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Where Persecuted Jews May Go: In Memoriam, Benzion Netanyahu (1910-2012)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a memorial ceremony for the Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky at Mount Herzl.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a memorial ceremony for the Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky at Mount Herzl.
Photo Credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90

Throughout history political systems have come to an end when citizens of countries lose faith in them. The state of Israel has not had to face this situation in the extreme, but it has been challenged by so-called “post-Zionism.” Among the themes derogatory towards Israel are that Zionism — the movement of Jewish self-determination which led to the establishment of the state of Israel — is a colonial enterprise; that a Jewish state is by nature undemocratic; that it is basically immoral as it was founded on the domination, or even the ouster — by force and other means — of another people; that the creation of Israel caused a catastrophe for Palestinian Arabs; that Israeli occupation of disputed territory is a violation of human rights; that Israel is an imperialistic power and a threat to world peace.

This criticism is deficient in many respects. It is a quaintly insular view of Israel — a country in a world of globalization and complex interdependence, confronted by continual hatred so that it must always be prepared to defend itself. Its proponents are singularly naïve in their expectations of a perfect social and politically egalitarian, secular society, and are guilty of prejudice against devout religious believers in a way they are not toward followers of other faiths. Moreover, these critics misunderstand Zionism, a word coined by Nathan Birnbaum in 1891, which in fact includes a pluralistic variety of approaches.

What particular aspects of the different views of Zionism are unacceptable to the critics? Do they want to eliminate the state of Israel? Proponents of Zionism saw that Jews in the Diaspora had been excluded from world history, and so believed it was necessary to establish a state for the Jewish people as a national unit. The Israeli Declaration of Independence speaks of “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate like other nations.” Advocates varied about the solution: “territorialists” wanted any suitable areas including Uganda where persecuted Jews might go; others demanded a state in Palestine or Eretz Israel [the Biblical Land of Israel]; practical Zionists proposed settlements; others urged a solution by political and diplomatic means; socialists disputed with the political right; nationalists disagreed with internationalists, and the religious coexisted with the free-thinkers.

The post-Zionists argue that Zionism is a colonialist concept essentially founded on injustice towards the local Arabs, and that the differences in Israel now in status, income, and rights between Jews and Israeli Arabs means that the state is therefore undemocratic. The logical conclusion for these critics would be that Israel would be more democratic if it were less Jewish. Herzl and many others would have disagreed with this conclusion. He wrote in his diary in1895 that Jewish settlement would bring immediate benefits to the land, and that “we shall respectfully tolerate persons of other faiths and protect their property, their honor, and their freedom with the harshest means of coercion.”

The fundamental external reality — which seems to escape those who challenge the legitimacy of Israel — is that many Arab countries and Palestinians, having warred and engaged in constant hostility, still refuse to recognize Israel’s legitimacy. Necessarily, security is vital; the problem is to what extent should this interfere with Arab claims to the land and rights? The present mainstream view is that a secure Israel is better than a territorially extended one.

Certainly a variety of opinions exist within Israel on the nature of the economy and the free market, on the cultural identities that make up the mosaic of its society, and on the inequalities both within the Jewish community and between Jews and non-Jews. But to conclude that Zionism is a colonialist or racist movement is to go far beyond rational analysis, and to touch on the periphery of antisemitism.

Although attitudes toward the Arabs in the territory differ, there has never been any official policy to expel them from the territory. In spite of this, Israel’s critics persist in the allegation that Zionism has promoted this view. They are mistaken in this belief as they are in their aversion to the exercise of Israeli power to defend itself, while at the same time shirking any realistic alternative proposals.

The main assertions of critics are that Israel is too nationalistic — that it should no longer be a Jewish state but rather a democratic one, implying an incompatibility between the two; and that Israel should end its occupation of captured territory, even as it stands threatened by many countries that have repeatedly announced they would like to displace it. These critics also conveniently ignore the continual Arab rejection of any compromise solution to the conflict and their repeated rejection of all partition proposals and resolutions. Post-Zionism tends to become anti-Zionism — the denial that Israel has a legitimate right to exist but comfortable with the right to exist of other newly-created states, such as Moldova, or Bangladesh.

It is therefore fortunate that the book, The Founding Fathers of Zionism by Benzion Netanyahu, the recently deceased 102 year old patriarch of an important Israeli family — including Jonathan the celebrated hero who was killed while leading the mission to rescue Jewish hostages held by the PLO at Entebbe airport on July 4, 1976, Benjamin, Prime Minister of Israel, and Iddo, a prominent physician — has been translated from Hebrew and is being published for the first time in English. The author is well known both as a renowned scholar, especially for his 1400 page, controversial book, The Origins of the Inquisition in 15th century Spain, dedicated to Jonathan.

