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In Historical Context: Zionism and the Upheavals of the 20th Centery

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Author: Anita Shapira

Discussion of historical phenomena always involves the element of time. Thus, with regard to Zionism, one may ask: Why did it emerge when it did, rather than sooner or later? For an answer to this question, attention needs to be given to the broader historical framework within which Zionism arose.

Jacob Talmon characterized Zionism as "a Jewish response to the most effective factor in the modem world-nationalism." For his part, Gershom Scholem labeled Zionism "the Jews' utopian return into their own history." Different though these perspectives are, they share a sense of Zionism as a phenomenon anchored in a concrete historical context. Zionism did not emerge in an autonomous spiritual domain, as Jewish history in the Diaspora is depicted by some. Nor was it simply a natural result of the age-old yearning for Zion, as others tend to describe it. Rather, Zionism was a product of its time, a response to historical developments that demanded a new dialogue between that Jews and the societies in which they resided.
A common view holds that the Zionist movement was late to appear and late in achieving its goals. Two phenomena are mentioned in this context: the emergence of an Arab national movement and the Holocaust of European Jewry. Had Zionism appeared 50 years earlier, according to the "late" school of thought, it would have preceded the rise of Arab nationalism and avoided a clash with the Palestinians. By the same logic, Herzlian Zionism intended to provide a solution to the Jewish problem in Europe in its existential sense. In this regard it failed, being late in creating the safe haven envisioned by Herzl: the Holocaust preceded the Jewish state. The State of Israel did not prevent the destruction of the Jews, since it was established only in its wake.
Historians have a difficult time coping with the question of unrealized options in history. However, the argument that Zionism missed a better opportunity to realize its goals 50 years earlier is ahistorical. Just as certain elements may have existed then that would have been more accommodating to Zionism, other factors might have made Zionism's very appearance utterly implausible to begin with.
The argument presented here is that there is an inseparable connection between the history of the 20th century and the realization of the Zionist idea; that absent certain key characteristics of the 20th century, it is doubtful whether Zionism could have achieved its aims. Just as it is doubtful that Zionism could have appeared before its time, it is equally doubtful that its realization could have occurred at a later date. A direct response to the question, "Can one imagine a project like Zionism being put into effect in today's world?" is "no." Why this is so has everything to do with unique circumstances of the 20th century that helped facilitate the realization of the Zionist idea.
The present fin de siecle has elicited comments and assessments by intellectuals and politicians attempting to appraise the past century. Isaiah Berlin has labeled the 20th century the "most terrible century in Western history," while Eric Hobsbawm has titled his book on the 20th century The Age of Extremes. The conspicuous element in all attempts to characterize the 20th century is the element of instability, of ideological and political extremes, of a world cut loose of its moorings. This was the world in which Zionism charted its special path.
Zionism as an ideology and political movement sought to undermine the status quo, challenging the existing division of the world, established society, and the prevailing power structures. As such, it was closely tied to the political, social, and cultural- ideological upheavals of the 20th century.
The Political Dimension
In examining the political developments that constitute key turning points in the Zionist saga, the connection between the convulsions experienced in the 20th century and the transformation of Zionism from idea to concrete reality is strikingly evident. For all his energy and imagination, Herzl was unable to obtain the desired charter for Palestine, because he was operating in a stable European world. The great change in Zionism's fortunes came about as a result of what Mark Sykes described as the "thawing of the frozen sea of international politics," i.e., the outbreak of World War I and the subsequent division of the Ottoman Empire. The Balfour Declaration, a major turning point in the history of Zionism, was surely the product of a series of misconceptions on the part of the British, all of which bore the imprint of the age. British statesmen, particularly those who came from the ranks of the aristocracy, tended to treat the world as their private playground, which they could do with as they pleased. This tendency gave birth to the fantastic idea that it would be interesting to allow the Jews to settle in Palestine, to see what they might make of it. It was this same approach that led T. E. Lawrence to devise his scheme to undermine the Ottoman Empire by manipulating the national aspirations of the Arabs, which led to the creation of modern Iraq and the Kingdom of Transjordan.
