade Ahad Ha’am’s father and other Jews from leasing land, Ahad Ha’am and his family moved to Odessa, where he and his father went into business, and where Ahad Ha’am became a regular in Zionist political circles. In 1888 he penned his first major essay, “The Wrong Way,” a critique of the Lovers of Zion’s colonization strategy. Introverted, bookish, with short legs, a large head, and piercing eyes, he tried to stay out of the leadership of political groups, but he was possessed of strong and controversial opinions that he expressed in a lucid Hebrew that quickly made him famous among Russia’s Zionists.

While Ahad Ha’am was driven to Zionism by czarist repression, he did not see Zionism as a means of combating anti-Semitism; nor did he envisage Palestine as (in Pinsker’s words) a “safe retreat” from the pogroms of the Pale. He saw Zionism as a means of reviving Judaism rather than rescuing Jews. His Zionism was a mixture of nineteenth-century nationalism and of the Hasidism whose overt practices he had discarded. He saw the return of Jews to Palestine as a way of restoring the Jewish nation. He didn’t see the nation necessarily as a state but as a spiritual entity defined by a common culture and purpose. In Palestine, Jews would speak Hebrew and practice their religion openly and seek to live according to the Prophets. They would become a “people” again.

In current American terms, Ahad Ha’am was a communitarian rather than an individualist, but his was a hyper-communitarianism that derived from Hasidism and European nationalism. He associated individualism and the pursuit of self-interest with the decadent West and with the Reform Jews of Germany and France who were bent on assimilation. By settling in Palestine, Jews would not necessarily become prosperous, but they would contribute toward a national revival. Ahad Ha’am traced his nationalism back to the Law of Moses. “All the laws and ordinances, all the blessings and curses of the Law of Moses have but one unvarying object: the well-being of the nation as a whole in the land of its inheritance—the happiness of the individual is not regarded,” he wrote in “The Wrong Way.” “The individual Israelite is treated as standing to the people of Israel in the relation of a single limb to the whole body: the actions of the individual have their reward in the good of the community.”20

In his essay, Ahad Ha’am traced the embrace of individualism back to the fall of the First Temple, the growing popularity of otherworldly messianism, and the idea of an afterlife as a reward to the individual. But Ahad Ha’am’s more immediate target was the colonization appeals made by the Lovers of Zion. With America beckoning many Jews from the Pale, the Russian Zionists promised equal, if not greater, happiness and prosperity to Jews who would move instead to Palestine. When these emigrants often found poverty and malaria, they returned disillusioned. Ahad Ha’am argued that for colonization to succeed, the Zionists should stop appealing to self-interest. They “ought to have made it our first object to bring about a revival—to inspire men with a deeper attachment to the national life, and a more ardent desire for the national well-being.”21

Ahad Ha’am described the “nation” that he hoped to build as a “spiritual center” rather than a “state.” It would radiate outward to the Diaspora, reviving Judaism there as well as in Palestine. In an essay in 1891 in memory of Pinsker, he spelled out what he meant by spiritual center:

What we lack above all is a fixed spot to serve as a “national, spiritual center,” a “safe retreat,” not for the Jews, but for Judaism, for the spirit of our people … The establishing and development of such a center is to be the limited work of all the members of our nation wherever they may be scattered. Their common efforts are to effect the mutual approximation of those hitherto separated in space and spirit, and the visible center created by their limited striving is in turn to exert an influence upon every point at the periphery of the circle reviving the national spirit in all hearts, and strengthening the feeling of national kinship.22

Ahad Ha’am’s concept of a spiritual center has been compared to that of a Jewish Vatican, but his spiritual center was not strictly religious or theocratic. It was cultural and ethnic. Ahad Ha’am thought the Jewish religion was integral to the Jewish nation, but he didn’t think that every individual in the nation had to practice the religion. “It is possible to be a Jew in the national sense without accepting many things in which religion requires belief,” he wrote to the prominent New York Rabbi Judah L. Magnes.23

At various times, when Ahad Ha’am was accused of not being a genuine Zionist, he would insist that he saw a Jewish state, based on a Jewish majority, evolving eventually from the establishment of a Jewish spiritual center. But Ahad Ha’am’s references to Jewish statehood are few and almost always eclipsed by his discussion of Palestine as a “spiritual center.” One reason for that is that he saw the establishment of a spiritual center as the prerequisite for the establishment of a Jewish state. If Jews were to establish a state without creating the spiritual basis for it, the Jews, he wrote, “shall simply create a ‘problem of the Jews’ in a country in which it has not hitherto existed—in our ancestral land.”24

