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Examining Zionism — From Seeking a Refuge for Jews to Controlling Millions of Palestinians

Allan C. Brownfeld

By Allan C. Brownfeld  
Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal  
By Milton Viorst,  
St. Martin’s Press,  
318 pages, $27.99.  
From its beginning in the late 19th century until today, Zionism, or Jewish  
nationalism, has sharply divided Jewish opinion. It was conceived as a clear  
break with Judaism and the Jewish religious tradition and has been  
historically opposed by the majority of Jews, Orthodox, Conservative and  
Reform. It gained support in the mid-20th century as a response to growing  
anti-Semitism in Europe and the rise of Nazism in Germany. That support now  
seems to be receding.  
The Zionist idea of “Jewish nationality” is more similar to the nationalisms  
which emerged in 19th century Europe than anything in Jewish history. Jehiel  
Jacob Weisberg, a rabbinical authority who developed a creative synthesis of  
Lithuanian Judaism and German Orthodoxy, pointed out that, “Jewish  
nationality is different from that of all nations in the sense that it is  
uniquely spiritual, and that its spirituality is nothing but the Torah … In  
this respect we are different from all other nations, and whoever does not  
recognize it, denies the fundamental principle of Judaism.”  
To the question of whether Jews constitute “a people,” Yeshayahu Leibowitz,  
the Orthodox Jewish thinker and Hebrew University professor, provides this  
assessment: “The historical Jewish people was defined neither as a race nor  
a people of this country or that, nor as a people that speaks the same  
language, but as the people of Torah Judaism and its commandments … The  
words spoken by … Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882-942) more than a thousand years  
ago: ‘Our nation exists only within the Torah’ have not only a normative,  
but also an empirical meaning. They testified to a historical reality whose  
power could be felt up until the 19th century. It was then that the  
fracture, which has not ceased to widen with time, first occurred, the  
fissure between Jewishness and Judaism.”  
How Zionism Was Born  
In this important book, Milton Viorst, who served as the Middle East  
correspondent for The New Yorker and has dedicated the bulk of his long  
career to understanding the region, explores how the Zionist movement was  
born and how it developed and evolved through the lives and ideas of its  
dominant leaders. These leaders produced a thriving Jewish state but, Viorst  
shows us, have squandered most of the goodwill it once enjoyed and have  
placed Israel’s future in jeopardy. His previous books on the Middle East  
include Shadow of the Prophet, Sandcastles, Storm from the East, and What  
Shall I Do with This People?  
He notes that, “I made my first visit to Israel a few months after the Six-  
Day War. I recall feeling very upset that virtually no one I met during the  
visit talked of Israel’s victory as an opening to a more stable Middle East,  
in which the Jews could live comfortably in peace. Instead, most exulted  
over the magnitude of the victory and Israel’s obvious military dominance in  
the region. The few Israelis who expressed concern about the collective  
intoxication produced by the victory seemed like spoilsports. This book has  
been gestating in my mind ever since … The book I had not written — nor had  
anyone else, I dare say — was an exploration of the question that first  
upset me after the Six-Day War. How did Zionism, over the course of a  
century, evolve from the idealism of providing refuge for beleaguered Jews  
to a rationalization for the army’s occupation of powerless Palestinians? In  
recent years, though Israel grew stronger and more prosperous as a nation,  
Zionism became increasingly defined by military power. Meanwhile, Israel,  
Zionism’s offspring, lost much of the sympathy it had once enjoyed from the  
international community for oppressing the Palestinians under its control.”  
When Theodor Herzl threw his energies into the Zionist cause in the late  
19th century, Viorst points out, his program “was a direct challenge to the  
rabbinic class … Rabbinic doctrine held that only God, having sent the Jews  
into exile as punishment for their sins, could sanction their return. God  
would dispatch the Messiah to lead them home, the doctrine held, when He was  
ready to offer them Redemption. Meanwhile, their duty was to wait patiently  
… By Herzl’s time, many Jews had reached a readiness to reject their rabbis’  
Messianic dogma and take their destiny into their own hands.”  
Equal Right of Citizenship  
In Western Europe, as the Enlightenment proceeded, Jews were slowly given  
the equal right of citizenship. On the heels of the French Revolution of  
1789, France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man abolished the legal  
inequality of Jews. Victorious French armies tore down ghetto walls wherever  
they went. Many Jews across Western Europe aspired to assimilate into the  
larger culture while still identifying as Jews. “In Budapest,” writes  
Viorst, “Theodor Herzl’s family belonged to this category. They grew rich  
under capitalism and moved to a sumptuous home outside the ghetto. The  
education they gave their children was only modestly Jewish. They gave up  
Yiddish and proclaimed their loyalty to the Hapsburg emperor. They were  
stylish in dress. They participated in politics and the local culture.”  
