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Internal battles continue

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Zionism: the Birth and Transformation of an Ideal, by Milton Viorst, Thomas Dunne Books, 336 pages, $27.99

Reviewed by NEAL GENDLER

Although I haven’t heard clamor for yet another history of Israel or Zionism, veteran journalist Milton Viorst has produced one, outlining the story through a prologue and seven interesting chapters centered on changes wrought by movement leaders.

Most of Zionism: the Birth and Transformation of an Ideal is pretty objective, but Viorst, who admits to a style of journalism with attitude, makes his views clear in a three-page preface.


“How did Zionism, over the course of a century, evolve from the idealism of providing refuge for beleaguered Jews to a rationalization for the army’s occupation of powerless Palestinians, and oppressing the Palestinians under its control” he asks.

“President Obama has initiated two major negotiating efforts — and failed dismally in both. Does Zionism’s recent silence on the issue suggest that the Jewish DNA contains an immunity to peace?”

Perhaps the “immunity” question should be directed instead to the side that has turned down every peace opportunity since 1937.

But Zionism, which follows this purported transformation, is not a left-wing polemic. It includes some interesting observations and little-mentioned information and acknowledges that the Arabs, “in customary fashion… rejected any compromise with the Jews.”

Chapters begin with Theodor Herzl, creator of political Zionism, and include Chaim Weizmann, instrumental in obtaining the Balfour Declaration; Vladimir Jabotinsky; David Ben-Gurion; Rabbis Avraham Isaac Kook and Zvi Yehuda Kook, creators of Modern Orthodoxy and religious nationalism; Menachem Begin, and a chapter called “Arriving at Netanyahu — Revisionism triumphant.”

Jabotinsky, who in 1924 split from the World Zionist Organization to lead a more militant Revisionist movement, gets fair, even sympathetic treatment and credit for organizing what became the Haganah. Golda Meir, who appears in various chapters, is called “closed-minded and stubborn,” refusing to consider territorial compromises. While crediting Ben-Gurion with making Herzl’s promise a reality, Viorst says neither Ben-Gurion nor Weizmann showed interest in courting the Arabs.

Herzl claimed not to have read Russian Leo Pinsker’s earlier Auto-Emancipation before writing Der Judenstaat (the Jewish State), the impact of which, Viorst says, was “not from Herzl’s creative formulas but from its daring. It’s as if the Jews, having reached a consensus that emancipation was a failure, were waiting for Herzl.”

Viorst describes tensions between London-based chemist Weizmann, pursuer of diplomacy, and Jerusalem-based labor leader Ben-Gurion, focused on actions. New to me are Viorst’s suggestion that Jabotinsky’s Betar, a uniformed movement “said to have 100,000 young men” with weapons in Poland, should have fought the Nazi invasion, and his assertion that Betar’s 1938 world meeting in Warsaw ignored “the impending assault on Poland’s Jews.” But who knew then?

He states clearly that the Haganah approved the Irgun’s bombing — with warning — of British offices in the King David Hotel. Ben-Gurion subsequently condemned the attack, calling Irgun “the enemy of the Jewish people.” Viorst calls the Irgun’s role “crucial” in creating a British consensus that the Mandate was not worth its cost.

He accurately recounts the condescending attitude of pre-state Ashkenazim toward the 800,000 Jews who fled Arab lands — Jews successfully courted by Revisionist Begin.

Viorst repeatedly uses the distasteful term “Wailing Wall,” and commits two easily avoidable errors. He says Britain’s World War II Jewish Brigade got to Europe too late for combat; in Italy, it initiated attacks in March 1945, then crossed the Senio River on April 9 against a German parachute division. It suffered 30 dead and 70 wounded. He says that in the 1948 war, America and France “opened their arsenals” for Israel. But the United States imposed a regional arms embargo. Thirteen pages later, Viorst says: “In the fall of 1958, [President] Eisenhower opened the door to America’s arsenal.” Were editors asleep?

But easy-reading Zionism’s virtues far exceed its problems. Just keep in mind that Viorst has opinions. Likely inadvertently, he says that the internal battle continues between “mainstream” and Revisionist Zionism.

“Traditional” or “historical” might have been better than “mainstream.” Since 1996, only one prime minister – Ehud Barak – wasn’t from a Revisionist party or background. So it’s fair to ask: In the Zionists’ nation, which now is the mainstream?


Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor.

(American Jewish World, 8.12.16)

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