The Tragedy of Zionism
(1985, 359 pp)
Bernard Avishai is a keen observer of the Zionist venture. I know him from his fine writing in the New Yorker, The Nation, the New York Review of Books, and other periodicals. I thought it was high time to take a look at his book length writings.
I start with the Tragedy of Zionism. Avishai has said that when the book was published in 1985, it cost him a tenured position at MIT. Perhaps he anticipated what was coming: he looks out from the back jacket of the book, arms defiantly crossed, looking very Abbie Hoffmanesque. But the hysterical response was reactionary. See, e.g. Kirkus (the book is “desperately seeking controversy”). In fact, the book is a wonderfully readable and objective account of Zionism from its origins in the late 19th century, up to the eve of the first intifada (1987). Thirty two years after its publication, The Tragedy of Zionism remains an excellent overview for anyone interested in the topic of Israel, and its judgments are more valid than ever.
The intervening years have deepened the tragedy: there have been three intifadas, three Gaza wars, a second Lebanon war, more settlements, and the construction of prison like walls to isolate Gaza and to cut off and manage Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Thirty-two years on, democracy in Israel is in more danger than when the book was published. It’s high time that the American Jewish community, which could not stand to listen to Avishai’s message 32 years ago, take another look at this book and open their minds to its message.
Here’s a synopsis.
Part I: Origins to 1931
Avishai starts with a short, almost poetic, sketch of Eastern European Jewry in the 19th century: from 1807, the year Napoleon emancipated the Jews, through 1825, the year Czar Nicholas I intensified persecution of the 1.5 million Jews living in the Russian empire, to 1835 and the start of greater conscription of young Jewish men into the Czar’s army, to economic changes wrought by industrialization and mass migration to the cities, to disruptions resulting from the emancipation of Russian serfs in 1861, to the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 and the Jewish pogroms that followed.
Zionism was born of necessity and circumstance, suggests Avishai, but the path was not obvious:
The flow of Jews to the cities … turned into a flood. By 1897, the Jewish population of Minsk was 47,562; it was 32,400 in Dvinsk. In Minsk, the Jews finally comprised 52 percent of the whole population; in Bialystock, 63 percent. . . In time the total Jewish population swelled to nearly 5 million, and hundreds of thousands were intimidated and went hungry. Young Jews felt themselves caught between the lure of modern life and a new age of barbarism, unable to go forward and unable to go back. Most were seized with the desire to act dramatically in defense of Jewish interests. . . ; they became increasingly impatient, radical, nationalist. Yet their miserable life did not make the value of a Zionist movement seem obvious. To many, the ideal of a Jewish national home in biblical Eretz Yisrael only mocked their condition.
What excited most of these people was not any movement but an impulse to motion—that is, the passage of ships from Odessa to New York. Between 1881 and 1914, 2.5 million Jews emigrated from the Russian Empire. Of these, 2 million settled in America and only 30,000 made their way to Palestine. American democracy was, and remains, Zionism’s great rival in providing for the safety of Jews.
Avishai traces the growth of early nationalist Zionism through such men as Leo Pinsker, Theodore Herzl, and Vladimir Jabotinsky. All of these men had attempted to assimilate, says Avishai, and all of them shared the conviction that Gentiles would never let Jews assimilate. Individual Jews might try to do so, but common prejudice and anti-Semitism would keep the Jews a people apart.
Pinsker’s and Zabotinsky’s vision for Zionism was steeped in the European far right miasma of Ernst Haeckel, Oswald Spengler, and Enrico Ferri. See Eran Kaplan’s The Jewish Radical Right. “For Pinsker,” says Avishai, “nations were produced by subtle fellow feeling, by psychological, not cultural ties; nations emerged inevitably from the world’s competitive, abrasive conditions, its ‘inherent national antagonisms.’” For these monists, seize the day is what was called for, not visions of universal rights and equality. For these men, “the ideal of international harmony,” continued Avishai, “was nothing more than a dangerous illusion. Jews had to overcome moralistic hallucinations that kept them from seeing what Darwin saw: that only the fit survive, that weakness inspires attack.” These men were not democrats.
