Joined: 09 Sep 2006
|Posted: Sat Oct 28, 2006 3:41 pm Post subject: To Zion
~Professor Steven Zipperstein
There is something bilious, even meandering about the image of American Zionists; their counterparts elsewhere--in Europe before the Second World War, or in Palestine--are typically depicted as sinewy types who are argumentative, intriguingly obsessive and focused on concrete, intent tasks such as agrarian preparation or immigration. American Zionism enters into the larger saga of the movement's history in altogether different ways. Interestingly, the first novel written in the United States describing the lives of Jewish agrarian pioneers in Palestine is Meyer's Levin's 1931 Yehuda, which tells of a St. Louis insurance salesman who arrives at a kibbutz an obnoxious American and, once there, happily deflates. There he is recast into a commendable, sinewy pioneer.
The story of American Zionism is an American story and, not surprisingly, above all one of fundraising, but also of communal identity and power bases, some urgent existential grappling and, inevitably, the practical, day-to-day, mostly inarticulate wages of universalism and particularism. It is a narrative informed by one of the most perplexing dilemmas in modern Jewish life: the interplay between the quintessence of liberal utopia and the intermittent, mostly distant, sometimes intent pull of Zion. Over the last century, Zionism offered a quite different prospect for American Jews with regard to immigration and acculturation, and a fundamentally different scenario regarding their relationship to their own nationality and that of others. Zionism, as a result, has served as a lightning rod for so many of the most critical chasms in American Jewish life--religious, communal, cultural and, of course, political.
The relationship between American Zionism and Zion was, of course, reciprocal. The American Zionist movement provided Palestine, later Israel, with funds from what would soon be the world's wealthiest Jewish community and, from the outset, with diplomatic contacts in a centrally important, eventually pre-eminent political hub. Zionism would, in turn, recast the mind-set of much of American Jewry and just as the community gained new confidence in the 1960s, and later--in short, as it achieved a firm grounding in a society that Jews now knew no longer held them at arm's length.
American Zionism started as a remote outpost of European Jewish politics, and was vitalized only in the wake of the First World War and the 1917 Balfour Declaration. It first captured public prominence in the United States when Louis Brandeis--appointed in 1916 to the Supreme Court--took over its leadership. America's role in lubricating a financially strained, post-Balfour movement wasn't lost on the indefatigable Chaim Weizmann, later Israel's first president, who traveled to America in the 1920s sometimes annually, crisscrossing from New York to San Francisco and garnering much cash for a struggling Palestine. Larger-than-life grandees like Brandeis and Weizmann loomed so big, in fact, in the 1920s, or so, that the history of American Zionism in these years is often told as one of competing, incompatible giants--a tale of Brandeis versus Weizmann or, somewhat later, Stephen S. Wise versus Abba Hillel Silver. Inadequate as such a scheme is, it is clear that the movement then was able to satisfy outsized palates.
Nonetheless as an organizational presence, American Zionism skidded along precariously in the early 1930s under the direction of lively, but relatively obscure, intellectual leaders (Louis Lipsky, above all) after Brandeis's departure from the scene, and the onset of the Depression. Its constituency came, then, mostly from small businessmen, harmed but not, on the whole, devastated by the Depression with, perhaps, its most creative work before the Second World War in the hands of the splendid leadership of Hadassah.
On the left, Zionism fought the class-based, internationalist politics of Jewish socialists and communists (although it blended a soft, agrarian socialism into its mainstream teachings); on the right, so to speak, it battled with the established, integrationist American Jewish leaders who, in truth, soon came to champion many of Zionism's rescue activities in an increasingly perilous Europe even if they didn't quite embrace at first the prospect of a sovereign Jewish state. The Revisionist followers of Vladimir Jabotinsky remained--until the victory of the Likud Party in 1977, and still later--relatively weak, and far beyond the mainstream.
With American pre-eminence after World War II, the country's Zionist movement--and still more important, other Jewish communal organizations now under the ideology's sway, including the once-recalcitrant, integrationist American Jewish Committee--became a prime diplomatic as well as philanthropic asset. Zionism's youth movements and summer camps remained vibrant into the 1970s. After the 1967 war, American Jews' mostly nonideological Zionism surfaced and meshed with new, self-confident assumptions of belonging in an increasingly ethnic, culturally diverse America, where it soon would figure, more or less, as a credible part of the larger cultural geography. What had once been substantial Zionist organizations with leaders of influence, journals of quality (Jewish Frontier and Midstream were at the height, for example, of superb publications) and position papers of note became, in effect, a cast of mind shorn of institutional mooring, a shifting set of impressions and affections regarding the connection between Israel and the rhythm of one's Jewish communal, cultural and ritual life.
