Book review: Zionism and Our Separate Ways

The foundation of the Jewish state was full of empty promises that would be impossible to keep — the endgame is likely to be a civil war or ethnic cleansing, or a non-democratic state writes JP O’Malley.

* Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal 

Milton Viorst 

Thomas Dunne Books, €25.99

 

* Our Separate Ways: the Struggle For the Future of the US Israel Alliance .

Dana H. Allin and Steven N. Simon 

Public Affairs, €24.99 

 

LAST year, a professor at George Washington University, Michael Barnett, made an uncomfortable observation concerning the future of Israel. 

“As the two state solution fades into history its alternatives become increasingly likely: civil war, ethnic cleansing or a non-democratic state. 

"Whether it goes by the name of an apartheid state, an illiberal democracy, a less-than-free society or a competitive authoritarianism, the dominant theme will be a Jewish minority ruling over a non-Jewish majority,” Barnett said.

Israel was supposed to be a safe haven for a persecuted-scattered-global-Jewish-population, following the evil of the Holocaust. 

So, how exactly did it transform into a state, where, in many instances, democratic principles have become almost non-existent? History is a good place to start looking for answers.

The call for the Jews to make their own state and return to Israel really began to gain momentum following the Balfour Declaration in 1917: which confirmed support from the British government for the establishment— in Palestine— of a national home for the Jewish people.

It would take a few decades, however, for this idea to become a reality.

On May 14, 1948, on the the eve of Britain’s formal renunciation of its Palestine Mandate, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, proclaimed the birth of the sovereign Jewish state of Israel.

The newly formed state, and homeland for the Jews, was a culmination for independence that Theodor Herzl — the founding father of the Zionist movement — had initiated when he addressed the first World Jewish Congress in 1897: promising to secure a land that would house a Jewish nation.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence — a bit like the Zionist movement itself — was a mismatch of clashing contradictions. Its roots were in Judaism, and, the Enlightenment vision of progress. Utopian in outlook, it was full of empty promises that would be impossible to keep.

The declaration vowed “complete equality of social and political rights to all inhabitants”; it also promised the Arabs “full and equal citizenship and due representation”. 

Noble rhetoric, however, would soon be replaced by perpetual war and military occupation.

By the end of 1948, Israel had defeated Arab armies in the War of Independence.

With the exception of the West Bank, the Arab armies had been driven out of Palestine, and Israel began to occupy 20% more land than the UN Partition resolution had allotted to it.

Thus, since its inception, the state of Israel has been a nation constantly fearing its annihilation, and, with a few notable exceptions, almost consistently been at war, in some form or another, with its Arab neighbours.

By the time Israel had achieved victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, a new form of Zionist militancy had emerged.

By capturing the Sinai Peninsula, The Gaza Strip, The West Bank, the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights, Israel became the region’s dominant military power.

Significantly, though, the astonishing victory achieved in the Six-Day War created hundreds of thousands of refugees, and, brought more than a million Palestinians in the occupied territories under Israeli rule.

During the Six-Day War, Milton Viorst — an American journalist and historian who has written extensively about Middle Eastern politics for several decades now — made his first visit to Israel.

Viorst is a committed Zionist. However his experiences in Israel — after 1967 — made him rethink some of his most basic assumptions about the Zionist project.

Mainly because of Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian people, which Viorst writes, consistently “[verge] on brutal”.

Years of writing and thinking about Jewish history and politics, and robustly criticising the state of Israel, has culminated in Viorst penning, Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal.

The narrative asks one fundamental question: how did Zionism, over the course of a century, evolve from the idealism of providing refuge for beleaguered Jews, into rationalising the Israeli army’s occupation of powerless Palestinians?

The key players Viorst looks at here — who have all influenced Zionism in some shape or form — are: Theodor Herzl; Chaim Weizmann; Vladimir Jabotinsky; David Ben-Gurion; Menachem Begin, and Israel’s current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The main argument being put forward here is how Zionism, over time, has evolved as an intellectual, political and cultural construct. This evolution — pace 1948 — has always run parallel to Israel’s expanding territorial advancements.

The militant-right-wing-political culture that is gripping Israel today, Viorst reminds us here, has its roots in Vladimir Jabotinsky’s vision of revisionist Zionism.

Jabotinsky helped found and command numerous Jewish militant organisations, including the Haganah: who fought the British and the Arabs during the time of Mandate Palestine.

