Du­al­ity of a Zion­ist state

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

N the night of 15 April, 1897, a small, el­e­gant steamer is en route from Egypt’s Port Said to Jaffa.’’ “At the end of Oc­to­ber 1898 the small steamer Ros­siya made its way from Alexan­dria in Egypt, via Port Said, to Jaffa.’’

It is un­usual, or maybe even unique, for the first chap­ters of two books pub­lished at the same time to open with al­most iden­ti­cal sen­tences. But, then, My Promised Land and Herzl are telling dif­fer­ent sides of the same tale: the story of Zion­ism from the be­gin­ning, one of the strangest, most ro­man­tic, most be­wil­der­ing episodes in mod­ern his­tory, and to this day one of the most bit­terly con­tentious.

Aboard that first steamer to Jaffa was “the Rt. Hon­ourable Her­bert Ben­twich’’, as Ari Shavit calls him, al­though the of­fi­cial record doesn’t sug­gest that he was en­ti­tled to the pre­fix of a privy coun­cil­lor, for all his con­sid­er­able distinc­tion. He was a Lon­don Jew, one of the first gen­er­a­tion of his fam­ily, orig­i­nally from Poland, to be Bri­tish-born; the son, grand­son and great­grand­son of rab­bis; a suc­cess­ful lawyer; and great-grand­fa­ther of Shavit, a cel­e­brated Is­raeli news­pa­per and tele­vi­sion com­men­ta­tor.

As Shavit writes, the Is­raeli ques­tion can­not use­fully be an­swered with polemics, though that doesn’t stop them pelt­ing down like win­ter rain. In­stead, he has made a fas­ci­nat­ing per­sonal odyssey, a voy­age around the past and present of “the Jewish State’’, as an idea and a re­al­ity. That was the ti­tle of the lit­tle book pub­lished in 1896 by Theodore Herzl, “a Ger­man Jew from Hun­gary’’, in his own words, who be­came a Vi­en­nese jour­nal­ist.

And it was Herzl who, as Is­rael po­lit­i­cal the­o­rist Shlomo Avineri re­lates in his new bi­og­ra­phy, was trav­el­ling in the Ros­siya to make his first visit the Holy Land, where he would meet Kaiser Wil­helm II: from the be­gin­ning the Zion­ist en­ter­prise would be bound up in the great game of in­ter­na­tional power pol­i­tics.

Born in Bu­dapest in 1860, Herzl moved to Vi­enna and law school. But he soon found his metier in jour­nal­ism, as a lit­ter­a­teur, es­say­ist and play­wright; and Zion­ism was in­deed a very lit­er­ary move­ment from the be­gin­ning. Herzl’s early years were a time of hope for Euro­pean Jews, who had seem­ingly achieved longed-for eman­ci­pa­tion in many coun­tries.

But then hopes were dashed, with the dra­matic rise of the new ag­gres­sive anti-Semitism as­so­ci­ated with al­most ev­ery na­tion­al­ist move­ment. Herzl ex­pe­ri­enced it close at hand, from stu­dent fra­ter­ni­ties that banned Jews to the Drey­fus af­fair, which he cov­ered as Paris cor­re­spon­dent of the Vi­enna Neue Freie Presse, wit­ness­ing for him­self the hideous cer­e­mony in Paris when Al­fred Drey­fus was de­graded in front of a mob bay­ing for Jewish blood.

Af­ter toy­ing with other far-fetched ideas, such as the mass con­ver­sion to Chris­tian­ity of the Jews of the Hab­s­burg monar­chy, Herzl con­ceived what he called “the an­swer to the Jewish ques­tion’’, though many Jews at the time thought it no less far-fetched. Herzl said, as it were: if you can’t join them, beat them. Since Euro­pean na­tion­al­ism had turned on the Jews, let the Jews turn away from Europe and cre­ate their own na­tion in the land where their fore­bears had lived a few thou­sand years be­fore. Which is to say that while Herzl was an at­trac­tive per­son­al­ity and a gifted writer, he was a luft­men­sch, a dreamer or even fan­ta­sist.