In Russia and Eastern Europe, Jews remained second-class citizens. The  
Russian pogroms of the 1880s caused a growing debate about the future. Most  
of the talk was of flight to the West, particularly to the United States. At  
the same time, many Jews were identified with various revolutionary  
doctrines. A smaller number spoke of migration to Palestine under the  
umbrella of Jewish nationalism. Among the groups that contemplated migration  
to Palestine was BILU, whose name was a Hebrew acronym of a biblical verse  
that exalted hopes for Jewish freedom. In 1882, when the first biluim  
arrived, some 25,000 pious Jews already lived in Palestine.  
The author writes that, “The biluim scarcely took note of their settling on  
land for which they had no legal title. … Their ideals contained no room for  
contemplating Arab possession. They deeply believed Palestine was their  
land. It was not necessarily holy, the claim of the pious Jews, but it was  
intrinsically Jewish. BILU left to Herzl the conceptualization of a Jewish  
statehood, but it never questioned the Jews’ right to Palestine.”  
At the same time, Leo Pinsker, a Jewish doctor from Odessa, published a  
small book called Auto-Emancipation whose powerful nationalism inspired the  
founding in Vienna of the journal that first used the term “Zionism.” Like  
Herzl, Pinsker was far removed from Jewish religious thinking. He showed  
little interest in Palestine. The land he thought of for Jewish emigration  
was “a small territory in North America or a sovereign Pashalik in Asiatic  
Turkey.” In 1884, Pinsker convened a congress in Prussia, beyond the reach  
of the czar’s secret police. Instead of calling for Jewish statehood, he  
asked only for donations to BILU’s struggling settlements.  
At the time of Pinsker’s death in 1881, Theodor Herzl, a journalist in  
Vienna and an avowed atheist, with no connection to Jewish religious life,  
began thinking about the plight of Europe’s Jews and how it might be  
relieved. On August 29, 1897, in Basel, Switzerland, Herzl announced to the  
delegates at the first World Zionist Congress that, “We are here to lay the  
cornerstone of the edifice that is to house the Jewish nation.” In his diary  
he predicted that, “perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty,” the  
Jewish state would exist. In embarking upon this enterprise — and Herzl was  
ambivalent about where such a state would be located — he was flying in the  
face of Jewish tradition. “Rabbinic tradition,” writes Viorst, “held that  
only God, through the Messiah, His agent, had the power to bring His people  
home. In that sense, Herzl’s summons at Basel was a challenge to Judaism,  
but it was also an echo of the rising drumbeat of the secular nationalism  
spreading across Europe.”  
Herzl’s thinking about Jewish life in Europe, which concerned him very  
little in his early years as a journalist, was altered when in 1894 he was  
assigned to cover the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a French army captain,  
charged with treason as a spy for Germany. Amid growing anti-Semitic  
demonstrations, Dreyfus was found guilty and imprisoned. Four years later,  
the discovery of falsified documents within the general staff proved his  
innocence, and he was pardoned. Still, Herzl concluded that anti-Semitism  
was an incurable European plague, and Jews needed a land of their own.  
“The Jewish State”  
In 1896, Herzl’s book The Jewish State, was published. “It should be no  
surprise,” reports Viorst, “that Herzl did not feel compelled to place the  
Jewish state in Palestine. He recognized Palestine as ‘our ever-memorable  
historic home,’ certain to ‘attract our people,’ but he declined to be  
constrained by biblical geography. He had no interest in satisfying a  
religious nostalgia … Herzl’s pragmatism told him, as it had told Pinsker,  
that a refuge could be anywhere, and there were more promising places than  
Palestine. The first choice he expressed … was Argentina.”  
What is not widely understood about Herzl, Viorst shows us, is how much he  
was influenced by the thinking of European anti-Semites and how he sought  
their support for their common goal of removing Jews from Europe, a goal  
opposed by the overwhelming majority of Jews themselves, who viewed  
themselves as English, French, German or Italian by nationality, and Jews by  
A book that made a major impact on Herzl was Eugen Duhring’s The Jewish  
Question as a Problem of Race, Morals and Civilization. It was one of the  
books then fashionable among intellectuals across Europe. Inspired by  
Darwin’s genetic research, these works claimed a scientific basis for anti-  
Semitism. Duhring went beyond the standard religious and social origins of  
the anti-Jewish prejudice to assert the Jews’ racial depravity. In Herzl’s  
Vienna it was a best-seller.  
