Camels near the Reading power station in Tel Aviv, in 1946. Zoltan Kruger/GPO

Did Zionist Leaders Actually Aspire Toward a Jewish State?

Israel’s efforts to block Palestinian independence may lie in a historic aversion of the Zionist movement to the nation-state model

“The future Palestine must be founded, legally speaking, as a ‘bi-national state’… Every land that has an ethnic minority, of even the smallest kind, would need, after all, according to our deeply held views, to adapt its legal regime to that fact and become a bi-tri-national or quatra-national state.” Those words were not written by an Arab citizen of Israel in response to the Nation-State bill pushed through by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government last summer. Rather, they were penned in 1926 by the founder of the Zionist Revisionist movement, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky. They will surprise those who declaim the conventional narrative, according to which the goal of the Zionist movement was to establish a Jewish nation-state. Jabotinsky was of course one of the most consistent supporters of the creation of a state, but a perusal of several scholarly books published recently leads to a surprising conclusion: He most certainly did not conceive of that entity as a “Jewish state.”

Are we witnessing the birth of a new academic trend? To be sure, the “Jewish state” has not lost its favored status as a subject of research. Yet one of the visible features of recent studies is the way they shift the center of gravity – away from an examination of the Jewishness of the State of Israel, and toward a critical and historical reconsideration of the roots of the “idea of the state” in Zionist thought. In other words, current researchers’ efforts are being devoted above all to deciphering the relationship between Zionism and the singular political configurations known as “state” and “nation-state.”

What do we mean by the word “state?” In what sense would it be accurate to argue that the leaders of the Zionist movement aspired to establish a state, and what kind did they have in mind?

The history of Zionism, at least according to the standard narrative, is one of a “state in the making” or the “struggle for a state.” The recent burst of literature sets out to challenge that conventional narrative. The saying about all history being contemporary history applies here: While adding new information and nuance to our understanding of the chronicles of the past, the new statehood scholarship represents an intellectual attempt to cope with the feeling of political deadlock characterizing Israel/Palestine politics today. Read together as a group, they seem to signify a subtle but significant shift: After failure to counterbalance the overemphasis put on Israel’s “Jewishness” through the evocation of democratic, universal values, the present effort is meant to tame the “state” model itself.

Dmitry Shumsky’s “Beyond the Nation-State: The Zionist Political Imagination from Pinsker to Ben-Gurion” (2019), offers a provocative thesis: that, prior to World War II, the leaders of the Zionist movement did not aspire to a Jewish nation-state. Nation-state is a political model predicated on the notion that an ethnonational majority should achieve dominance, even when the state incorporates other minority groups. Shumsky, a Hebrew University historian and director of its Cherrick Center for the Study of Zionism (as well as a frequent contributor to this paper’s op-ed pages), refutes the assumption that the nation-state was the political model endorsed by Zionist thinkers. Most Zionists, after all, were subjects or citizens of multinational empires themselves. They never lived in nation-states, and perceived themselves as members of a national minority in need of protection from the rule of the national majority. They found little to be attracted to in the idea of a sovereign, centralist state, and instead sought to advance political theories based on the idea of restraining sovereignty and granting greater autonomy to various national groups within the state.

Leopold Mercier /Roger-Viollet

Shumsky’s thought-provoking proposition has far-reaching implications. Up to now, scholars recognized the resistance to a nation-state model coming from the margins, primarily from intellectual circles, such as the members of the Brit Shalom alliance and their successors, who were for the most part Central European thinkers inclined toward pacifism. Shumsky, however, maintains that the aversion to the nation-state actually had more widespread support: It was central to the worldview of the most dominant Zionist leaders, among them Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha’am, Jabotinsky and even David Ben-Gurion. According to Shumsky, the Zionist leadership imagined the Jewish national polity as a realm that was “autonomous” from the state. The future Zionist state was described by them as an arrangement that was totally different from the centralist nation-state: The Jewish nation would realize its culture separately – alongside the Arab nation – whereas the state itself would be neutral.