Unlike other early Zionists, Ahad Ha’am also recognized that in colonizing Palestine, the Jews would have to coexist with the existing non-Jewish inhabitants. In 1891, the Lovers of Zion sent Ahad Ha’am to observe conditions there. What he discovered contradicted the prevailing assumptions about Palestine. He wrote about his trip:

From abroad, we are accustomed to believe that Eretz Israel is presently almost totally desolate, an uncultivated desert, and that anyone wishing to buy land there can come and buy all he wants. But in truth it is not so. In the entire land, it is hard to find tillable land that is not already tilled … If the time comes when the life of our people in Eretz Israel develops to the point of encroaching upon the native population, they will not easily yield their place.25

Ahad Ha’am’s awareness that Arabs already dwelt in Palestine—and could covet a nation of their own—contributed to his emphasis of building a spiritual center not a state. As the Jewish settlements grew—and as the Arabs in Palestine reacted angrily, and then violently, to the prospect that a Jewish state would subordinate them—Ahad Ha’am would try to create a Zionism that could accommodate Arab nationalism. He would advocate a country where two nationalities, Jewish and Arab, could live side by side. That position would be taken up by Palestine’s first high commissioner, Herbert Samuel, and by a small group of eminent émigrés, including Martin Buber and Magnes, who would emigrate to Palestine and found the Hebrew University. But most Zionist leaders would reject it out of hand.

Herzl and the Jewish state

In 1893, when Ahad Ha’am visited Palestine for the second time, the Zionist settlements still only amounted to a few dots on a map. If the Zionist experiment had ended then, Walter Laqueur wrote, “it would now be remembered as one of the less important sectarian-Utopian movements which sprouted during the second half of the nineteenth century, an unsuccessful attempt at a Jewish Risorgimento, trying to graft the ideas of the Enlightenment on to the Jewish religious tradition.”26 It took a Viennese Jew, Theodor Herzl, to put Zionism in the forefront of European politics. Herzl did it by fitting Zionism into the prevailing framework of European imperialist politics.

Herzl was the son of a well-to-do Hungarian clothing merchant. His parents moved to Vienna when he was eighteen, and Herzl entered the University of Vienna, where he immersed himself in German culture and in the post-Enlightenment politics of Austria’s Liberal Party, which had championed Jewish emancipation.27 Herzl got a law degree, but he aspired to be a writer. A dandy and aesthete—elegantly attired, with a long beard—he wrote plays and freelance journalism. In 1891, he got hired by Vienna’s foremost Liberal newspaper, the Neue Freie Presse, as its Paris correspondent.

Growing up in Budapest and Vienna, Herzl had every reason to believe that he would be accepted as a Jew. The Jews of Central and Western Europe enjoyed far more social and economic freedom than did the Jews of the Russian Pale. No longer confined to ghettos, and to trade and usury, they could aspire to high ranks in the professions or in business. In Great Britain, Benjamin Disraeli, who was descended from Sephardic Jews, became prime minister. In Austria, Germany, France, and Great Britain, Jews defined their national identity as Austrian, German, French, or British rather than Jewish. Judaism, they insisted, was a religion, not a nationality.

In Vienna during the mid-1880s, however, Herzl began to feel the ill wind of anti-Semitism blowing in from the east. Von Schönerer campaigned for restricting Jewish immigration from Russia and Poland into Austria. Lueger’s Austrian Christian Social Party, following von Schönerer’s lead, took an anti-Semitic turn in the late 1880s. Herzl says in his diaries that he was alarmed by Eugen Duehring’s anti-Semitic book, The Jewish Question, which appeared in 1881. “In the course of succeeding years, the question gnawed and tugged at me,” he wrote.28 But when Herzl moved to Paris in 1891, he believed that he wouldn’t encounter the kind of anti-Semitism that had begun to stir in Central Europe.

European Jews had held up France as the vanguard of emancipation. In Rome and Jerusalem, Moses Hess had predicted that “France, beloved friend, is the savior who will restore our people to its place in universal history.”29 Herzl discovered, however, that France was not immune to the anti-Semitic infection. Soon after Herzl arrived to take his post, French newspapers began headlining a corruption scandal surrounding the construction of the Panama Canal. Two German Jews were marginally involved, but got the brunt of the blame. That was followed by the Dreyfus case, during which Herzl witnessed street demonstrators shouting “Death to the Jews.”

