July 13, 2024
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An Updated Zionist Vision

Reviewing: “The Zionist Ideas” by Gil Troy. Jewish Publication Society. 2018. English. Paperback. 608 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0827612556.

One of the most interesting books I ever read was “The Zionist Idea” by Arthur Hertzberg, published in 1959. It was a collection of excerpts from the writings of Jewish thinkers in the pre-Zionism stage and in the early years of the Jewish state. It began with excerpts from the precursors such as R. Zvi Hirsch Kalischer and Moses Hess. The book then moved on to Russia in the 1870s and 1880s with excerpts from Peretz Smolenskin, Eliezer Ben-Yehudah, Moses Lieb Lilienblum, and Leo Pinsker. Then it had excerpts from Herzl and Max Nordau (the period of the early Zionist Congresses). Then it continued with many others such as: Ahad Ha-Am, Aaron David Gordon, Rabbi Samuel Mohilever, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Judah Magnes, Louis Brandeis, Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan, Vladmir Jabotinsky, Chaim Weizmann and David Ben—Gurion. The excerpts were wisely chosen and inspiring.

As Troy writes: “Arthur Hertzberg’s classic invited readers into sprawling conversations about Judaism, Jewish history, modernity… nationalism’s meaning and sovereignty’s potential.”

A few years ago, The Jewish Publication Society came to Troy and asked him to update Hertzberg’s work. He initially felt that any update would be like updating the Mona Lisa. Nevertheless he concluded that a new volume was necessary. He writes: “In the ensuing decades, political, religious, and social progress transformed the Zionist conversation. Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War triumph stirred questions Hertzberg never imagined [in 1959], especially how Israel and the Jewish people should understand Zionism when the world perceives Israel as Goliath not David…[and] how increasingly left-wing, cosmopolitan Diaspora Jews should relate to an increasingly right-wing, nationalist Israel. “

The new book’s subtitle is: “Visions for the Jewish Homeland—Then, Now, Tomorrow.”

How to do the update when there are so many inspiring writers to add? Troy reduced Hertzberg’s 37 thinkers to 26 (and shortened some of the entries), but multiplied the number of entries to 169. (He quoted many only briefly so that the book’s size would still be manageable.) He decided not to include non-Jews, even though there is a rich history of non-Jews eloquently defending Zionism (e.g., Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr. and Daniel Patrick Moynihan). (The Encyclopaedia Judaica had the same issue. It decided to include non-Jews but put a small circle near their name in the entry.)

Troy points out that Hertzberg’s work did not have any entries by females! He makes sure to rectify that by including excerpts from Golda Meir, Esther Jungreis, Blu Greenberg and others. (I am reminded here of an academic conference at NYU on Israel that I read about recently. It was pointed out to the organizers that they had five speakers but none were female. The organizers decided to adjourn the conference so that some female speakers could be added!)

Troy divides the 169 excerpts into three eras. Part I (pre-1948) are excerpts from those writing when the Jewish state was only a dream. (This section is taken mostly from Hertzberg’s book, with some additions and omissions. It is less than 30% of the book.) Part II (1948-2000) focuses mainly on those who helped build the Jewish state or otherwise were active in this period, such as David Ben-Gurion, Abba Eban, Yonatan Netanyahu, Golda Meir, Elie Wiesel, Natan Sharansky, Chaim Herzog, R. Joseph Soloveitchik, R. Zvi Yehuda Kook, R. Ovadia Yosef, Esther Jungreis, Leon Uris, S.Y. Agnon, R. Irving Greenberg, Blu Greenberg, Herman Wouk, Hillel Halkin, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, and Benjamin Netanyahu. Part 3 showcases recent torchbearers, including Michael Oren, Daniel Gordis, Irwin Cotler, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Ruth Gavison, Yoram Hazony, Israel Harel, Ruth Wisse, Benny Begin, Reuven Rivlin, Ayelet Shaked, R. Yehuda Amital (z”l), R. Benjamin Lau, Micah Goodman, A.B.Yehoshua, Saul Singer, Alan Dershowitz, Yossi Klein Halevi, and R. Jonathan Sacks (z”l).

One of my favorite passages in the 1959 work was the speech of Ze’ev Jabotinsky in 1937 to Britain’s Peel Commission. This took place before the Partition plan of 1947 and before the later-arising idea that there was a separate people called “Palestinians.” Here is the excerpt:

“There is no question of ousting the Arabs… The idea is that Palestine on both sides of the Jordan should hold the Arabs, their progeny, and many millions of Jews… In that process the Arabs of Palestine will…become a minority in the country of Palestine. What I do deny is that that is a hardship. It is not a hardship on any race, any nation, possessing so many National States now and so many more National states in the future. One fraction, one branch of that race, and not a big one, will have to live in someone else’s State: Well, that is the case with all the mightiest nations of the world… That is only normal and there is no “hardship” attached to that. So when we hear the Arab claim confronted with the Jewish claim; I fully understand that any minority would prefer to be a majority, it is quite understandable that the Arabs of Palestine would also prefer Palestine to be the Arab State No. 4, No. 5, No. 6—that I quite understand; but when the Arab claim is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved, it is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation.”

The above passage survived in the new edition (in a shortened version).

I was also particularly inspired by the selections from Moses Lilienblum and Peretz Smolenskin in the 1959 edition. Each wrote about how the pogroms in Russia of 1881 drastically changed their worldview. Lilienblum’s writings did not survive the cut but Smolenskin’s did.

Among the new material, my favorite line is from Saul Singer, author of Start-Up Nation (2009): “We must update our narrative to: ‘They tried to kill us, we won, now we’re changing the world!’ (I am sure you know the prior narrative!)

Or more profoundly, I will quote from Michael Oren: “Let us remain cognizant not only of our great achievements…but also of the weighty responsibilities we bear: the responsibilities of reconciling our heritage with our sovereignty, our strength with our compassion, and our will to survive with our desire to inspire others.”

The author has tweaked the last word in the title, from Idea to Ideas. As noted by Natan Sharansky in his preface: “[This is a] modern book celebrating…the many ways individuals can find fulfillment by affiliating with the Jewish people and building the Jewish state.” The author explains his tweak as follows: “Diverse texts spanning the political and religious spectrums invite ever more people of different backgrounds and beliefs to consider what Israel is, how it should grow, and how it addresses the contemporary debate about national identities…”

I will conclude with the comments of educator Ruth Calderon: “The Zionist Ideas clarifies the wealth of rich ideas regarding the Jewish people’s sovereign national home in the land of Israel. This book will help flip today’s destructive ‘dialogue of the deaf’ into a thoughtful, constructive conversation—perhaps from which a new shared vision for Jewish nationalism will emerge.”

The author grew up in Queens, was a professor of history in McGill University for many years and now lives in Jerusalem. He has authored 12 books.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. In a humorous comment, Troy admits that after thinking about the diverse writers in Hertzberg’s volume for decades, it was hard for him to adjust to the fact that most of the Zionist voices he heard in his head did not speak English!

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