A group of young Jewish intellectuals set about doing what needed to be done. They moved to Eretz Ysrael “in a spontaneous show of revolutionary zeal; they founded Rishon LeZion and Zichron Yaacov.” Others joined inspired by Tolstoy and his ideals: they wanted to become a Hebrew peasantry and live autonomous lives “on their native soil.” By 1890 there were 3,000 Jewish agricultural settlers in Palestine, says Avishai, and they were working towards a communal, self-contained, Hebrew culture.
Meanwhile, in Basel in 1897, Herzl organized the First World Zionist Conference. It, too, offered a secular national vision. German Jews “renounced the communitarian works of Eastern Orthodoxy in favor of an individualist faith,” observed Avishai. Their concern was not the preservation of Judaism as a communal religion. In fact, a mere four years before the Basel conference Herzl entertained the idea that the solution to “the Jewish problem” could be the mass conversion of Jewish children to Christianity. It was the trial of Albert Dreyfus in Paris and the rise of anti-Semitism at the dawn of the 20th century that turned Herzl into a community organizer and propagandist for Zionism.
Herzl shallowly imagined this Zion as a liberal, cultured outcrop of Europe– a Europe for Jews.
Others looked at Herzl’s secular dreams of assimilation and recoiled in horror. Writers like Alexander Zederbaum-Erez and Peretz Smolenskin, and the historian Simon Dubnow, reports Avishai, were steeped in their parents’ Torah culture. They sought to bring a more communal and traditional vision of Judaism to a new land in Zion. “If political Zionists wanted Jews to take up the challenge of more powerful men,” says Avishai, “the cultural Zionists wanted an answer for Judaism.”
Orthodox seclusion had produced a common aesthetic sense, a year shaped by festivals and a singsong Hebrew liturgy. There was an oral tradition of legends and heroes, a diet of permitted foods, not to mention the unifying intellectual experience of studying the classical texts and rabbinic literature. Impressed by this ambiance, the people who became cultural Zionists perceived the Jewish predicament not from what was ominous about the Gentile world, but from what was most compelling about the Jewish tradition—language, text, prophesy.
These cultural Zionists set about to establish a cultural life worth fighting for. They wanted that sense of continuity from communing with the places of Jewish national origins. Like the monist nationalists, the cultural Zionists were secular. They had no more respect for Arab or Muslim religious culture than for Jewish Orthodoxy. But unlike nationalists, who looked to displace the local Arab population, cultural Zionists remained open to bi-national arrangements with Palestine’s native inhabitants.
Asher Ginzburg, born in Kiev in 1856, and assuming the pen name of Achad Haam, advocated for a Jewish state, and not merely a state for Jews in Palestine. But it’s a curious kind of “Jewish state” that Haam envisioned, one divorced from metaphysical conceptions of God’s will, but one full of superior scientific and artistic cultures expressed in their unique language. Start-up nation, David Grossman, Amos Oz, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and young Hebrew speakers in shorts and tank-tops holding hand on Rothchild Boulevard would have pleased Achad Haam, suggests Avishai.
Achad Haam was a utopian. A reader of Herbert Spencer, he believed that reason and scientific knowledge (not the rights of man) would perfect man, and cause man to ultimately “find no greater pleasure than in working for the good of others.” The practice of religion, in Hebrew, in accordance with reason would be instrumental to usher in this messianic age. The cultural Zionism of Achad Haam would include the study of Torah, halakha [religious law], Talmud, blessings and prayers, and the entire oral tradition of Judaism as a training regimen for Jewish minds on the way to naturally finding “no greater pleasure than in working for the good of others.”
Don’t ask Gazans how that worked out.
Labor Zionism turned out to be the right tool for building the state. In 1897, the same year as the Basel conference, and the founding of the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish labor movement the Allgemeiner Judischer Arbeiterbund was formed. Highly successful, and initially staunchly anti-Zionist, the movement did nevertheless spin off a number of dynamic leaders to Palestine, like Nachman Zyrkin and Ber Borochov, who founded the first labor Zionist movement in Eretz Israel.
Socialism made immigration a one-way valve—workers would not be tempted to leave in an economic downturn; socialism allowed farms to be self-sufficient without hiring Palestinian labor; and socialism provided cohesiveness for the building-up of militias and the propagation of Hebrew. “From class (a Jewish labor class in Palestine) to Nation,” is how one of David Ben-Gurion’s slogans had it.
