Modern Zionism, the advocacy of national self-determination for the Jewish people, has undergone significant transformations since its inception toward the end of the nineteenth century. In his latest book, journalist-scholar Milton Viorst addresses the following question: "How did Zionism, over the course of a century, evolve from the idealism of providing refuge for beleaguered Jews to a rationalization for the army's occupation of powerless Palestinians?" He searches for the answer by examining in chronological order the thoughts and actions of eight Jewish leaders who helped to shape the evolution of Zionism.
Theodor Herzl is rightly regarded as the founder of modern political Zionism. A native of the Hapsburg Empire and an assimilated Jew and secular journalist and playwright, Herzl espoused the need for self-governance as a sine qua non for Jewish survival. He regarded the creation of a national home for Jews as an alternative to failed assimilation attempts and as a panacea for the violent anti-Semitism raging throughout fin de siécle Europe.
In his seminal work, The Jewish State (Der Judenstaat, published in 1886), Herzl envisioned the emergence of an independent polity that was neither particularly Jewish nor Zionist. Herzl's state would be governed by and for Jews but was devoid of any connection to Judaic religious practice, Jewish culture or the Hebrew language. Equally strange, it was not placed in Zion but in Argentina.
In 1897, Herzl personally transformed his vision of Jewish statehood into a universal political cause by convening the first World Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. In addition to establishing the World Zionist Organization (WZO), the congress approved a program calling for the creation of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine, secured by public law. This particular phrasing was meant to indicate that the political home for Jews could be established in any part of Palestine, an area whose territory was not clearly delineated at that time, and that it would come about only through the approval of the Ottoman Empire or guarantees of the Great Powers.
Herzl devoted the remainder of his short life to frenetic shuttle diplomacy, trying to secure support for the Basel program from Turkish, Russian, British, German and Italian rulers as well as wealthy Jewish financiers. That he was more concerned about finding a safe refuge for Jews somewhere than about locating it in the holy land is evident in his acceptance of Britain's offers to establish temporary havens for Jews in El-Arish in northern Sinai and in another area near the Kenyan-Ugandan border. The first proposal was eventually withdrawn, and the latter was formally rejected by the seventh Zionist Congress in 1905.
The place of Palestinian Arabs in Herzl's Zionism was clarified in his fictional novel Old New Land (Altneuland). The Arabs in the story are depicted as beneficiaries of Jewish settlement and economic investment in Palestine. Viorst notes that, like many of his successors, "Herzl never imagined Arabs being attracted, as Jews were, to their own nationalism."
In sharp contrast to Herzl, Chaim Weizmann actively championed cultural Zionism, the quest for a Jewish state exclusively in Palestine that embraced and promoted Jewish ethical values, culture and the Hebrew language. A native of the Russian Pale of Settlement, Weizmann emigrated to England in 1903 and became a renowned chemist. He was initially elected to the presidency of the English Zionist Federation before assuming the helm of the WZO.
Anticipating the emergence of England as the eventual victor in World War I, Weizmann believed that the Zionist movement needed to forge a close political alliance with London. His discovery of acetone, a component that enhanced the quality of British munitions, facilitated Weizmann's access to Britain's ruling circles. Weizmann's greatest success was his ability to convince the Lloyd George government that its alignment with Zionism would help England win the war and further cement its interest in a postwar presence in Palestine. He became the major force in the drafting of the Balfour Declaration, a document approved by the cabinet in November 1917 that endorsed British support for a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine.
Leading the Zionist delegation at the 1919 Paris conference, Weizmann successfully persuaded the victorious Allied Powers to include the Balfour Declaration in the peace treaty, thereby transforming it from a rather vague expression of British intent to an international legal obligation of the League of Nations. Weizmann attained another goal in August 1920, when the Treaty of Sèvres awarded the mandate over Palestine to Britain.
Weizmann's Zionism envisioned a Palestine ruled by Jews without recognizing the nationalist aspirations of the Palestinian Arabs, who constituted 90 percent of the local population by the end of the war. In the Balfour Declaration, which Weizmann helped to draft, the Arabs are vaguely identified as "existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine" with undefined "civil and religious rights." Viorst concludes that Weizmann "did not wish to offend the Arabs, or their national feelings, but in his mind the challenge of reaching an accommodation with them took a backseat — far back — to the goal of assuring Jewish rule."
While Weizmann championed the diplomatic route to statehood, Vladimir (Zeev) Jabotinsky insisted that Jews would never be able to establish a state of their own without resorting to, and relying on, the use of superior military force. His advocacy of militant Zionism resulted from his recognition that Arab nationalism had a legitimate claim on Palestine that could not be reconciled peacefully with the right of Jews to live securely in their ancestral home.
At the outset of World War I, Jabotinsky arduously campaigned for the creation of a Jewish Legion within the British army in the fight against the Ottoman empire. He believed that Jews needed to participate in the liberation of Palestine in order to increase pressure on London to implement the Balfour promises after the end of the war. His proposal was approved by the Lloyd cabinet in August 1917, and by fall 1918 he commanded a force of 5,000 Jewish legionnaires, who assisted General Allenby's capture of Damascus.
