In Search of Israel: The His­to­ry of an Idea

Michael Bren­ner

By – July 5, 2018

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.

Discussion Questions

Michael Brenner’s In Search of Israel: The His­to­ry of An Idea allows us to see that the core idea of Zion­ism has always been sit­u­at­ed some­where between two poles — the aspi­ra­tion toward a sov­er­eign Jew­ish state like any oth­er,” and the belief that the Jew­ish state is des­tined to be excep­tion­al, a divine gift bestowed on a Cho­sen Peo­ple and a light unto the nations.” As Bren­ner traces both of these strands of Zion­ism through the strug­gle to found and defend the Jew­ish state, his book is en — livened and enriched by the fas­ci­nat­ing details and inci­dents that he has retrieved from the his­tor­i­cal record. While he writes can­did­ly about the con­tra­dic­tions and con­tentions that make up the his­to­ry of Israel, he encour­ages us to see the com — mon­al­i­ties, too. Fit­ting­ly, Bren­ner ends his book with a series of provoca­tive ques — tions about the future of Israel — Will it be a democ­ra­cy with equal rights for all its cit­i­zens or an eth­noc­ra­cy that favors one group over anoth­er? Will the soci­ety remain a dom­i­nant­ly sec­u­lar one, or will reli­gious groups make more inroads?”— and he invites his read­ers to join him in answer­ing them. Pre­cise­ly because we have learned so much from Brenner’s bril­liant book, we are pre­pared to do so.