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Making a Nation-State

by Dominic Green

Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, by Daniel Gordis (Ecco, 560 pp., $29.99)

The Jews are like other people, only more so; Israel is like no other nation-state. This is the success of Zionism, and its failure. Zionism was meant to raise the Jewish people from exceptional degradation to ordinary dignity. Yet Israel is anything but ordinary.

The retreat of the European empires after 1945 led to the creation of more than a hundred new states. Only Israel has assimilated so many immigrants and fought so many wars while sustaining a liberal democracy, a free press, and an independent judiciary. Only Israel has completed the transition from an economy of raw materials — oranges and avocados — to the economy of digital knowledge. Israel now has more companies on the NASDAQ than all of Europe combined. Its GDP per capita is, with the exception of such oil oligarchies as Qatar, the highest of any postcolonial state — ahead of Japan and Italy.

Still, there is no pleasing some people. Only Israel attracts so much cold malice and mad propaganda. This year, an Israeli-German team discovered the process by which melanoma cells metastasize from the skin to the vital organs. Meanwhile, academic associations across the West vote to boycott Israeli researchers. As Daniel Gordis admits in this Concise History, Israel is less likely to be praised as the “start-up nation” than condemned as a “pariah state.”

The inquisition is likely to intensify in 2017, a year of anniversaries and unfinished business. It will mark 50 years since the Six-Day War of June 1967, from which Israel emerged in control of the entire territory of the Palestine Mandate; 70 years since the U.N. voted, in 1947, to partition the Mandate into two states, one with a Jewish and the other with an Arab majority; 100 years since the Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which the British government endorsed the establishment of a “national home” for the Jews in their historic homeland; and 120 years since Theodor Herzl, elated by the First Zionist Conference of 1897, wrote in his diary, “At Basle, I founded the Jewish state.”

There have been several excellent one-volume histories of Israel, notably by Howard Sachar (1976), the late Martin Gilbert (1998), and Anita Shapira (2012). All are heavy on detail, and heavy in the hand. The student and the non-specialist are barraged with names and dates and caught in a minefield of acronymous parties and acrimonious negotiations. There has been too much history in too small a space, and too short a time.

Daniel Gordis’s Israel is as clear and thorough as a concise guide for the perplexed can be. Rather than cataloguing what happened, Gordis seeks to tell the story of why it happened. The wars, the Palestinians, and the diplomatic maneuvers are all here, but they are not the focus of the narrative. Gordis is more interested in domestic dynamics than in  foreign diplomacy, and more concerned with how people thought than with how they fought. His narrative pursues “the idea of a Jewish state — where that notion originated, how it was preserved, and how the dream was transformed into reality.” This approach has the virtues of exposing Israel’s shifting relationship to Judaism and of explaining its relationship to the paradoxes of Jewish history.

Israel, Gordis writes, perplexes because it is “a deeply traditional society in some ways, and hypermodern in others.” This doubleness was, as the rabbis say, “present at Sinai” — at the founding scene in the hotel ballroom at Basel. Herzl sought to channel the reservoir of a religious faith that he no longer possessed into a liberal nationalism for the modern age. The revived Jewish state should be Austria-Hungary by the sea, the Trieste of the Levant. German would be the language of the Jews. There would be “genuine Viennese cafés,” “German theater, international theater, opera, musical comedy, circus, café-concert,” and a cavalry composed of Hungarian Jewish hussars with cream-and-yellow uniforms. The vision of Jewish revival had come to Herzl while he was watching Wagner’s Tannhaüser. Herzl saw Judaism and its “historic God” in Wagnerian terms, as a “mighty legend” that could rouse a people to rebel against history.

Yet the foot soldiers of Herzl’s vision were not as liberal as their would-be commander. Nor were the intended conscripts, the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe, as secular. And while Herzl, a journalist, sought to create facts on paper by securing the support of the imperial powers, groups of Jewish socialists from Eastern Europe were already creating facts on the ground. The Lovers of Zion had founded their first agricultural settlement, Rishon LeZion (First in Zion), in 1882. The revival of Hebrew began in 1890, with the establishment of the Hebrew Language Committee under Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.