Avishai covers the thinking and advocacy of such early Labor Zionist leaders as Ber Borochov, Nachman Syrkin, Aaron David Gordon, Arthur Ruppin, and their contemporary Orthodox rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, David Ben Gurion, and Chaim Weizmann among many others.
There was Kook:
“[Kook] conceived of the advent of the Zionist labor movement as a strengthening of the vessles for Ruach Elohim, the ‘spirit of God.’ ‘The secularists will realize in time,’ he assured himself, ‘that they are immersed and rooted in the life—land, language, history, and customs—bathed in the radiant sanctity that comes from above.’ Kook would say: ‘We lay tefilin, the pioneers lay bricks.”
The Orthodox, says Avishai, “defined themselves in a long-standing relationship with Labor Zionism, exploit(ing) the chalutzim’s political successes, and liv(ing) off their produce.” But this relationship was not healthy for the long-term democratic prospects for the state, suggests Avishai. These men were not democrats.
Like the nationalist Zionists, the Orthodox envisioned a world without Arabs, and they looked to military power for holding off potential pogromists. But “unlike Herzl, they imagined that the state would ultimately incorporate halakhah directly into the state’s constitution,” says Avishai.
The Orthodox disdained Herzl’s celebration of national sovereignty, just as they lacked affinity for the secular Hebrew culture championed by Achad Haam, both of which they saw as a challenge to the sovereignty of God. None of them prioritized democratic ideals.
The most powerful force among Jewish immigrants to Palestine between 1920 and the declaration of the state, however, became the Histadrut, the trade union organization headed by David Ben-Gurion. The Histadrut monopolized many of the service functions of the pre-state community, and controlled many of the means of production. The Histadrut was egalitarian but authoritarian; it was blessed by idealism and marked by a lack of corruption; and it enjoyed broad-based support among the workers. The Histadrut was essential for building up the Jewish state. It did not however, develop standards designed for a democratic state.
Part II: The Contradictions of Self-Determination
In Part two of the book, Avishai examines some of the contradictions inherent in the structures of the young state, and how these structures held back a full flowering of democracy based on equal opportunity and rights under law, and a recognition of universal rights.
Was There a Potential for Co-existence with the Arabs?
The power of the Histadrut came not just from its numbers, but from the fact that “it carried out various economic, social, and cultural services… directed toward building up the Jewish national home.” It did this by excluding Arabs. Even those Jews who worked for private employers agitated for the hiring of Jews, not as a consequence of bigotry, but as an instrument of cultural revolution.
“In cultivating a kind of socialist separatism, Histadrut institutions secured for Palestinian Jews their Hebrew national culture. The Labor Zionists did not . . . merge with the Arab elites, neither with the urban notables connected to the Ottoman bureaucracy, the ayan, nor with the great land effendis. It is precisely because Zionists feared becoming a colonialist class that Israelis now have roots of their own. (‘If we do not till the soil with our very own hands,’ Gordon warned, ‘the soil will not be ours.’)”
This development of the Yishuv did not necessarily displace Arab residents from their country, but every large estate appropriation by the Jewish National Fund did displace Arab tenant farmers, and helped encircle Arab towns. In fact, as the Jewish population rose in Palestine during the first half of the 20th century, so did the Arab population. Between 1922 and 1948, the Arab population roughly doubled to 1,200,000. Productivity and yield of the Arab agricultural sector in Palestine rose during the British Mandate era; so did the average consumption of commodities; infant mortality rates dropped 27 percent; expenditures on education in the Arab sector doubled between 1931 and 1939 and literacy increased (although still very low—about 25 percent on the eve of World War 2).
There was promise, in other words, for the possibility of two side-by-side states, suggested Avishai.
The Failure of Evian
In the summer of 1938, the Western democracies met in the French resort of Evian-sur-bain on Lake Geneva to consider how Jewish refugees might be given asylum, “but to their everlasting discredit,” said Avishai, “the democracies failed to come up with any serious plan for Jewish refugees.” The Jewish Agency’s representative, Golda Meir, was no better. “Once Britain had the question of Palestine dropped from the agenda of the Evian Conference . . . (Meir) was content merely to observe the proceedings without uttering a word.” (Zionist leaders in Palestine were concerned about upsetting the Peel commission applecart.)
