The Fate of Zionism: A Secular Future for Israel and Palestine


Internationally known historian and rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, best known for his classic The Zionist Idea, challenges us to reexamine the case for the legitimacy of the state of Israel from a secular point of view. He argues that the religious blinders of absolute thinking and hatred have obscured our vision. In this time of great turmoil in the Mideast, when conflict represents a potential nuclear threat to the region and to the world, it is an argument that is more relevant and ...

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Internationally known historian and rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, best known for his classic The Zionist Idea, challenges us to reexamine the case for the legitimacy of the state of Israel from a secular point of view. He argues that the religious blinders of absolute thinking and hatred have obscured our vision. In this time of great turmoil in the Mideast, when conflict represents a potential nuclear threat to the region and to the world, it is an argument that is more relevant and urgent than ever.

Charting a pragmatic middle path between the Israeli right wing and critics like Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, Hertzberg chronicles the conflict between the original secular vision of Israel and the illusions that came in the subsequent riptide of Israeli triumphalism and the myths of messianism. The deep need of the Israeli people for both power and security has created a paradox, one that can only be solved when the deeper question of legitimacy is addressed in a clear-eyed, secular fashion, away from the growing threat of clashing right wings and religious violence. Hertzberg calls us to go back to the future, to the original idea behind the founding of Israel — that a people persecuted, marginalized, and murdered under state sanction need a safe land, a place to be independent and free.

Between the growing religiously motivated blindness of the right wing (Arab, Jewish, and American Christian), and the one-sided blindness of the Western liberal intelligentsia, it has become difficult to see the future. Hertzberg calls on the United States to use its power and influence to help recover the original Zionist intent and settle the questions of legitimacy and coexistence for both Israelis and Palestinians.

During his entire career, Hertzberg has been at once supportive of the right to existence of the state of Israel but also a fierce critic of some of its policies — particularly the abuse of religious sentiments in the social arena. Realistic about the Palestinian injustice that is precipitated, Hertzberg offers a framework for a hopeful solution in a post-religious Zionist realpolitik.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
What's perhaps most moving about Hertzberg's lament is that he ends with a stern call to keep religion out of Arab-Israeli politics. If the two sides abandon the underlying secularism of their nationalisms, he preaches, all hope will be lost. — Warren Bass
Publishers Weekly
Author of The French Enlightenment and the Jews, The Zionist Idea and other books, eminent academic Hertzberg heard David Ben-Gurion thunder against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza on the eve of Israel's victory in the 1967 war. Although it took "a couple of years of hard thinking to become one of Ben-Gurion's followers," this proposed, resolutely secular framework for Israel and for a Palestinian state grew out of the experience: anti-messianic and anti-absolutist, Hertzberg proposes that, at the very least, it is time "for the insistence of hard-liners on both sides to end." (On sale Oct. 14) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Washington Post Book World
“Arthur Hertzberg has written a heartbreaking, powerful essay that is essential reading for anyone concerned about Israel’s future.”
“A powerful lament. . . Hertzberg recounts with great detail and passionate conviction the story of Zionism.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060557867
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/1/2003
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.75 (w) x 8.58 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, author of The Zionist Idea, Jewish Polemics, The Jews in America, Jews, and A Jew in America, is the Bronfman Visiting Professor of Humanities at New York University and Professor Emeritus of Religion at Dartmouth. A world-renowned Jewish scholar, he has served as president of the American Jewish Policy Foundation and the American Jewish Congress and as vice-president of the World Jewish Congress.

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Table of Contents

1 Back to the Future 1
2 The Stalemate of Legitimacy 20
3 Arabs Fight Jews 62
4 What Many Liberals Can't See 108
5 Is a Future Possible? 145
Epilogue 178
Acknowledgments 183
Notes 186
Bibliography 192
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First Chapter

The Fate of Zionism
A Secular Future for Israel & Palestine

Chapter One

Back to the Future

Ben-Gurion's instincts in June 1967 were very much on target. The "new" Zionism that he warned about was a secular movement, but it had never quite broken its connection with the Jewish religion. After the Six-Day War many Zionists believed that this great victory was proof that God was on their side. They were all the more certain that they were special people and living at a special time because the Jews now had more power than they had ever before possessed. The favor of God and their own military strength guaranteed their future. But these notions were and remain a delusion. Modern Zionism can succeed today only if it emphasizes its largely secular origins. It dare not walk down the path of religious certainty or the arrogance of power.