Jewish statehood would never have been achieved without the “political Zionism” of Herzl and Chaim Weizmann, the chemist whose personal intercession with David Lloyd George was crucial in obtaining the Balfour Declaration from Britain. But it was the kibbutzniks of Labor Zionism who created the infrastructure, the ruling ethos, the army, and the geography of the early Israeli state.

“In Israel,” David Ben-Gurion said, “in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.” Gordis rightly praises Ben-Gurion as a master strategist but also recognizes that he was a flawed autocrat. During the worst years in Jewish history, Ben-Gurion steered the outnumbered Yishuv (Jewish community) between the violent resentment of the Mandate’s Arabs and the passive resentment of the Mandate’s British governors and built up a well-organized, well-armed state in waiting. He timed Israel’s declaration of independence perfectly, securing the support of both Russia and the U.S. and the endorsement of the U.N.

Instead of returning to the plough like a Hebrew Cincinnatus, Ben-Gurion stayed in office. His objective was to create a state and a national culture; decades before the age of decolonization, he realized that the two were not identical. He called his guiding principle mamlachtiyut — a term with Biblical implications of kingship, but, as Gordis says, it came to mean political “statism” or “state consciousness.” Some of Ben-Gurion’s early judgments strengthened the state but divided its consciousness in serious ways.

Between 1948 and the electoral “Revolution” of 1977, Israel was a consensual one-party state, ruled by the Labor-led “Alignment.” Its civil and military leaders, and the soldiers in the army’s elite units, came from the kibbutz movement, which at its 1940s peak had constituted only 7 percent of Israeli society. They were, writes Gordis, a “secular aristocracy” that believed in the “negation of the Diaspora” — purging such exilic taints as Judaism, Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, and bourgeois manners to create the “new Jew.”

Israel’s Arabs lived under martial law until 1966. Jewish immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East were dumped on the periphery; Ben-Gurion called them “human dust lacking language, education, roots, tradition, or national dreams.” When Israel’s system of proportional representation obliged coalition government, Ben-Gurion preferred to ally with Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews over the less numerous but more patriotic Religious Zionists. Confident that religion was a thing of the past, he exempted the Haredim, at that time a small population consisting largely of Holocaust survivors, from the military draft.

The 1967 war announced the return of Israel to the territory of its Biblical origins, and the related return of Judaism to Israeli politics. The Alignment planned the settlement of the West Bank and Gaza, but it was Religious Zionists who broke the ground. In 1973, the Yom Kippur War broke the public’s trust in the kibbutz oligarchy: Israel’s generals and politicians had grown too comfortable in their belief that the Arabs would never launch a war they would lose. In the 1977 election, the excluded avenged themselves by electing Menachem Begin and a right-wing alignment, the Likud.

Since 1977, Israeli society has tipped away from secularism. Religious Zionists now account for about 10 percent of Israel’s population but as many as 30 percent of soldiers in combat units. Demographic shifts, the collapse of the Oslo process, and the freeing of the electorate from the notion that security could be outsourced to the PLO have reduced Labor to third-party status, behind the Arab bloc. The Likud and its allies have ruled for 32 of the last 38 years. If Benjamin Netanyahu lasts until 2019, he will replace Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving leader.

Gordis prefers not to predict what might happen next, but the writing is on the wall. The major Palestinian factions have pledged themselves to the fraternity of suicide bombers and other terrorists. The Israelis are not so foolish as to repeat the Oslo experiment in the hope of a different outcome. So long as Israel remains a democracy, there can be no “two-state solution” west of the Jordan.

Gordis has written a valuable and enlightening story. He succeeds in doing for the Israelis what Luigi Barzini did for the Italians, and Peter Ackroyd for the English: to get inside the ideas that made a nation and that continue to shape its development. Israel was born in an attempt to “normalize” Jewish nationhood in a secularist revolt against traditional religion, but it has matured as the normalization of Judaism within a nation-state. Any American wishing to understand how Israelis think, why this differs from how American Jews think, and why so many American policymakers have failed to understand Israeli thinking should read this book.

– Mr. Green, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, teaches politics at Boston College.

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