This judgment, of course, is made with hindsight of what happened next: the holocaust. But if we judge Evian in light of what was known at the time, is it any worse than our collective failure to act to alleviate the plight of today’s 22 million refugees, or 10 million stateless persons? Golda Meir offered the following excuse in her memoir: “I didn’t know then that not concentration-camps but death-camps awaited the refugees whom no one wanted.” As if concentration camps would have excused her silence! The judgment of “everlasting discredit” holds for Evian, as much as it does for our inaction today.
In March 1939, the British government “informed the Zionist executive that Zionist rights under the Balfour Declaration were abrogated and that the offer of a Jewish state was rescinded. . . . A new British White Paper conceived of a majority Arab state in an undivided Palestine and limited future Jewish immigration.” The discovery of oil and competition with Germany had changed the calculus.
The Fervor of War
War unites as well as kills. In the case of the Yishuv it allowed the Jews to organize militarily, with support of the British; it allowed them to expand factories and manufacture war materials for the British; the fervor of war greatly increased both the industrial base and the agricultural output of the Yishuv. The Jewish population grew to over 500,000; more than fifty new villages were founded. “The value of Jewish industrial production,” says Avishai, “increased nearly fivefold, from 7.9 million Palestinian Pounds to 37.5 million (value was pegged to the British Pound Sterling).
“At the Biltmore Conference of 1942, two years after Jabotinsky’s death, Ben-Gurion endorsed … the Revisionists’ program: a Jewish state in the whole of Palestine.”
Avishai questions whether Ben-Gurion had turned towards the idea of a Jewish state from the river Jordan to the Mediterranean (Revisionist Zionism) based on conviction, or whether he was forced into it. Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t matter. What matters is how it has played out. And our judgment of how it has played out is affected by the failure of Oslo, the ongoing expansion of Jewish settlement of the West Bank, and the fact that the Occupation has just turned 50 years old.
By 1942 word about the Holocaust was out. In April 1943 the German Army annihilated the Warsaw ghetto. By the summer of 1944, the death camps had taken 2.5 million Jews from Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Rumania, and Greece. In the killing fields of the Eastern front three and one half million Polish, Russian, and Ukranian Jews perished. The sorrow and resolve of the Yishuv was absolute.
After VE Day tensions rose in Palestine. The British clamped down on the Haganah and the Palmach, the Yishuv militias fighting against immigration quotas. The Irgun, led by Menachem Begin, retaliated by blowing up the British headquarters in the King David Hotel, killing 91. Ben-Gurion called a meeting of the World Zionist Organization in Paris, and a plan was again publicly announced to accept a Jewish state in only so much of Palestine as was necessary for a viable state. The UN passed its partition plan for Palestine, Resolution 181 on November 29, 1947. The British mandate ended and Ben-Gurion announced the formation of the “Jewish and democratic” state of Israel on May 14, 1948.
The Contradiction of Co-existence
And, without warning or fanfare, Avishai turns to the controversial thesis of his book:
“While a viable democratic Jewish state might have arisen in a climate of peace, without Palestinian refugee, the war (of ’48-’49) did underline the latent contradiction between the national Jewish majority envisioned by Zionism and Israel’s secular democratic goals. How could a Jewish state at war with the Arab world—a state which aimed to ‘ingather exiles and exert the ‘natural right’ of the Jewish people to be ‘master of its fate’ in Eretz Yisrael—also guarantee the ‘complete equality of social and political rights’ to all of its citizens, including hundreds of thousands of Arab residents who bitterly opposed its creation?”
It’s a rhetorical question, of course. That circle can’t be squared.
“What was so tragic about Ben-Gurion’s actions at this crucial time was that, as the war (of independence) dragged on through October, he worked to establish a firm hold on state power without any further concessions to constitutional principles. He invested his growing prestige in efforts to consolidate the military, and presided over a state of emergency under which ninety-eight ordinances were enacted. He did not work seriously to develop a climate conducive to enacting the promised constitution, and in fact, many of the emergency ordinances of the Provisional Council of State were still in force twenty years later.”
