A Zionist Reader For Chaotic Times


Has there ever been anything like “The Zionist Idea,” Arthur Hertzberg’s classic collection of Zionist thought, ideology, imagination? Hertzberg’s iconic book — the introductory essay alone is worth the price of admission — has been the Tanach, the Holy Scripture, of Zionist thought for two generations and more of students and teachers and pundits. 

Indeed, “The Zionist Idea” is more than a compendium of Jewish thought; in many ways the book served as a primer to Zionist history, indispensable to the student, invaluable to the teacher, a guide for the general reader.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that “The Zionist Idea,” published some 60 years ago, shows its age. The world has turned over many times since Arthur Hertzberg collected his congeries of Zionist writings into one accessible volume. Entire ideological and political movements have sprung up since 1959, and thinkers who were young then have become major voices over the past half-century. There are gaps in “The Zionist Idea.” Religious Zionism is not covered adequately, and where are THE? women? Hertzberg’s classic needed more than updating; it required massive revision to meet the needs of a new era and of new generations.

Now comes “The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland — Then, Now, Tomorrow” (Jewish Publication Service) by McGill University presidential historian Professor Gil Troy. (Note the plural “s” ending; the message is that the definition Zionism has never been monolithic.) This massive volume — it weighs in at some 600 pages — is an excellent cross-section of Zionist thought, ideology and popular culture as well, and a worthy update of Hertzberg’s masterpiece.

While nothing can compare, or will ever replace, Hertzberg’s magisterial 100-page introduction to the original, Troy’s “Introduction” is meritorious. More chatty in tone than Hertzberg, Troy wants to give the reader a sense of order; he presents us with six schools of thought that cover the Zionist landscape, historically and ideologically: Political, Labor, Revisionist, Religious, Cultural and Diaspora Zionisms, each played out in three historical sections: “Pioneers,” Builders” and “Torchbearers.”

But herein lies the first problem with “The Zionist Ideas.” While Troy’s system is useful — it makes the point about “ideas” — there is a historical disconnect inherent in his categorization. The two large rubrics of Zionism were Herzl’s Political Zionism — Zionism is a response to anti-Semitism, and the only remedy is a state; and the Cultural Zionism of Asher Ginsberg (Ahad Ha’am) — Jews and Judaism are impoverished spiritually, and only a critical mass of Jews in the Land of Israel will be able to provide the necessary spiritual rebirth, nourishment and rejuvenation necessary for Jewish survival everywhere in the world.  The other four — Labor, Religious, Revisionist and Diaspora versions of Zionism — in one way or another resulted from or were responses to the two core approaches to Zionism. The student of Zionism needs to understand this historical dynamic, lest confusion ensues. The editor unfortunately lumps together all six schools of thought as if there is a historical equivalency to them.

Despite this, Troy’s selections are generally very good, and represent nicely the varied schools of thought and periods of the Zionist enterprises. He is nothing if not a polymath; his choices are broad and they are deep. “The Zionist Ideas” will serve well as a teaching tool.

Troy, a frequent op-ed contributor to The Jewish Week, deserves credit, for example, for including correspondence in 1950 between Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and American Jewish leader Jacob Blaustein. The correspondence clarified — indeed defined — the relationship between the new state of Israel and the American Jewish polity, and it informed how the relationship would be played out for decades to come. The central issue at the time was aliyah — Jews “coming home” to Israel from other lands — which was always a central pillar of the Zionist agenda. But Ben-Gurion, in response to a central concern of American Jews (in fact, the very concern that triggered the fateful correspondence), asserted that Israel would not interfere in the “internal affairs” of American Jews. Ben-Gurion in effect turned his back on this central pillar of Zionism. (Aliyah from America was in fact never robust the way it was from other lands.)

Yet, the selections in “The Zionist Ideas” are often far too short, even as the introductions to the readings are generally excellent. One would hope for more meat.

And there are questions about Troy’s selection of texts. The problem with appraising any anthology is that the reviewer is placed in the position of calling into question the author’s curatorial judgment in choosing selections that best represent a period, an era, a political ideology, a cultural or religious approach. Central casting always has others in mind.

Examples abound: Is David Mamet, whose tribalist approach to anti-Semitism borders on 1950s hysteria, really a “Torchbearer” of contemporary Revisionist Zionism? And is Anne Roiphe really a “Builder” of Cultural Zionism? A truly gifted writer, yes, with a substantial American audience, but Roiphe does not know diaspora, Jewish or Zionist history — or religion or philosophy. It is hard to take Roiphe seriously in a serious volume on Zionist ideas, a book that aspires to be the standard for this and future generations of students and scholars.

Additionally, Troy has American Zionist leader Stephen S. Wise, an important inclusion — but no Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver? And it’s not clear to historians that poet Saul Tchernichovsky was indeed a Revisionist writer. A sentence of explanation is in order. Finally, the inclusion of Pat Boone’s insipid anthem “This Land is Mine” from the movie “Exodus” as a Cultural Zionism “Builder”?

More serious are historical errors in “The Zionist Ideas.” Rabbi Abraham Isaack Kook, one of the visionary religious leaders in the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine), is a “Pioneer” of Religious Zionism. (Kook is misplaced: Rabbi Kook was a “Builder.”) But Rabbi Kook was not a Zionist á la Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines (a founder of Religious Zionism); Rabbi Kook was a Cultural Zionist and a messianist —the Orthodox Ahad Ha’am.

Even so, the positives in “The Zionist Ideas” far outweigh the negatives. In the closing argument of the book’s introduction, Troy reminds us, “Yet today’s Zionist conversation is fragile.” He is spot-on. The strength of “The Zionist Ideas” is Troy’s understanding of the internal conflicts within Zionism. But it’s more than “fragile.” With anti-Zionism more vocal; with the polarization of the right and the left in the Zionist arena; with the radicalization of much of Religious Zionism; with a Zionist “center” in disarray; and with post-Zionism a significant voice — Zionism in 2018 is a confused creature, indeed, a cacophony of views.

In producing “The Zionist Ideas” now, in 2018, as Israel turns 70, Troy suggests that the substantial problems facing Israel and the Zionist enterprise today need to be addressed by a “creative, intelligent, supple Zionist conversation.” Zionism is hardly the movement it was in Herzl’s and Reines’ time, even in Arthur Hertzberg’s time. With its cross-section of perspectives, Troy’s volume will help us make sense of an increasingly chaotic Zionist world. 

Jerome Chanes, a senior fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of four books.