In 1920, Jabotinsky unified numerous self-defense units, protecting outlying settlements against Arab attacks, into a single military force that would defend the entire Jewish community in Palestine. He took personal command of the Haganah, the forerunner of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Jabotinsky found himself at war with several political opponents. In 1923, he resigned from the Zionist Executive to protest Weizmann's conciliatory approach toward London. Two years later, he founded the Zionist Revisionist movement to promote militant opposition against Britain's policies that severely limited Jewish immigration into Palestine and restricted land sales by Arabs to Jews during the Mandate. Jabotinsky's revisionism also regarded Transjordan — unilaterally severed by Britain from the Palestine Mandate and made into an independent entity in 1921 — as an indivisible part of the Jewish homeland.
Jabotinsky also promoted Betar, a right-wing, militant Jewish youth organization whose members vowed willingness to sacrifice their lives in the quest for the Jewish state. In 1931, he became Betar's military commander and political leader. Two years later, he was elected by plebiscite to be president of the Union of Zionist Revisionists, and in 1935, after seceding from the WZO, he was chosen to lead the rival New Zionist Organization (NZ0).
During the Arab Revolt (1936-39), Jabotinsky took command of the Irgun, the revisionist militia that carried out a campaign of terror against both Arab villages suspected of sheltering armed guerrillas, and British military and police forces preventing European Jewish refugees from reaching Palestinian shores. By 1937, Jabotinsky's opposition to Weizmann's mainstream Zionism manifested itself in his unqualified rejection of the Peel plan, the British proposal to partition Palestine west of the Jordan river into a tiny Jewish state and a considerably larger Arab state.
Viorst concludes that Jabotinsky, as the father of Revisionism, created a "more rigid, heavily militaristic and deeply divided Zionism." Although he died in 1941, Jabotinsky's ideological heirs Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu have led Israel's right-wing Likud governments for almost all of the past four decades. With his embrace of free-market economics and hostility toward labor unions, Jabotinsky also clashed with David Ben-Gurion, the founder and champion of Labor Zionism. As head of the Jewish Agency, the Zionist Executive in Palestine, and later as Israel's first prime minister, Ben-Gurion was the dominant Zionist leader during the first half of the last century. In 1920, he founded Mapai, the Labor Party, and the Histadrut, the General Federation of Jewish Labor, which became the nucleus of a social-democratic state. Under Ben-Gurion's leadership, the Histadrut served as an umbrella for numerous trade unions, labor exchanges and construction companies. It managed a wide-ranging health-insurance program and an array of cultural institutions and eventually took control of the Haganah. Ben-Gurion also established an elected assembly that challenged the Mandatory administration and became the foundation for the Knesset.
Viorst faults Ben-Gurion for his failure to include Palestine's Arab population in his socialist vision. He notes that the Histadrut strengthened Jewish labor by denying Arab workers access to the labor exchanges, thereby widening the economic gap between the two communities. In a paper he wrote in 1940, Ben-Gurion acknowledged that, while expulsion of Arabs from Palestine would be ethically and politically wrong, it could nevertheless not be ruled out under any and all circumstances. Indeed, during the 1948 war, Ben-Gurion ordered the IDF to evict several thousand Arabs from Lydda and Ramle. He further suggested in the midst of the war that the IDF take advantage of its superiority and capture the entire West Bank, but his proposal was rejected by the cabinet.
Ben-Gurion declared that, with Israel's independence having been achieved, the WZO had ended its historic role as a bond among all Jews around the world. He maintained that, as a sovereign state, Israel would take control over its own affairs and not serve as the representative of world Jewry.
Ben-Gurion was instrumental in establishing numerous political, economic and social institutions that laid the foundation for the emergence of an independent Jewish state at the end of the British Mandate in mid-May 1948. His greatest failure was an unwillingness and inability to reach out to Palestinian Arabs during the Mandatory period or to make peace with Israel's neighboring Arab states during Israel's formative years.
The father-son team of Rav (distinguished rabbi) Abraham Isaac Kook and Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook are regarded respectively as the leading theologian and activist-interpreter of Religious Zionism. The elder Kook rejected the traditional rabbinical doctrine that Jews were forbidden to return to the holy land before the coming of the Messiah. Instead, he infused Zionism with religious belief and maintained that all aspects of Jewish nationalism — including the land of Zion, the Hebrew language, Jewish history, and Jewish culture and customs — were steeped in the divine spirit.
Shortly after his arrival in Palestine in 1904, Rav Kook was named the rabbi of Jaffa. At the beginning of the British Mandate, he was appointed Palestine's first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi. During World War I, he strongly supported the founding of Jabotinsky's Jewish Legion and backed Weizmann's quest for the Balfour Declaration. In 1924, the elder Kook established Mercaz HaRav, a modern orthodox yeshiva (religious school) in Jerusalem whose curriculum focused on Zionism as a central component of Judaism.
After several bloody clashes between Palestinian Jews and Arabs in the late 1920s, Rav Kook slowly gravitated toward Revisionist Zionism. He eventually became an enthusiastic supporter of Jabotinsky's grandiose territorial vision of a Jewish Palestine stretching from the Mediterranean to far beyond the east bank of the Jordan River. He also embraced Jabotinsky's advocacy of military force to attain the Revisionist dream of a Greater Israel.
