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.
At present, it is hard to disagree. For the better part of 64 years, Palestinians have rejected Israel’s right to exist, and even now they accept Israel only under the precondition that it lose its Jewishness. Beinart may scoff and call it crazy, but at a time when most of the Zionist establishment predicted Arab and Jewish coexistence, Jabotinsky displayed remarkable foresight. His rhetoric about an “iron wall” is outdated and extreme, to be sure. But his lessons can be applied to the current conflict nonetheless. After all, when Beinart clamors for an independent Palestinian state, he too is calling for the separation of Arab and Jewish populations.
Though his expression of them is questionable, Beinart’s concerns for Israel and the future of Zionism are legitimate. Israeli occupation of the West Bank is unhealthy for both Israel and the Palestinians. That admission should not, and does not, disqualify any from the mainstream of the Zionist movement, so long as they recognize — and Beinart does not — the downside of the Israeli military’s leaving the West Bank and granting complete authority to the Palestinian leadership.
How can Israel’s security be reconciled with Palestinian independence? How can Israel give the West Bank to the Palestinians when there are not enough Palestinians ready to receive it in peace? It would be wise to recall once again Jabotinsky. At a congress of the Revisionist Zionist movement in 1932, he argued for reconciliation among his fellow Zionists:
Someone said that redemption will be brought about by blood and fire, not by water. Why not water? In order to build the Jewish State we need fire and water — everything is sacred. Let no one say, “I will work with water, therefore you are forbidden to work with fire.”
That lesson should be applied to the current conflict. Fire is needed when thousands of Palestinian terrorists are armed and financed by regimes that threaten to destroy Israel. Only brute force can repel them. On the other hand, many Palestinians want peace and are willing to oppose the violence of their fellow Arabs. Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad, responding to the recent terrorist attacks in Toulouse, called for an end to terrorism. “Extremists must stop pretending to stand up for the rights of Palestinian children who only ask for a decent life.” Clearly, Fayyad and those he speaks for should be met not with fire but with water.
If Beinart is uncomfortable applying lessons from Jabotinsky, let him look to the Bible. Isaac had two sons — Jacob, who was righteous and learned, and Esau, a hunter, who understood force. In the account in Genesis, Jacob disguised himself as his brother and approached their father to receive the blessing of the firstborn. Isaac, who was blind, touched his son’s arm and said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” Sometimes the smooth words of Jacob are what is needed, but when Israel’s security is at stake, the strong arms of Esau must be employed.
— Noah Glyn is an editorial intern at National Review.