The Stiletto Idealist

September 1, 2000 Topics: Security Regions: LevantMiddle East Tags: EthnocentrismZionismSlaverySociology

The Stiletto Idealist

Mini Teaser: An exaggerated indictment of Israel's home-grown critics.

by Author(s): Adam Garfinkle

Yoram Hazony, The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel's Soul (New York: Basic Books, 2000) 400 pp., $28.

Yoram Hazony, a not yet forty year-old head of a Likud-leaning Israeli think tank, is a believer in the power of ideas. He believes that the idea of Zionism is under concerted attack in Israel by Israelis, that a small group of post-Zionist cultural leaders and intellectuals has succeeded in undermining the very foundations of Israel as a Jewish state. He believes that only the restoration of the Zionist idea can save the state from internal decay and, ultimately, one form of destruction or another. Yoram Hazony is an idealist, and proud of it.

The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel's Soul is not exceedingly overwritten, but, appropriately enough given the author's last name-derived from the Hebrew word for "vision"-it is a jeremiad. Its emotions are nevertheless generally under control; there is no cant or calumny unleashed here, except by indirection (of which more below), and the author is careful to evince nuance. He does not assert that Israel's cultural extremists are mainstream or that the majority of Israelis agree with post-Zionism, and he is not a Chicken Little announcing the imminent fall of the sky. But the reader nevertheless gets the point: be frightened for Israel's future.

Since he believes that ideas matter more than anything else in politics, Hazony argues that, in light of the contemporary post-Zionist assault, the real history of Israel is not contained by the rivalry among Zionist factions, but by the struggle between Zionists and those Jewish intellectuals who rejected Zionism. "The more important the struggle over the question of the Jewish state becomes", writes Hazony, "the less interesting become the threadbare disputes between Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin . . . which take on the character of a squabble between the captain and the first mate of a sinking ship." This is a brash but brilliant reformulation of Israel's historiography, and makes perfect sense given Hazony's aim.

According to Hazony, Theodor Herzl himself understood the power of an idea, but neither Labor nor Revisionist Zionism after him took anything abstract seriously. While Zionists institutionalized themselves to found and then manage the state, busying themselves with the material requisites of military and economic power, anti-Zionists took up residence at the Hebrew University, occupying themselves with ideas-moral and political philosophy, in particular. Little by little, year by year, the jerry-rigged ideological marquee of Labor Zionism became dilapidated, while the anti-Zionists of academe and haute culture made continuous if quiet inroads into the national psyche. As Hazony sees it, this process has now reached a stage in which the anti-Zionists have virtually won. The powerful ideas dominating Israeli intellectual and cultural life, and increasingly its mainstream as well, are post- and anti-Zionist, and the practical implications in Israeli public policy are increasingly manifest. These ideas, or anti-ideas, will in the end destroy the state in the name of purifying and reforming it-unless the post-Zionist intellectual trajectory is somehow reversed.

What are we to make of all this? There are post- and anti-Zionists in Israel, and some of them, at least, are descended from the anti-Zionists of the pre-state Hebrew University. Hazony takes great pains, and many pages, to establish the lineages of the main players, from Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem and Judah Magnes on down. Still, the sources of Israeli post-Zionism have at least as much to do with the spreading plague of postmodernism and deconstructionism. There is such a surfeit of brooding self-alienation and narcissism at American and West European universities that some of it must spill over into Israel, whose academics are as afflicted by the hutz la-aretz (outside the Land of Israel) syndrome no less than its typical consumers. Charles Krauthammer has it about right when he defines post-Zionism as "really just Western counterculturalism applied to the Jewish Question."

Of these post-Zionists, whatever their pedigree, Hazony rightly says that there are those writing school textbooks, under the aegis of the education ministry, who make it seem as though Israel has been the aggressor throughout the Arab-Israeli conflict. There are post-Zionists who want to edit the national anthem, "Hatiqva", to expunge all reference to anything Jewish, and those who want to put a crescent on the Israeli flag. The Israeli Defense Force (idf) code of ethics has already been re-written to expunge all reference to the Jewish people and the Jewish state. There are those who want to limit or repeal altogether the Law of Return. There are those Jewish Israelis who claim that for Israel to be Jewish in any but the most abstract universalist (and hence meaningless) manner contradicts Israeli democracy.

