Israel: Has the civil war already begun?

The author of an award-winning new book on Zionism talks about the vision behind the Jewish state, the Palestinian question, and what William Safire and A.M. Rosenthal won't tell you.

By Jonathan Broder

Published November 22, 1996 12:06PM (EST)

in Israel, the Middle East peace process continues to deteriorate. Crucial negotiations over Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank city of Hebron have hit the wall, and Israel's new right-wing Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, recently announced plans for more Jewish settlements in the West Bank, where Palestinians hope to build their own state.

The latest tensions come as Zionism, the political philosophy that created the Jewish state, marks its 100th anniversary. To coincide with the anniversary, British journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft has just published "The Controversy of Zion: Jewish Nationalism, the Jewish State and the Unresolved Jewish Dilemma" (Addison-Wesley, $25.00), an elegant and balanced examination of Zionist ideology beginning with the movement's founder, Theodore Herzl, and ending with the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The book is to receive the prestigious Jewish National Book Award later this month. Salon's Jonathan Broder spoke with Wheatcroft just before he left his home in Bath, outside London, to receive the award in New York.

In your book, you've tackled an extraordinarily sensitive topic. Was the fact that you are neither Israeli nor Jewish helpful or harmful to you
as you researched and wrote this book?

I thought it was going to hurt me, and there were times after I wrote the book and waited for it to come out that I thought I was really going
to get it in the neck. But I was proved wrong. Many people said afterward that
I had an advantage being outside the usual hangups about being Jewish vis-a-vis Israel. It made it possible for me to write about this subject without agonizing over it. And with one or two exceptions, the reception of the book has been incredibly generous, particularly among Jews. It seems to have struck a chord. The truth of the matter is, most Western Jews have mixed feelings
about Israel, but it's extraordinarly difficuult for them to express those feelings. In a way, I've done it for them.

In a sense, the way was paved for your book by the new breed of Israeli
historians who, with the aid of recently declassified government documents, have written a much more critical account of the birth of their country than the first Israeli historians, who saw their role as perpetuating many national

Yes, I agree. The first Israeli historians told the story of their
country in terms of terrible suffering and oppression and then this magnificent
new rebirth, painted completely in black and white. Then, as you say, another generation of historians started to write serious, grown-up history, pointing
out that the story was much more complicated and nuanced. Take, for example, the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948. The first Israeli historians, reflecting the official line, came up with some pretty amazing explanations for that event. But today, no serious Israeli scholar denies it any longer.
These historians have been much more candid about their history than American Jews like William Safire or A.M. Rosenthal of The New York Times. I quote Moshe Dayan telling an Israeli audience, "There is not a single Jewish settlement in this country that's isn't built on the site of an Arab village, and don't let us forget it." You won't find Safire and Rosenthal writing that, just as you won't find them writing a lot of other things Israelis have said.

Did you spend much time in Israel to research the book?

In fact, I didn't. This is not a work of reportage but an attempt to get inside the thoughts and feelings and arguments of those Jewish writers who were writing about Zionism in 1897 or 1930 and trying to understand how the
story looked at that time. It's about the debates over
the wisdom of the Zionist experiment that have been going on in the Jewish community for the last 100 years.

In these debates, what did the original Zionists set out to do? Obviously, it was to create a Jewish homeland, but what was behind that drive?

The Jewish state they envisioned was a means to an end, and the end
was self-emancipation. The idea was to free the Jews from subordination to, and
dependence upon, gentiles. It was to cure the Jews of the psychological and sociological state of being crippled and degraded in their exile. The Zionists felt Jews must be transformed from cringing schnorrers (beggars) into he-men. "Their
backs must be straightened" was one phrase that was often used. These are the terms that the Zionist writers used. They were as critical of the Jews as anti-Semitic writers. But, of course, in describing the miserable state of the Jews, these writers prescribed that they be reborn, that they be made men again.

Hence the value the early Zionists placed on the redemptive value of Jewish labor.

Precisely. The Labor Zionists wanted to turn the Jew into a farmer. And the Revisionists, led by Vladimir Jabotinsky and whose successors include Netanyahu, wanted to turn him into a soldier.

As the Jews were undergoing this transformation in Palestine, how did the Zionists view the local Arabs, the Palestinians, who were already living on the land?

Mostly by an act of denial. They simply ignored them. They didn't regard them at all. I quote one Zionist who, in his later writings showed some misgivings and wrote, "Let's face it. We conducted this entire enterprise as if the Arabs weren't there." And that's the truth. They didn't consciously think of them as Kafirs or some inferior species. They simply wished them away.

Did any of the Zionist writers recognize this blindness?

Yes, one of the first heretics was A.D. Gordon. He was one of the first to see the paradox of the Jews, themselves a subject race, becoming a master race with their own subject race beneath them. But they didn't like to think of themselves as usurpers, which is why many went into this exercise of psychological denial. They came up with clever phrases like, "We are a people without a land, looking for a land without a people." And back then before the turn of the century, Palestine did indeed feel like a land without a people. It looked awfully empty. The Palestinian population was nowhere as big as it is now, they were scattered thinly over the land, and it was therefore easy to think it was empty.
One must also recognize that in the 1890s, when Herzl wrote "The Jewish State," Europe was in the heyday of imperialism and colonialism. And while colonialism today has come to be a dirty word, back then colonialism was a radical, progressive idea. It was the radicals back then who believed that Europe had achieved the greatest civilization the world had ever known and that it was Europe's responsibility to export it to benighted breeds across the globe. And unconsciously, the Zionist pioneers were men of that age. They, too, thought they were bringing a superior culture and civilization back to Palestine. The idea that the local culture might have been Europe's equal never crossed anyone's mind.