Of course, what Herzl experienced in Central and Western Europe didn’t compare in severity to the Russian pogroms that Pinsker, Lilienblum, and Ahad Ha’am had witnessed. But Russian Jews were inured to a far greater level of anti-Semitism than Herzl. The French scandals, along with the spread of anti-Semitism to Central Europe, challenged Herzl’s most basic assumptions about his place as a Jew in European society. Herzl initially responded by advocating assimilation on a grand scale, proposing that, in exchange for the pope’s repudiation of anti-Semitism, Jews convert en masse to Christianity. But that passing fancy gave way to Zionism.

Herzl turned to the establishment of a Jewish state as a refuge from anti-Semitism and not as an affirmation of Judaism. The historian Carl Schorske wrote of Herzl, “The very model of a cultivated liberal, he generated his highly creative approach to the Jewish question not out of immersion in the Jewish tradition but out of his vain efforts to leave it behind.”30 In 1895, Herzl penned an “address” to the family council of the Rothschilds asking for help in founding a Jewish state. The next year, he converted the address into a short book, The Jewish State, which became the manifesto of the new Zionist movement. And the next year, using it as his platform, he convened the first congress of the World Zionist Organization in Basel.

*   *   *

When he wrote The Jewish State, Herzl had not yet read Moses Hess and Leo Pinsker, but, like they did, he based his argument for a Jewish state on the growth and persistence of anti-Semitism, which he attributed to the existence of unassimilable Jewish minorities within nations striving for homogeneous ethnic identity. The “Jewish question,” Herzl wrote, is a “national question,” the solution of which was for Jews to establish a nation of their own outside of Europe.31 That would not only create a country devoid of anti-Semitism but it would undercut the basis of anti-Semitism in Europe, which, he argued, was based entirely on fear of an alien nation inside other nations. The new Jewish state “means the end of anti-Semitism,” Herzl wrote.32

Herzl’s vision of the Jewish state was very different from that of the Russian Zionists. He was a nineteenth-century European bourgeois liberal (as opposed to an American New Deal liberal). In The Jewish State, Herzl envisioned an “aristocratic republic” dominated like liberal Vienna by the educated upper classes.33 It would be ruled by Jews, but would not be dominated by the Jewish culture that Ahad Ha’am esteemed. Church and state would be separate. Immigrants would speak the language of their native lands. “Who amongst us has a sufficient knowledge of Hebrew to ask for a railway ticket?”34 Herzl asked. All faiths would be welcome. Herzl’s vision of Palestine, Schorske remarked, was “not a Jewish utopia but a Liberal one.”35

Herzl’s predecessors in the Lovers of Zion believed that Jews should establish a foothold in Palestine through gradual migration and settlement. By contrast, Herzl advocated buying or leasing Palestine as a colony before settling there. He wanted Jews to form a private company like Britain’s East India or South Africa Company that could buy title to land from a reigning imperial power. (Herzl admired the imperialist Cecil Rhodes, whom he described as “a visionary politician or a practical visionary,” and to whom he periodically appealed for help in founding a new Jewish state in Palestine.)36 The company could also buy out the native inhabitants and, if possible, convince them to emigrate. Following this strategy, Herzl tried to interest the Ottoman sultan in ceding Palestine and Britain’s colonial secretary in providing adjacent lands in the Sinai.

Herzl wanted the Jews to buy into the imperial system that had arisen over five centuries, and whose growth had accelerated since the 1870s as the great powers of Europe, joined later by Japan and the United States, sought to carve up the world into colonies and client states.37 The new Jewish state would become a junior partner in the British or the Ottoman Empires. To the Turks, Herzl proposed offering Jewish financial management of their imperial affairs. When it became clear they weren’t interested, he turned to the British, who had gained control of the Suez Canal and were looking for a buffer between the Turks and British-controlled Egypt. When his overtures to the British stalled, he looked to imperial Germany and even to Russia, courting Russia’s notorious minister of the interior Vyacheslav von Plehve, who had been a promoter of Russia’s pogroms.

