Peter Beinart’s new book, The Crisis of Zionism, has sparked a debate between Israel’s apologists and critics. Much of that debate has focused on the quality of Beinart’s research into and analysis of contemporary Zionism. Bret Stephens in his review in Tablet magazine, for example, finds the book’s argument sloppy.
But Beinart’s treatment of historical Zionism is no less flawed. A self-described liberal Zionist, he makes the villain of his book Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the most influential political descendant of Menachem Begin, who led the newly formed Likud party to victory in the parliamentary elections of 1977, an event that marked the end to the Left’s domination of Israeli politics.
Netanyahu and Likud align with Revisionist Zionism, the movement founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky when he broke off from mainstream, leftist Zionism in 1923. Jabotinsky sought to promote a martial spirit among the Jewish people and criticized liberal Jews for being too accommodating to a largely unsympathetic world. True to their founder, today’s Revisionist Zionists tend to be more hawkish, more distrusting of the peace process, and more receptive to free markets. They support Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria.
Netanyahu’s connection to Jabotinsky is personal as well as ideological. His father, Benzion, served as Jabotinsky’s secretary and confidant. Some liberals argue that the hard line Netanyahu takes against Palestinian demands can be traced directly to the Revisionist Zionism of his upbringing.
Beinart lambasted Netanyahu in a recent interview with Haaretz:
What really struck me when I read his writings and that of his father Benzion, and then about the Revisionist tradition, is this belief that the world is a very nasty place, and the Jews are in danger because they don’t recognize its nastiness. Because [in the Revisionist view] they’ve gotten this crazy idea that they’re supposed to be better than everybody else . . . [and that] we’ve got to get rid of it. We’ve got to become like everybody else.
For Beinart, then, Jews in the Revisionist tradition have abandoned their “special ethical mission,” as he calls it, because they’re realistic and recognize the world’s “nastiness.” But Jabotinsky was prescient in his warning to Warsaw Jewry in 1938 that “a catastrophe is coming closer. . . . Let any one of you save himself as long as there is still time. . . . Whoever of you will escape from this catastrophe, he or she will live to see the exalted moment of . . . the rebirth and revival of a Jewish state.”
Jabotinsky was not the only Zionist leader to arrive at his position in response to anti-Semitism. Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism a generation before Jabotinsky, was motivated in part by the Dreyfus Affair in France. Beinart’s safe and comfortable lifestyle notwithstanding, Jews have a long history of suffering the world’s nastiness.
If Beinart wants Israel to uphold Palestinian sovereignty, he should heed Jabotinsky’s lessons. In his 1923 essay “The Iron Wall,” Jabotinsky clarified his position regarding the Arabs of Palestine. “I consider it utterly impossible to eject the Arabs from Palestine,” he wrote. “There will always be two nations in Palestine — which is good enough for me, provided the Jews become the majority.” Jabotinsky went on to lay out his case that
there can be no voluntary agreement between ourselves and the Palestinian Arabs. . . . It is utterly impossible to obtain the voluntary consent of the Palestine Arabs for converting “Palestine” from an Arab country into a country with a Jewish majority. . . . Zionist colonization must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population. Which means that it can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population — behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach.
Jabotinsky’s basic argument was that Arabs are a proud people who will not acquiesce to what they see as colonialism, no matter how noble its intentions. The only solution, then, is to separate Jews from Arabs.