In the years immediately following World War I, the international order was still dominated by Europeans, who operated on a Eurocentric basis. It was a fleeting moment in time, one that appeared to embody the apex of European world domination, but that actually contained the seeds of its own destruction as a result of the nationalist demons which Britain unwittingly set free. The Zionist movement took advantage of this brief moment, even though it was cognizant of the risks involved in an alliance with declining European power.
The sea of international politics froze over once again in the early 1920s. The next window of opportunity for the Zionist movement coincided with World War II, which saw the decline of Britain and France and the rise of the United States and the Soviet Union as superpowers. It was the division of spoils following this war that allowed for the creation of the State of Israel. Britain's military and economic bleeding in the wake of the war made it increasingly dependent on the United States and led to the disintegration of the British Empire. In the United States, the problem of Jewish refugees caused by the war served as a rallying point for Jewish and general public opinion in support of a Jewish state. Even the Soviet Union's otherwise surprising support for the establishment of the State of Israel makes sense in the context of the emerging cold war and the Soviet Union's attempt to penetrate the Middle East at the expense of Great Britain.
In 1948, in the aftermath of World War II, revolutionary changes were still possible on the global scene. Around the same time that Israel achieved state- hood, India obtained its independence in a bloody civil war; Mao Tse Tung established his hold on China; the Communists took over Czechoslovakia; and the Soviet Union's threat to Western Europe appeared real enough to lead to the Marshall Plan. In contrast, in the second half of the 20th century, the world was divided into two great nuclear camps, making for a situation of stalemate. Changes in the status quo became all but impossible prior to the 1990s, which saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the Communist empire. These developments opened once again a window of opportunity in the Middle East.
So much for Zionism's link to the upheavals of the 20th century in the political realm. Let us now turn to the social, and then to the cultural-ideological, aspects.
The Social Dimension
Zionism wished to transform a diaspora minority people into a sovereign nation ruling its own territory. From a social point of view, this ambition en- tailed a process of migration and resettlement in Palestine of a group that had been largely European for hundreds of years. In myth and literature, the Jew has often been depicted as a wanderer-the old Jew carrying his bundle on his back- moving from country to country. In reality, however, Jews had been almost entirely stationary from the 16th century through the final quarter of the 19th century. It was only then that Jews joined the general European movement of mass migration that sent millions of Germans, Italians, Irish, English, Poles, and others to the lands of colonization across the ocean. The growing awareness of Russian Jews that the authorities were no longer willing to guarantee their physical safety led to the snowballing of transoceanic migration.
The collapse of East European Jewry's traditional frameworks of life in the wake of mass migration is powerfully captured in S. Y. Agnon's classic novel A Guest for the Night. Jewish towns were being emptied of their young people, leading to the decline of an entire culture and the realization that there was no turning back. In the wake of World War I and the Bolshevik revolution, this process was greatly accelerated, and it continued during the interwar period. Not surprisingly then, those Jews who were young and daring often chose to leave. Itzik Manger's famous song, "A Tree Stands on the Path", reflects this reality.
The phenomenon of European-wide migration as a legitimate, accepted option in time of need encouraged Jews to give it serious consideration. It is true that emigration to lands of white colonization, and to the United States in particular, remained the preferred option. Still, once emigration itself was viewed as acceptable, the way was cleared for a revolution in thinking that could lead to the decision to emigrate to Palestine.
The change in direction-in favor of Palestine-that occurred in the flow of Jewish emigration from the mid-1920s on was related more to world events than to ideological conviction. The closing of the gates to the United States in the early 1920s reflected incipient isolationist trends. The world economic crisis that began in 1929 reinforced these trends worldwide. At the same time, the situation of the Jews in Europe suffered a severe decline with the rise of the Nazis in Germany and proto-fascist regimes in Poland, Romania, and Hungary. At this point, the Zionist solution became the only viable one open to Jews, not because it was superior or more righteous, but simply because the other solutions were no longer available. This became all the more evident in the wake of the Holocaust.