He believed in a tougher, more rigid, heavily militaristic form of Zionism that resembled early Hellenism: extolling valour, physicality, virility and a willingness to make war.

This radical shift rightwards in Zionism, Viorst argues, really only began to take hold in Israel though, when Menachem Begin became prime minister in 1977. 

If Begin was the heir to Jabotinsky, Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Viorst believes, is now the heir to Begin: especially in his lack of sympathy for Arab identity.

Under Netanyahu, Viorst writes, “the Israeli government has suspended peacemaking; stepped up the construction of settlements; bulldozed Arab homes in Jerusalem, and denied Arabs living in the occupied territories the right to enter the city”.

Moreover, unlike his predecessors in the Knesset, who always understood Arabs’

legitimate link to land, Netanyahu, writes Viorst: “recognises no Arab claim to the land and has no ambivalence [on this issue].”

In Our Separate Ways: the Struggle For the Future of the US Israel Alliance, Dana H Allin and Steven N Simon — two committed Zionists — are also extremely critical of prime minister Netanyahu.

The co-authorship, unfortunately, makes the narrative a little stiff, and academic in tone too. Moreover, both authors’ absolute belief in American exceptionism is exactly the kind of hubris that’s led to decades of chaos and violence in the Middle East.

Still, even if this distinct commitment to US imperialism is a little jarring to read in parts — which in itself leads to myopia and hypocrisy — the book makes some very convincing arguments nevertheless.

Most notably in its analysis of how Israel is drastically becoming a more militant, right-wing, religious nation: which increasingly has little sympathy for its Arab neighbours.

Even the United States — a nation that has played the role of military patron and moral guardian to Israel — is now getting a little tired, and to put it more bluntly, a little pissed off, with the Jewish state.

The Obama Administration in recent times has been particularly annoyed with Netanyahu’s refusal to either build a framework for peace with Palestinians, or, be willing to play the pragmatist game of politics.

This current impasse in Israeli politics — both authors argue — rests on two key issues: settlements, and, Netanyahu’s insentience that Palestinians “must formally recognise Israel as a Jewish state.”

The United States, Allin and Simon argue, have always broadly supported the idea of a Jewish homeland. However, the idea of Jewish sovereignty, they say, should be de facto, rather than de jure.

Both authors believe that expecting Mahmoud Abbas — or any other Palestinian leader — to sign a document, which insists on formally recognising Israel as a Jewish state, preceding a peace settlement, is unrealistic, naive, and slightly humiliating.

The Israeli settlement project, Allin and Simon posit, has created continual difficulties for making peace with the Palestinians. The settlers, in areas like the West Bank, demographically, are Haredi Jews: who are all ultra Orthodox. 

The fundamental nature of their deep religious commitment, therefore, makes withdrawal more problematic.

Israeli politicians are hesitant to tackle the issue, meanwhile, because settlers represent a massive voting block in the Israeli body politic.

However, as this book explains, in strikingly well-researched detail, the settlements are illegal under international law. Both the Obama Administration and the George W Bush Administration, , have consistently repeated that unless settlements stop: Israel is risking its future as a democratic nation.

While both of these books offer an interesting critique of Zionism, and Israel’s current-hardline-military position, neither offer hopeful solutions for the future. Most likely, because, right now, there aren’t many available.

Allin and Simon claim that the relationship between Israel and the US could turn into a colder, more strategic partnership, like say, what the US currently has with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

However, this view doesn’t really offer anything beyond a very US-centred-imperialist outlook on the Middle East.

Viorst meanwhile, says if Israel continues to measure its security by simply dominating the region by military force: establishing an oasis of peace between the Mediterranean and the Jordan will not be easy. One of the biggest obstacles preventing Israelis and Palestinians reaching a peace deal — as Allin and Simon remind us — is the fact that the conflict is over land to which both sides lay historical allegiance.

Inevitably, this leads to visceral, fanatical, passionate, primal, discourse: where tribal, ethnic and religious divisions continue to grow with each passing year.

As Islamic extremism continually becomes a dominant theme on the Palestinian side, and in the Arab world at large; and as right wing Zionism continues to grow and gains more momentum in Israel, it certainly appears as though the region will have to go through another few years, if not decades, of hate-fuelled violence, before any lasting peace settlement appears on the horizon.


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