Zionism under the microscope

Issue: 120

John Rose

Gabriel Piterberg, The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics & Scholarship in Israel (Verso, 2008), £14.99

This is an exhaustive analysis by an uncompromising Israeli scholar of many of the intellectual and literary documents, based on their original languages, that bind the Zionist project together. Hence it is a very important though not an easy read. Dense, complex and with too many loose ends, it is prone to a “Talmudic” style, with commentaries upon commentaries upon original texts. For instance, we have Piterberg on Anita Shapira, doyen of “liberal” Zionist scholarship, on Ben_Gurion on the Bible! (This particular argument will be familiar to readers of this journal.) But please persevere. Piterberg should join Ilan Pappé and Avi Shlaim as essential reading for Israel’s opponents.

A good starting point is a confession in the diary of Theodor Herzl, Zionism’s founder, that he wished he had been a Prussian aristocrat from the old nobility. Piterberg then shows how Herzl’s late 19th century literary outpourings are positioned on this theme—not least his novel, Altneuland, his “prophecy” for a Jewish state in Palestine. A central theme in the novel brings an anti-Semitic Prussian Junker to accept the newly created paradise and stay.

Piterberg concludes that Herzl’s “belief that having a successful colonial European-like venture in the East was the ultimate path to admission into the West was a genuine one”. In other words, far from Zionism posing an alternative to assimilation of Jews into Europe, it was, and remains, assimilation “by other means”.

This symbiosis with German right wing nationalist politics is explored to even more alarming effect in the case of Arthur Ruppin. Ruppin’s role in the colonisation of Palestine is so pivotal that he is known in Zionist Israeli lore as the “father of Jewish settlement in the land of Israel”. The main Jerusalem thoroughfare leading to the Israeli parliament is called Arthur Ruppin boulevard. Like Herzl, he was completely alienated from Judaism and knew little about it. He turned to Zionism because he felt rejected by bourgeois high society. But he did not reject the core values of that society, and when he looked at the Jews of Europe he did not like what he saw.

Ruppin saw his mission as nothing less than the transformation of the Jewish race. He absorbed all the contemporary “race science” claptrap peddled by charlatans such as Houston Stewart Chamberlain. One of the main tasks he set himself was the eradication of the Jews’ “commercial instinct”, responsible for their excessive fondness for Mammon. Ruppin’s diagnosis was that the original Jewish volk, which had belonged to Indo-European tribes, deteriorated because of the increasing presence of the Semitic element in its body, in particular through intermingling with the Oriental type.

Yes, he really was saying that Arab types, including Jews from Arab countries, helped to degenerate “real” Jews with all this money business. He praised the superiority of European (Ashkenazi) Jews over the rest in “mathematics, hygiene and above all the Ashkenazi bio-mystic force called Lebenszahigkeit (roughly speaking ‘life tenaciousness’).”

Ruppin was one of the most senior Zionist officials responsible for immigration to Palestine in the early part of the 20th century. He developed a reputation for only selecting “fit” types by the kinds of criteria described above. He was explicit about adapting the German colonisation project for Posen and Eastern Prussia as his model. The “socialist” kibbutz commune type of settlement grew out of this, constructed on sites excluding Palestinian Arabs and only very rarely including Jews from Arab countries.

Several chapters demolish in forensic detail the so-called “Jerusalem school” of Zionist historians. This has been the seedbed developing the view that Jews had been in “exile” since the fall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70 but had now “returned”. The book’s title and the chapters here play on this theme with great effect. The “re’’ prefix is exposed as an ideological fix—re-turn to the Land, re-turn to history, re-demption and especially re-storation—a product of the 19th century European Protestant imperial imagination and far more influential than the Zionists ever care to admit.

Gershom Scholem is the pivotal figure here. Scholem became Zionism’s crowning authority on Jewish messianism in the Jerusalem academy of early 20th century Jewish-settler Palestine. He was also a contemporary and friend of Walter Benjamin, another expert on messianism, who was discussed in the previous issue of International Socialism. The struggle between the two of them over the Jewish “soul” caught the attention of George Steiner, who Scholem particularly loathed. Steiner, rightly, elevated the heroism of Benjamin, on the run from the Nazis, yet refusing to consider Palestine even as refuge. Benjamin was a symbol of European Jewry, tempted, yes, but ultimately unwilling to abandon “irreplaceable values…unwilling to exchange the legacy of Spinoza, Heine and Freud for that of Herzl”.

Scholem was the authority on the strange figure of Sabbatei Sevi, born in Anatolia in today’s Turkey, who proclaimed himself the Jewish messiah in the 17th century. He led a pan-European Jewish “messianic” mass movement after the double shock of the expulsions from Spain in 1492 and the gruesome Ukrainian massacres of Jews in 1648. Sabbatianism has been proclaimed as a proto-Zionist movement, and Jacqueline Rose, in her The Question of Zion, very effectively exposed the irrationality that carried from the proto-movement to the real thing.