Duhring, from his seat at the University of Berlin, argued that the  
assimilation of Jews was poisoning German culture. Being inbred, the faults  
of the Jews had no prospect of fading away. He called Emancipation a  
terrible mistake and urged that Jews be re-confined to ghettos.  
Uncomfortable Truths  
Herzl, notes Viorst, “was shaken by Duhring’s analysis … parts of the book,  
he wrote, were ‘so informative that every Jew ought to read them.’ The  
feeling conveyed by his words was that Duhring asserted some uncomfortable  
truths … Even years later, Herzl described the book ‘as full of hate as it  
is brilliant. The effect of Duhring’s book upon me was as if I had suddenly  
been hit over the head. I suppose this has been the experience of many a  
Western Jew who had already completely forgotten his national identity: the  
anti-Semites reawakened it in him.’ As he grew older, he often cited Duhring  
as the real source of his immersion in the ‘Jewish question.’”  
As his commitment to Zionism grew, Herzl counted upon the assistance of  
anti-Semites, who shared his goal of removing Jews from Europe. Professor  
Yakov Rabin of the University of Montreal notes that, “It must be remembered  
that both Zionism and anti-Semitism originated in Europe, the home of  
colonialism and racial discrimination. The dominant current of the Zionist  
movement continued to take inspiration from European nationalism by  
encouraging settler colonialism that excluded and ultimately dispossessed  
the local population. Zionism succeeded in setting up a state just as the  
nations of Europe were recoiling from ethnic nationalism in the wake of the  
atrocities of the Second World War. Moreover, the Zionists intended to  
establish sovereignty over a territory in which they constituted an  
immigrant minority made up of disparate ethnic groups …”  
If Herzl’s views of removing Jews from Europe was welcomed by anti-Semites,  
it was opposed by most Jews. Vienna’s chief rabbi, Moritz Gudemann, argued  
that a state based on Jewish nationalism, built on “cannon and bayonets,”  
was likely, over time, to acquire a strong resemblance to the warlike  
intolerant states produced by the Christian nationalisms. When Herzl sought  
a site for his first Zionist congress, the German Rabbinic Association  
vetoed Munich. The Orthodox wing repeated the position that collective  
Jewish migration violated the messianic edict. The Reform wing argued that  
Jews were citizens of the countries in which they lived and had no desire to  
establish a Jewish state.  
Indifference to Indigenous Population  
What is clear in the thinking of Theodor Herzl and other early Zionist  
leaders was indifference to the indigenous population of Palestine. Before  
the publication of his book The Jewish State, he wrote of the Palestinians:  
“We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border, securing  
employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in  
our own country. The removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and  
After Herzl’s death in 1904, no natural successor to lead the Zionist  
movement emerged. Slowly, in the turmoil of World War I, Chaim Weizmann  
emerged. Viorst devotes chapters to Weizmann and other Zionist leaders who  
followed, Vladimir Jabotinsky, David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and Benjamin  
Netanyahu, as well as Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Zvi Yehuda Kook.  
Though Herzl founded modern Zionism, Weizmann, who had emigrated to England  
from Eastern Europe, was influential in promoting the Balfour Declaration,  
without which Zionism would not have achieved its goal. In 1948, Weizmann  
became the first president of Israel.  
As with other Zionist leaders, Weizmann showed indifference, at best, to  
Palestine’s Arab inhabitants. On his first visit to Palestine in 1907,  
writes Viorst, “Weizmann took notice of the Arabs of Palestine, and the  
picture he painted of them was not pretty. As cheap labor, he complained,  
they were a barrier to Jewish economic development. In a later lecture at  
Manchester, he spoke of ‘Arabs whose requirements were few and whose mode of  
living is uncivilized … The Jewish colonies cannot be regarded as really  
Jewish so long as Arabs form so powerful a part of the population.’”  
Opposition from British Jews  
In promoting a Jewish state to British officials, Weizmann met opposition  
from the nation’s Jewish leaders. Viorst notes that, “To Weizmann the chief  
obstacle to a British declaration came … from the Conjoint (a part of the  
Jewish Board of Deputies), whose links to the Cabinet were closer than his  
own. In calling themselves ‘native Jews,’ the Conjoint implied that the  
Zionists were foreigners, thus of dubious loyalty. What Weizmann failed to  
admit was that Zionism would have no need for a refuge at all if Europe’s  
Jews were treated like Britain’s Jews.”  