His pre­ferred method of ad­vanc­ing his cause was par­lay­ing with power. He made the ac­quain­tance of Prince Philip von Eu­len­burg, the Ger­man am­bas­sador in Vi­enna, who told him “the Kaiser is very warmly in­clined to­ward the project’’. Then Herzl met the Grand Duke of Baden and Bern­hard von Bülow, the for­eign

March 15-16, 2014 min­is­ter in Berlin. He went on to Con­stantino­ple while the kaiser was mak­ing a vain­glo­ri­ous progress through the Ot­toman lands, cul­mi­nat­ing in Jerusalem. It was there that Herzl and his Zion­ist del­e­ga­tion, im­pec­ca­bly dressed de­spite the in­tense heat, pre­sented them­selves to the kaiser, and re­ceived a some­what Del­phic an­swer: “The mat­ter, in any case, re­quires thor­ough study and fur­ther dis­cus­sion.’’

Shortly be­fore his death in 1904 at only 44, Herzl had vis­ited Rome, where he met King Vic­tor Em­manuel III, who ex­pressed sym­pa­thy for the scheme while say­ing, quite truly, that the small Ital­ian Jewish com­mu­nity was in­te­grated in pub­lic life. The Pope was an­other mat­ter. Pius X was the most in­tran­si­gently dog­matic pon­tiff of the past century and he spelled out what would be the Vat­i­can’s po­si­tion un­til at least the 1960s: “The Jews have not recog­nised our Lord, there­fore we can­not recog­nise the Jewish people.’’

But for Herzl the im­me­di­ate prob­lem was re­sis­tance from Jews rather than Chris­tian lead­ers. Avineri touches on this, al­though he could have made more of it. Herzl’s scheme was ut­terly re­jected and bit­terly re­sented by many


eman­ci­pated Jews, no­tably the own­ers and ed­i­tors of Herzl’s own paper, as a chal­lenge to their own hard-won po­si­tion as cit­i­zens of the coun­tries where they lived. And it was anath­e­ma­tised by de­vout Jews, among them the chief rabbi of Vi­enna, as a blas­phe­mous an­tic­i­pa­tion of the Almighty’s own work.

At the time of Herzl’s death, Her­bert Ben­twich had been con­verted from the tra­di­tional po­si­tion he still sup­ported when he landed at Jaffa, favour­ing no more than hu­man­i­tar­ian re­set­tle­ment of Jews in Pales­tine, to Herzl’s own po­lit­i­cal Zion­ism. And part of what makes My Promised Land so ab­sorb­ing is this fam­ily story. Her­bert’s son Nor­man Ben­twich was a bar­ris­ter and colo­nial civil ser­vant who be­came first at­tor­ney-gen­eral of Bri­tish Manda­tory Pales­tine un­til he clashed with the au­thor­i­ties in the per­son of Sir John Chan­cel­lor, the high com­mis­sioner. But he was an irenic mod­er­ate, who pur­sued the re­mote ideal of a bi-na­tional state shared by Arabs and Jews, be­fore re­turn­ing to Eng­land.

Rather than a con­sec­u­tive nar­ra­tive, Shavit gives chap­ter-by-chap­ter snap­shots, from At First Sight 1897 to Ex­is­ten­tial Chal­lenge 2013. We meet, for ex­am­ple, Aryah Deri, who grew up in some com­fort and se­cu­rity in Morocco un­til the cat­a­clysm that fol­lowed the Six-Day War in 1967. Flee­ing with his fam­ily, he later be­came a leader of the Ortho­dox Ori­en­tal Jewish party, and a cab­i­net min­is­ter, un­til charged with cor­rup­tion. He per­son­i­fies two of the schisms within Is­rael, be­tween re­li­gious and sec­u­lar, and be­tween the Ori­en­tal Jews and the Ashke­nazi or Euro­pean elite who had founded the state and thought that most of the people who emi- grated from the Arab world were prim­i­tive. Then the fam­ily plot thick­ens fur­ther. Shavit’s fa­ther and un­cle were closely con­nected with the build­ing of an Is­raeli nu­clear bomb at Di­mona. Shavit meets one of their col­leagues, the anony­mous head en­gi­neer of the Di­mona project, whose fa­ther was killed by an Arab gun­man in 1943, and who worked on the great se­cret project as a form of rec­om­pense.

