Jew's elegy to Zionism looks sharply at Israel's past and future

The Tragedy of Zionism: Revolution and Democracy in the Land of Israel, by Bernard Avishai. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 400 pp. $18.95. Bernard Avishai, a Canadian Jew who lived in Israel during the early 1970s and who now teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calls his book an elegy to Zionism. He begins honestly by recounting his own strong attraction to the Zionist ideal of emigrating to Israel and his subsequent disillusionment with that ideal. Creditable as it may be for a writer to explain where he is coming from, Avishai's prologue does not do justice to his book. Far from being overly personal, ``The Traged y of Zionism'' is, on the whole, a fair-minded, sharp-eyed, and balanced account of the history and politics of modern Israel.

From its inception, as Avishai demonstrates, Zionism was a bundle of very different, sometimes even contradictory, ideas and aims. ``Cultural'' Zionists, like the Russian-born Achad Haam, believed that Jews should develop an organic culture of their own based on returning to the biblical land of Israel and the biblical language of Hebrew. ``Political'' Zionists, like the Viennese-born Theodore Herzl, saw in Zionism not only a means of escaping anti-Semitism, but also a way for Jews to become less ``Jewish,'' more like gentiles. Zionism also attracted Marxian socialists, capitalists, nationalists, and even a small band of Orthodox Jews. Avishai provides memorable portraits of a gallery of early Zionist thinkers, from Borochov on the left to Jabotinsky on the right.

In the years leading up to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1949 -- indeed, in years when it was not clear that the Jewish settlement would even become a state in the foreseeable future -- ``Labor'' Zionists came to dominate both the movement and the Yishuv, as the Jewish community in Palestine was called. As good socialists, they were determined not to play the part of overseeing colonials and not to base their economy on exploiting cheap Arab labor. As Avishai points out, the Hebrew word fo r labor, avodah, is also the word for worship. Labor would consecrate and reclaim the land. Ironically, as the Histadrut (Jewish workers' federation) assumed a dominant role in the Yishuv, Palestinian Arabs suffered exclusion instead of exploitation.

The general view of Labor Zionists (like David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister) was that Arabs, too, would benefit from the efforts of Jewish settlers to cultivate the land and build an economy. This did, in fact, occur. But did all the early Zionists really believe that economic growth would solve their problems vis-`a-vis the Palestinian Arabs?

It would seem that Ben-Gurion, for one, knew better. In a recently published book covering the period before 1940, ``Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs'' (Oxford University Press), Israeli scholar Shabtai Teveth concludes that Ben-Gurion, while willing to go far to reach agreements with Arab leaders, was basically pessimistic about the Arabs' fate in what he was determined would be a Jewish state.

Avishai, too, traces the roots of today's problems to assumptions of the early Zionists, but he sees the true crisis of Zionism as the result of a wrong turn taken after the ``six-day war'' of 1967. By holding on to occupied territory on the West Bank, he asserts, Israel not only lost a chance to trade land for peace, but also saddled itself with hundreds of thousands more Palestinian Arabs in whose midst a new generation of Zionist pioneers -- especially encouraged by the Likud government after 1977 --

was determined to settle.

In varying degrees, Israeli governments became the willing supporters, or the hapless captives, or both, of a strong, popular movement committed to ``Greater Israel.'' What distresses Avishai (as well as a small but impressive group of Israeli liberals and civil rights activists) is the extent to which these latest Zionists have moved away from democratic ideals in their pursuit of a messianic mission to settle the West Bank. Individual freedoms and minority rights being eroded, Avishai contends, and t he development of the West Bank is a drain on Israel's already hard-pressed military and financial resources.

Yet, to a majority of Israelis, particularly many of the recent immigrants, Orthodox Sephardic Jews from Yemen and North Africa (not to mention the new Orthodox contingent from America), the dream of ``Greater Israel'' has far more appeal than do complicated, often painful plans for compromise. Avishai provides a detailed and cogent analysis of the trends that led to the victory of Menachem Begin's Likud party in 1977, which overturned nearly three decades of Labor rule. While Avishai believes that dem ocracy offers the greatest hope for the future of Arab and Jewish Israelis alike, he is not hopeful about the immediate future.

Avishai's ``farewell'' to Zionism, as he explains, does not preclude sympathy with the Israelis. Nor does he think the United States should abandon Israel as an ally. But in his epilogue, he questions the assumption that Zionism must be an integral part of Judaism for American Jews. Although the assumption is indeed worth questioning, it is here that Avishai's argument falls apart in a confused attempt to define what it means (or doesn't mean) to be Jewish in America.

``The night terrors of the Holocaust,'' he says at one point, ``. . . at the heart of . . . American Zionist myths, are at odds with the ordinary experiences of young Jews in this country, and even more at odds with the manifest power of the state of Israel.'' Surely the terrors of the Holocaust were also ``at odds with the ordinary experiences'' of young Jews (and everyone else) in pre-Hitler Europe. The Nazi Holocaust, whether or not it just ifies all aspects of current Israeli policy, is not less important simply because one does not expect to experience it oneself. By reducing his discussion to this level, Avishai does a serious disservice to what should still remain a valuable, concerned, and perceptive assessment of the future of Zionism and democracy in Israel.

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