A Jewish settlement in the West Bank, seen through a barbed wire fence. Milton Viorst’s book grapples with how Israel got itself into its current position. Photo: AP

Book review: a history of Zionism, where it went wrong and how it might be put back on track

Milton Viorst, a former Middle East correspondent for The New Yorker, looks at the lives of eight crucial figures in the history of Israel, and says the belief in Jewish national destiny has taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way

Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal

by Milton Viorst

Thomas Dunne Books

3.5 stars

For years after David Ben-Gurion triumphantly declared its establishment in May 1948, the state of Israel was widely admired around the world as a spirited, resolute and self-reliant young nation – one that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust, that tamed the harsh desert, that beat back five Arab armies when they invaded, that built a liberal democracy in an undemocratic part of the world.

Today, however, the narrative has changed. In many circles, you’re more likely to hear about Israel’s settlements, intransigence and its nearly 50-year-long occupation of the West Bank than you are about its pluck or ingenuity. Some church groups, trade unions and university associations, especially in Europe, have cut ties with the country over its treatment of Palestinians, including its use of force in recent assaults on Gaza. Israel is more popular in the United States than elsewhere, but young Americans are significantly less enamoured than older ones.

What went wrong? That’s the unspoken question behind every page of Milton Viorst’s Zionism, a smart, analytical, engaging history of the people and ideas that built the state. Viorst, a former Middle East correspondent for The New Yorker, tells the story through the lives of through eight pre-eminent leaders whose perseverance brought the country into existence and shaped its character: Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, Vladimir Jabotinsky, David Ben-Gurion, the Rabbis Kook (Abraham Isaac Kook and Zvi Yehuda Kook), Menachem Begin and Benjamin Netanyahu.

David Ben-Gurion, first prime minister of Israel.
Theodor Herzl, theorist of Zionism.

But the unmistakable message of the book is that the Zionist project was derailed somewhere along the line and that only by grappling with its biggest questions can it be put back on track.

For instance: is it possible for an avowedly Jewish state to offer equal rights and democratic privileges to its Arab citizens? Is anti-Zionism actually just another manifestation of anti-Semitism? How do you separate legitimate security concerns from territorial ambitions? Who bears more of the blame for the failure of 100 years of peace-making efforts, Israel or the Palestinians? Was Zionism – the secular, progressive, European-ised movement with its roots in Enlightenment rationalism – hijacked and transformed? Could Israel regain its standing in the world by ending the occupation?

It becomes clear quickly in Viorst’s book that there is not, and never was, a simple or monolithic Zionist ideology. From Herzl’s earliest days peddling what seemed a nearly unimaginable, fantastical dream – to return the Jews from their diaspora to the land of the Bible after nearly 2,000 years – the movement was riven and undecided about both its tactics and its objectives.

Cultural Zionists, socialist Zionists, revisionist Zionists and religious Zionists – each emerging group had different aspirations. There were ultra-Orthodox Jews who believed there should be no Jewish state in the Holy Land before the return of the Messiah, and secular Jews who thought the rabbis should have no special authority in the new country. Some Jews believed the new state should include not only present-day Israel but also the West Bank; some believed it should include Jordan as well. Still others believed there should be no Jewish state at all, just a democratic, binational country shared with Palestinian Arabs.

Benjamin Netanyahu, current prime minister of Israel.

It is miraculous, frankly, that such a fractious, factionalised group of people scattered around the globe managed to see the state created. And it goes without saying that once Israel was founded, those divisions didn’t simply vanish but were instead baked into the politics of the new country, where they exist today.

In the end, Viorst’s book presents only one piece of a complicated history. It is not, for instance, the story of the Palestinians. It has little in it about the legitimate grievances of the Arabic-speaking population or the rise of Palestinian nationalism or about the many mistakes Palestinian leaders have made over the years.

Rather it is a concise history both of the ideas and the events that led Israel to the place it is today, and attempts an honest, sympathetic-yet-critical portrayal of the country. That’s tough to do given how overwrought and inflamed the subject is. But until more people on all sides try, it’s difficult to see how the conflict will be solved.