Piterberg’s chapter on Scholem requires especially close reading to get at the intellectual fraud at the heart of Scholem’s system. This is based on something called the “mythology of prolepsis”, where historical action has to await the future to grasp its full meaning. Scholem claimed that only someone like himself, a scholar, now at last “returned” with the exiled Jewish nation to “the land of Israel”, could fully appreciate the embryonic Zionism within the Sabbatian mysticism.

Sabbatei Sevi famously shocked his followers by converting to Islam. Far from shaking Scholem’s resolve, this fact too was incorporated into Scholem’s very special “dialectics” as “redemption through sin”. As Piterberg points out, a rather different approach is needed, highlighting the Ottoman Islamic context, with its own Islamic mystical movements intermingling with Jewish ones. Sabbatianism cannot be understood exclusively through the inner trials and tribulations of “exilic” Jewry. Its real history has still to be written.

A particularly brilliant subsequent chapter lays into more contemporary Israeli literary figures, and in particular Amos Oz, who is probably Israel’s most famous novelist. Oz is accused of more or less personal responsibility for fabricating the international image of the “moral” Israeli soldier. Here’s how.

After the 1967 war Oz became one of the chief editors of Siah Lohamim (Soldiers Talk). It was exactly that—soldiers recorded talking in the aftermath of war. It would become “one of the most effective propaganda tools in Israeli history, creating the image of the handsome, dilemma-ridden and existentially soul searching Israeli soldier, the horrific oxymoron of the ‘purity of arms’, and the unfounded notion of an exalted Jewish morality. It elicited some of the most self-righteous…pronouncements…’a sacred book…we are blessed to have such sons,’ said Golda Meir, former Israeli PM.” Below are just two of the countless examples of how the editorial mechanism worked.

In the first a commanding officer describes the feelings of his soldiers after they killed a Palestinian peasant in an ambush. The edited text reads, “What perhaps added to this terrible feeling was my impression of the soldiers who were lying in ambush and who as it happened killed that peasant.” The original unedited transcript read, “What perhaps added to this terrible feeling was my impression of the enormous gaiety of the soldiers who as it happened killed this peasant.”

In another example a manipulated soldier’s report claims that the desires of soldiers to finish off a wounded Fatah fighter were thwarted by others with proper moral fibre. The original transcript ends in a rather different way: “Suddenly that man, who was so innocent and quiet, took his rifle and pointed it to the head of the Arab and killed him.”

One description of the Israeli soldier moral mindset reads simply “shooting then weeping”.

In his opening chapter Piterberg poses the “conscious pariah” as the alternative to Zionism for dealing with the problems Jews were having with assimilation. Walter Benjamin, Bernard Lazare, a little known late 19th century anarchist writer and some time Zionist, and Hannah Arendt are considered as likely candidates. Piterberg is an expert on Arendt. His more general discussion of her in his book is strongly recommended, as is his excellent article in last November’s New Left Review—”Zion’s Rebel Daughter”.

However, there are two problems with this concept. First, although Piterberg is at pains to place a distance between the German sociologist Max Weber’s use of “pariah” for the Jewish condition and his own use of it, it remains a concept that Weber cultivated carefully and his association with it is difficult to break. Moreover it is an ugly concept and Weber’s use of it, among other things, distinguished Jewish pariah “speculative” capitalism from a more wholesome Protestant sort of capitalism. (Abram Leon was misled by Weber on this matter.) The danger with this line of thinking should be obvious and no concessions should be made to it. But there is a stronger objection. It concedes the Zionist case that assimilation is not possible but instead poses a progressive alternative. While I’m personally sympathetic to this argument—though preferring Isaac Deutscher’s formulation of “non-Jewish Jew” or even rootless cosmopolitan—I don’t think it describes reality.

The response of millions of East European Jews just over 100 years ago to the failure of assimilation in the pre-revolutionary Tsarist Russian Empire was migration not to Palestine but to America. Today they form the largest Jewish population anywhere in the world. They are as assimilated into America as are the great grandchildren of all those millions of Irish, Italian, Polish, etc, etc Americans, if not more so—and, sadly, certainly more so than millions of black and Latino Americans.

Still, Piterberg may see the concept fitting his own condition. And if he wants to describe himself as a conscious pariah in relation to the Israeli state from which he is so thoroughly and brilliantly alienated, that certainly is his entitlement. And who will disagree with Lazare’s formulation that Jews (especially in Israel 100 years later) should come out openly as a representative of the pariah, “since it is the duty of every human being to resist oppression”.