In fact, within the Cabinet, the chief opponent of the Balfour Declaration  
was its only Jewish member, Lord Edwin Montagu. He was, writes Viorst, “a  
Jew with a distinguished history of government service. In a memo titled  
‘The Anti-Semitism of the Present Government,’ Montagu warned the cabinet of  
being ‘misled by a foreigner,’ who insists ‘the country for which I have  
worked ever since I left the university — England, the country for which my  
family have fought’ — is not my home, that my national home is Palestine. He  
called the declaration ‘an irreparable blow to Jewish Britons … an endeavor  
to set up a people which does not exist.’ “  
Assessing Chaim Weizmann’s attitude toward Palestine’s Arab population,  
Viorst characterizes it as a simple refusal “to consider the legitimacy of  
Arab grievances. As for Arab nationalism, he was unaware that it had grown  
fiercer as the Turks receded and as President Wilson’s pledges of freedom  
spread among them. He chose not to understand — as did generations of  
Zionists, before and after — that the rift between Jews and Arabs had deep  
political roots. Weizmann concluded from his meetings that no prospect  
existed for a trusting relationship with the local Arabs, which he blamed  
entirely on them. In a letter to Balfour from Jerusalem, Weizmann complained  
that the Arabs he met were ‘clever and quick-witted … but treacherous by  
nature.’ In a report to British army intelligence he called them ‘a  
demoralized race with whom it was impossible to treat.’ In his memoir,  
Weizmann compares talks with Arabs to ‘chasing a mirage in the desert: full  
of promise and good to look at but likely to lead you to death by thirst.’”  
Revisionist Zionism  
Considering Vladimir Jabotinsky, we see the beginnings of Revisionist  
Zionism, to which Netanyahu is heir. It was Netanyahu’s father who served as  
an aide to Jabotinsky, and never abandoned his commitment to Jewish  
sovereignty in all of Palestine. Jabotinsky embraced arms as the means of  
achieving Zionism’s goals. He believed that Weizmann and mainstream Zionists  
were deluding themselves about the potential for a diplomatic path to  
statehood. In an article, “The Ethics of the Iron Wall,” he laid out his  
strategy for overcoming Arab resistance. He recognized that Arabs understood  
very well that Zionists sought to take their country from them. He believed  
that Arabs might be willing to reach agreement with the Jews, but surely not  
of their own free will. Published in 1923, the article became a classic of  
Jabotinsky evolved from an advocate of liberal Western values to a  
sympathizer with fascism. He grew up in Odessa. Russia’s most cosmopolitan  
city. He emigrated to Rome to study and called Italy his “spiritual  
homeland.” He wrote that, “The best part of my youth I spent in Rome … when  
Italy was a free and pleasant country, liberal, peace-loving, carefree,  
without the slightest trace of chauvinism … harming nobody, persecuting no  
one. This is how everyone should live, and us Jews, too.”  
These liberal views were short-lived. More and more, Jabotinsky embraced  
authoritarianism and believed violence was the only means by which to  
advance Zionism. Viorst points out that “he fantasized about replacing  
Britain with Italy as the Jews’ protector. He even petitioned the League of  
Nations to invite Mussolini to take over the Mandate.” Jabotinsky died in  
1940 but his heirs, including Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, created  
Irgun and the Stern Gang and embarked upon a campaign of terror and  
assassination in Palestine.  
Bible as a Work of Jewish History  
In the case of David Ben-Gurion, an atheist like Herzl, completely alienated  
from Jewish religious life, Viorst portrays his vision of Zionism as being  
drawn “from the Bible, which he treated not as a religious tract but as a  
work of Jewish history … His interest lay in the nationalist message that  
the Bible maintained, which he regarded as the real foundation of Judaism.  
He was not much interested in the law, the morality, or the religious  
practices that the Bible taught. He considered the Talmud to be rabbinic  
sophistry … Throughout his career, Ben-Gurion looked to the Bible as the  
record of the Jewish people, as his intellectual inspiration.”  
Ben-Gurion arrived in Palestine in 1906. After barely a month of field work,  
he participated in the founding of Poale Ziom, a party that was deeply  
divided between a pro-Marxist wing, which aspired to build a proletariat of  
Arabs and Jews within a classless culture, and a Zionist group which called  
for a purely Jewish society. Ben-Gurion was part of the Zionist group.  
Later, Viorst notes, Ben-Gurion sought “to strengthen Jewish labor by  
excluding Arabs from the labor exchange, which held a near monopoly on  
available jobs. Ben-Gurion applied his strategy in the citrus groves of  
Petah Tikva … In 1924, he adopted strong-arm tactics. The growers,  
themselves Jews, had long preferred Arab workers, bypassing the exchange to  
hire them at minimal wages. Ben-Gurion responded by installing picket lines  
at the gates to bar Arabs from entering the groves … Ben-Gurion’s socialist  
vision never extended to Arabs … He did not aspire to narrowing the Arab-  
Jewish prosperity gap. On the contrary, his practice as a labor leader in  
the 1920s were designed to perpetuate, even widen, the wedge between Arabs  
and Jews.”  
