The Magazine

What Zionism Is Not

The many ways the Jewish state is misunderstood.

Nov 14, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 09 • By BENJAMIN BALINT
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When it comes to substantiating these claims, however, so obviously does Rose undermine her own critique--so outlandish and patronizing is the hyperbole, so plain the poor grasp of messianism, so self-evident the mistakes and the lapses in logic--that The Question of Zion, published as it is by a reputable university press, can perhaps only be meant to be taken seriously on its deeper level as an ingenious refutation of itself. If so, it succeeds brilliantly.

In developing her notion of Zionism as unconscious messianism, for instance, Rose herself gives evidence that many of the early Zionist thinkers thought quite consciously otherwise. She cites the early Zionist leader Max Nordau: "The new Zionism which has been called political differs from the old, religious, messianic variety in that it disavows all mysticism, no longer identifies with messianism." It could be argued, of course, that Nordau was in denial. But to determine who should be taken at face value and who shouldn't, Rose appeals to the authority of Gershom Scholem, only to quote him as writing "I absolutely deny that Zionism is a messianic movement."

It is as if Rose leaves us clues that she wants us to think through for ourselves the complex relationship between Zionism and messianism, and to discover the reverse of her overt claims. She wants us to understand, perhaps, that although Zionism is intimately connected with messianic hopes, it broke with messianism precisely by moving it onto the historical plane. In this sense, Zionism is the very antithesis of all the divergent attitudes of Jewish messianism put together, since it refuses the demand to wait for divine redemption, calling for human, this-worldly, self-reliant action where messianism awaits divine, otherworldly acts.

If we did take Rose's hints, we might further appreciate that Zionism need not feel embarrassed by its association with messianism, understood as a longing for regained independence and the fulfillment of the prophets' yearning for justice and peace, as in Isaiah's wonderful vision: "They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." We might understand, too, that, by Rose's definition, every political movement of the 20th century was messianic in its impulse.

Then there are the mistakes, each of which may be read as a tip to look beyond the veneer of scholarship, which Rose draws from a few secondary sources. "[Moses] Maimonides tried to abolish messianism as a historical force," Rose writes, even though it is well known that the medieval Jewish sage raised messianism to one of the 13 essential principles of faith. In fact, Maimonides tried to eliminate apocalypticism, a very different thing, which postulates not redemption but catastrophic redemption. This is typical of Rose's conflation of false and dangerous messianism with messianism as such, and of messianism with religion as such.

Rose's simplifications and overwrought hyperbole also pervade her discussion of the Holocaust, which rests on her claim that it "fully enters the [Israeli] national memory only after the 1967 Six Day War." This is only partially true. Rose neglects to mention the "rebirth-from-ashes" rhetoric of Israel's founders, the illegal immigration of refugees that spurred Jewish resistance in Palestine in the 1940s, the fierce debate over accepting German reparations in the early '50s, the Rudolf Kastner trial (1954-58) and the Adolf Eichmann trial (1960-62). Rose, instead, contradicts herself, observing that awareness of the barbarism taking place in Europe caused myths of Jewish heroism to be "revived and polished with new vigor in Palestine."

So ridiculous, meanwhile, are Rose's comparisons of Zionism and Nazism that you can only read them as signs that the book intends not to be taken at face value, but rather to criticize the criticizers of Zionism from within by caricaturing their views. "According to one story," Rose writes, "it was the same Paris performance of Wagner . . . that inspired Herzl to write Der Judenstaat ['the Jewish State'], and Hitler Mein Kampf."

There are other clues to this book's possible esoteric intent. Rose claims that an important part of Zionism's psychopathology is its inability to criticize itself. And yet because she has little firsthand knowledge of the country, and even less of its language, she draws her critique from an impressive array of leftist Israeli critics, academics, peace activists, conscientious objectors, post-Zionists, and non-Zionists both past (Scholem, Martin Buber, Ernst Simon) and present (Ilan Pappe, Avi Shlaim, Uri Avnery, Amos Elon, David Grossman, Baruch Kimmerling), each of whom she quotes denouncing Zionism. She thereby implicitly--and, as it happens, accurately--gives the impression of an extremely lively tradition of Israeli self-criticism.