In Search of Israel: The History of an Idea by Michael Brenner - review by Bernard Wasserstein

Bernard Wasserstein

Promised Land or Basket Case?

In Search of Israel: The History of an Idea


Princeton University Press 371pp £24.95 order from our bookshop

Isaiah Berlin liked to recall an encounter at a party in the 1930s with the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann. A fellow guest challenged Weizmann’s devotion to the ideal of a Jewish state: ‘You are a member of the most cultured, brilliant, and cosmopolitan people in history and you want to give it all up to become – Albania?’ Weizmann pondered the question. Then his face lit up and he exclaimed, ‘Yes! Albania! Albania!’

The questioner meant to contrast the concept of the Jews as a ‘light unto the nations’ with the prospect of their degeneration into just another quarrelsome east Mediterranean mini-state. But Weizmann saw Zionism, first and foremost, as offering a pathway towards normalisation of the condition of the Jews in the world. He wanted to rid the Jews of the exceptionalism that had condemned them for so long to ignominy and persecution, to lift them out of the ghetto into the family of nation-states.

By opening In Search of Israel with this vignette, Michael Brenner aims to highlight the internal tension that has afflicted the Zionist enterprise throughout its history. Did Zionists want the Jews merely to become ‘a people like any other’? Or did they aim at a state that would be unique, a model for the rest of the world?

Actually, the Weizmann anecdote may be apocryphal. On another occasion Berlin attributed the question to the Russo-French philosopher Alexandre Kojève and the response not to Weizmann but to himself. For the Jews, Berlin claimed to have said, even an Albania would be a step forward. No matter: Weizmann would certainly have approved.

This is by no means the first book to trace the evolution of the Zionist idea from its beginnings in late 19th-century Europe to its fulfilment (or, as some see it, its deformation) in Israel since 1948. Notable predecessors include the works of sympathisers, such as Arthur Hertzberg, Ben Halpern and Geoffrey Wheatcroft, as well as the more critical perspectives of, for example, Maxime Rodinson and Jacqueline Rose. Brenner succeeds in standing above the fray without collapsing into blandness. His approach is realistic and even-handed.

Perhaps the most overused word in this book is ‘vision’ and its various derivatives, ‘visionary’, ‘envisioned’ and so forth. That is because Brenner constantly seeks to explore the divergence between what he calls ‘the real and the imagined Israel’. His gaze extends not just to Zionists of old and the various strands of thought in Israel today but also to the diaspora and to non-Jews both repelled by and attracted to the Jewish state.

Brenner is unequivocal that the goal of normalisation has not been fulfilled, whether in the minds of Israelis themselves or in those of the rest of the world. Why has Israel become, for many, a pariah state, what he calls ‘the Jew among the nations’? The symptoms are visible and indisputable. There are the ongoing effects of a half-century of occupying Palestinian territories: Brenner pulls few punches in his discussion of the disastrous impact of Zionism on the Palestinian Arabs. In spite of peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, there is Israel’s failure to secure acceptance or legitimacy in the eyes of the rest of its neighbours in the Middle East.

And then there are disturbing internal defects. The land of milk and honey is now heavily polluted and befouled. The country that created the kibbutz, an epitome of egalitarianism, has become one of the most unequal societies in the world. Israel is, on the surface, a functioning democracy, yet a former president is in prison for rape and a former prime minister for corruption, while ex-ministers of defence, finance, home affairs and (yes!) religious affairs have been convicted of serious crimes.

How can all this be explained? Brenner’s analysis is powerful and, in large measure, persuasive. He dissects many of the tiresome phrases frequently associated with Israel – ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’, ‘start-up nation’, ‘settler-colonial state’ and so forth – and shows them for the propagandistic half-truths they are. While not dismissing the anti-Semitic flavour of much hostility to the Jewish state, he does not fall into the common trap of attributing all enmity to Israel to this cause.

Instead he anatomises Zionist ideology, isolating the germs that have infected the Israeli body politic. He argues that the sources of the ethno-religious fanaticism that has come to play a dominant role in Israel in recent years stretch back to the very birth of Zionism.

Here he revises received wisdom that has stressed the secular basis of the Zionist idea. Was it not, after all, originally conceived as a revolution against the rabbis, against the centrality of Judaism in the lives of the Jews? Didn’t the socialists, who ruled the roost in the movement through much of its early history, reject religion root and branch, desecrating the Sabbath, insisting on equality of the sexes and embracing an enlightened, universalist world outlook?

Not so fast, warns Brenner. He maintains that, although most early Zionists were not religious and although most religious Jews (whether adherents of Orthodox or Reform Judaism) were not Zionists, there was nevertheless a strong ‘religious subtext’ to much that Israel’s founding generation thought, said and did. That applied even to secularists, such as the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who regarded the state of Israel as a messianic fulfilment in a ‘social-cultural-moral sense’. Such statements appalled some Israeli intellectuals. Yet Brenner shows that Ben-Gurion’s view was not idiosyncratic or exceptional. It was consistent with a broad stream of thought that saw the re-creation of the state as nothing less than a miracle.

Not only Israelis thought like that. Increasingly after 1948, Jews in the diaspora embraced this notion. And not only Jews. Brenner devotes special attention to American Christian evangelical thinking about Israel. Unlike most writers on this theme, he does so neither as a critic nor as an apologist but rather as a dispassionate analyst. All the more telling is his finding that today ‘right-wing Israeli governments can rely on more support from these Christians, two thirds of whom believe in Israel’s role as a savior of humankind, than from American Jews who in their majority favor a more progressive Israel’.

This book has been refashioned by Brenner himself from the original German into an English that is generally lucid, though there are occasional unidiomatic fumbles. While it is evidently designed for a general audience, some passages presume too much previous knowledge. A few minor errors barely detract from the overall reliability of the text.

By and large, Brenner offers an unblinkered view of a country that, while still at war with many of its neighbours, is not at all at peace with itself. Internal discord is the most insidious threat facing Israel as it enters its eighth decade. Wisely Brenner eschews prophecy. But the attentive reader is unlikely to feel optimistic on laying down this book.

Sophisticated in exposition, drawing on wide-ranging literary sources, among others, and judicious in its treatment of vexatious issues, Brenner’s book demonstrates that Israel today is neither a Garden of Eden nor another Albania.

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