Ben-Gurion’s commitment to creating a Jewish state seemed to exceed his  
concern for those Jews who were about to become victims of Nazism. In 1938,  
he said that, “If I knew that it were possible to save all the children of  
Germany by transporting them to England and only half by transporting them  
to the Land of Israel, I would choose the latter for before us lies not only  
the number of these children but the historical reckoning of the people of  
Partitioning Palestine  
Ben-Gurion accepted the idea of partitioning Palestine, while right-wing  
Revisionist Zionists demanded Jewish control over the entire area. But Ben-  
Gurion’s response to his right-wing critics is instructive. He declared: “No  
borders are eternal … By the time we complete the settlement of our state …  
we shall break through these frontiers.” To his son Amos, he revealed even  
more: “All our aspiration is built on the assumption … that there is enough  
room for ourselves and the Arabs … But I regard this scheme (partition) as  
an unequaled lever for the gradual conquest of all of Palestine.” In  
Viorst’s view, “Clearly, Ben-Gurion regarded partition as a tactical retreat  
to achieve a more ambitious objective.”  
When considering what Zionism’s policies should be toward the Arabs, Ben-  
Gurion understood that expelling them from the area would be morally and  
politically indefensible, yet he said it would solve many problems: “It  
would be rash to assert that in no circumstances..can such a transfer take  
Later, in 1948, after the State of Israel had been established, and the war  
for independence was under way, Ben-Gurion was involved in the decision to  
embark upon what later became known as an act of extreme terrorism. “To  
relieve Jerusalem,” writes Viorst, “the Jews had to overcome Arab control of  
the road leading from the city to the sea. Among the Palestinian villages  
standing in their way was Deir Yassin, which the commanders of the Irgun and  
Lehi requested authorization to capture. Ben-Gurion gave his consent. Though  
the attack encountered almost no resistance, the attackers slaughtered some  
250 men, women and children. News of the killing panicked Arabs throughout  
Palestine, triggering the flight of tens of thousands in search of asylum to  
the neighboring Arab states. Ben-Gurion was furious at the bloodbath … which  
he blamed on the Revisionist leadership. His chief concern … was not so much  
the needless killing of Arabs as the reaction of Washington … The Deir  
Yassin operation imparted to the founding of the Jewish state a bloody stain  
that has never been fully washed away.”  
“We Have Taken Their Country”  
An interesting insight into Ben-Gurion’s thinking can be found in the memoir  
of Nahum Goldmann, who served as president of the World Zionist  
Organization. He recalled a visit with Ben-Gurion, after his retirement at  
his home in the Negev. He recalls Ben-Gurion musing, “Why should the Arabs  
make peace? If I was an Arab leader, I would never make terms with Israel.  
That is natural: we have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us,  
but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from  
Israel, it’s true, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them?  
They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their land.”  
The development of religious Zionism is explored in a chapter on Rav Abraham  
Isaac Kook and his son Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. Far removed from the secular  
nationalism of Herzl and Ben-Gurion, Rav Kook also turned his back on  
Orthodox Judaism’s rejection of political Zionism. When the Balfour  
Declaration was published, Rav Kook declared that he saw in it the  
footprints not of Britain but of the Messiah. Redemption, he told a crowd in  
London’s Albert Hall, would be bestowed at the same time on Jews as on all  
humankind. His words seemed to attribute the Balfour Declaration not to  
Great Britain but to God.  
Rav Kook rejected traditional Orthodoxy by embracing Jewish nationalism as a  
divine commandment, independent of the Messiah. In 1924, he founded a  
yeshiva in Jerusalem to train rabbis in religious nationalism. His son Zvi  
Yehuda followed his father as head of Mercaz Ha Rav. It emphasized not  
scripture, but the holiness of the land. Its motto was “The Torah of Israel,  
the nation of Israel, the Land of Israel.” It linked Judaism to the  
Judaization of Palestine from the river to the sea.  
Age of the Messiah  
It also taught that the victory of the Jewish state in 1948 proved that the  
age of the Messiah had arrived even if the Messiah himself had not made an  
appearance. “In the years after the Six Day War,” writes Viorst, “Religious  
Zionism relentlessly challenged the state over territory and consistently  
won. An Israeli general noted wryly in a memoir, ‘At the end of the sixties,  
the world was already watching the finish of the era of colonialism, and  
precisely then Israel found itself marching in the opposite direction.’ Led  
by Kook’s followers, Israel’s growing domination of Palestine’s Arabs had  
become an irresistible force at the core of Zionism.”  
