03 September 2007 - Yoram Hazony and the origins of post-Zionism
Today I’m on the train from New York to Boston, the last leg of my journey back to campus. Along the way from Jerusalem over the past few days I’ve had the chance to read a few books about Israel, some old and some new: Yoram Hazony’s The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul; Aharon Barak’s The Judge in a Democracy; and Walt & Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.
I’m going to try to review them briefly over the next few days. Let’s start with Hazony, who attempts to describe the decline in Zionism among Jews in Israel over the past several decades. Hazony blames this decline for certain features of the Oslo peace process—in particular, a shift away from defining Israel’s interests in terms of Jewish sovereignty and towards intangible visions such as a “new Middle East.”
Even for supporters of the Oslo process, such as myself, the book is useful in illustrating the origins of post-Zionism (or anti-Zionism) in Israel. The roots of the phenomenon go back much earlier than 1967 and the occuption, as many of us are led to believe. Rather, internal opposition to Israeli statehood—and condemnation of everything done to defend it—goes back to the foundation of the state itself.
The opposition centered around the German-Jewish intellectuals who gathered at the Hebrew University after its founding in 1925, led by university president Judah Magnes and the liberal theologian Martin Buber. Magnes, Buber and their colleagues were Zionists, but in a spiritual or cultural sense, rejecting political Zionism as a messianic perversion of the ideal Jewish moral community.
Hazony describes how these intellectuals tried to unravel the Israeli political project, even after the declaration of statehood, going so far as to oppose the trial of Adolf Eichmann in an Israeli court. They were responsible for educating a generation of Jewish Israeli intellecturals in the social sciences and humanities, some of whom would go on to be Israel’s most strident internal critics.
None of this had to to with occupation, and little of it was motivated by the treatment of Arabs within Israel or Israel’s foreign policies towards Arab states (though these issues gave rhetorical force to some of the criticisms). Rather, Hazony argues, what these critics objected to was Jewish power itself, especially as personified in the figure David Ben-Gurion, who was their ideological enemy.
For many years, this school of thought was marginal in Israel, ignored by almost everyone. What brought it to political prominence, Hazony argues, was the Lavon Affair, in which Defence Minister Pinhas Lavon set in motion a plan in 1954 to curtail Nasser’s power in Egypt and forestall the withdrawal of British troops there by carrying out a series of terror attacks, using Jews disguised as extreme Muslims.
When the plan was foiled, it set off a political crisis, and Lavon resigned in 1955. He believed, however, that he had been set up by Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, and in 1960 produced new information purporting to prove this. Ben-Gurion wanted to appoint a judicial commission of inquiry to get to the bottom of things, but his political opponents block this, seizing the opportunity to undermine his power.
The Lavon Affair, Hazony argues, not only provided the “proof” that the intellectuals needed in order to demonstrate the corruption of Jewish power, but was partly triggered by these intellectuals, whose pressure had a direct effect on certain parties in Ben-Gurion’s ruling coalition. From that moment, Hazony says, political Zionism, especially Labor Zionism, was tainted, and has never recovered:
“. . . Buber and his associates have . . . not only smash[ed] old Zionist myths but repopulat[ed] the Jewish mental universe with hoards of new myths of their own: . . . the myth of a purity and selflessness that has the power to bring an end to political strife among peoples . . . and the myth of the ‘totalitarian democracy’ that the Jewish state eternally threatens to become . . .
“It is these myths, and others like them, that now haunt the public mind of Israeli Jewry, casting long conceptual shadows evern where they are not seen clearly . . . . they progressively reshape the culture of the state, and the state itself, to conform to their lessons—the most important being the conclusion that there is no theoretical justification for the claim that a state can be ‘Jewish.’ (338)”
The reason these ideas have become dominant over the past four decades, Hazony claims, is that neither the Labor Zionism of Yitzchak Rabin and Shimon Peres nor the Revisionist Zionism of Menachem Begin bothered to come up with an intellectual and ideological response to the Hebrew University professors. They were focused on political and military goals, not realizing ideas, too, make a state.
I am not yet prepared to follow Hazony down all the paths he suggests. I still think there is merit in some of the philosophy—even the political philosophy—of Buber and the binationalists he gathered around him (such as Hannah Arendt). I also think there is much to be learned from Kant (another one of Hazony’s bugbears) and social contract theories (even if there is also much to criticize or reject in these).
However, what I think is quite valuable is that Hazony demonstrates—conclusively, I think—that Israel’s self-doubt begins well in advance of the occupation. It also begins independently of any morally culpable act against the Palestinians or other Arabs. It has its origins in a universalism that failed the Jews of Europe but continued to serve some of their intellectual heirs, safely protected by Israeli guns.