Between moral outrage and historical analysis

Tony Greenstein reviews Gabriel Piterberg's 'The returns of Zionism' (Verso 2008, pp298, £16.99) and Arno J Mayer's 'Plowshares into swords' (Verso 2008, pp432, £19.99)

This is a tale of two books. Both come from the same end of the political spectrum, but there the similarity ends. Piterberg’s The returns of Zionism is a tour de force and deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone seriously interested in an analysis of the historical, political and ideological origins of Zionism. Mayer’s book is best placed on the coffee table.

It is not that Plowshares into swords does not contain much that is interesting, not least concerning the origins of Brit Shalom and Ihud, early Zionist peace groups. But the book is descriptive and anecdotal, not analytical. Despite being a professor of history at Princeton University, Mayer does not include a single footnote in the entire book. This may be the academic version of dumbing down, but it is inexcusable.

Mayer describes his book as a “critical historical study of Zionism and Israel” (pviii). The problem is that what passes for analysis is reduced to moral outrage. It is yet one more book in a crowded market. Mayer begins by telling us that he is a “non-Zionist Zionist”(pxiii) - which is about as useful as being a non-racist racist. Not once does Mayer even try to provide an analysis of what he means by Zionism. Mayer expresses his sympathy with the founding objectives of Zionism - the creation of a Jewish state as a refuge - whilst deploring the outcome: a racially pure, settler colonial state.

Mayer’s treatment of Arthur Ruppin, known as the “father of Jewish settlement in the land of Israel” (Piterberg, p82), whom Piterberg describes as “perhaps the single most important individual for the Zionist settlement in Palestine” (p80), is illustrative. Mayer tells us that it was at Ruppin’s and Martin Buber’s initiative that Brit Shalom was formed in 1925. A dozen years later and Ruppin is a member of the Jewish Agency’s transfer committee, looking for a means to expel a quarter of a million Palestinians. Mayer makes no attempt to provide an explanation for this transition, or why support for a Zionist peace group might be compatible with expulsion and transfer. Ruppin’s model was the German Reich’s pre-World War I colonisation project in Posen (Poznan), east Prussia - later to become infamous for Himmler’s speech to the SS on October 4 1943, where he expressed his admiration for the SS’s “integrity” in perpetrating the annihilation of the Jews (Piterberg, pp78-81).

Piterberg shows how Ruppin was one of the most virulent racists in the Zionist pantheon. He was a social Darwinist, who believed in the betterment of “the Jewish race” (p81). He was a follower of the British racist charlatan, Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), who saw one of his main tasks as the eradication of the Jews’ “commercial instinct”, which was caused by the infusion of the oriental type in them! And with whom did he discuss these thorny questions? No less than professor Hans Gunther, Himmler’s mentor. Just a few days before his death he was composing a treatise on the Jewish race, “based on a taxonomy of noses. His samples were the facial features of various Zionist figures” (Piterberg, p84).

This is not an aberration. Nowhere does Mayer analyse why Brit Shalom’s and Ihud’s espousal of a binational solution in Palestine failed. Brit Shalom never numbered more than 200 intellectuals, yet they were, according to Mayer, “an influential but powerless opposition on the Arab question” (p92), “critical”, yet “elitist” (Mayer, p127). They included Chaim Arlossoroff, head of the political department, and Kalvarisky, head of the Jewish Agency’s Arab department. Its leader was Judah Magnes, the founder of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

These were not anti-Zionists: quite the contrary. Their inspiration was Ahad Ha’am, who believed that Palestine should be a spiritual and cultural for Jewish people (Mayer, p111). In his essay, ‘This is not the way’ (1889), and ‘Truth from Israel’ (Hamelitz June 1891) he castigated the early Zionists, for whom the Arabs were invisible. Brit Shalom comprised those who sought Arab collaboration and acquiescence in the Zionist project, in contrast to Ben Gurion and the revisionists, whose policy towards the Arabs was that of the Iron Wall. But their goals were the same even if their proposed methods differed. According to Ernst Simon, who was close to Buber, the Zionist movement ought to “work to gain Arab sympathy for the creation of a Jewish National Home in Palestine”.