Zvi Yehuda Kook rejected the conventional Orthodox tenet that the Holocaust  
was God’s response to the sins of the Jews. “Like his father,” Viorst notes,  
“he believed in God’s control of the universe, and so he felt compelled to  
find a more positive explanation. Without a virtuous God, there was no  
reason for Religious Zionism to exist.”  
What Kook found in the Holocaust seemed to be God’s embrace of Zionism and  
rejection of Jewish life in Europe. He wrote: “Our whole people has  
undergone heavenly surgery at the hands of the destroyers … God’s people had  
clung so determinedly to the impurity of foreign lands that … they had to be  
cut away, with a great shedding of blood. This cruel excision reveals the  
rebirth of the nation and the land, the rebirth of the Torah and all that is  
In Viorst’s view, “Zvi Yehuda was saying … that the Holocaust was God’s way  
of ridding the Jews of the debased culture of Exile. The Holocaust cleansed  
Jewish life, he said. In that sense it may have been Messianic. To Zvi  
Yehuda, the Holocaust was ‘a deeply hidden, internal, divine act of  
purification,’ without which the Jewish state would have been forever  
corrupt. Kook’s statement came close to praising God for the Holocaust … the  
terrain on which Kook took his stand held that the Holocaust, in the final  
analysis, rendered a major service to the Jews by assuring them of a home  
that was not just Jewish but undefined by an impure past.”  
Campaign of Terrorism  
In his chapter on Menachem Begin, the Revisionist leader who embarked upon a  
major campaign of terrorism, including the assassination of Lord Moyne,  
Britain’s chief official in the Middle East, and the bombing of the King  
David Hotel in Jerusalem, Viorst notes that, “Begin maintained that the  
casualties were fully justified, even though he said he mourned only the  
Jewish deaths.” Later, before being sworn in as prime minister, Begin  
visited Elon Moreh in the occupied West Bank. Asked whether he would annex  
the West Bank, he replied, “We don’t use the word ‘annex.’ You annex foreign  
land, not your own country.” He also rejected the term “West Bank,” which  
implied a link to Jordan, insisting that “Judea and Samaria” was the  
region’s real name, derived from the Bible. After the swearing in of his  
cabinet in 1977, Begin visited Zvi Yehuda Kook’s home to kiss his hand and  
elicit his blessing.  
Viorst brings us to the present time in his final chapter, “Advancing To  
Netanyahu,” which paints a picture of the growth of religious extremism in  
Israel and a retreat from the peace process, which would lead to a two-state  
solution. In 1996, Yitzhak Rabin had signed the Oslo II peace agreement and  
looked forward to re-election and to completing the peace process. This,  
however, was not to be: “… the Knesset had approved Oslo ll by only a 61-59  
margin, and some of those votes came from Arab members, which led Likud to  
protest the absence of a Jewish majority, which it claimed invalidated the  
outcome … The zealotry of both Likud and the Religious Zionists reached a  
fever pitch … West Bank rabbis, most of them ideological offspring of the  
Rabbis Kook spread the notion that Rabin was a criminal in relinquishing  
Jewish land to non-Jews. Under Halacha (Jewish religious law), many said,  
Rabin was subject to the penalty of death … Benjamin Netanyahu, who had  
emerged as the leader of the Likud, did not challenge the rabbis in their  
accusations that Rabin was a traitor.”  
On the evening of November 4, 1995, at the conclusion of a peace rally in a  
central square in Tel Aviv, Rabin was assassinated. His assassin was Yigal  
Amir, a student at the religious Bar-Ilan University. He told police that  
“if not for the halacha ruling made against Rabin by a few rabbis,” he would  
not have committed the crime. “After the murder,” writes Viorst, “Religious  
Zionists did not soften their objections to peace. The rabbis who claimed  
that Rabin’s evacuation of territory was a capital offense under halacha  
accepted no blame for his death. Not long after the assassination, I talked  
with Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, a Gush Emunim founder who was now head of the  
Kiryat Arba yeshiva. Though mild in manner, he was known for his involvement  
in deadly acts of settler violence”  
Rabbi Waldman said: “Judea and Samaria — yes, Kiryat Arba itself — are our  
heartland. The Six Day War brought us back here. The process was initiated  
by God but depended on the actions of the Jews. Did we need permission of  
the Arabs to return? Not at all. Was this an Arab land? Never. We were  
driven out, and now we’re coming back. The very notion of trading land for  
peace is absurd. Our military supremacy is the only basis for peace. Those  
Jews who do not believe that we must be in command are endangering the  
Jewish people.”  