A similar idea informs “In Search of Israel: The History of an Idea” (2018) by Michael Brenner, a Jewish-German historian who divides his time between Munich and Washington, D.C. Brenner argues that many Zionist writers harbored no aspiration at all to establish a sovereign state. He notes that during the period of the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine), a variety of political proposals, some more reasonable than others, were placed on the table. One of them called for the establishment of a Jewish-British dominion under His Majesty – an idea that definitely interested Ben-Gurion and was adopted enthusiastically by Jabotinsky. Also mooted were proposals for federal or binational arrangements. The concept of a “state,” however, was centered precisely in the Jewish Territorialist movement, which was generally seen as anti-Zionist since its leaders worked energetically to settle Jews in different locales around the world – not necessarily in Zion.

The renewed interest of historians in the Territorialist movement is not unrelated to the imaginings of such novelists as Eshkol Nevo (“Neuland”) or Michael Chabon (“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”), who turned in recent years to the realm of fantasy literature in order to describe an alternative Jewish state, radically different from the present one. Whereas such fiction posits an imagined substitute, historians are reminding us that the Territorialist movement and Zionism both sprang in effect from the same source.

It’s not by chance that Herzl had no objection to settling the Jews in East Africa or Argentina. Similar notions resonated with personalities as Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the famous modernizer of the Hebrew language, and even novelist Alfred Döblin, author of the 1929 novel “Berlin Alexanderplatz.” Interestingly, historian Benzion Netanyahu, father of the Israeli prime minister, also evinced an interest in Territorialism. Some of the initiatives promoting Jewish settlement outside Palestine scored diplomatic successes. In 1947, for example, the same year the UN called for the establishment of Jewish and Arab states in Palestine, the parliament of Suriname (Dutch Guiana) and the government of Holland decided to grant land for the establishment of an autonomous state within that South American colony. The offer was withdrawn after Israel’s founding.

If the political aspirations of those who conceived of Jewish nationalism were initially far bolder than the state that actually arose in 1948, we might ask: What went wrong? Why is it that the problematic nation-state model was ultimately chosen? The answer put forward by both Shumsky and Brenner is unequivocal. First, the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 in Palestine convinced many Zionist leaders, above all Jabotinsky and Ben-Gurion, that a binational state was not viable. Second, the Holocaust of European Jewry put an end to all earlier plans. It’s possible, then, that the concept of the nation-state was introduced largely because of the British. It was the 1937 Peel Commission that for the first time raised the possibility of establishing a “Jewish state” when it recommended partitioning the country into two different entities. In other words, as a political idea, the state belongs less to Zionism and more to the British imagination.

Imperfect solution

But what are the exact arrangements that constitute a Jewish state? And how has establishment of a Jewish nation-state – an imperfect solution – influenced Jewish identity? The Israeli-born scholar Yaacov Yadgar, a professor of Israel studies at Oxford University, addresses these questions in “Sovereign Jews: Israel, Zionism, and Judaism” (2017), by arguing that the State of Israel inaugurated the rise of a new type of Jew, namely the “statist Jew.” Unlike the traditionalist, who is required to inject actual religious content into his Jewish life, the statist Jew confers upon the state mechanism the responsibility for being Jewish on his behalf. In an intriguing move, Yadgar dismisses the routine complaints voiced by secular Israelis about “religious coercion”; in his view, a convenient division of labor was established, sparing statist Jews the need to define or express their Judaism as long as they professed loyalty to the values of the Jewish nation-state. In his attempt to articulate the theology of the statist Jew, Yadgar moves away from the rabbis to find its leading exponents in secular Israeli intellectuals such as the novelist A.B. Yehoshua and political scientist Shlomo Avineri. Yehoshua, who has frequently incurred the wrath of Diaspora Jewry by describing its members as “partial Jews” because they do not live in Israel, demonstrates Yadgar’s thesis by practically equating the State of Israel with Judaism overall.

AP

Yadgar asserts that this secular approach practically mirrors the all-embracing religious-Zionist worldview, and is, in fact, no less messianic. Whereas religious Zionism places the emphasis on the “Jewish” part of the “Jewish state” formula and sees it as the cure for all Jewish troubles – political Zionism aims for the same things through playing up the “statist” element of the equation.