Avishai describes the early discussions around a possible constitution, but ultimately Ben-Gurion did not force the issue. It was not at all clear where on a secular-orthodox scale the character of such a constitution would have landed. But the result of no constitution was that, by default, the land laws stayed in the hands of the Jewish National Fund (exclusionary and discriminatory against Arabs), there was no bill of rights, and no secular state authority over marriage and divorce, and many other civil areas. There was no formal separation of religion and state. By default emergency powers remained in place for decades, deeply entrenching a discriminatory system against Arab citizens of the young state. The lack of a bill of rights enabled the law—and ongoing practice—of confiscating “abandoned” Arab property. A democracy was established, with parties, the right to vote for all, including Arab citizens, freedoms of the press and of speech inherited from the British mandate legal system, and an independent judiciary, but the democracy was flawed in important ways.
The Tragedy of Arab Rejectionism
The Palestinians call Israel’s war of independence the Nakba—the catastrophe. It was a disaster for the Palestinians, including approximately 700,000 Palestinians who were uprooted by the war. Their property in Israel was confiscated. They and their offspring, now numbering more than 5 million, continue to languish stateless in refugee camps. Soon to be two million live in a virtual prison in Gaza. Two and one half million live under military dictatorship in the West Bank.
Ben-Gurion was a pragmatist. He accepted partition. In February 1950 “the Israeli government discreetly negotiated a draft treaty with King Abdullah of Transjordan,” says Avishai. Abdullah too was a pragmatist. In April 1950 he annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Jordan, creating the united Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. This was consistent with the Peel commission (1937) recommendation, which Abdullah had accepted. Abdullah’s ability to make peace with Israel, however, was constrained by staunch Arab League opposition, and on July 20, 1951, Abdullah was assassinated by a tribal member of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (Husseini).
The assassination of leaders can alter the course of events. Arguably, the assassination of King Abdullah in 1951 was as pivotal as the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995. Instead of moving towards peace and normalization, the Palestinians embarked on a campaign of cross-border raids and terrorism, and the Arab League engaged in aggression and belligerence that eventually led to the 1967 Six Day War. It’s a tragedy that continues to reverberate today, and continues to be perpetuated by Hamas.
The Devolution of Zionism into Politics
Avishai traces the politics inside Israel through the decade leading up to the Six Day War. “Zionist rhetoric implied something like this: that Israelis should be strong and united against the outside world; that religious spats and class conflicts must be suppressed for the sake unity; . . . that the Jewish state was every Jew’s patrimony; . . . that the Law of Return was not merely an immigration law promulgated for refugees but the highest expression of the centrality of Israel to Diaspora Jews.” But by the mid-60’s, suggests Avishai, this Zionism had devolved into a normal, fractious competition of diverse visions and interests, subject to the normal forces of politics.
By the early 1960’s Zionism, which had been conceived as a national solution to the chronic difficulties of the Diaspora (anti-Semitism and assimilation), had shrunk to the notion that Diaspora Jews should want to participate in solving the chronic problems of the national center. But the chronic problems of the national center, suggests Avishai, were very different from the problems of Judaism in Diaspora. For most American Jews, “Judaism now implied a tradition to help them adjust to a public realm of English liberal democracy, a tradition of historical disquisition, ethics, and texts,” that was very different from “the aesthetic, legal, and linguistic norms of the Hebrew nation.”
By the eve of the Six Day War, Zionism had devolved into the politics of a secure nation state: Israel. “If all of its parts did not fit together neatly, there was comfort in the fact that—given the recession, the peaceful borders, the routines of middle-class life—it [presumably Zionism?] was not to be taken all that seriously.”
Part III: New Zionism and the Trial of Israeli Democracy
For a generation leading up to the Six Day War (1967), says Avishai in Part 3 of the book, sentiments favoring a Greater Israel had been evolving as a “statist myth” among the young, among newcomers, and military figures impatient with Labor Zionist ideas. “Within six months (of the war) it was widely thought that Golan was inseparable from Galilee, and that a great part of the West Bank could never be, in Moshe Dayan’s word, ‘abandoned.’ By years’ end, Jewish settlers sought to establish permanent control over all these territories, and the …Israeli government … actively encouraged the efforts of squatters.”
In the absence of a liberal-democratic constitution, a “generation of compromise between the secular government and the rabbinate, had produced a rhetoric that frankly justified Israeli national rights in terms of Orthodox claims. The clear reasons for the Zionist revolution having faded (anti-Semitism and fears of assimilation in Diaspora), a new Zionism emerged,” said Avishai. This new Zionism was marked by maximalist territorial claims justified by an appeal to ancient Jewish history.