Mass migration of Jews continued during the first decade following World War II. Thus, the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe sparked a movement of refugees westward. For its part, the decline in the status of Jews in Islamic countries following the establishment of Israel brought about the departure of entire communities.
The flight of refugees from east to west was not unique to Jews; millions attempted to flee. Indeed, the willingness to take a chance and change one's destiny rather than accept a limiting reality is one of the 20th century's defining characteristics. The realization of the Zionist idea simply cannot be understood without this mental paradigm shift with regard to emigration.
The life stories of countless Jewish families provide dramatic evidence of the results of Jewish migration in this century. Consider, for example, a 60-year-old Jew living in Venezuela. His parents were born in Bukovina to a large, poor, and pious family, some of whose members chose to emigrate to South America, but many of whom remained in Europe and perished in the Holocaust. He himself was born in Venezuela, is a successful professional, has a secular outlook, but maintains a connection to his Jewishness. He has children living in both Israel and Venezuela. There are millions of such stories.
The Cultural-ideological Dimension
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Zionism's link to the convulsions of the 20th century is the ideological dimension. The 20th century, as Yehudi Menuhin put it, "raised the greatest hopes ever conceived of by humanity, and destroyed all illusions and ideals." This was an age in which conflict between the superpowers was not limited to the political realm, but also involved a clash of worldviews, pitting radically opposed ideologies against each other. Capital- ism vs. Communism, democracy vs. dictatorship-these were the battle lines of the 20th century. While the competing ideologies were fundamentally secular in nature, many related to politics in terms of total redemption, creating an "all or nothing" mentality. Jacob Talmon took note of this in pinpointing "political messianism" as a key factor of 20th-century life, seeing it in constant conflict with a pragmatic, secular, evolutionary, and tolerant trend.
Two redemptive political ideologies, in particular, played a crucial role: nationalism and socialism. The former sought the salvation of the nation, while the latter strove for the salvation of humanity as whole. Both movements emerged in late 19th-century Europe, but eventually spread throughout the world. In doing so, nationalism and socialism acted as agents of modernization and Europeanization, offering alternatives to classical religion as a source of explanation of the past and hope for the future, as well as a focus for social solidarity and political activity. On the face of it, nationalism and socialism were polar phenomena. The former emphasized that which separates people-a unique culture and a shared past-and strove to preserve these differences. The latter sought to create a new social order in which the nation-state was discarded together with other elements of the dead past. In reality, however, there was considerable affinity between nationalism and socialism in the messages they conveyed to their followers. This is particularly true in the case of nations subjected to foreign rule; under such circumstances, the idea of national redemption was often bound up with social and economic change.
National liberation movements, non-European ones in particular, often adopted a socialist agenda and saw themselves as part of the revolutionary left.
Zionism belonged to the cultural-ideological world in which the lines of demarcation between national redemption and human redemption were blurred. In Zionist thinking, the concept of "tikkun olam" and the correction of the generations-long injustice done to the Jewish people seemed to go hand in hand, as part of one and the same march toward a glorious future. Even those trends within Zionism that were not captivated by the socialist ideal per se tended to see Zionism as an ideology striving not only to change the Jewish people's political status, but to establish in Palestine a model society based on social justice. One need only refer to Herzl's Altneuland in this context. For second- generation Zionists-those born in the l880s and after-a constant grappling with the socialist idea and its synthesis with the Zionist idea were central components of their worldview.
For members of that generation, impending revolution was a constant presence in daily lives. When a poor, young Jewish orphan in early 20th-century Warsaw would weep on his pillow after an arduous day of work in the company of vulgar and violent men, his friend would stroke his head and comfort him: "Don't cry, Slutzkin, the revolution will come soon!" (Both men later spent the majority of their lives on a kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley.) Confidence in imminent redemption granted spiritual meaning to daily acts. The spiritual energy generated by the sense of participation in history's culmination served as Zionism's propelling force, just as it did for revolutions from Beijing to North Africa.