Netanyahu Opposes Oslo Accords  
Benjamin Netanyahu was first elected in 1996, at which time he had a legal  
duty to carry out Israel’s obligations under the Oslo Accords. That,  
however, Viorst shows, “was not his plan. He had no intention of  
contributing to a process that moved Israel toward the establishment of a  
Palestinian state. It was contrary to everything his father had taught him,  
and everything he had learned from the works of Jabotinsky and Begin … His  
refusal to abide by the terms of Oslo II ended the fragile truce that had  
been reached between Israelis and Palestinians. As prime minister, Netanyahu  
resumed the construction of settlements. He also pushed the expansion  
eastward of Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem, which all but severed the  
West Bank into two parts. He bulldozed Arab homes and denied Arabs living in  
the occupied territories the right to enter Jerusalem. He shrank the West  
Bank area designated under Oslo II for Palestinian rule and took over Arab  
water resources …”  
In October 1998, President Clinton summoned Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat to  
the Wye Plantation in Maryland in an attempt to salvage Oslo. Jordan’s King  
Hussein was brought in to help. A week of talks produced an agreement in  
which Netanyahu pledged to resume Israel’s commitment to evacuate Arab  
territory, while Arafat promised to impose more stringent controls to  
suppress violence. In the end, the Wye conference, though ostensibly ending  
in agreement, contributed little to advancing the peace process. In 2002,  
Saudi Arabia. at an Arab League summit in Beirut, offered a proposal, which  
the Arab states approved unanimously, that, in Viorst’s view,  
“revolutionized — at least on its face — the Arabs’ historic perspective  
toward Israel. Called the Arab Peace Initiative, the Saudis proposed to  
exchange Israel’s consent to a Palestinian state and withdrawal of its  
forces from all the occupied territories for peace and normalization with  
all the Arab governments. Abandoning the traditional Arab claim of the right  
of all refugees to return to their homes, the Initiative called for  
negotiating a ‘just solution’ to the refugee problem.”  
This major Arab overture found little support in Israel, whose prime  
minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, and his cabinet, overrode the one  
prominent voice in Israel who welcomed the Arab plan, Foreign Minister  
Shimon Peres. When he learned of the Saudi plan, Peres declared, “Israel  
views positively every initiative aimed at achieving peace and  
normalization.” Sharon made it clear that, “The Palestinian state is hardly  
my life’s dream.” What Sharon did do was “disengage” from Gaza, but in a  
manner which, Viorst illustrates, gave it continuing control: “Israel  
retained total control over Gaza’s borders, airspace, and territorial  
waters. It kept its hand on Gaza’s communications, water, and electricity  
networks . In determining who and what could enter or leave, Israel sealed  
off Gaza from the outside world. In refusing practically all human rights to  
Gazans, it promoted a permanent hostility that not only failed to curb the  
bloodshed of the Arab-Israeli wars, which was Sharon’s objective, but  
insured its continuation.”  
Netanyahu Recognizes No Arab Claim  
In the case of Benjamin Netanyahu, Viorst argues that he was different from  
the other prime ministers in the post-Begin period, except for Yitzhak  
Shamir, in that “the attitude of all of them toward the Palestinians  
contained at least a shade of ambivalence. Each recognized … that  
Palestinian Arabs had a legitimate link to the land, even though they gave  
priority to the Jews. This ambivalence explains why the ‘peace process’  
survived, and why a peace plan of some sort was almost always cooking on the  
political stove. But in contrast, Netanyahu recognized no Arab claim to the  
land at all and had no ambivalence.”  
Netanyahu, in a memoir titled A Durable Peace, claimed that even after Rome  
crushed the Bar Kokhba revolt in AD 135, the year conventionally regarded as  
the start of the Exile, the Jews retained power and independence within  
Palestine. He asserts that the Exile began only with the Islamist conquest  
of 636. When Muhammad’s forces not only overran Palestine but imported  
colonists to take over the land from the Jews. Netanyahu concludes: “Thus it  
was not the Jews who usurped the land from the Arabs but the Arabs who  
usurped the land from the Jews.”  
Beyond this, Netanyahu states that in asserting a right to nationhood, the  
Palestinians “invented a new identity, in effect creating a ‘West Bankian’  
people who demanded recognition as an entirely new nation. When I am asked  
whether I will support a Palestinian state, I answer in the negative.”  
