LONDON — Milton Viorst wants to know how in just 100 years Zionism has gone from the ideal of seeking a permanent refuge for Jews, to the rationalization of the Israeli army’s continued occupation of “powerless Palestinians.” So he raised the question in his latest book, “Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal,” due for release mid-July.
“The main theme of my book,” Viorst explains, “is how we — and I say we, because I regard myself as a Zionist — have gone from Herzl, who thought of a Jewish homeland, a refuge for a beleaguered people, to gradually over the decades becoming a military power where peace and security was thought about exclusively within a military framework.”
“Israel has really gone off on the wrong direction,” says Viorst.
In recent years, Viorst argues, though Israel has grown stronger as a nation and prospered, Zionism has become increasingly defined by military power.
Viorst began writing “Zionism” at a time when serious talk of peace in the Middle East had all but vanished from the discourse of international diplomacy. This lead the historian to question, in the book’s opening pages, whether Israeli silence on the issue suggests that the Jewish DNA contains an immunity to peace.
“Clearly,” Viorst explains, “peace has not in any scientific or biological way disappeared from the Jewish DNA. But peace sure as hell seems to have disappeared from [Jews’] cultural DNA.”
“This cultural shift to a more militant view of Zionism has not been as prominent with Jews in the United States,” Viorst maintains.
Unfortunately, though, he says, this more militant view of Zionism has taken hold across Israel. Viorst believes it’s worth pointing out that in the last Israeli election, there was almost no discussion of peace across the political spectrum.
The Labor Party, who we once thought of as a peace party, says Viorst, “has become neutral on this issue to say the least.”
Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud, meanwhile, did not have to worry about peace being an issue in the last election campaign, the veteran journalist and historian claims, “because almost no other political parties were taking the opposite position.”
Granted, establishing an oasis of peace between the Mediterranean and the Jordan will not entirely solve the current political crisis raging across the Middle East right now. But, says Viorst — it would certainly be a good start.
However, peace is unlikely in this current political climate because Israel’s security is solely based, he says, “on its ability to dominate the region by military force.”
Viorst is extremely critical of how Israeli politics has taken a sharp right turn over the last four decades especially. While he does direct most of the blame for this move towards a more conservative militant vision of Zionism on Israel itself, the historian believes that the political establishment in the United States must accept some level of responsibility too.
“The United States has not served either Israel, the Jewish people, or the Middle East very well in recent years,” says Viorst, “mainly because it’s willing to concede to almost any idea that the Israeli government has presented it with.”
Viorst says it’s time that the United States began taking a more robust attitude to Israeli politicians: demanding that Israel provide a framework for peace immediately.
“Netanyahu has been brutal in his dealings with the United States, ” Viorst posits, “but on the other hand, one of Obama’s greatest weakness has been submitting to whatever Netanyahu says.”
‘One of Obama’s greatest weakness has been submitting to whatever Netanyahu says’
This special relationship between both countries, Viorst insists, has inevitably meant that Israel has lost the sympathy, and respect, of numerous other nations.
Today, most governments around the world recognize the Palestinian state, says Viorst, a situation he regards as bizarre “because officially there is no Palestinian state.” This recognition of the Palestinian state, however, is yet another reflection, says Viorst, of how many nations are presently turning their backs on Israel.
“Time is not on Israel’s side on this issue, and they must seize the initiative here if things are going to get better any time soon,” he says.
“As long as Benjamin Netanyahu insists there is no point in attempting any peace — and he keeps insisting that the only question of any importance is how to hold onto the territories where Palestinians live — Israel will be in increasing danger,” says Viorst.
“Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal” dedicates an entire chapter to attacking the politics of Netanyahu. Bibi’s second term as Prime Minister in 2009, the book argues, opened up a new era in Israeli history.
“A common theme for most Israeli politicians, up until that point, was a recognition that there had to be some accommodation with the Arabs,” says Viorst. “However Netanyahu articulated his [hostility to the Arabs] during the election campaign, last year, when he said: we will continue to live by the sword.”
“The only ideas people like Netanyahu and [Defense Minister] Avigdor Liberman believe in is perpetual war,” he adds. “They cannot see any validity whatsoever in the Arab position.”
Viorst, an American citizen who resides in Washington D.C., made his first visit to Israel a few months after the Six-Day War in 1967.
