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Is Our Disappointment With Zionism?

Sixty years after the destruction of European Jewry and half a century since the Arab world united to destroy Israel, we see things differently from the way they appeared to founders of the Zionist movement. The early Zionists believed, with Leo Pinsker, that through auto-emancipation the Jews would regularize their political status. Herzl determined to create a Jewish state for the Jewish people. Ahad Ha’am, Herzl’s most influential Jewish adversary, held that a cultural renaissance would have to antecede physical migration so that a modern society would be in place to receive the Jewish masses. Arguments among Zionists multiplied over economic and political blueprints for the Jewish land and procedural priorities for attaining independence. Trained by Jewish civilization to be self-critical and self-disciplined, Zionists determined to follow the example of other emerging European nations by taking their political fate into their own hands. If Jews had once expected God to effect their political salvation, they would henceforth assist God, or anticipate God, or defy God, and do the job themselves.

The Zionists were not solipsists. They did not ignore that they would meet resistance. Moses Hess described German racism as early as 1862. Herzl and Bernard Lazare noted the virulence of French xenophobia. Ze’ev Jabotinsky understood that the Jewish national sovereignty could not be achieved without Jewish armed force. But even those who took cognizance of anti-Semitism did not recognize the system of complementarity that had developed between Jewish and anti-Jewish politics over 2,000 years. Zionists assumed that once the Jews had extricated themselves from among the nations and reclaimed their national sovereignty, hostility against them would cease. Had they been correct, the Jewish State of Israel would be universally recognized today as one of the greatest triumphs of history, since no other people of comparable size has ever accomplished such a grand project in so short a time.

The Jews succeeded in transforming all that depended on themselves. But, having lived for so long and in so many places as a politically dependent people, they had come to occupy a role in the politics of other nations that was beyond their power to control. Jews had settled among a succession of nations, each of which drew similar conclusions about the no-fail nature of this (re)moveable target. The Jews survived by everywhere accommodating to local power, sometimes assembling great wealth, often acquiring great skills. Yet always lacking the armed might to protect what they acquired and attained, they were perpetually at the mercy of rulers from above, and populist onslaughts from below.

The appeal of Jews as a political target so far exceeded any of their other functions that sooner or later their plunder or removal was worth more than their presence. Social scientists from Karl Marx to Hannah Arendt have tried to locate the cause of anti-Semitism in one or another function of the Jews, and to subsume that function into a higher theory of politics. But, although the idea doesn’t catch the fancy of intellectuals, anti-Semitism trumped communism and fascism as an organizing ideology. A tiny people with the world’s hugest image, Jews inflate the self-image of aggressors while lacking any impulse to respond in kind.

Modern nationalisms found the Jews an especially useful antitype: opposition to the Jews constituted a link with the religious tradition (Christianity or Islam) and forged an alliance between otherwise antagonistic elements in the society (elites and masses, Right and Left). Anti-Semitism, by which I mean not simply the antipathy to the Jews, but the organization of politics around the antipathy to the Jews, pacifies restive populations with an explanation of who is responsible for their ills, and unites otherwise disparate forces (Germans, Poles and Ukrainians; Arab and Communist blocs) around a common enemy. Zionism expected that the reconstitution of a Jewish polity would eliminate anti-Semitism by removing its target. Instead, Arab leaders--and the populations they influenced--proved they could channel political hatred at the Jewish state the way Europeans had incited hatred of the dispersed Jews. The Arabs’ appropriation of the United Nations as a propaganda forum proves that, although the Jewish state could now defend itself militarily, it was as powerless to escape the politics of hatred as European Jews ever were under Hitler.

Disappointment in this outcome runs very deep. The weary defenders of Israel ask, was it worth our tremendous expenditure of effort if Zionism could not undo anti-Semitism? Is it enough for Jews to be sovereign, if they still suffer the humiliation of unprovoked, unreciprocated and, for all they know, unending aggression?

I would answer, yes, assuredly, and not just out of pride in Jewish achievement. Because we Jews are not, in fact, one of the problems that beset the modernizing societies of Europe and Asia, targeting us for elimination is at best a diversion from meaningful politics, guaranteeing that the real problems will never be addressed. At worst the organization of politics around opposition to the Jews generates a frenzied ambition of which suicidal terrorists are only the fuse. Even destruction as total as the Holocaust in Europe would prove a chimerical triumph. No matter what happens, the Palestinian Arabs would never be allowed to rule the land they have been incited by their fellow Arabs to conquer. It was their fellow Arabs, not the Jews, who thwarted their political ambitions since 1948. No matter what its wealth or powers, the Arab world will never flourish as long as it claims it is being victimized by Israel, since every attribution of blame to the Jews postpones the possibility of Arab progress and self-improvement.

Our disappointment is not in Zionism, but in anti-Zionism, the adjustment that anti-Semitism made when the Jews moved into modern statehood. Apparently, it will not take merely a century to blunt the instrumentality of Jew- baiting, but perhaps another 2,000 years of Israeli sovereignty. One thing is clear: those who urge the Jews to accommodate the Arabs instead of pressing the Arabs to cease their aggression against the Jews are perpetuating history’s most fatal system of political complementarity. Arab leaders have insisted all along that Zionism has no future, confident that “time is on their side,” that their demographic advantages and their culture of conquest will eventually prevail against the no-fail target. The future of Zionism, or the success of anti-Jewish politics in yet a third millennium, depends in the here and now on Jewish courage and democratic support.