These people, vaguely left-wing secularists every one, are both mad and maddening. Their home-grown Israel-bashing is often perverse to the point of medical pathology. But Hazony exaggerates their influence on mainstream Israel. Sometimes the exaggerations turn on facts left unstated. For example, it is true that some outrageous history textbooks have been produced; one high school text, for example, discusses the onset of the June 1967 War without ever mentioning the Egyptian blockade of the Strait of Tiran, the remilitarization of the Sinai, or the congealing of the Arab war coalition. But Hazony lets stand the impression that such books are required reading and that through such texts a minority of post-Zionists is brainwashing the country. This is humbug. High school and middle school teachers choose their texts from an ample assortment. In fact, it is unclear if the execrable book to which Hazony points is used in even a single Israeli school.

Other distortions emerge from a studied lack of context. It is true, for example, that many Israeli novels and films are written by those with, at the least, ambiguous attitudes toward Zionism. But it is the task of the writer cum intellectual to criticize the status quo, to make people reflect on what they otherwise take for granted. To ascribe virtually unopposed cultural hegemony to such writers is like claiming that Gore Vidal and E.L. Doctorow determine the mainstream culture of the United States.

The influence of such people is not trivial, of course, whether in the United States, Israel or any open society. Adversary culture intellectuals who take themselves and are taken too seriously can certainly be a problem. But that is hardly the whole story. There is a huge middle in Israeli society-not properly called a silent majority because Israelis are rarely speechless except when they are asleep-and it is literate, articulate and quite sensibly Zionist. It is not the hapless, wayward, moldable human clay of Hazony's depiction. It deserves more effective political articulation, for only a few small leftist parties, Meretz and Shinui in the main, are holding the fort of classical Zionism. The political center, represented by Labor and Likud, has lost its way and, indeed, the post-Zionist attack is delegitimizing the foundations of the state, at least to some extent.

There is yet another source of attack, however, against classical Zionism-or, more accurately, against the configuration of Zionist streams that came into being with the founding of the state. That configuration revolved around three compromises or balances: between the secular state and the religious establishment, between the need for security and for democracy, and between the requirements of power and peace. These balances are being attacked not only by post-Zionists, but also from the other direction by retro-Zionists of the secular and especially the religious right. Alas, Hazony's views lean toward that camp.

This suggests that Hazony's presentation may have a partisan edge. Hazony once worked for Benyamin Netanyahu. He also lives in the West Bank and is an Orthodox Jew. While this does not peg him as necessarily illiberal on social, religious or other issues, it is clear that Hazony believes Labor Zionism and the Labor Party to be his adversaries-hence his attempt to label them as propagators or consumers of post-Zionism. This has turned his passion for ideas into a form of stiletto idealism.

We learn, for example, in Hazony's interpretation of Israel's decline, that the Oslo peace process represents the quintessential sign of Israel's rejection of its own world-view and purpose. "For an agreement between the Zionists and the [Palestine Liberation Organization] to be reached", writes Hazony, "it seemed that one side or the other would have to concede the fundamentals of its worldview and the ostensible purpose of its existence. And sure enough, one side did make such a concession." That side, of course, was Israel under a Labor Party government, which, claims Hazony, was "not really that interested in questions of national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence." Hazony bases this interpretation on the recent fantasies of Shimon Peres, never once mentioning that Yitzhak Rabin, not Peres, was prime minister when the Oslo accords were signed. He also attacks the current prime minister, Ehud Barak, for allowing the change in the idf code of ethics to have taken place while he was chief of staff. But he never mentions Barak's abstention in the cabinet vote over Oslo II, so concerned was he about the balance of concessions contained in that deal.

Hazony's stiletto idealism also leads him to try to claim David Ben-Gurion for what, by his measure, remains of Zionism (read the Likud and its allies). This is standard partisan posturing in Israel, but Hazony gives it personal form. In his introduction, he describes first his parents' home as Ben-Gurionesque, secularly Labor Zionist to the core even though it was in America, and then his uncle's Orthodox, religious Zionist home in Israel. The way he presents it, these homes were utterly compatible ideologically, Ben-Gurion and the rabbis hand in hand. But what Hazony has conflated for the reader the truth of history cuts asunder.

Distortions also make their way into Hazony's historical narrative. For the most part, the tales of Herzl and Ben-Gurion, Max Nordau and Ahad Ha'am, Martin Buber and Chaim Weizmann, are beautifully told. For those who have forgotten or who never knew this history, Hazony's rendition skillfully evokes the drama and the high stakes of the time. The level of biographical detail exceeds the needs of Hazony's argument, but this small sin is redeemed by the vigor of the prose.