What Is Zionism?

The short definition of modern Zionism is that it is a political movement for a Jewish national state in Palestine begun by Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl. Herzl insisted that the Jews had to become a "normal people" in a land of their own. Otherwise, the "abnormality" of the Jews as a beleaguered minority everywhere would persist. We will be going into much greater detail later in the chapter, but readers may get a better idea of what modern Zionism consists of by first considering what it excludes or even denies. Modern Zionism did not arise to carry out an imperative of the Jewish faith that God had designated the Holy Land as the ultimate home of the Jews. The Jewish religious imperative had always been defined as forbidding the Jews to take direct action themselves to re-create their kingdom; their return had to wait for God's miraculous intervention. Indeed, from the very beginning to this day, the majority of Orthodox Jews of the world have not accepted Zionist ideology, which does advocate human endeavor on behalf of the establishment of a Jewish national state. The movement that Herzl launched side-stepped the inherited Jewish faith to propose that not faith in God but rallying against anti-Semitism was the tie that bound Jews together. His critics among the Zionists found him to be too assimilated (in December he had a Christmas tree in his apartment in Vienna), but they too were overwhelmingly secular; they wanted to redo Judaism and make of it a national culture in Hebrew. To this day the cultural capital of Zionism remains Tel Aviv, the most secular of Israeli cities, and not Jerusalem, which is very nearly dominated by Orthodox believers.

It is of the most profound importance that modern Zionism not be identified as the lineal heir to the religion of the Bible. If the Jewish claim to a homeland in Palestine rests on the assertion that it is the Holy Land that God promised to Abraham for his children, it follows that Muslims have the right to claim that the Prophet made the site of the ancient temple holy to the new Islamic faith through the miracle of arriving there one night from Medina and immediately ascending from there to heaven. It can be argued, further, that the land as a whole belongs to followers of the Prophet because they conquered it soon after the faith of Islam was proclaimed; it is a doctrine of Islam that all such lands are forever inalienable. By the same token, Christians have long maintained that the Jews can return to the Holy Land only as part of the miracle of the end of days, which will happen as part of the second coming of Christ. This age will begin with the acceptance by the Jews en masse of faith in Jesus. Obviously, these three religious scenarios are incompatible, and they cannot compromise. Followers of each faith might agree to wait for the end of days to find out which of these religious dramas is correct, but they would have to agree that actual arrangements in the Holy Land today can only be pragmatic, essentially secular, and based on considerations other than predictions that stem from literalist readings of various religious texts.

It is even more important within the Jewish community that modern Zionism not be identified as the heir and continuation of the messianic element in classic Jewish religion. If the Zionist endeavor is ever dominated by the notion that Jews have come back to Palestine as a giant step toward the coming of the messiah, there can be no peace within the Jewish camp. Such messianists are sure that they are carrying out the will of God. They can -- indeed, they must -- disregard Israeli governments that have put limits on or even tried to stop the actions of settlers in the West Bank. Some of these believers encouraged the assassination of a prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin. The assassin himself acted in good conscience; he was removing someone who was willing to give back to the Arabs most, or perhaps all, of the land of the West Bank. Thus, Rabin had, so the messianists insisted, put himself beyond the pale by having become an enemy of God.

This religious absolutism leads to the further conclusion that aggressive Jewish endeavors on its behalf do not have to make any rational political sense. Thus, a small but vehement group exists in contemporary Israel that calls itself Ateret Kohanim. Some members have been stopped several times from putting dynamite under the foundations on which the Dome of the Rock stands; it had been built where the inner sanctuary of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem once stood. Fortunately such attempts were aborted by the Israeli police, but members of Ateret Kohanim have never given up their certainty that this act of clearing the Temple Mount should be carried out; success in dynamiting the Dome of the Rock will evoke divine help in the immediate restoration of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Some associated with this group have been weaving garments for the priests who will serve in this temple and making vessels, as described in the Bible ...

The Fate of Zionism
A Secular Future for Israel & Palestine
. Copyright © by Arthur Hertzberg. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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