Herzl’s appeal was geopolitical but also cultural, reflecting the widespread European justification of imperialism as an instrument of civilization.38 The new state, he promised, “should there form a part of a wall of defense for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism.”39 The writer Max Nordau, who would become Herzl’s second-in-command in the Zionist movement, agreed. “We will endeavor to do in the Near East what the English did in India. It is our intention to come to Palestine as the representatives of culture and to take the moral borders of Europe to the Euphrates.”40

In The Jewish State, which he wrote before visiting the Near East, Herzl did not mention the Arabs by name. He also described the region as a “desert.”41 But Herzl knew there were people living in Palestine. Dismissing the evolutionary approach of the Lovers of Zion, Herzl asked, “What is achieved by transporting a few thousand Jews to another country? Either they come to grief at once, or, if they prosper, their prosperity gives rise to anti-Semitism.”42 A gradual infiltration, Herzl wrote, “is bound to end badly. It continues until the inevitable moment when the native population feels itself threatened, and forces the government to stop a further influx of Jews.” But if Jews had the “sovereign right”—if they controlled the state—then they could permit immigration to continue.43

That would seem to give rise to an even more virulent anti-Semitism, but Herzl thought that the Jews could eventually win over the natives by making them prosperous. We “could build new roads for traffic … and many other things,” Herzl wrote.44 He spelled out this vision in Altneuland (Old-Newland), a utopian novel set in the Palestine of 1923, which he wrote in 1902. In the novel, the Zionists gain possession of the new land through a financial deal with the Turks. The local Arabs are initially wary, but they are won over when the Jews bring prosperity to the country and to them. “The Jews have enriched us. Why should we be angry with them?” Reschid Bey, one of the Arab leaders, explains. “They dwell among us like brothers. Why should we not love them?”45

Herzl also had a darker vision of how the new Jewish state would deal with its Arab inhabitants. In his Diaries, Herzl considered the possibility of getting rid of the natives by paying very high prices for their lands. He also envisioned Arabs as day laborers to drain the country’s malarial swamps—exactly the kind of employment to which imperial powers often consigned the natives they ruled.

Herzl’s motives in The Jewish State were not ignoble. He saw himself as rescuing his own people from persecution. And his vision of a Jewish Palestine was not inconsistent with a multinational, multiethnic society that tolerated differences in religion. But, like other Europeans during this age of imperialism, he viewed the natives in Asia, Africa, and Latin America as lesser beings who could be bought off—and, if that failed, subjugated. While he argued for a Jewish nationalism on a par with other European nationalisms, he couldn’t conceive of an Arab nationalism that would not be content with new roads and high land prices. Herzl’s achievement was to accommodate Zionism and Jewish nationalism to Great Power imperialism and to define Zionism as the quest for a Jewish state, but by doing so, he also set the stage for the century-long conflict between Jew and Arab.

*   *   *

A year after The Jewish State appeared, Herzl organized the first World Zionist Congress in Basel. It was attended by 197 delegates from all over Europe. Herzl had hoped to attract the Jewish upper crust, but many of the delegates from the Russian Pale had to scrape together the rail fare. “I stand in command of striplings, beggars, and sensation mongers,” Herzl complained in his diary. But he added, “Nevertheless, even this army would do the job if success were in sight.”46 The congresses became regular events and attracted a growing following. They gave rise to the Zionist Organization, headquartered in Berlin, and to a newspaper, Die Welt.

Together, these institutions established Zionism as a Western movement that commanded the attention of governments in Berlin, London, Paris, Moscow, and Washington. They also established Herzl as the movement’s leader. At the first congress, the British author Israel Zangwill, best known for his play The Melting Pot, described Herzl as “a majestic Oriental figure [who] stands dominating the assembly with eyes that brood and glow—you would say one of the Assyrian kings, whose sculptured heads adorn our museums, the very profile of Tiglath Pileser.”47

At the first Congress, the delegates came together around the goal Herzl had outlined in his book of establishing a Jewish state rather than the spiritual center that Ahad Ha’am had described. Establishing a Jewish state would remain the underlying aim of the Zionist movement. But it would also rarely be stated for fear of inflaming the opposition to a Jewish state. At the time, the delegates were worried about provoking the Turks, so they used euphemisms to describe their objective, calling for a “publicly recognized, legally secured home in Palestine for the Jewish people” rather than calling explicitly for a Jewish state.48 But everyone understood what was really involved. Writing in his diary after the first Congress, Herzl remarked, “Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word—which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly—it would be this: At Basel I founded the Jewish State.”49

