Michael Brenner’s newest book, In Search of Israel: The History of an Idea, explores the contradictory challenge Israel faces in striving to simultaneously be a nation like all others as well as a “light unto the nations.”Brenner studies this paradox by leading the reader through Zionism’s history from its birth in the hearts and minds of its early proponents, to the issues that Israel faces as it enters its seventieth year.
Brenner divides his book into six sections, bookended by an introduction and conclusion. The first chapter leads the reader through the events of 1897, when Walter Rathenau, Theodore Herzl, and Simon Dubow each suggested a solution to the challenges Jews faced in the modern era. Brenner’s analysis positions Zionism as one of several ideologies competing for the hearts and minds of the Jewish community. The author makes clear that in 1897, “the future of European Jewry was still wide open.” The prevailing ideology would be “determined not by their own decisions but by the fate that befell them in the twentieth century.”
The third chapter, entitled “The National Home,” considers how early Jewish leadership, including both Zionists and Territorialists, envisioned different models for Jewish sovereignty both in Israel and elsewhere. Brenner suggests that “what many observers have read as a straight-lined development beginning in 1897 and coming to fruition in 1948, was in reality a lot more circuitous.” He understands the demise of Territorialism as the result of many factors, including the Holocaust and an international interest to satisfy the nationalist yearnings of minorities. In the end, however, it was the United Nations’ decision to partition Palestine that committed the Jewish people to establishing a Jewish State.
Chapters four and five trace Israel’s growth and its shifting Zionist ideology, from its establishment to the deterioration of the promise of the Oslo Accords. Brenner evaluates how the events of 1967 led to a messianic furor and heightened nationalism, which moved Zionism into a deeper conflict between those who saw Israel as a part of a divine plan and those who wished to establish a “normal” nation. The chapter also considers the influence of American politics, particularly looking at evangelical Christianity, as well as the dramatic shift in the outlook of Shimon Peres, which led to his later commitment to Palestinian – Israeli reconciliation.
Brenner’s conclusion deems Israel a global nation — politically, economically, and culturally. He traces this phenomenon in the work of writers and artists. Ironically, the “longing for normality in their lives has led Israeli citizens to look for new homes abroad and Israeli writers and artists to embrace the diaspora that once was so despised by Zionism,” notes the author.
Jonathan Fass is the Managing Director of Educational Technology and Strategy at The Jewish Education Project of New York.