Sir Isaiah's Modest Zionism

None of the threats facing us justify pursuing policies that threaten the future of a Jewish majority in a democratic Israel.

Evan R. Goldstein
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Evan R. Goldstein

Exactly 100 years ago tomorrow, Isaiah Berlin, one of the 20th century's most important political thinkers, was born in Riga, Latvia. Berlin, who died in 1997, grappled with the big ideologies of his day - communism, fascism, and democracy - and the centennial of his birth invites reflection on his approach to two big ideologies of our day: Zionism and Palestinian self-determination.

Berlin, Zelig-like, had a front-row seat to many of the central events of the last century. The Russian revolution unfolded outside the windows of his childhood home in St. Petersburg. During World War II, Berlin - who by that time had become, at the tender age of 23, the first Jewish fellow in the 500-year history of All Souls College in Oxford - was posted to the British embassy in Washington, where he befriended everyone from Chaim Weizmann to Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis (a "saint and a gentleman, a kind of Jewish Lord Balfour," in Berlin's estimation), and even the smoky-voiced actress Greta Garbo ("You have beautiful eyes," she told Berlin).

The crimes of totalitarianism, Nazi and Soviet, made Berlin an implacable foe of utopian projects. He was fond of Immanuel Kant's maxim that, "Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made, nothing entirely straight can be carved." The sensible but melancholy brand of liberalism Berlin fashioned out of the wreckage of World War II, observed his biographer, Michael Ignatieff, was that of a "Jew forced to meditate on the destruction of his people."

Nationalism figures prominently in Berlin's writings. Since at least the 19th century, intellectuals have eagerly predicted a withering of nationalist sentiment, an ideal that remains strong on the European left. Berlin, however, felt that to ignore the apparent inevitability of nationalism (even if we might wish it otherwise) is itself a sort of utopian delusion. The human desire for a sense of home and fraternity, he believed, is an enduring and not altogether negative feature of political life. Nationalism is "a basic human need," he argued, that can, in certain circumstances, represent "the straightening of bent backs." And Jewish backs, perhaps more than any other, were in need of straightening.

But Berlin's Zionism was a modest Zionism. He did not regard his deep-felt solidarity with his own Jewish people as superior or different from similar bonds that united other nations. Membership in one community, he insisted, does not preclude "holding a large area of ideals in common with everyone else." Berlin did not limit himself to dual loyalties; he had a multitude of them. Furthermore, he didn't look upon Israel as a metaphysical project, a light unto the nations. Israel is a country, not a cause, he believed. And his observations of the Jewish state were not always charitable. "The trouble about the Israelis is not only their partly unconscious conviction born of experience that virtue always loses and only toughness pays, but a great provincialism and blindness to outside opinion," he remarked to Felix Frankfurter in 1951. And though Berlin despaired about the quality of Israeli leadership - he privately described David Ben-Gurion as an efficient demagogue - he did not confuse the individual failings of politicians with a failure of Zionism, a frequently elided distinction in our time.

A lifelong Zionist, Berlin never settled in Israel. In 1951, he turned down Ben-Gurion's offer to become head of the Foreign Ministry; Abba Eban and Teddy Kollek, close acquaintances both, urged him to move as well. Berlin, a Zionist who believed in the Diaspora, stayed in Oxford. "I don't want Jews to stop living where they live. If they don't mind being a minority, that's in order," he commented. "Minorities are often a valuable stimulus to a majority, a leaven, a source of information. But nobody should be forced to be a minority."

Zionism, in other words, arms Jews with the power of choice: They can "develop freely" (as Berlin put it) within the Jewish state or outside it. "Like all peoples," asserts Israel's Declaration of Independence, Jews have a right to self-determination. Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state, therefore, rises or falls on the merits of that fundamental principle. Berlin - and this should be emphasized in this season of doubt about the viability and desirability of a two-state solution - appreciated that the case for Jewish national rights is undermined by any attempt to deny Palestinians their national rights. The Jewish right to be a majority in their own sovereign state is in fact strengthened by a recognition of the Palestinian right to be the same.

Yes, of course, there are mitigating considerations: Hamas, Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic of Iran's nuclear ambitions. None of those can be ignored or forgotten, but none is an excuse to pursue policies that threaten the future of a Jewish majority in a democratic Israel.

I am reminded of a 1975 speech Berlin delivered at the Institute of Jewish Affairs, in which he described the mutual recognition of Jewish and Palestinian national rights as "the moral position between us and them." The mitigating considerations do not diminish the urgency of that central truth.

Evan R. Goldstein is a writer in Washington, D.C.



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