The hubris was infectious: “There was Jerusalem, prosperity, unity. If the victory could not, strictly speaking, be called a miracle, was there not something mysterious and wonderful about Jewish history that they had missed,” says Avishai describing the doubts of Old Labor Zionists post ’67.
Israelis began to view the conquered lands as their own, suggests Avishai. “Israelis toured the Sinai, camped on the Gulf, and dove to view the coral along the Red Sea coast. They visited Jericho and Hebron like privileged tourists, developing tastes for quaint old restaurants and Persian antiques—also for souk, the glitter, the bargain.” The French educated laureate of the Labor Zionist Yishuv, Natan Alterman, “joined the front ranks of of Ha’Tnua Le’Mann Ertz Yisrael Ha’Shlemah, the ‘Whole Land of Israel Movement,’ … (and) advocated outright annexation of conquered lands, for the sake of ‘completing’ Zionism.”
Golda Meir, who served as prime minister from March ’69 through June ’74, was confronted with four big questions: 1) the fate of the occupied territories and Jewish settlements, 2) the style and structure of the economy, 3) the identity of the disaffected Second Israel, and 4) the lingering question of whether the Zionist institutions (touching on religion and state, and status of Israeli Arabs) should be retired. “Mrs. Meir proved wanting in vision,” on these questions says Avishai. By default she served the maximalist New Zionist cause. By the time she left office, “several settlers had built homes all over the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and North Sinai.” When in the summer of 1970, the U.S. secretary of state William Rogers proposed a plan for Israel to accept UN Resolution 242 in exchange for peace and recognition, Meir rebuffed his overture by adopting Menachem Begin’s strategy of demanding “direct negotiations without preconditions,” and “she made it plain that Israel would never withdraw from Jerusalem and other territories,” says Avishai.
Meir generally did nothing to integrate Israeli Arabs. She refused to approve a petition of Palestinians evacuated “temporarily” from a village “until it was safe to return” during the War of Independence to return to their villages, 20 years later.
By 1977, the year Likud came into power, it was apparent that “the Labor Party had created a crippled, incompetent, highly inflationary capitalism which was hard on the workers and middle-class wage earners who had once been Labor’s natural constituency outside the worker’s agricultural settlements,” said Avishai.
The West Bank Tragedy
By 1981, the year Begin won a second term, Israeli occupation of the West Bank was well entrenched. Some 20,000 Jewish settlers had begun to live in the territories, says Avishai.
Occupation brought some improvements. Jordan had ignored development of West Bank after it annexed the territory in 1950. Thus the East Jerusalem population of 60,000 stayed the same between ’52 and ’67, while Amman grew from 108,000 to 250,000. Although 40 percent of West Bank Palestinians were engaged in agriculture in 1967, the Israeli army reported they only found 67 tractors in the whole territory. Under Israeli occupation the number of tractors rose to well over a thousand by 1972, infant mortality was cut in half, and classrooms increased from 6,167 (1967) to 11,187 (1980).
Yet this progress did not extend to democratic institutions. Thus in 1974 Peres expelled (newly formed) Bir Zeit College president in Ramallah, along with other young West Bank nationalists. Peres also stepped up repression of the Palestinian nationalist newspaper al-Fajr. When a pro-PLO slate of mayors with liberal views of a two-state solution was elected in 1976 West Bank municipal elections, instead of embracing them as an opportunity, Peres doubled down with signals that Israel would not relinquish the West Bank. The mayors were sidelined during the Camp David accords (Begin-Sadat-Carter). And Israel signaled that it would not relinquish control of the West Bank by continuing to build settlements and giving voice to hardliners in the settlement movement, and announcing that Israel would always retain control over the West Bank water resources, and would control immigration into the West Ban and Gaza.
It was “Zionism’s greatest tragedy,” suggests Avishai, “that the disciples of mainstream Labor Zionism, for all their faults,” were thrown out of power by Menachem Begin and the Likud in 1977, in the name of a new Zionism of Greater Israel. Once the Likud came to power, it refused to take seriously any solution to the Palestinian question based on partition.