In their efforts to recruit followers, the Zionists had to wage ongoing battle against other redemptive ideologies that made claim to Jewish youth, such as Communism and Bundism. Zealousness, the demand for total loyalty, and intolerance were the accepted weapons in this confrontation. Even within the Zionist camp, incessant battles were waged to win the loyalty of those belonging to the right and the left. Ideological deviation was viewed as the worst of sins, for which the most severe punishment was denunciation and removal from the fold. In a voluntary society, in which belonging was of primary importance, this punishment was akin to the rite of excommunication practiced by Jews in earlier ages.
Like other revolutionary movements, Zionism sought the creation of "a new man," a new Jew, who would differ in fundamental ways from his forebears. The belief in the possibility of human engineering and the readiness to reshape human nature were characteristic of the age, in which leaders did not hesitate to make decisions that determined the destinies of nations in a single blow. Faith in the possibility and justice of forcing grand solutions onto reality, regardless of costs, was accepted by "enlightened public opinion." The current generation was viewed as the sacrificial element needed to grease the wheels of history. It was for this reason that the young-the generation of the future- were considered so important.
The cult of youth accompanied the Zionist movement along its entire path. "Do not listen, son, to the morality of your fathers, and to the teachings of your mother pay no heed," wrote David Shimoni in a poem that became the anthem of the Hashomer Hatza'ir (Young Guard) movement. (The addition of the word tza'ir-"young"-to the names of all manner of social and cultural organizations is itself testimony to the cult of youth.) The rejection of the past meant rejection of the Diaspora, of the entire former Jewish way of life. Rejection also entailed a distancing from the petit-bourgeois lifestyle and the acceptance of the burden of life in an unfamiliar land, under conditions of extreme hardship. In order to bring this about, young men and women needed the supportive framework of indoctrination that granted meaning and value to their suffering, and indeed bestowed upon them the crown of national redeemers.
Zionist history in the 20th century took place in the shadow of the major events of the age-as their object, not as a driving force in history. Zionism did not play a role in the eruption of World War I, nor was it a factor in World War II. It was not involved in the outbreak of the 1929 economic crisis, the Bolshevik revolution, or the collapse of the Soviet Union. But each and every one of these events was fateful for the history of Zionism. Most importantly, while nearly all the ideologies of the age ended up as colossal failures, Zionism proved to be a stunning success. The visionary element in Zionism was necessary in order to mobilize the human energies required for the fulfillment of the Zionist ideal. Without it, it is doubtful whether the spiritual strength and the hard core of activists needed to turn the idea into reality could have been generated. But in the final reckoning, Zionism was able to maintain its humane instincts. Although challenged by extremists, pragmatism-the art of the possible-served ultimately as Zionism's principal guideline.
If Zionism were to arrive on the scene today, could it realize its goals? This is, as noted above, an ahistorical question. However, it seems fair to say that Zionism could not succeed in the current context. Only in an age in which all of society's anchors were being uprooted, in which all traditional values and all guarantees of existence appeared to be in doubt-only at such a historical moment could Zionism have seemed a plausible approach to the Jewish problem. Furthermore, only in a period that emphasized dedication to the collective, when hopes for total redemption were rampant, when many peoples risked all they had for the sake of a better future-only at such a time could Zionism have channeled the spiritual energy of its followers and created the active van- guard so essential for its success.
Today, the power of collective ideals has dissipated. Zionism, like other "isms," is suffering the symptoms of aging. Its ideological fervor has been dampened; its recruiting abilities have declined considerably. Israeli society today reflects the dominant spirit of contemporary Western culture. Were Herzl to state today, "If you will it, it is no legend," he might well be regarded as nothing more than a writer of science fiction. Still, in the framework of the convulsions of the first half of the 20th century, Herzl's Zionist dream became the reality of Israel.
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