But, how might the understanding that Zionism did not aspire to a “Jewish state” help us, if at all, to understand post-1948 Israel? If Zionist thinkers indeed tended to see alternative programs such as autonomy in a positive light, can this shed any new light on the decisions made by Zionists later on, once the state had come into being? A surprising, unintended answer to this question can be found in Seth Anziska’s “Preventing Palestine: A Political History from Camp David to Oslo” (2018). Anziska is a Jewish-American scholar who teaches Jewish-Muslim relations at University College London. In a meticulously researched book, Anziska presents a thorough review of the logic that guided Israel’s governments in negotiations with the Arab world, from 1978 until the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Israel, he maintains, constantly strove to isolate the Palestinian issue from the larger conflict with the neighboring Arab states, with which it sought separate agreements. The 1979 peace treaty with Egypt laid the foundation for what turned into a mechanism for averting Palestinian sovereignty by granting the Palestinians autonomy alone.

Autonomy was and remains distinct from full independence. Israel preferred the model of Palestinian autonomy, Anziska suggests, since this allowed it to preserve its control over the territories conquered in 1967, without hurting its own security interests. Autonomy allowed Israel both to maintain control and to offset complaints about “conceding areas of the Land of Israel.”

While the formula was established in 1979, Anziska identifies a similar phenomenon in the position Israel took after the first intifada and during the Oslo period. In 1988, when the PLO leadership unilaterally declared Palestinian independence, the declaration included explicit reference to the United Nations’ partition resolution of November 1947. Though the Palestinian national leadership at the time aspired to full sovereignty – alongside and parallel to Jewish sovereignty – the establishment of the Palestinian Authority offered a very limited possibility for self-government. Leading Palestinian intellectuals at the time, including Edward Said, a vigorous critic of the Oslo Accords, and poet Mahmoud Darwish, who authored the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, saw the PA as an inadequate framework. In their view, it was a rotten compromise that helped bring Yasser Arafat to power at the price of torpedoing his people’s aspiration to full sovereignty.

Ideas concerning Palestinian autonomy continue to reverberate today, too. There is no great gap separating the declarations of a right-winger like the former MK Naftali Bennett, whose goal is for Palestinians to have “less than a state, autonomy on steroids, something beefed up,” and the ambition of Isaac Herzog, the former Labor Party leader, to preserve the IDF’s freedom to maneuver in the occupied territories. Moreover, there is no major difference between those two proposals, notwithstanding the ideological differences between their authors, and the Trump administration’s “deal of the century,” which is expected to call for creation of a limited self-governing Palestinian entity. Their common denominator is that all draw on a long history of Israeli opposition to a Palestinian nation-state, and they merely represent new episodes in a long quest for an alternative to a nation-state.

There is a somewhat artificial gap separating historians of pre-1948 Palestine and post-independence Israel. But reading Shumsky’s and Anziska’s books side by side can shed light on why Menachem Begin, an admirer of Jabotinsky and leader of Likud, was ready as prime minister to accept the formula by which the Palestinian people has the right to manage its affairs autonomously, as long as establishment of a Palestinian nation-state is not on the agenda.

Are four decades of Israeli policy aimed at preventing full Palestinian sovereignty anchored – however paradoxical it may sound – in a repressed Zionist recoil from the concept of the nation-state? The new academic literature seems to support the argument that Zionism, as a political and cultural movement, sought to “nationalize” the Jewish people – that is, to enable the Jews to imagine their collective future as a nation – precisely by way of shunning the nation-state model.

In a sharp shift from the past to the present, it can be said that contemporary Israeli opposition to the nation-state model is expressed through the prevention of the establishment of a Palestinian nation-state. Israel of 2019 expects the Palestinians to make do with “autonomy,” mumbling to itself that maybe that model is not such a bad idea after all. It would be interesting to know what Jabotinsky’s reaction would have been had he discovered that nowadays it is the Palestinian Arabs who, against their will, are expected to serve as the standard bearers of a long tradition of demurring from the nation-state model. Perhaps the time is ripe for a similar Palestinian demand to limit Jewish sovereignty.

Prof. Arie Dubnov serves as the Max Ticktin Chair of Israel Studies at George Washington University; Itamar Ben-Ami is a doctoral student in the political science department of the Hebrew University, and a scholar of the Posen Society of Fellows.

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