You note in your book that the purpose of Zionism was to normalize the Jewish people and to remove them from the pages of history. As we look back on 100 years of Zionism, did it succeed?

The thesis of my book is that Zionism failed to do this. That's not to say that the Zionists didn't have some pretty extraordinary achievments. They created this country of four or five million people from absolutely nothing. They've fought all these wars and still have this advanced economy. It's a democracy internally. And they took what was a dead language 100 years ago and made it the everyday language of the country — a marked contrast with the story of Gaelic in Ireland, which actually collapsed and died over the same period.
However, with all that said, with all these amazing achievements, Zionism failed to do precisely the one thing it was meant to do, which was to normalize the Jews, end the "Jewish question," as it used to be known, and remove the Jews from the pages of history. It is quite absurd to claim that has been done. You've only got to look at the amount of space journalists devote to the struggle of Israel to see that it has not been normalized.

How much of this failure can we ascribe to the unresolved Palestinian question?

Quite a bit, but the story is not over yet. The Likud Zionists always have taken the position that they've dealt more honestly and firmly with the Palestinian question than the Labor Zionists. From the outset they tried to outflank the Labor Zionists on the right by saying: "You're not being honest. You want a Jewish state as an end, but you don't recognize the means necessary to achieve it. You've got to face up to the fact that the Palestinians are not going to welcome us and therefore this is not going to be accomplished without brute force."
Well today, the Likud, for all their vaunted realism, are being outstripped on the right by Moledet and the other far-right parties in Israel, who say to Likud: "Look, you're not being honest. The only way to deal with this problem is to cleanse the whole land of Israel of Palestinians."
Expulsion is now the byword of the Zionist right. But it's a dangerous logic. I don't think the United States would be calling Israel its best friend in the Middle East if we were suddenly watching on television Israeli trucks depositing thousands of Palestinian women and children on the far side of the Jordan river. There's a limit to US support.

When you look at the intellectual underpinnings of the situation in Israel today, where would you identify the fault lines that fracture the Zionist debate today?

There are several faultlines. There is the one between left and right, Labor and Likud, each with its own vision of the state's borders and who should be included within them. There is the fracture over whether they should compromise with the Palestinians and on what terms. But there are other fractures as well. Both Labor and Likud were aggressively secular. Netanyahu's father worked for Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism and an ardent atheist. The elder Netanyahu also became a very militant atheist, a man who loathes the Orthodox. His son, the prime minister, now finds himself having to suck up to the Orthodox because, with some 12 per cent of the population, they have become the crucial swing vote.
So Netanyahu desperately needs the Orthodox to win elections, yet he paradoxically comes from an aggressively anti-religious political tradition. I remember he said during the election, "Okay, I will turn kosher, but it will have to be by stages." There's also the fracture between the Ashkenazic Jews of European cultural background, who lean to the left politically, and the Oriental or Sephardic Jews from the Arab countries, who are generally in the right-wing camp. Results from the last election showed that in Jerusalem, where Sephardic Jews dominate, Netanyahu won by a landslide. In Tel Aviv, where most middle-class, secular Ashkenazim live, Peres won by a landslide. So there is now a huge division in Israel, a Kulturkampf between two kinds of society. It's political, religious, cultural and even geographical.

Aren't these the ingredients for civil war?

In a word, yes. But in a sense, the civil war already began a long time ago. Netanyahu said at a ceremony commemorating Rabin that it was the first time that a Jew had killed another Jew. That's patent nonsense. There was the assassination of Arlozoroff, an underground member, in 1931 by Yitzhak Shamir, who shot him dead on a beach near Tel Aviv. In 1948, there was the Altalena incident, in which Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, ordered his troops to open fire on a boat carrying arms to the Irgun. A number of Jews were killed. And of course there was Rabin's assassination, which did nothing to heal the rifts between Jews. It only made them more bitter and distant. The strongest symbol is Rabin's widow refusing to shake hands with Netanyahu at her husband's funeral and later blaming her husband's death on Netanyahu. So there's a moral civil war already. I think there's no question there's going to be more violence between Arab and Jew, and certainly more violence between Jew and Jew. I'd be quite surprised if we've seen the last assassination.

Quote of the day

Vive les genes Françaises!

"Halter has an internationalist vision, whereas we are for family and nation ... I do not care that Mr. Halter is Jewish. Jews are rarely unemployed and they come broadly from the same cultural framework. But in France we are being overwhelmed by an Islamic invasion from North Africa ... The risk is that our country — a product of its heritage and its combined genes — will be transformed."

— Jean-Marie Le Chevallier, mayor of Toulon and a member of the far-right National Front party, explaining why he overruled a book award that the Toulon Book Fair, one of the nation's largest, had given to Marek Halter, a Jewish author. From "French book fair writhes, poisoned by politics," in Friday's New York Times.

Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Jonathan Broder

Related Topics ------------------------------------------