Herzl had invited Ahad Ha’am, who had consented to attend, but as a visitor rather than as a voting delegate. Ahad Ha’am, already filled with misgivings, was sorely disappointed and even, it seems, enraged by the proceedings. He believed—and, as it turned out, with justification—that Herzl was deceiving the delegates by holding out the hope of being able to lease Palestine from the Ottomans. And he thought the basic premise of Herzl’s political Zionism was wrong. “The salvation of Israel will be achieved by prophets not diplomats,” he remarked in a note he published afterward.50

A year later, Ahad Ha’am expounded his differences with Herzl at greater length in an essay, “The Jewish State and Jewish Problem.” Even if by some miracle the political Zionists were able to acquire a Jewish state of Palestine, Ahad Ha’am argued, it would not “provide a remedy for poverty, complete tranquility and national glory.” Zionists, Ahad Ha’am wrote, should look to a Jewish homeland to provide only a “secure refuge for Judaism and a cultural bond of unity for our nation.” Herzl’s Zionism, Ahad Ha’am warned, “begins its work with political propaganda; the Lovers of Zion begins with national culture, because only through the national culture and for its sake can a Jewish State be established in such a way as to correspond with the will and the needs of the Jewish people.”51

At the third Zionist Congress in 1899, a debate broke out between the pro-Herzl “Politicals,” who favored winning title to a new Jewish state before encouraging large-scale immigration, and the “Practicals,” led by the Eastern European Zionists, who were influenced by Ahad Ha’am. Following Ahad Ha’am, they favored creating a Hebrew-speaking Jewish community in Palestine through gradual immigration that could become the basis for a Jewish state; but, in line with Herzl, they unambiguously backed the creation of a Jewish state. At the fifth congress in 1901, the Practicals formed a faction to resist the Politicals, and after Herzl’s death in 1904 they shared leadership with the Politicals.

Part of the debate revolved around the strategy for securing a Jewish state. Should the Zionist movement emphasize high-level diplomacy and deal making, as Herzl favored, or gradual immigration and evolution? The Practicals won that debate after Herzl died in 1904 without having made any headway in securing an imperial sponsor, and after a new wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine, a “Second Aliyah,” sparked by Russian pogroms. But the debate also touched the nature of the Jewish state. Should it primarily be a cosmopolitan, polyglot, multinational, and secular refuge for European Jews, as Herzl described in Altneuland, or a center for Hebrew and Judaic revival, as Ahad Ha’am proposed in his essays? The Practicals won that debate, too, as delegates decided to press ahead with establishing schools that would make Hebrew the official language of the new settlers. And their position was reinforced and redefined by the emergence, as a result of the Second Aliyah, of a new Labor Zionism that emphasized the primacy of land and labor in the creation of a Jewish nation.

Gordon and Labor Zionism

Labor Zionism was initially composed of two different and sometimes conflicting political tendencies—a Tolstoyan blend of nationalism associated with Aaron David Gordon and a socialist Zionism identified with Ber Borochov, Berl Katznelson, and David Ben-Gurion—but in the broader sweep of history the two tendencies were like people who spoke in different dialects but made the same point. And they were united in the late 1920s in the political party Mapai and in a politics called Labor Zionism that dominated the early years of the Zionist movement in Palestine. The key philosophical figure was Gordon, who is best known as the father of the kibbutz, the Jewish communal settlement.

Gordon was born in western Ukraine in 1856, the same year as Ahad Ha’am. Like Ahad Ha’am, he was from a well-to-do family that managed an estate and observed Hasidic Judaism. Sickly as a youth, he was educated by private tutors. When he was fourteen, he went to work managing the estate leased by a wealthy cousin, but in 1904 at age forty-eight, after the lease on the estate expired, he left for Palestine, where his wife and his children joined him three years later. Gordon had joined the Lovers of Zion. Influenced by Ahad Ha’am, he saw in Palestine a chance for the “national rebirth” of the Jewish people, who had been dispersed and degraded during their long exile.52

Gordon, like Ahad Ha’am, did not avidly practice the Jewish religion. Instead, he looked to Palestine for a cultural and ethnic rebirth of the Jewish people. But his sense of culture was different from the conventional understanding: he saw it not as “entirely as matter of ideas and ideology” but in “whatever life creates for living purposes. Farming, building and road-making—any work, any craft, any productive activity—is part of culture and is indeed the foundation and stuff of culture.”53 Under the influence of Leo Tolstoy, and perhaps as a result of his own unhappiness as a white-collar worker, Gordon exalted the role not just of any work but of manual labor as the key to the redemption of Eastern Europe’s Jews, who have “been completely cut off from nature and imprisoned within city walls. Only by making Labor, for its own sake, our national ideal shall we be able to cure ourselves of the plague that has affected us for many generations and mend the rent between ourselves and nature.”54

