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Passionate but Modest Proposal Calls for Sane, Humane Zionism

The Fate of Zionism: A Secular Future for Israel & Palestine

By Arthur Hertzberg


208 pages, $19.95.

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Arthur Hertzberg is a rare bird on the American Jewish scene: a Jewish public intellectual who is also a Jewish leader. Once upon a time — when there were not many Jewish academics in the United States — people with intellectual stature emerged as leaders in the Jewish community, including Felix Frankfurter, Louis Dembitz Brandeis, Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver. Today, with hundreds of thousands of Jews in American academe, few of them end up in leadership positions in Jewish organizations. Hertzberg is almost the only contemporary Jewish American who is a rabbi, university professor, prolific author and public leader.

Over the years, he has also been known for his fierce independence, intellectual integrity and courage in speaking truth to power: to the U.S. government on Vietnam, to the government of Israel on settlement policies and — what may perhaps be even more difficult — occasionally to the official Jewish American leadership. Such a prophetic vocation does not necessarily endear one to all and sundry, but it certainly earned him respect even from those with whom he disagreed. Golda Meir was not known to be tolerant toward her critics, nor did she spare her share of scorn for

professors. Yet whenever Hertzberg spoke, she admitted, she had to listen. So when Hertzberg, now 81 years old but still vigorous as ever, writes on the future of Israel, one should — like Meir — listen.

What he has to say in this book is of importance on a number of levels. It is, on one hand, a passionate defense of Zionism — of the fundamental right of the Jews to have a national home; it is also a scathing critique of what Hertzberg sees as a selective criticism of Israel on the part of some people on the left who wax indignant about Israeli policies (many of which Hertzberg does not agree with himself), but remain silent regarding much worse infringements of human rights all over the world.

But the book is primarily a powerful lament about what Hertzberg sees as the wrong turn Israel has taken since the Six Day War in 1967. Hertzberg rightly sees this war as the turning point in the history of Zionism and Israel. He movingly recounts how he too was deeply elated by the enormity of Israel’s deliverance and victory in 1967; yet it was precisely the enormity of this victory — its almost miraculous nature — that has led to the triumphalism and hubris that have characterized so much of Israeli policy since then.

To those who tend to forget, Hertzberg recounts with great detail and passionate conviction the story of Zionism as a national liberation movement. Especially in the current atmosphere among many of Israel’s Jewish American supporters, it is important to reiterate that Zionism did not originate as a religious movement, that “it is not a linear heir to the religion of the Bible.” To those who, especially since 1967, tend to see the establishment of Israel as the beginning of the messianic age, he says — in a combination of deep belief and some exasperation with an absent God, a deus absconditus — that “if the Jewish messiah had chosen the twentieth century as the time to appear, he should have come to Auschwitz,” where Hertzberg’s family was murdered by the Nazis, and not “in order to expand the settlements on the West Bank.”

Yet this uncompromising critique of the messianic version of Zionism identified with Gush Emunim — and in its extreme fashion, also with the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin — is accompanied by a detailed account of the consistent Arab refusal to accept any Jewish political presence in Palestine. Hertzberg puts his historical erudition to show how from the beginning of the Zionist enterprise, even the most liberal Arab intellectuals — like George Antonius, the author of the classic “The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement” (1938) — were totally averse to accepting any Jewish claim or right in Palestine. This he forcefully compares with the liberal, humanistic and universalistic version of Zionist leaders like Chaim Weizmann, who famously said that the conflict is not between right and wrong, but between two rights. Hence the ultimate acceptance of partition by the Zionist movement; on the Arab side, however, their moral absolutism led them not only to reject partition and compromise, but by doing so they also went to war not merely against Israel but also against the United Nations and international legitimacy.

In this Hertzberg reflects the best traditions of liberal and Labor Zionism: an insistence on the Jewish right to a homeland, coupled with acceptance of the rights of The Other. Both right-wing Israelis and their American Jewish supporters as well as extreme left-wing critics of Israel fail, for opposite reasons, to be able to combine this humane, liberal vision. Hertzberg rightly views the attenuation of this vision in Israel since 1967 as the major tragedy now endangering the very spirit of the Zionist enterprise.

Yet Hertzberg’s book is not only a historical account, but also a tract for the times, and repeatedly claims to aim at a future solution. The subtitle of the volume — “A Secular Future for Israel & Palestine” — suggests the direction Hertzberg would like to take. But while his suggestions are unexceptionable from a liberal perspective, they are also somewhat disappointing.

Especially after 9/11, it is important to focus on the “secular” future of both Israel and Palestine: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is between two national movements — it is neither a war of religions, nor a facet in a global clash of civilizations.

Yet how can a coexistence of Israel and Palestine come about? Hertzberg, for all his idealism, is a hard-bitten realist. As a dove, he supported the Oslo agreements, but he realizes — though he does not say so in so many words — that this noble attempt has failed. He realizes that it now appears that Israelis and Palestinians cannot be left to their own devices and need an external power to move them toward reconciliation.

Yet despite the current political correctness, Hertzberg does not see the American-sponsored “Road Map” as having much chance of success. Both because the American president cannot accompany a complex and tortuous process all the way, step by step, over a period of years, as well as for another, more fundamental reason: because the United States cannot — and should not — be the world’s sheriff. Here Hertzberg points to a little-noticed inconsistency on the part of many on the left who oppose the role of the United States as the world’s policeman, seeing in it a thinly-disguised imperial arrogance, yet when it comes to the Middle East, put all their hope in an enhanced American role, mostly expressed by urging the United States to pressure Israel. Such a position does not go together with any liberal view of what role the United States should play in world politics.

So what should be done? To do justice to Hertzberg, he is — like many moderate Israelis, especially after the Palestinians’ refusal at Camp David in 2000 — at his wits’ end. He rightly objects to putting American soldiers on the ground as a buffer between Israel and the Palestinians, among other reasons because this will put America in the unenviable role in which the British were in the early 20th century.

What his recipe amounts to is a series of ameliorative measures that may seem reasonable, but are far from either practical or promising. He suggests that the United States deduct from its assistance to Israel the costs of maintaining the settlements (it is here that Hertzberg makes what looks to me his only factual mistake in the book, by suggesting that American aid to Israel amounts annually to $4 billion, when it is just a bit more than half of this); in parallel fashion, he suggests the United States “dry up the financial and military support of the Palestinian war makers,” especially by taking a tougher line vis-à-vis Iran and Saudi Arabia. This, again, is unexceptionable, but with American difficulties in Iraq, it is highly unlikely to happen, and in any case, does not address adequately the current impasse.

Since Hertzberg’s book has been published, the one measure that might stabilize the situation — unilateral disengagement — has been reluctantly adopted by the Sharon government. But it is being carried out in the wrong fashion, trying to use the justification for Israel’s self-defense against suicide bombings in order to annex some Palestinian territories. It is obviously a non-solution, yet may be the only meaningful policy, absent serious negotiations. Given Hertzberg’s virtual despair of a solution in the near future, one would hope he would support this move, controversial as it may be, while criticizing the route of the defensive fence.

Be this as it may, Hertzberg’s voice is a clear call for a return to a sane and humane version of Zionism, cleansed of arrogance and false messianism. If his book is short on workable concrete solutions, then this paragon of liberal Zionism is in good company.


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