Following in the footsteps of his more illustrious father, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook actively cemented the fusion of religious and revisionist Zionism. As head of the Mercaz yeshiva, he required its students to attend military parades, declared war-making a sacred religious duty, treated military officers as religious dignitaries, and designated Israel's Independence Day a religious holiday.
Religious Zionism began to dominate Israel's territorial policies toward the West Bank immediately after the end of the 1967 war. On June 7, shortly after the IDF had gained control over East Jerusalem, Rabbi Kook declared at the Western Wall, "By divine command, we have returned to our home, to our holy city. From this day forth, we shall never depart." Shortly thereafter, the cabinet approved a law annexing the entire city. Later that summer, Kook and his followers persuaded the government to permit the resettlement of Kfar Etzion, near Hebron. In early 1968, one of Kook's most ardent disciples, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, engineered what turned out to be the permanent return of Orthodox Jews to Hebron. Time and again, religious Zionists successfully challenged the government to hold on to Judea and Samaria in God's name and were the main political force behind Israel's vast settlement construction throughout the West Bank.
Viorst notes that, after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and particularly after the emergence of Likud governments beginning in 1977, "led by Kook's followers, Israel's growing domination of Palestine's Arabs had become an irresistible force at the core of Zionism." Religious Zionists organized Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful) to ensure that the government would fulfill God's command to Jews to hold on to their entire biblical inheritance. Because he and his minions successfully convinced Labor and Likud governments that "all this land is ours, absolutely belonging to all of us, ... nontransferable to others, even in part," Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook can be rightly regarded as "the most influential religious leader of Israel's era of independence."
The ideologies and policies of Likud prime ministers Menachem Begin and Benjamin Netanyahu embody a fusion of revisionist and religious Zionism. Since their cabinets have included a significant number of Orthodox ministers, Likud's secular revisionists have insisted that Israel must hold on to the West Bank for security reasons, while their Orthodox allies have opposed withdrawal from the occupied territories on religious grounds.
As head of the Irgun, the underground pre-state paramilitary organization, Begin rejected the 1947 UN partition resolution; he believed that Jews had the right to exercise sovereignty in a polity straddling both sides of the Jordan River. As leader of the Herut (Freedom) opposition party, Begin objected to the IDF's withdrawal from the Sinai after its 1956 Suez victory. Following the Yom Kippur War, he campaigned against the Sinai I and II disengagement accords negotiated with the assistance of Henry Kissinger because they resulted in Israel's ceding portions of the peninsula back to Egypt.
During Begin's premiership (1977-83), the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank more than doubled from approximately 50,000 under the Labor Party to over 106,000. Israel's presence in the territory was further cemented with the continuous construction of a network of settlements, roads, schools and electrical grids. With Begin's prodding, the Knesset approved a basic law in July 1980 declaring that Jerusalem will remain the unified capital city of Israel within the borders delineated by the government following the 1967 war, and that no part of the city may be handed over to a foreign government or body. In 1981, the government extended Israeli law to the Golan Heights. Begin was willing to cede the entire Sinai back to Egypt as part of 1979 peace treaty because, in marked contrast to the West Bank, the peninsula held no religious significance for most Jews, and the treaty with its most militarily capable former foe helped to strengthen Israel's occupation of Judea and Samaria.
During his first term as prime minister, beginning in 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu refused to fulfill Israel's obligations under the Oslo accords, expanded construction of settlements in the territories, and accelerated the penetration of Jewish neighborhoods into areas east of Jerusalem. In late 2003, he resigned from the cabinet to protest Ariel Sharon's decision to abandon the Gaza Strip and evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements there. Since the onset of his second term in 2009, Netanyahu has become the first and only Israeli premier to openly deny that Arabs have a legitimate link to any part of Palestine. Clearly committed to Israel's total control of the West Bank, Netanyahu has justified the permanent occupation as Israel's security shield against Arab threats to its existence.
For those unfamiliar with Zionism, Viorst has provided a very accessible introduction. However, because he chose to focus on the thoughts and actions of several Zionist leaders, the book contains a good deal of familiar biographical material as well as rather lengthy excursions into the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As a result, one learns little about Zionism per se, especially in the chapters about Ben-Gurion, Begin and Netanyahu.
Viorst correctly identifies disputes over the disposition of the West Bank as major and persistent sources of schism between Labor Zionism, on the one hand, and its revisionist and religious rivals, on the other. However, the ideological and political disputes with the Zionist camp go much deeper than disagreements over territory. Viorst barely touches on the demands by revisionist and Orthodox Zionists that Palestinians recognize Israel as a distinctly Jewish state in any peace negotiations. Additional conflicts within Zionism involve disagreements over the questions of who is a Jew and whether the Knesset should enact a law that establishes a distinct Israeli nationality applicable to all of its Jewish and Arab citizens.
Lastly, while the question of how Zionism has evolved since Herzl is an important one, it would have been beneficial to have had an additional final chapter explaining why Zionism has undergone various transformations in the last 120 years.