Buber vs. Herzl
By MICHAEL GERBER
THE JEWISH STATE
The Struggle for Israel's Soul
By Yoram Hazony
464 pages. Basic Books. $18.
Anyone familiar with the history of Israel is aware that the
country has always been engaged in a struggle to ensure its security. Yet, as
Yoram Hazony shows in his The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul, it
is not only the physical safety of Israel that is at risk. The country’s
Zionist and Jewish moorings are loosening. In many aspects of Israeli
life—education, the military, the legal system, and politics—the Jewish
character of the Israeli state is in danger of being stripped away. Hazony aims
to diagnose this spiritual malaise, identify its source, and suggest a method
of counteracting its spread.
How did Israel arrive at this state of affairs? Hazony
devotes much of his book to this question. He returns to the idea of the Jewish
state as envisioned by Theodor Herzl at the end of the nineteenth century.
Herzl maintained that the basis for a state is the shared and conscious
commitment of a group of individuals to that state. This concept of a state as
ideological commitment , rather than simply the physical presence of population
in one geographic area, legitimated the idea of Jewish sovereignty even though
the Jews were scattered throughout the world. Moreover, Herzl believed that the
agents of a state, those who assume the mantle of political leadership, do so
as the guardians of the people. Thus, Herzl unabashedly argued that the future
Jewish state must first and foremost serve the political interests of the
Jewish people. It was clear to him that if the Jewish state did not play this
role, the Jews would forever remain powerless and helpless.
Even in Herzl’s lifetime, there were those ostensibly within
the Zionist camp who expressed their opposition to such a state, foremost among
them the German-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. Once a follower of Herzl,
Buber rejected what he considered to be a narrow Jewish particularism. Buber
argued vociferously on behalf of a binational state, committed to the needs of
its citizens, rather than a state committed to the needs of the Jewish people.
Buber and his supporters opposed the creation of a uniquely Jewish state, even
as the Labor Zionists, led by David Ben-Gurion, struggled to bring Herzl’s
dream to fruition.
With the founding of Israel in 1948, the Labor Zionists
seemed to have won the day. But Buber’s supporters continued to wage their
intellectual battle against the idea of a Jewish state from within the
stronghold of the Hebrew University, where many of them were professors and
administrators. The Labor Zionists who remained committed to the ideals of
Herzl and Ben-Gurion devoted themselves to Israel’s physical development. This
was a noble and necessary effort, Hazony argues. At the same time, however, the
Labor Zionists bequeathed to their children an intellectual vacuum. This was
filled by academics at the Hebrew University who continued to propound Buber’s
arguments. It was their influence, according to Hazony, that brought Israel
into the spiritual mire in which it now finds itself.
While Hazony may be right that the seeds of discontent with
the idea of a Jewish state were sown by Buber and his disciples, those seeds
sprouted forth as the result of political
developments that, in the eyes of some, seemed to confirm Buber’s worst fears
concerning Israeli particularism and power. But the importance of Hazony’s book
does not hinge on the accuracy of the intellectual chain that he describes.
What Hazony shows quite convincingly is that the current attack on the idea of
a Jewish state parallels the attack advanced by Buber and his allies. The
arguments put forward in the 1920s and 1930s in favor of a binational state,
based on the embrace of universalism and the affirmation and even glorification
of Jewish powerlessness, are not all that different from the beliefs of many
contemporary Israeli intellectuals.
Perhaps the greatest difference between Buber and his
contemporary counterparts is that the latter are subtler. As Hazony points out,
they do not explicitly declare their opposition to Israel as a Jewish state.
Rather, they question the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise and leave it to
their audience to draw the conclusion that the Jewish character of the state is
not worth saving. Hazony is correct to be contemptuous of those who present
such a distorted historical narrative. While Israel’s leaders have certainly
made their share of mistakes, these hardly delegitimize the state itself. Yet
Hazony does not sufficiently acknowledge the degree to which Israeli critics
who do not fall into the traps of moral reductionism or simplistic
generalization provide a valuable service to Israeli society. A society needs
gadflies who, however infuriating, will prevent it from becoming complacent.
Myths of Israel’s moral perfection are no better than myths of Israel’s moral
Ultimately, the legitimacy of a Jewish state depends on
ideas, not on history. And it is here that Hazony’s conclusion becomes
critical. There is an urgent need, Hazony argues, to continue the work of Herzl
and Ben-Gurion in the realm of ideas, to put forward a coherent vision of what
Zionism truly is and what it is not. Only an interpretive framework committed
to the right of the Jews to their own state in their own land will prevent
gadflies from becoming all-consuming leviathans.
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