Just as Ahad Ha’am had regarded the Jewish return to Palestine as being devoid of meaning without a reaffirmation of Jewish culture, Gordon insisted that it had to be coupled with a return to the land and to labor. “We come to our Homeland in order to be planted in our natural soil from which we have been uprooted, to strike our roots deep into its life-giving substances, and to stretch out our branches in the sustaining and creating air and sunlight of the Homeland … Here, in Palestine, is the force attracting all the scattered cells of the people to unite into one living national organism.”55

After arriving in Palestine, Gordon worked for five years at a Jewish agricultural settlement that used Arab labor in its vineyards. But in 1906, Gordon helped inspire the founding of Hapoel Hatzair, a party devoted not only to the revival of Jewish culture through the use of Hebrew but to the Jewish commitment to labor on their own land. Hapoel Hatzair started one of the first kibbutzim, on which Gordon, who never formally joined the party, remained until his death in 1923. Balding, with a huge head and a long, flowing white beard, Gordon became the patriarch to his younger followers.

Gordon’s vision of a Jewish nation was influenced by, but different from, that of Ahad Ha’am. Gordon envisaged a nation of laborers; Ahad Ha’am envisaged a nation of scholars and rabbis. Ahad Ha’am’s years in business had not soured him on white-collar work the way that Gordon’s had. They also differed in their very concept of a Jewish nation. When Ahad Ha’am wrote of a Jewish nation, he often included implicitly the Jews of Palestine and the Diaspora. Palestine was to be the spiritual center of the larger Jewish nation. Gordon saw the Jewish nation as existing only in Palestine and as the foundation of whatever Jewish state came into existence. The Diaspora was irrelevant.

Gordon was, in this sense, a more typical nineteenth-century European nationalist—the heir of Rousseau and Herder—than Ahad Ha’am was. He saw the individual with his “ethnic self” being able to realize his true nature only through membership in an ethnic nation. In the Diaspora, Jews could possess a “historical” but not a transcendental ethnic identity. That could only be achieved by the return to Palestine. “We come to our homeland in order to be planted in our natural soil from which we have been uprooted,” Gordon wrote.56

The “foundation stones” for this “new national spirituality” were to be laid through what the members of Hapoel Hatzair, drawing directly upon Gordon’s ideas, called the “conquest of labor” and the “conquest of land.” Many of the colonists, who had been sponsored by Baron Edmond Rothschild, Baron Maurice de Hirsch, and the Jewish Colonization Association, had hired Arabs to do the manual work. But according to Gordon, Jews should employ only Jewish labor, whether on farms or later in offices and factories. “We must ourselves do all the work,” Gordon wrote, “from the least strenuous, cleanest and most sophisticated, to the dirtiest and most difficult … Only then shall we have a culture of our own.”57

The conquest of land meant that Jews could no longer rent their land from other nationalities, as Ahad Ha’am’s parents had done, but must own it and prevent its transfer to other peoples. In 1901, before Gordon’s arrival, the Practicals at the World Zionist Congress set up the Jewish National Fund to purchase land in Palestine that would be leased only to Jews and on which they would employ Jewish labor. Gordon provided an abiding rationale for its practices.

Gordon’s vision of a Jewish nation and state could be described as an ethnocracy. It excluded not only Arab labor but the Arab people themselves. Gordon acknowledged that Arabs had “a historical right to the country, just as we do,” but he claimed that the Jewish right “is undoubtedly greater.” “And what did the Arabs produce in all the years they lived in the country?” he asked. “Such creations, or even the creation of the Bible alone, give us a perpetual right over the land in which we were so creative, especially since the people that came after us did not create such works in this country, or did not create anything at all.”58 Gordon added: “Some hold that when we come to Palestine to settle upon the land, we are dispossessing Arabs who are its natural masters. But what does this term mean? If mastery of the land implies political mastery, then the Arabs have long ago forfeited their title.”59 Ahad Ha’am’s vision of Palestine left an opening for compromise with its existing inhabitants. Gordon’s did not; and Gordon’s vision of nationhood eventually superseded that of Ahad Ha’am.