Netanyahu’s book is a series of essays on five major writers — Leo Pinsker, Theodore Herzl, Max Nordau, Israel Zangwill, and Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky — who contributed to the intellectual foundation of Zionism and thus indirectly to the establishment of the state of Israel.

In earlier years, Netanyahu was an activist in the Revisionist Zionist movement, for a time secretary to its founder, Jabotinsky, and head of the U.S. branch of the movement during World War II. In 1940 he approved the campaign of Jabotinsky, who had formed Haganah in 1920 as a separate fighting force, to create a Jewish military force to fight against Nazi Germany, and to call for a Jewish state. Although he never renounced his favorable opinion of Jabotinsky, his essays are eminently fair in their evaluation of all of his five founders.

Netanyahu traces Zionism back to late 19th century Russia and the rise in Eastern Europe of a national consciousness, partly as an outcome of religious longings, but largely as a result of attacks on Jews and the manifest anti-Semitism there.

It is of course true that some in the Jewish community do not acknowledge the land that is now Israel as the necessary homeland for all Jews. The founders in Netanyahu’s book thought otherwise. Their arguments, which played a major part of the intellectual foundations on which the state of Israel was built, were based on the understanding, which turned out to be prescient, that European Jews would be doomed without a Jewish state in which they would be protected and could defend themselves. For Netanyahu the motivation of Zionism, also as expressed by his founders, was not religious but political.

The declaration at the First Zionist Congress that Herzl convened in Basel in 1897 was that “Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law.” This implied an international charter for Jews to return to Palestine. The result, Herzl believed, would be not only a state but also the ending of anti-Semitism. Herzl emphasized the need for the Jewish people to rule, and to believe in their own powers. Netanyahu sums up Herzl in three words: “believe, dare and desire.” In Herzl’s novel, Altneuland, a character concludes, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Herzl’s contributions to Zionism, a combination of realism and optimism, emphasized a principle post-Zionists tend to reject: that Jews “are a people, one people.” Affliction he said “binds us together, and thus united, we suddenly discover our strength.” He urged the restoration of the Jewish state, in which a normal society could exist for Jews. The new state, he said, with an insistence that underscored his determined diplomatic efforts to get international approval, must have an assured right of sovereignty, and a legal right recognized by the international community.

Not surprisingly, the longest essay in Netanyahu’s book is on his hero Jabotinsky – orator, writer, and thinker with a mastery of languages, literature, and history. That hero saluted Herzl, the liberated strong personality who was a model of the proud, independent Jew, able to command, and necessary in a new Jewish entity.

Jabotinsky called for both political and military resistance to any concession of the rights to which Jews were entitled, as individuals or as a people. To this end he championed Jewish self-defense in Russia. As a private individual he created the Jewish Legions in World War I and after the War the Irgun Zva’i Leumi (National Military Organization). Netanyahu points out that he urged both a political and military struggle against British rule. The political struggle should be one of constant public pressure, going beyond diplomatic niceties. The military one would be a way of educating Jewish youth; at an extreme it would be an armed uprising against Britain.

Jabotinsky’s most controversial argument was his policy towards local Arabs. He predicted the Arab pogroms of April 1920 against Jews, and organized defense against it for which he was jailed for 15 years, although soon released. He recognized that Arabs would not voluntarily consent to the fulfillment of Zionism, and would fight against Jewish immigration, even though it would bring them cultural and economic benefits. Hence his famous advocacy of an Iron Wall, a strong legal military and political force to convince the Arabs that they could not force Jews to leave the area. For him the land of Israel would be obtained only through force.

All five writers called for a national home for the Jewish people, and the creation of a sovereign state which could exercise power. The inescapable internal problem is the presence of an Arab minority that now comprises one fifth of the population. The Zionist pioneers, aware of this problem, established individual and collective rights for this minority.

Whatever the different formulations of Zionism, all proponents share the view that the area is the birthplace and the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people, linked by historical ties and by religious and cultural traditions. Zionism did not and does not call for expelling the non-Jewish population in the disputed land; and despite the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 of November 10, 1975 – revoked in 1991 – that Zionism was a form of Racism, Zionism a not a racist concept.

Netanhayu serves a valuable role in reminding us of the need to establish a safe and secure state in which Jews can live a healthy and normal life, rather than, as in the 1940s, having boatloads of refugees turned away, leaving them to drown.

 

Originally published by Gatestone Institute http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/

About the Author: Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University, and author of the forthcoming book, Should Israel Exist? A sovereign nation under assault by the international community.


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