Still, odd twists of interpretation abound. For example, Hazony vividly depicts Ahad Ha'am's opposition to Herzl's optimistic great power diplomacy. Herzl's belief that the ingathering of millions of Jews in Palestine could occur in a matter of only a few years, said Ahad Ha'am, was "a fantasy bordering on madness." But what Hazony neglects to mention is Ahad Ha'am's reasoning: that the land was populated with hundreds of thousands of Arabs, and that such massive and rapid Jewish immigration would mobilize that population against the Zionist aim. That same concern, at once practical and moral, is in part what turned Martin Buber away from Zionism, what turned Israel Zangwill into a territorialist,1 and what endlessly complicated the lives of Ben-Gurion's generation as well. On this critical matter, however, Hazony's presentation is mute.

It is easy, for me at least, to sympathize with Hazony's disgust with post-Zionism. And it is easy to laud his defense of Jewish particularism, and of particularism in general. Hazony shrewdly observes that the anti-nationalist, Rousseauean social contract states, which have insisted on the objective reality of human equality, have violated every principle of liberty and toleration in its supposed service. "It was constitutional monarchy", Hazony points out, "based as it was on the premise of the radical inequality of men, that in fact defended the ideals of tolerance and freedom in the Austrian empire."

But Hazony is in some ways as extreme as those he criticizes. Jewish national particularism need not be at odds with universal values, yet Hazony evinces no interest in the connection. He seems to care little about the fulfillment of Israeli democracy, and one can almost see his eyes gleam as he recounts Herzl's own skepticism toward democracy in the Jewish state. There is, after all, a real tension to be managed between Israel as a Jewish state and Israel as a democracy. Twenty percent of Israel's citizenry is not Jewish, and concern about the status and attitudes of that 20 percent represents a security issue as well as a moral and political one. On this tension, however, Hazony is silent. He seems to care even less for the possibility of peace with the Palestinians, even though perpetual war with them is hardly a condition that any Zionist should wish to affirm.

Labor Zionists argue that Israel's ability to face these kinds of issues head on, internal as well as external ones, is a sign of strength and maturity, not weakness and incipient suicide. Hazony thinks they are delusional. They think he is fanatical. What this argument really comes down to, however, has nothing to do with one's choice of defamatory adjectives. It is about what the word "normal" means in the contemporary Israeli and Jewish context.

For Hazony, a society continuously mobilized by an ideal constitutes what is normal-and necessary-for Israel. This is not surprising, for, as an Orthodox Jew, Hazony is a partner in an intellectual and spiritual exercise in which the normal-in moral conduct, study and piety-is never enough. The system of Rabbinic Judaism, developed after the Jews lost their national sovereignty almost 2,000 years ago, has been a continuing and extraordinary response to a historical discontinuity, a condition of abnormality. What this system requires of its adherents is by most measures also extraordinary, which helps explain how Rabbinic Judaism saved the Jewish people as a people over the centuries of exile. Through 1,600 years, this extraordinary adaptation to the abnormal came to constitute the normal for all those Jews, like Hazony (and myself, for that matter), who adhere to the faith of their forebears.

The Zionist founders after Herzl, however, rejected that normality. Instead, they strove to normalize Jewish civilization by rejoining the Jewish people to their disrupted history in their own land. Zionist anti-clericalism was visceral but also analytical: what use would Israeli Jews have for a solution to an abnormal situation once that situation was normalized? None of the intellectual gyrations of those who have tried to square Zionism with Rabbinic Judaism has ever succeeded fully in answering this question. In a sense, Hazony's religious Zionism upholds the abnormal and the extraordinary in the name of the normal. Classical Zionism sees the secularly Jewish State of Israel as an escape from the extended abnormality of the Exile and its rabbinic accoutrement, and its adherents embrace that escape. For Hazony, that kind of normality leaves nothing meaningfully Jewish about Israel.

Not the exchange of polemics but the patterns of history itself will settle this argument over what normal can and should mean for Jews. Perhaps Zionism's successes must spell its decline as an ideal; after all, there has never been an ideology that did not eventually wind down, especially those that actually achieve their aims. Amin Al-Mahdi, a prominent figure in the contemporary Egyptian peace movement, perhaps said it best: "This is what happens to ideology: In the beginning, it needs dreamers, then warriors, and, at the end, biographers." One wonders if it isn't some sort of sign that, despite himself, Hazony spends so much time talking of Herzl and Ben-Gurion.

Still, the wisest Israelis never give up hope for a new synthesis of Jewish civilization that can reconcile the tensions between the universal and the particular, the democratic and the Jewish, the material and the spiritual. The real choice is not between Zionism and post-Zionism, between clinging to or jettisoning the Jewish ideal of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The challenge is to create a new ideal for the twenty-first century, a trans-Zionism that contains but goes beyond the Zionism of Herzl and Ben-Gurion. Attaining that new ideal constitutes the real struggle for the soul of Israel.

Essay Types: Book Review