In fact, Viorst points out, “… depending on the politics of the audience  
sometimes he claims to support a Palestinian state, and sometimes he does  
not. Netanyahu … resurrected the concept of the kehillot, the self-ruling  
communities in which Europe’s Jews lived in Exile in the centuries prior to  
the Emancipation. Most Jews later called them ‘ghettos.’ Begin at Camp David  
offered Sadat such an arrangement for the Palestinians, naming it  
‘autonomy,’ and Sadat, after much haggling, accepted it. But Begin  
ultimately backed away even from his own idea, rejecting any dilution  
whatever of Israeli power in the occupied territories. Netanyahu, despite  
his occasional equivocations, is clearly committed to Israel’s total control  
of the West Bank.”  
Address to Congress  
As the Israeli election of 2015 approached, Netanyahu was running poorly in  
election polls. In a deal brokered by his ambassador in Washington, he  
received an invitation, unknown to President Barack Obama, from John  
Boehner, the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, to address a  
joint session of Congress. When Netanyahu gave the speech on March 3,  
Republicans made up an enthusiastic audience, but Democrats in large numbers  
boycotted it. “Netanyahu,” writes Viorst, “had for the first time made  
Israel a partisan issue in American politics.”  
Netanyahu’s numbers stayed down until the eve of the election, when the  
polls showed Likud a seat or two behind Labor. At that point, notes Viorst,  
“Netanyahu took another gamble, appealing to the Israeli electorate’s baser  
instincts. The Arabs, he declared menacingly, were voting ‘in droves.’  
Reversing the vow at Bar Ilan (to create a Palestinian state), he proclaimed  
that no Palestinian state would be formed as long as he was prime minister.  
His gamble paid off, and on Election Day, Likud won 30 Knesset seats to 24  
for Labor. Most of the last-minute switch came from the more extreme right-  
wing voters … The appeal worked … assuring Netanyahu of another term as  
prime minister.”  
When he convened his new government in May 2015, Netanyahu instructed the  
members of his majority not to miss a single Knesset session, even for  
emergencies, lest the opposition spring a surprise vote that could overthrow  
him. To reassure his supporters, he repeated his promise that Israel would  
control all of the occupied territory for the foreseeable future. He then  
added. “I’m asked if we will forever live by the sword. The answer is yes.”  
Even Labor Not Prepared for Negotiated Peace  
“The election of 2015,” Viorst writes, “revealed that most Israelis were  
still not ready to contemplate a negotiated peace. During the campaign, even  
Labor was not prepared to raise the issue, as it could not challenge the  
Israeli preference for perpetual combat. Israel had no peace party in the  
2015 election, and even if Likud had lost, the winner would not have taken  
office with a popular mandate to negotiate a treaty to end Israel’s wars.”  
As Milton Viorst came to the end of writing his book, the Middle East was in  
chaos. Arabs were killing one another across the region, and groups such as  
Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra, and ISIS, unknown a few years ago, now dominate the  
news. Arab states such as Iraq and Syria are in disarray, and no one knows  
how or when the pieces will come back together. It is Viorst’s hope that, “…  
in the interstices between the fragments there is probably room to maneuver  
on behalf of a new Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Establishing even a  
small oasis of peace between the Mediterranean and the Jordan will not solve  
the Middle East crisis, but it would certainly be a start.”  
To the question of whether this can, in fact, happen, Viorst concludes: “Not  
when Israel continues to measure its security solely on its ability to  
dominate the region by military force. Zionism, unquestionably, has come a  
long way since Herzl’s time, but it is now mired in Jabotinsky’s ideals …  
Put another way, it is stuck in the Begin era. Given the turbulence that has  
engulfed the Middle East since the start of the Arab Spring, even Israel is  
going to have to rethink how to keep the state afloat. Is Israel ready to  
seize an opportunity to reach out for peace? The answer is certainly not  
yet. But, given the turbulence of our times, is it not fair to ask whether  
it must be soon?”  
For those who would understand Israel, Zionism and the crisis confronting  
the Jewish community as it comes to grips with these growing challenges,  
this book by Milton Viorst is essential reading. With expertise and  
knowledge acquired from decades studying this contentious issue, Viorst  
shows how Zionism has squandered most of the goodwill it once enjoyed and  
has placed Israel’s survival in jeopardy. Also placed in jeopardy are  
Judaism’s moral and ethical values. Too many leading Jewish voices have all  
too often turned a blind eye to Israel’s ethical failings. This, however, is  
slowly changing, and this book is an example of that much needed  
introspection and moral self-examination.•  
Allan C. Brownfeld is a nationally syndicated columnist, and is editor of  
ISSUES. The author of five books, he has served on the staff of the U.S.  
Senate, House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President.  

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.