“How long can a country survive if its intellectuals are working to undermine the very culture the country was built on?”
That was the question asked by Yoram Hazony, founder of the Jerusalem-based Shalem Center, a think tank dedicated to countering the influence of Israel’s “new historians” and post-Zionist academics, in his book The Jewish State (Basic Books, 2000), the first thorough – and critical – examination of post-Zionism available in English and still a must-read for anyone interested in Israeli history and politics.
Response to the book’s publication was overwhelmingly positive and came from all points along the political spectrum.
The late A.M. Rosenthal was quick to label the book a “classic,” while Philadelphia Jewish Exponent editor Jonathan Tobin praised it as “the most comprehensive account yet written about the phenomenon of post-Zionism, its origins and how it conflicts with the ideology of those who created Zionism and brought Israel to life.”
Martin Peretz, then-publisher and editor-in-chief of The New Republic, called Hazony’s book “a daring response to the challenge of the ‘new historians’ and post-Zionists…. a bracing text to read: provocative, unrelenting, surprising and tough-minded…. one does not have to agree with everything in the book to recognize the sheer intelligence exhibited on nearly every page.”
Peretz’s assessment was shared by William Kristol, publisher and editor of The Weekly Standard (and now a weekly New York Times columnist) who lauded the book’s “remarkable combination of intellectual history, political analysis and moral polemic.”
Columnist Gideon Samet, writing in Haaretz, bastion of the very thinking so forcefully opposed by Hazony, acknowledged that “What Mr. Hazony has to say about the internal processes that prompted what, in his view, are catastrophic concessions and weakness of character is worthy of close attention.”
In his book, Hazony went beyond the usual personal, ideological and political clashes that have characterized the history of Zionism – Jabotinsky vs. Ben-Gurion, Haganah vs. Irgun, Labor vs. Likud – to demonstrate how the real “struggle for Israel’s soul” (the book’s subtitle) has long been waged between those, like Ben-Gurion and his like-minded mainstream Zionist heirs, for whom Israel never made sense as anything other than an ethnically and (more or less) religiously Jewish state and those whose enlightened sensitivities cause them to recoil at the triumph of primitive tribalism over their ideal of a non-sectarian, binational state.
The book’s villains (not too strong a word in this context) are the coterie of German-Jewish intellectuals – a group that included Judah Magnes, Hannah Arendt, Gershom Scholem, Albert Einstein and Martin Buber – who vociferously opposed the establishment of Israel as a distinctly Jewish state and whose ideas found a welcome home at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, where they flourish to this day.
Einstein, because of his iconic status as the 20th century’s preeminent scientific genius, has largely escaped Jewish criticism for his antipathy to the notion of a Jewish state. But Hazony refused to let the old professor off easy, subjecting Einstein’s socialist/utopian hallucinations to unsparing – and inevitably unflattering – scrutiny.
Einstein was distancing himself from the aspirations of Jewish nationalism at least as early as 1929, stating in a letter to Chaim Weizmann that if the Jews are “unable to find a way to honest cooperation and honest pacts with the Arabs, then we have learned absolutely nothing during our 2,000 years of suffering, and deserve all that will come to us.”
Nine years later, in a speech in New York, Einstein declared, “I should much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state…. We are no longer the Jews of the Maccabee period.”
In January 1946, Einstein traveled to Washington to tell the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine, “The state idea is not according to my heart. I cannot understand why it is needed. It is connected with many difficulties and a narrow-mindedness. I believe it is bad.”
No wonder Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who offered the presidency of Israel to Einstein purely as a public-relations gesture, said to his personal secretary, “Tell me what to do if he says yes. I had to offer the post to him because it’s impossible not to. But if he accepts, we are in for trouble.”
Hazony’s critique of Martin Buber was an equally overdue scolding of a figure whose philosophical flimflam – existentialism made easy by a sugarcoating of religious phraseology – attracted those drawn to the writings of the French Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre but unprepared to accept the implications of Sartre’s godless, ultimately meaningless universe.