Zion­ism: The Birth and Trans­for­ma­tion of an Ideal

  • Review
By – May 3, 2016

In his most recent and ambi­tious work, Mil­ton Viorst pro­vides a thor­ough­ly-researched insight­ful work of Zion­is­m’s ear­li­est thinkers and lead­ers, extra­or­di­nary men who were often in con­flict with one anoth­er each attempt­ing to shape con­cepts akin to their own way of thinking.

The book is chap­tered by the dif­fer­ent lead­ers of mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary Zion­ism: Theodore Her­zl, Chaim Weiz­mann, Vladimir Jabotin­sky, David Ben-Guri­on, the Rab­bis Kook, Menc­a­hem Begin, and Ben­jamin Netanyahu. Each of these extra­or­di­nary men deserves a nuanced char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the com­plex, often con­tra­dic­to­ry beings they were. Viorst gives them their due, pro­vid­ing the con­text of world events which inevitably affect­ed the gen­e­sis, direc­tion, and out­comes of their think­ing and devel­op­ment, includ­ing the Enlight­en­ment, World War I, World War II the rise of Social­ism, anti-anti­semitism, the fall of the USSR, and ulti­mate­ly, the Holo­caust. Whether they lived in Ger­many, Italy, Eng­land, Turkey, or Amer­i­ca, these pow­er­ful thinkers inter­est­ing­ly had ongo­ing need for sup­port and patron­age from their places of origin.

Viorst writs of Her­zl as an assim­i­lat­ed Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an writer, a stu­dent of the Enlight­en­ment lat­er con­sid­ered the Father” of mod­ern Zion­ism; Chaim Weiz­man­n’s influ­ence direct­ly enabled the for­ma­tion of the 1917 Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion; Jabotin­s­ki devel­oped a phi­los­o­phy of Revi­sion­ism, recon­fig­ur­ing Zion­ist ide­ol­o­gy into a mil­i­taris­tic, oft­times vio­lent form of defense; Ben-Guri­on is cred­it­ed with his real­is­tic, for­ma­tive vision of a Jew­ish state — it was on his watch that Israel became a nuclear pow­er; both Rav Kooks cre­at­ed the move­ment of Reli­gious Zion­ism, con­firm­ing as well Jabotin­ski’s use of force and vio­lence; and final­ly, Ben­jamin Netanyahu, the cur­rent prime min­is­ter of Israel in the crit­i­cal posi­tion of car­ry­ing forth a work­able syn­the­sis of all the his­to­ry and think­ing that has pre­ced­ed him. 

Viorst now shows that Jabotin­sky’s [and Rav Kook’s] ear­li­er Revi­sion­ism” became Israel’s ongo­ing ratio­nale for vio­lence. He writes of the cur­rent ongo­ing mil­i­taris­tic dom­i­na­tion of the occu­pa­tion of Pales­tine today in the West Bank and Gaza. The anger con­tin­ues, lead­ing to ongo­ing vio­lence on both sides show­ing no sign of abating. 

Zion­ism: The Birth and Trans­for­ma­tion of an Ide­al draws on the ear­ly his­to­ry of Israel to the present, giv­ing ample atten­tion and detail to the sig­nif­i­cance of the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion; the Likud, Labor, Kadi­ma and Reli­gious Zion­ists polit­i­cal par­ties; the Irgun and Lehi resis­tance groups; the IDF, and others.

In spite of their pro­found con­flicts, these unusu­al men held in com­mon the tenet that for the first time in two thou­sand years they had in their hands the oppor­tu­ni­ty of cre­at­ing a Jew­ish state. Today that cre­ation” stands as a small but extra­or­di­nary coun­try of indus­tri­al, agri­cul­tur­al, sci­en­tif­ic, intel­lec­tu­al accom­plish­ment. Viorst voic­es his con­cern that the Pales­tini­ans’ hatred of the dom­i­nant Israeli state, the ill will of the coun­tries sur­round­ing Israel and the fierce inter­nal con­flict with­in, and Netanyahu’s cur­rent lead­er­ship places the country’s future on a pre­car­i­ous and uncer­tain footing. 

Relat­ed Content:

    Ruth Seif is a retired chair­per­son of Eng­lish at Thomas Jef­fer­son High School in NYC. She served as admin­is­tra­tor in the alter­na­tive high school division.

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