And while until the 1967 war, Israel's greatest impact was experienced in Labor Zionist circles--in line with the hegemony of David Ben-Gurion and his successors in Israel--the keenest impact was now felt increasingly in religious circles where an enthusiasm for Israel, unencumbered by the political quandaries of liberals or others, has remained stalwart under the leadership of Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon.
As communally pervasive as Zionism became in Jewish life in the United States, already by the late 1930s and early 1940s, its intellectual vitality never came close to matching its organizational and fund raising achievements. Zionism in America produced, to be sure, interesting, prolific intellectuals (Horace Kallen, Hayim Greenberg, Marie Syrkin, Maurice Samuel and Ben Halpern). But it attracted surprisingly sparse literary talent in the English language: When a once-leading literary figure, like Ludwig Lewisohn, embraced it he tended to shrink, not grow, in talent or creativity or stature. (The "New York Intellectuals" of Partisan Review and the liberal Commentary of the 1950s and early 1960s remained cool to it, at best.) It was never able to inspire, as it had hoped to do, the widespread study of Hebrew; it couldn't sustain its once splendid Yiddish-language newspapers. It would be difficult to name a single, truly distinguished writer (except for, say, Charles Reznikoff) whose fiction or poetry was intently, sympathetically engaged by it. The best-known novel, without doubt, written in the United States extolling its goals was Leon Uris's Exodus, published in 1958, whose author, according to the critic Irving Howe, wasn't a writer but a typist.
Of course, the primary goal of Zionism--the creation of a Jewish State--had been achieved. The essential soundness of its vision was embraced across the spectrum of American Jewish life, except for the most radical, now-discredited voices at the political or religious periphery. "We are one," was soon the slogan--no doubt, bland, triumphant, but by no means entirely incorrect at the time--of an American Jewish community sharing what was widely proclaimed to be a post-ideological, overridingly pro-Israel stance.
This masked real, ongoing differences regarding Israeli domestic and foreign policies, and it obscured how Zionism had long served at least some of American Jewry's best minds as an especially valuable prism through which to envision an edgier, fuller, more complex Jewry. Mordecai Kaplan had built a singular preoccupation with Israel into the heart of his Reconstructionist theology, where cosmology was displaced by a liberal, progressive Jewish nationalism and where an ongoing, bracing love of Zion was made into a central ritual of contemporary Jewish observance. In recent years, the quintessential maverick of American Judaism of the second half of the 20th century--the brilliant, iconoclastic Arthur Hertzberg--constructed much of his colorful, intellectually explosive life around an ongoing, often truly creative and sardonically loving debate with Israel. In his view, as restated recently in a new book, The Fate of Zionism, the fundamental dilemma of contemporary Jewish life is contained, above all, in the potentially debilitating prospect of immoderate, unwieldy Jewish power and its abuse in the State of Israel and, at the same time, the immeasurably more horrible prospect of Jewish powerlessness and its irreparable, disastrous consequences.
The State of Israel has in American public and intellectual life enjoyed, on the whole, widespread support until very recently. (Recall the sincere, truly deep outpouring of grief in the wake of the Rabin assassination merely a decade ago.) Liberal opinion in the United States and Europe in the past had lauded Israel--sometimes rather ridiculously--as a beacon of economic, even feminist egalitarianism. This has shifted drastically and with a sudden breathlessness, an astonishing speed at least in some academic and literary circles. Now, in influential and otherwise astute spheres in American life, Israel is depicted increasingly as a spot comparable to South Africa in its bleakest days--a place of uncommon, unchecked oppression. Israel's history, we're now told, is one of overriding, singular deceit. As a state, it has been sustained in uncommon hubris and hypocrisy, and it has been propped up for far too long by the world's guilt over the Holocaust.
Such arguments were, until a few years ago, at the margins of intellectual discourse in the United States and even in Europe. They're now increasingly influential and, if not normative, they've started to capture center-stage in the West in discussions of Israel and its future. Their mounting importance in American intellectual life should not be dismissed.