Mayer draws no political conclusions from the early binationalists, despite recalling the encounter between Martin Buber and Ben Gurion, when the latter inquired whether Buber had “come to Palestine with the consent of the Arabs or against their wishes” (p161). And this was their key dilemma. Brit Shalom represented those who also depended on the existence of the colonial project. As Ben Gurion noted, there is “no example in history of a nation opening [its] gates [simply] because the nation wanting to enter explained its desire to do so” (p161).


Mayer is equally flaccid when it comes to the ‘left’ Zionists, the ‘Marxist’ Hashomer Hatzair, whom he describes as “class-driven” (p140). In fact their party, Mapam, whose Ha’artzi kibbutz federation was Jewish only, never once engaged in joint class struggle with the Arabs. Mapam collaborated with Ben-Gurion and the Histadrut’s starving into submission and destruction of the Gdud Avodah work brigades, who did engage in class struggle and work with Arab workers (see Z Sternhell Founding myths of Zionism Princeton 1999, p210). Mapam’s class collaboration was equalled only by its national chauvinism. On the capture of Jerusalem in the 1967 war, Mapam joined in the celebrations of Jewish messianism. As Mayer notes, without comment, even a prominent member of Mapam, previously sworn to binationalism, concluded that “the world has revolved; we have liberated the land of Israel, and now it is ours” (p258).

Mayer’s treatment of labour Zionism is on a par with his infatuation with Brit Shalom. The kibbutz played a pivotal part in Zionist folklore yet it was supported and subsidised by the Zionist bourgeoisie throughout as the most effective means of colonisation. For Gershon Shafir, “The national character of the kibbutz was its foundation and raison d’être and determined its composition …” (Piterberg, p87).

Chaim Arlossoroff, the Jewish Agency’s de facto foreign minister, was, as Piterberg shows, wholly hostile to the idea of joint Jewish-Arab workers’ organisations. Histadrut was set up as a General Confederation of Hebrew Labour. Where, as in the case of the railworkers union, which was a bastion of the left and also had a mixed Arab and Jewish membership, the Labour Zionists sought to include them in Histadrut precisely in order to separate off the Arab workers into a separate national section (Piterberg, p72-73). The only purpose of joint organisation for Arlossoroff was to “nullify the competition between the expensive and modern Hebrew labour and the cheap and primitive Arab labour” (p74). This was the reason for the Histadrut campaign for Jewish labour. They sought to exclude Arab workers from the economy altogether and, where that was not possible, as for government workers and in the absence of a colour bar, the Zionists sought higher wages for Jewish workers.

Arlossoroff, as Piterberg argues, displayed a “white settler consciousness” (p74). Arlossoroff wrote that “almost the only case in which there is sufficient similarity in the objective conditions and problems so as to allow us an analogy” was South Africa. There too, white workers faced insuperable problems competing with cheap black labour. There the answer was a colour bar, which reserved skilled jobs for white workers. In Palestine this was not politically possible. Instead the Zionists sought a combination of exclusion of the indigenous labour, ie, job reservation and higher wages for Jewish workers.

Gershon Shafir noted: “The most distinguishing characteristic of the Jewish labour movement in Palestine was that it was not a labour movement at all. Rather, it was a colonial movement in which the workers’ interest remained secondary to the exigencies of settlement” (Piterberg, p63).

In contrast to Piterberg, who places special emphasis on the foundation of Israel as a settler-colonial state, Mayer sees little connection between what is happening in Israel today and its settler-colonial formation. Writing of Hashomer Hatzair, he describes how this “fervently colonising” organisation, “marrying Jewish nationalism to utopian Marxism, became the most emphatic champion of binationalism” (p141). Just how colonisation and Marxism, utopian or otherwise, were compatible, is never explained.