In November 1981 Ariel Sharon installed a civilian administration in the West Bank, headed by professor Menachem Milson. A month later, the Israeli government formally annexed the Golan Heights. During that winter, Milson deposed the pro-PLO mayors in the West Bank, he closed down two Arab newspapers and Bir Zeit University, a center of Palestinian national sentiment. The Palestinian flag had long been banned. It marked a turning point: Milson transformed the incoherent policies of the labor government into a regime of outright repression.
In the meantime, Sharon announced plans for 120,000 settlers by end of 1985. Young Israeli couples were offered low-interest mortgages to live in new West Bank projects, and to build private villas. Settlers formed vigilante groups. Prospects for democracy in the West Bank were squashed.
Democracy or Zionism
Labor Zionists reasoned that by superseding the repressive legalism of Orthodoxy, Zionism would usher in a fully democratic and secular Hebrew society, said Avishai. But this may have been naïve, he suggests, because “democratic” does not flow easily or naturally from Judaism.
Judaism has a historic common yearning for freedom, but this historical and traditional vision did not include concepts of individual rights and democracy, says Avishai. Jewish tradition sought the freedom to strive after the sacred: to worship God—to keep his laws—and to build the Promised Land. These freedoms championed by Judaism are communal freedoms: freedom from oppression, freedom from foreign rule, freedom from slavery—also from idol worship. But these communal freedoms are not the freedoms of individual rights that are at the heart of a liberal democracy.
Looking back, said Avishai, Zionism evolved from a Histadrut (trade union) movement, to statism that aspired to be Jewish and democratic, and from this statism that aspired to be Jewish and democratic to a new unabashedly undemocratic Zionism.
After 1967 the initiation of legal reforms towards democracy halted. By 1984 Israel still had no formal constitution, no developed tradition of parliamentary courtesy and ministerial responsibility, no effective check on the executive, no checks on parliamentary authority, and no routine contact between electors and elected. There was censorship of the arts and media. For example, Jesus Christ Superstar and M*A*S*H were both censored in Israel. Rabbinic courts have jealously guarded their new jurisdictions over marriage, divorce, and burial. By 1984 a poll of young Israeli Jews indicated that 60 percent of them were ready to curtail the rights of Arab citizens, and 57 percent thought Arabs in the occupied territories who refused Israeli citizenship ought to be expelled. Most favored annexation over territorial compromise. When asked (in ’84) if the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza should be given the right to vote in the event of annexation, little more than 3 percent of high school students said “yes.” Surely this is not unrelated to the fact that there is no legal mechanism for an Arab to marry a Jew in Israel, suggested Avishai.
Achad Haam thought that the ways of tolerance were imbedded in Judaism, said Avishai. The Hebrew concept of “cherut (freedom)” might also have implied a considerable measure of personal liberty. To worship the ineffable Name, after all, was to worship an enigma, and this required scope, doubt, reasons. But for Achad Haam, said Avishai, Zionism was also necessary to redeem the Jewish spirit, to consolidate the Hebrew language, to nurture the “instinct for national self-preservation,” and none of this naturally leads to a notion of citizenship and universal rights in the liberal democratic sense.
Israeli schools have taught children much more about the tribes of Israel than they have about the Enlightenment, says Avishai. The Hebrew language presents democracy as a mere technique of social organization—the best technique to be sure, but like other advanced commodities from abroad, perhaps more than Israelis can afford, says Avishai. For Zionists, democracy has seemed like an added luxury that free people enjoy, not a synonym for freedom itself. “That Hebrew democracy has not yet fully come into being is Zionism’s tragedy,” says Avishai, “not its requirement.” In other words, Zionism can thrive on military occupation without democracy, but it’s a shame not to have Hebrew culture and democracy.
A Zionism without democracy, asserted Avishai, is tragically obsolete. The question he posed in 1985 was whether democratic tendencies in Israel will prevail against the anachronistic institutions which Labor Zionists once made, and against the new Zionist ideology of a Greater Israel. Thirty years on, the question is more pointed than ever and the trend line is not good.
For Avishai, writing in 1985, “Ben-Gurion’s plan to partition the land” was still the key for Israeli democracy. The fact that Israelis today seem less open both to partition and to democracy “may prove the tragedy of Israel,” he concluded.
This post first appeared on Roland Nikles’s blog last week.