“Se­cret’’ it was sup­posed to be, but Di­mona has al­ways been an “un­known known’’, to bor­row the in­ge­nious coin­ing of Fin­tan O’Toole, af­ter Don­ald Rums­feld’s “known knowns, known un­knowns’’. O’Toole has in mind the sundry out­rages in his own coun­try, from the unchecked abuse of power by the Catholic Church to some of the most cor­rupt politi­cians in Europe. But none of these was re­ally a dark se­cret: ev­ery­one in Ire­land more or less knew, but they pre­ferred to un­know or ig­nore them.

And so with Di­mona, for all that the Is­raeli govern­ment has never ad­mit­ted that it has nu­clear weapons — and so also with Ly­dda 1948, a chap­ter that has been pub­lished in The New Yorker and caused some stir. Shavit un­spar­ingly de­scribes the forcible ex­pul­sion of up to 50,000 Pales­tinian Arabs dur­ing the fight­ing that es­tab­lished the new state: “Ly­dda is our black box. In it lies the dark se­cret of Zion­ism.’’

But again, there was never any real se­cret here, even if suc­ces­sive Is­raeli gov­ern­ments did their best to make it one. In 1979, when Yitzhak Rabin, a once and fu­ture prime min­is­ter who would die at the hand of a Jewish as­sas­sin in 1995, pub­lished his mem­oir, it orig­i­nally con­tained a frank ac­count of how he, as a bri­gade com­man­der act­ing at the be­hest of David BenGu­rion, drove out the Arabs of Ly­dda. This pas­sage was sup­pressed by an Is­raeli cen­sor­ship board. All the same, any­one who wanted to know could have known.

Now Shavit muses about these two un­known knowns. The un­named nu­clear en­gi­neer took part in the de­struc­tion of Arab vil­lages in 1948. And so: “Even if he does not say so, it is clear that a straight line leads from those vil­lages to Di­mona … Be­cause of those dead vil­lages it was clear that the Pales­tini­ans would al­ways try to flat­ten us.’’ But then Shavit still sees a stark per­sonal choice: “Ei­ther re­ject Zion­ism be­cause of Ly­dda, or ac­cept Zion­ism along with Ly­dda.’’

We have come a long way from those steam­ers with their dream­ers ar­riv­ing at Jaffa in the reign of Vic­to­ria, and the days when Herzl the ro­man­tic imag­ined that the Arabs would wel­come the Zion­ists with open arms. By con­trast Shavit thinks him­self a hard­ened re­al­ist, but maybe he’s a kind of luft­men­sch. He says, what by now is a pi­ous plat­i­tude re­it­er­ated in ev­ery other op-ed col­umn, that there must be a Pales­tinian state if Is­rael it­self is to sur­vive as a demo­cratic Jewish state. But what if one thinks, as some of us by now do, that the “two-state set­tle­ment’’ is a chimera, and that, if a mo­ment for achiev­ing this ever ex­isted, it has now passed?

To­wards the end of My Promised Land Shavit muses that, “if Her­bert Ben­twich had not been over­come by an ob­ses­sive yearn­ing for Zion’’ the fam­ily would have re­mained in Eng­land. “I like to think I could have been a lit­er­a­ture don at Ox­ford or a pro­ducer at the BBC. My life would be much more re­laxed and far safer than my Is­raeli life. My chil­dren’s fu­ture would not be un­der a cloud. But would I have had a richer in­ner life?’’

Well, there are Jewish dons who might like to an­swer that; or at least as the Ox­ford exam pa­pers used to say: Dis­cuss. Ge­of­frey Wheatcroft is the au­thor of The Con­tro­versy of Zion.

The Spec­ta­tor

Is­raeli soldiers next to a unit of Pa­triot mis­siles

near Is­rael’s nu­clear re­search re­ac­tor at


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