Herzl and the Idea of Israel

Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State
Shlomo Avineri
Weidenfeld and Nicolson   274pp   £20

The Idea of Israel
A History of Power and Knowledge
Ilan Pappe
Verso   288pp   £16.99

The founder of the modern Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl, was politically active for less than nine years before his death at 44 in 1904. Shlomo Avineri’s book analyses Herzl’s diary entries and reconstructs a succession of diplomatic disappointments in the corridors of European power. More often it was ridicule, laced with anti-Semitic innuendo. ‘Do you think that the Jews are going to give up their stock exchange and follow you?’, proclaimed the German Chancellor. ‘The common Jews will’, responded Herzl. Over 40 years later the UN partitioned Mandatory Palestine between Zionist Jews and Palestinian Arabs.

Herzl’s pamphlet, incorrectly translated into English as The Jewish State, awakened the impoverished Jewish masses of Eastern Europe. Its writing was stimulated by the election of the populist, anti-Jewish politician, Karl Lueger, to the mayoralty of Vienna. Herzl fantasised that he would challenge Lueger to a duel and kill him – and for good measure, he termed his election ‘a new St. Bartholomew’s night’, after the massacre of French Huguenots in 1572. As Avineri demonstrates, this was part of a wider movement of antisemitism in liberal Europe, not least in republican France, where Captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted on false evidence of passing secrets to the kaiser’s Germany.

Herzl emerges from his diaries as a dreamer and a realist. His dreams for the Jewish future were often utopian and his realism was cemented in the bare toleration of the Jews by the ruling classes of early 20th century Europe. There were exceptions, such as Joseph Chamberlain, the British Colonial Secretary of the time, who favoured Jewish settlement in the Sinai peninsula. A Viennese liberal, recalling the slave trade, Herzl also hoped ‘to assist in the redemption of the Africans’ once he had ‘witnessed the redemption of the Jews’.

Herzl’s Zionism was neither revolutionary nor messianic. A future state would not be a theocracy but a location, where Arabs and Jews would live in harmony with each other. Everyone would speak German and Hebrew would remain the language of the clerics. In this book Avineri has reclaimed Herzl from the propagandists.

As history records, the rise of Arab nationalism at the same time as Jewish nationalism over the same piece of land meant that Herzl’s hopes remained still-born. Ilan Pappe’s overview of post-Zionism is in part another attempt to locate where things went wrong. It is also a submerged account of his own trajectory from Marxism- Zionism as a reaction to the coming to power of the Israeli Right and the catalytic events that affected him, such as the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

During the 1980s the Israeli state archives released new material which indicated that the official version of the war of 1948 in which Israel won its independence was simplistic. The ‘new historians’ who challenged the old guard offered differing opinions. The Palestinian intellectual, Edward Said, only endorsed Pappe and dismissed the others who also revealed that the Ben-Gurion depiction of history was selective. While Pappe argues that there had been a quasi-official plan, based on Zionist beliefs, to expel the Palestinian Arabs, others believe that this is not revealed by the documentation. Pappe states that the revised history of 1948 was based ‘on a new ideological approach’, thus parting company with other ‘new historians’ who relegated ideology to a lower rung. The emergence of ‘post-Zionism’, mainly on the Israeli far Left, was also a product of the Rabin-Arafat handshake in 1993, hoping that past nationalism could be put aside and a joint Israeli-Palestinian future built. Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, the return of Netanyahu’s Likud and the rise of Palestinian Islamism all contributed to the marginalisation and irrelevance of post-Zionism. While this book gives numerous insights into the subject, Pappe also conducts a megaphone war with his Israeli academic opponents, which mars an otherwise interesting account.

History Today Volume 64 Issue 3 March 2014


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