The Zionist Idea according to Amnon Rubinstein


From Herzl to Rabin: The Changing Image of Zionism (Holmes and Meier) pp. 283

This book is in fact an updated version of Amnon Rubinstein’s From Herzl to Gush Emunim and Back: The Zionist Dream Revisited which was published in 1984. If the original was catalyzed by Rubinstein’s reaction to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, then this is the result of the Yitzhak Rabin assassination.

Rubinstein, now a Meretz MK, was a member of Rabin’s cabinet for four years and has dedicated this work to his memory. It is an intelligent analysis of the meaning of Zionism in our time.

ZIONISM was always a mixture of ideologies and has suffered the contortions of convenience over time, but it has undoubtedly changed Jewish history in an immeasurable fashion and is itself still in flux.                ‘

The founding fathers and mothers of the Zionist movement were the product of their time and place. Thus the assimilationist Heal perceived Zionism as a reaction to anti-Semitism while Ahad Ha’am saw Zionism as a means to stabilize the disintegration of Jewish identity because of Orthodoxy’s inability to coexist with modernity or to react to persecution.

In Ahad Ha’am’s eyes, Herzl’s ignorance and limited Jewish background produced a catastrophic effect on the development of the Zionist movement — he was a false messiah like Shabtai Zvi. The mistranslation  of Der Judenstaat as ‘The Jewish State’ rather than “The Jews’ State” was no accident., Ahad Ha’am pointed out that there is a vast difference between a “Jewish state” — and all that this implies — and a “state of Jews,” like any other state. But, almost as a corrective, Rubinstein reminds us that Herzl placed political Zionism on the world stage while Ahad Ha’am continued to publish his brilliant insights in small magazines.

HERZL’S political dynamism flair for public relations and literary abilities served Ze’ev Jabotinsky as a paradigm for Zionist activism — all the rest was “Ahad Ha’amism.”

In this book, Rubinstein treats Jabotinsky with respect as a key historical figure. He perceives Jabotinsky in direct ideological lineage to Menachem Begin and does not examine the differences between them on central issues such as Begin’s demand to implement the third stage of Zionism — military Zionism — in 1938. Jabotinsky rejected this. It was clearly not a seamless succession.

Rubinstein shatters the imagery to which we have been accustomed in other areas as well, including those of the Eurocentric and often anti-religious sentiments of the early Zionists.

The highly talented Jabotinsky wrote:

I am aware of another, even sadder fact: within religious Jewry, there are still to be found savage Eastern customs — a hatred of uninhibited inquiry, religious intervention in everyday life, women wearing wigs, who will not shake hands with men. Had we thought that these qualities are part of the imminent essence of Judaism, we would have despaired of perpetuating such an essence.

No politician — and certainly not from the Right — would dare to utter such debilitating and politically incorrect comments today.

RUBINSTEIN’S analysis of the politicization of the haredim is interesting but often tinged with secular angst plus the “after all we have done for them” syndrome so unsuccessfully applied to the Sephardim and the Palestinians by others.

He describes the irony of the situation where non-Zionist haredim eagerly jumped on the ultra-nationalist bandwagon in the early 1990s as a mark of their growing political confidence.

As they moved towards open nationalism, the national religious camp, Rubinstein suggests, was moving in the opposite direction, finding solace in the world of Halacha (Jewish law) after the trauma of Oslo.

“The alliance with the secular public was crumbling before their very eyes while the haredi world was beginning to seek harmony with them in their common war against the cuIture represented by hedonist Tel Aviv, against `nowism and so-called Hellenism.”

RUBINSTEIN. writes about radical rabbis and their involvement in the incitement leading up to Rabin’s death and the constant accusations of treason, which were levelled at him — and it is not for the morally squeamish. The closing of ranks after Rabin’s death and denial of Any responsibility in the act clearly irks Rubinstein.

In a footnote, he quotes the private and hitherto unpublished anguish of Rabbi Aharon Soloveichik

I failed in that I did not protest with the required force against those who sought a dispensation for the murder. Therefore, we cannot say that our hands did not spill blood.

Rubinstein points to the fact that although Yigal Amir’s act was condemned, no one questioned the Orthodox bone fides of the rabbis who rationalized the assassination beforehand and those who carried it out. They were accused of misapplying Jewish law, but not of no longer being worthy of the title “Orthodox Jews.’ They were not drummed out of the community.

RUBINSTEIN devotes a chapter to “Non-Zionism and Post-Zionism.” It is a coherent, cogent attack on post-Zionism and its propagators in academia. On a political level it is the difference between Peace Now and the non-Zionist far left.

Rubinstein’s attitude towards the new historians is far from sympathetic.

He recognises the important research that Benny Morris has carried out on the expulsion of some Palestinians and believes that Israel is mature enough come to terms with the black spots in Its history. Significantly no Arab archives of the period have been opened.

He is, however, unsparing in his attack on those Israelis who deconstruct ‘the Zionist myth’ destructively and who view the past in hindsight.

There is a significant difference between revisionist criticism, sharp and unfair as it may be, and a one-sided uses every possible contrivance to portray Zionism and Israel as tainted from the moment of birth.

As a good liberal, Rubinstein concludes that only if Israel returns to original Zionism, will it continue to exist as the state the Jews, and find peace and security.

It is something of a catchall, meaningless comment which really doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the Zionist odyssey, which he has honestly and intelligently depicted — warts and all.

Jerusalem Post 19 January 2001

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