In Search of Israel: The History of an Idea
Princeton University Press
2018, 416 pp, $29.95
It is a rare history that compels the reader to think constantly about the present and even about the future. But that is what the historian Michael Brenner has accomplished in this meticulous journey through the labyrinth of yearning that has led to the modern State of Israel. He does not relegate to the dusty past the passions and visions of Zionist forefathers such as Theodor Herzl or Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, or early Israeli leaders such as Chaim Weizmann or David Ben-Gurion or scores of others who struggled to conceive of a Jewish homeland of refuge and fulfillment. Their dreams, prescriptions and cautions are as alive today as ever before.
Brenner’s In Search of Israel: The History of an Idea chronicles the competing ambitions to preserve and nourish Jews and Judaism in safety, embraced by an array of Jewish thinkers and leaders from the late 19th century into the present. Would it be by assimilating into the dominant culture, as the Jewish German foreign minister Walther Rathenau argued? Or by creating a state like any other as Weizmann once believed? Or by rejecting both assimilation and territory and instead creating states within states—a “Jewish diaspora nationalism,” as the historian Simon Dubnow of Odessa proposed?
The Hebrew essayist and Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am, raised in a religious family in the late 19th century, envisioned a Hebrew-speaking spiritual center to reconnect Jews with their culture stretching back thousands of years. Decades later, Ben-Gurion, as Israel’s first prime minister, embraced the seemingly competing notions “to be like all other nations, and to be different from all the nations,” as Brenner quotes him. “These two aspirations are apparently contradictory,” Ben-Gurion declared, “but in fact they are complementary and interdependent. We want to be a free people…and we aspire to be different from all other nations in our spiritual elevation and in the character of our model society.”
The strained coexistence of conflicting perceptions—and self-perceptions—shapes Brenner’s historical narrative, as he traces the ever-shifting tensions between singularity and normality, between otherness and assimilation. As Brenner observes, Jews have perplexed societies from ancient Egypt onward, as a people apart and therefore special but alien, the subjects of acute admiration but aversion, of both regard and persecution.
“If the Jews were the archetypical ‘other’ in history,” Brenner writes, “ironically, Israel—which so much wanted to avoid the stamp of otherness—has become the Jew among the nations. The Jewish state is rarely conceived as just a state like any other state, but rather as unique and exceptional: it is seen either as a model state or as a pariah state.”
In Search of Israel is especially illuminating on the pre-state period, and even well-informed readers are likely to find revealing nuggets, as when Vienna’s chief rabbi visited Theodor Herzl’s home and “caught Herzl lighting the candles on his Christmas tree,” Brenner says. In his diary, Herzl wrote that the rabbi “seemed upset by the ‘Christian’ custom. Well, I will not let myself be pressured!”
Indeed, Herzl began as an assimilationist. Despite facing anti-Semitism as a boy in 1860s Budapest, he sought integration into Austrian culture after moving to Vienna at age 18. At age 35, he entered in his diary the wish that he could be a member of the old Prussian nobility. “Had Austrian society welcomed Herzl and not reminded him constantly of his Jewishness, he would probably never have become a Zionist,” Brenner suggests. Herzl’s notion of a refuge for Jews envisioned an outpost of European civilization where neither Jewish religion, culture nor language (Hebrew or Yiddish) would be emphasized. In fact, “he portrayed it as a tolerant society, embracing Jews and non-Jews, and denying membership only to those who aspired to establish an exclusive theocracy at the expense of others,” Brenner observes.
Herzl evolved, and so did the broader movement, but among Zionist thinkers who imagined a Jewish homeland, there was hardly unanimity on what it should look like. Nor did their ideas remain fixed. After the First Zionist Congress in 1897, political Zionism was only one of four principal concepts that included socialist Bundism, diaspora Autonomism (the idea that diaspora Jewry must maintain self-rule in community organizations), and assimilationism.
The Revisionists under Jabotinsky, who became former Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s idol decades later, proposed a greater Palestine, flanking both sides of the Jordan River, where “Arabs would not only enjoy full equality, they would be represented at the highest echelons of power,” writes Brenner. Those early Zionists didn’t reckon on the power of Arab nationalism. Furthermore, events in Europe forced Jabotinsky’s evolution. In 1918 he was “suggesting a bi-national administration of Palestine,” and in 1922 he envisioned an Arab-Jewish federation there. During World War II, however, he came to a more radical consideration: “a ‘transfer’ of Palestinian Arabs, which would entail enticing or forcing them to move to other Arab countries,” Brenner writes.
Like any fine historian, Brenner sees the virtue of putting the present into the context of the past. This is “the story of the real and the imagined Israel,” Brenner explains, and of its continuing search for itself. It still struggles with the competing crosscurrents that tore at the European movement in the first half of the 20th century. The chapters on Israel in the past 50 years cover ground familiar to anyone who has followed events closely, but there is merit in listening to today’s echoes of the discordant debates that were fashioned into Zionism. Brenner is especially good on the country’s secularism vs. evolving religiosity. But he might have written more richly on how Israel’s self-definition is affected by Israeli Arabs’ confused identity; by the acknowledgment that many Arabs were expelled by Jewish forces in 1948; by the everyday vigilantism of some Israeli settlers against Arabs; by Jews’ historic fears of annihilation unleashed by suicide bombings, which he calls merely “waves of terror.” A lengthier contemplation of those echoes from the past would have taken many more pages. Yet in a book this well crafted, they would have been a welcome addition to a story that is still being written.
David K. Shipler, New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief from 1979 to 1984, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land, now out in a third edition.