A discernable and, arguably, significant shift has occurred only very recently. It now is argued that the present configuration of the West Bank, with its Jewish settlements carved into the Palestinian heartland, makes the creation of a Palestinian state inconceivable. Instead, there now must be a one single state that would learn to govern not with mere benevolence but with liberality, with a postmodernist commitment to diversity. Freed from corrupt leaders and narrow, nationalist passions, Arabs and Jews will govern themselves equitably and can replicate in the Middle East, as one distinguished intellectual recently has proposed in The New York Review of Books, the vivid ethnic patchworks like that of present-day London, places of verve, where postmodernism is not relegated to literary textbooks but played out on city streets--blessed places where Zadie Smith, not Duddy Kravitz, roams unchained and free.
The current situation is, to be sure, dreadful. The prospect of solidifying two, credible states, Jewish and Palestinian, side by side--the scenario acknowledged in most Israeli polls (and, it seems, in most assessments of Palestinian attitudes, too) as the one accepted as optimum by the majority of the population--is increasingly elusive but by no means, according to most experts, impossible. The current situation does have the grimy, dreadful feel of near-intractability, it hurts both peoples immensely, it is born out of a mutually self-destructive stalemate with authority left in the hands of leaders grossly inadequate and almost certainly incapable of glimpsing beyond the next day's tactical crisis--except, that is, in their apparent fixation on the status quo. Little, it would seem, could be worse.
Yet unspeakably worse would be the scenario sketched above and described by some as part and parcel of a "global consensus" with regard to Israel and Palestine. The plan calls for the dismantling of a sovereign state--of, at best, the population transfer of millions--and it is, in effect, one more in a long series of calls (perhaps the silliest yet) for Jewish self-immolation in the face of the once-uncertain, now flatly discredited boons of universalism.
This moment in intellectual and political history resembles, it seems to me, the Marxist fixations of post-World War II France as depicted with such acuity and savage delight in Tony Judt's 1992 book, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956. The intellectuals analyzed by Judt (of whom the best known was Sartre) knew of the dreadful atrocities in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in the East but, in their desire to espouse clear-cut political solutions and reject the dominance of the United States they rendered them less dreadful, less politically pertinent, less immoral than they were. Reality was diced and sliced, it was shorn of inconvenient data rendered partisan and biased, made simple by superb, even stellar minds eager for the comfort, the peace and unanimity of political solutions--for the prospect of clear political blueprints, for the sight of young men and women celebrating them, adoring them as emblems of new, progressive, self-avowedly hopeful solutions. Judt's hero in the book is Camus, with his keen appreciation of nuance and his horror, on the whole, in the face of rarefied, simplified political plans. Yet Tony Judt is the author of The New York Review of Books piece mentioned previously. (He has been, as it happens, a close friend of mine for some 25 years; the dispute I describe is a familial one, an intimately fierce Jewish affair.)
Weizmann once related a telling anecdote about his unease with flattened assessments of the Land of Israel that he knew all too well as a place of confounding complexity. He describes his first meeting, in 1923, with the wealthy Felix Warburg, who was initially full of ferocious criticisms of Palestine; after hearing him out for an hour and a half without interruption, Weizmann proposed that Warburg visit the place before reaching conclusions. Warburg, as Weizmann relates, did just this: He toured the land and returned full of lavish, uncritical praise for Palestine's achievements. The conversion, recalls Weizmann, "left me cold." Neither version, he insisted to Warburg, was accurate. "We have our difficulties; sometimes the progress is very slow, sometimes it picks up a little speed; but ours is a living organism, afflicted with all the diseases and complications that commonly beset living organisms."
Jewish history has been long, often brutish, and rarely ever simple. Zionism created a state for Jews, a place sometimes bad and sometimes good--a beleaguered place that is both now very strong and, in some respects, perilously weak; a place liberal and illiberal, a place of freedom and repression, a place whose nationalism sought serious, intent liberation, and where it also wreaked havoc on the lives of non-Jews. It is a place of imperfection and also much beauty, a place with dreams splendid and hideous, a place created by a people declared placeless by much of the world, and also wholly disposable just a few short years before its creation. It seems self-evident that whatever the solution might be to the conflict between Jews and Arabs, the question as to whether this place--now half-a-century old--is indeed a Jewish place must finally be set aside. It must be discarded like the empty plaint of someone who refuses to let you live your life.
***Steven J. Zipperstein is Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History and co-director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies, Stanford University. He is the author of several award-winning books, including Elusive Prophet: Ahad Ha'am and the Origins of Zionism.
JUDEA & SAMARIA are clear and unquestionably JEWISH!
MiddleEast Political Expressions