Ben-Gurion, Katznelson, and the socialist Zionists who arrived during the Second Aliyah still gave some adherence to international socialism, but they subordinated the dictates of the international class struggle to the attempt to create a Jewish state. Zeev Sternhell calls them “nationalist socialists.”60 Within nationalist socialism, there was still room for concern about Arab workers and their fate; and at intervals over their first thirty years in Palestine, some of the socialists would voice support for a more democratic or binational Palestine.

But while the socialist Zionists didn’t necessarily share Gordon’s mystic notions of nationhood, their views of the importance of labor in building the Jewish state jibed perfectly with his. They would extend Gordon’s ideas from the kibbutz to the factory and office. Gordon justified his exclusion of Arab labor on Tolstoyan grounds of national rejuvenation through labor; the socialist Zionists did so on more pragmatic grounds—the new Jewish immigrants who were eventually going to constitute a majority in Palestine needed work. But they also invoked a quasi-socialist argument that by excluding Arab labor, they were avoiding the kind of exploitation that other colonists had inflicted on native populations. In 1934, Ben-Gurion told the Palestinian Arab intellectual Musa al-Alami, “We do not want to create a situation like that which exists in South Africa, where the whites are the owners and rulers, and the blacks are the workers. If we do not do all kinds of work, easy and hard, skilled and unskilled, if we become merely landlords, then this will not be our homeland.”61

Ben-Gurion and the socialist Zionists wanted to avoid being seen as colonialists, but they ended up replacing the colonialism of the European settler in Africa who exploited the native laborers with the colonialism of the European settler in North America who displaced rather than employed the Native Americans who lived on the lands they coveted. Moreover, in justifying their displacement of Arab labor, the Zionists invoked the same arguments that European settler colonialists had used in Australia, Africa, and North America: they were putting to good use lands the Arabs had desolated.

The Labor Zionists who came out of Gordon’s ethnocratic nationalism and Ben-Gurion’s nationalist socialism rejected Herzl’s strategy for creating a state, and his reliance on imperial philanthropy, but they accepted his elementary commitment to establishing a Jewish state, and borrowed many of their justifications for doing so from arguments that he had made. They also accepted Ahad Ha’am’s emphasis on gradually building a Zionist culture that could undergird a Zionist state, but they defined “state” and “nation” in such a way as to exclude Palestine’s Arabs.

*   *   *

In these early years, some Zionists questioned the prevailing view of Jewish-Arab relations. At a meeting in Basel during the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905, Yitzhak Epstein, a teacher who had migrated to Palestine, raised what he called the “Hidden Question.” “Among the difficult problems associated with the idea of the renewal of life of our people in its land, there is one question that outweighs all the others, namely, the question of our attitude to the Arabs,” Epstein said. “We have overlooked a rather ‘marginal’ fact—that in our beloved land there lives an entire people that has been dwelling there for many centuries and has never considered leaving it.”62

In a subsequent debate that took place over several years in Zionist publications, a few people took Epstein’s side. Hillel Zeitlin, who wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish, charged that Zionists “forget, mistakenly or maliciously … that Palestine belongs to others, and it is totally settled.”63 But the bulk of the comments wished the problem away. Many Zionists, echoing Herzl in Altneuland, argued that the Jews’ superior culture and knowledge would eventually win out over the native population. Yosef Klausner, a Lithuanian émigré and Hebrew scholar, wrote, “All our hope that someday we will be the masters of the land of our forefathers is not founded on the sword or the fist, but, rather, on the cultural advantage that we enjoy over the Arabs and the Turks, an advantage due to which our influence in the land will slowly increase. Ultimately the inhabitants there will subject themselves to this cultural influence, since they will find it brings benefit and blessing even for them.”64

Klausner’s views, even though sharply at odds with the reality of Palestine, would persist in those first decades among Zionists, especially those in the Diaspora, who would insist that large-scale Jewish immigration—and the eventual establishment of a Jewish state—would not or should not worry the native Arabs because of the economic benefits it would confer upon a desolate underpopulated land. These were rationalizations by which the early Zionists justified their conquest of the lands on which another people lived. They laid the basis for a Zionism that, while justifiable in the abstract, committed in practice many of the sins that Western European countries had visited upon native populations and that led to national rebellions.

 

Copyright © 2014 by John B. Judis

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