Now in his mid-80s, Viorst has spent most of his career, as both a journalist and a historian, studying and writing about Israel and the Middle East, contributing to publications like The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
His books on Jewish history include “Sands of Sorrow” and “What Shall I Do With This People? Jews and the Fractious Politics of Judaism.” The former examined the political divisions among Israelis, while the latter focused on the recurring schisms that have occurred throughout Jewish history.
Visiting Israel for the time first time, he says, ignited an unsuspected awareness of his Jewish roots, encouraging him to deeply engage with Jewish history and thought.
During this first visit to Israel, Viorst crossed into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to talk with local Arabs who introduced him to their own perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It became clear to him during this time, says Viorst, that the practices of Israel’s military occupation “verged on brutal.”
In his latest book, Viorst includes a quote from Theodor Herzl, the founding father of the Zionist movement.
Herzl officially institutionalized Zionism, transforming it from a lofty utopian ideal into the lexicon of international politics, arousing Jews from centuries of lethargy to seize control of their future.
However, Herzl foresaw problems within Zionism, once the Jews actually returned to Israel, writing that “If the Jews ever returned home, one day they would find that they did not belong together. For centuries, they have been rooted in diverse nationalisms; they differ from each other group by group. The only thing that they have in common is pressure holding them together.”
Viorst believes that Herzl’s quote was especially prescient, its validity as strikingly relevant today as it was in the late 19th century primarily because, even though Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Palestinians remains an open wound, the rivalry between Jews in Israel is just as important.
This, in essence, is the central argument of Viorst’s latest book.
Competing visions of Zionism, Viorst argues, most notably between Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion, continue to haunt Israeli politics to the present day.
‘Ben-Gurion was probably Israel’s most interesting politician ever’
“Ben-Gurion was probably Israel’s most interesting politician ever,” says Viorst. “He was an extremely constructive force in terms of developing the institutions on which Israeli society is based, even now, as a consequence of the War of Independence.”
Ben-Gurion adopted the position that the only way to maintain Israel’s security in the early days of independence was through military force. However, Viorst believes that while Ben-Gurion’s vision of Zionism was certainly a militant one, it was more pragmatic and less fundamental in outlook than Jabotinsky’s.
As Viorst’s book explains, Jabotinsky helped found and command numerous Jewish militant organizations, including the Haganah, who fought both the British and the Arabs during the Palestine Mandate.
Jabotinsky was a revisionist Zionist, who believed in a tougher, more rigid, heavily militaristic and deeply divided Zionism that resembled early Hellenism, extolling valor, physicality, virility and a willingness to make war.
Jabotinsky also proposed the creation of a Jewish military force that would establish an “Iron Wall” that would act as an invulnerable barrier to the Arabs’ aspirations. It is possible, says Viorst, to draw a trajectory from Jabotinsky’s ideas to the hard-line fundamental atmosphere gripping Israeli politics today.
This radical shift rightward in Zionism, Viorst argues, crucially began when Menachem Begin became Prime Minister in 1977. Begin once stated that Jabotinsky was the “greatest Jewish political leader of modern times, after Herzl.” And Viorst believes that Begin was determined, as soon as he got into office, to be guided by these revisionist tenets.
Without Begin, Jabotinsky might well have vanished into the archives of Jewish history — however, just as Marx needed Lenin to turn abstract theory into real political ideals, so too did Jabotinsky need Begin to assure his survival as a Jewish icon, Viorst insists.
“Israel, since Begin became prime minister, has concentrated on one main idea: becoming a powerful military force that could dominate all of its neighbors,” says Viorst. “This has been the principal drive behind Israeli politics over the last four decades.”
‘Jabotinsky had respect for Arabs and their nationalistic feelings. Begin never had that’
Begin may well have been the the heir to Jabotinsky’s militant idea of Zionism, however, the former Prime Minister was more radical than Jabotinsky ever was, says Viorst, primarily, “because Jabotinsky had a better understanding of who the Arabs were.”
“Jabotinsky had respect for Arabs and their nationalistic feelings. Begin never had that,” Viorst insists. It’s also extremely clear, claims Viorst, that Netanyahu, who is Begin’s heir, “has no respect or sympathy for Arab nationalism.”
Ultimately, Viorst believes, this has led to a situation where making peace in Israel has become virtually impossible.
“The well-being of the Jews is not being served by this continual rejection of peace by Israeli governments that we have witnessed over recent decades,” says Viorst.
“Unless that changes,” he concludes, “the Jews will never live in peace in Israel.”