Piterberg notes that Theodor Herzl’s adoption of Zionism was combined with his desire to hide his Jewishness (p2). The founder of political Zionism came to Judaism via Zionism, not the other way around. He shows how Herzl “invent[ed] the Dreyfus trial as a moment of Zionism epiphany” (p7), despite the fact his journalistic writings at the time betrayed no concern with the Dreyfus trial. Nor is Dreyfus mentioned in Der Judenstaat - this is confirmed by Desmond Stewart (see D Stewart Theodor Herzl - artist and politician London 1974, pp163-68), but Mayer nonetheless goes along with Herzl’s self-serving myth rather than Herzl’s own description in his diaries of how “In Paris ... I achieved a freer attitude towards anti-semitism, which I now began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, recognise the emptiness and futility of trying to ‘combat’ anti-semitism” (R Pitai Complete diaries of Theodor Herzl London 1960, p6).

Piterberg deconstructs the ideological and literary superstructure of Zionism. He mounts a fierce defence of an alternative Jewish existence outside Israel that is not predicated on Zionism. As an authority on Hannah Arendt, he argues that in her adoption of the Jew as a pariah concept, the idea of the free-thinking critic was taken from Bernard Lazarre - an anarchist who was briefly on the Zionist Action Committee with Herzl before resigning in 1898 and for whom the Zionist idea that emancipation equalled assimilation was anathema. Lazarre had an innovative response to those who believed the ‘next year in Jerusalem’ prayer was proof that Zionism was the fulfilment of biblical prophecy. All it meant was that next year we will be free (Piterberg, p12).


In his chapter on Zionist colonisation, Piterberg argues that the pivotal change, from plantation to settler colonialism, occurred in the transition from the first aliyah (wave of emigration, 1892-1904) to the second aliyah (1904-14). It was a transition from exploitation of Arab labour to its exclusion - first from the economy and then the land. This was led by Histadrut and the Labour Zionists, who coined the slogan, ‘From class to nation’, whereby the Arabs became the ‘class enemy’. It was only Arab ‘backwardness’ which prevented them from realising the progressive nature of Zionist colonisation. The Zionists dressed their colonial project up in the language of Kipling’s The white man’s burden.

For Piterberg, there were three foundational myths of Zionism - “negation of exile”, the “return to history” and the “return to the land of Israel”. Negation of exile meant writing off Jewish history outside Palestine and essentialising it as a series of massacres and oppression, and transforming Jews into victims rather than actors. It reached its apogee with the Nazi holocaust and the infamous quote of Ben Gurion, which both Mayer and Piterberg cite - that if, given the choice between saving all of Germany’s Jewish children by taking them to England or half of them by taking them to Palestine, then he would choose the latter (Mayer, p144; Piterberg, p99). To Yehezkiel Kaufmann, the most influential scholar of The Bible, galut (exile) was a violation of human dignity and Jews who chose to live there were “worthy of contempt and disgrace” (Piterberg, p105).

Piterberg describes the Canaanite movement, which sought a complete divorce between an Israeli Hebrew nation and the Jewish diaspora, and its contradictions. It is ironic that today we are seeing just such a development, fiercely panned by Ben Gurion. For Israeli radical historian Raz Krakotzkin, galut is the central foundation of Judaism and the Zionist negation of exile is really the negation of Judaism.

Piterberg traces the founding in 1924 of the Institute of Jewish Studies and what became known as the Jerusalem School, a year before the Hebrew University itself was opened by Arthur J Balfour - ex-British prime minister, foreign minister, Zionist and anti-semite - and its formative influence upon the development of a Zionist theology. For Fritz Baer and Ben-Zion Dinur, “Jewish history is tantamount to the annals of the Jewish nation” (p134). In other words, the history of the Jewish diaspora is not a Jewish history because it is not national. Baer’s “presupposition that the Jewish history and Jewish nation were organically coherent … went hand in hand with a romantic rejection of rationalism and the enlightenment” (Piterberg, p135). For Zionism, the enlightenment meant emancipation and assimilation. Thus Zionism was founded on a rejection of Jewish emancipation.

The Zionist historians rejected all the great Jewish historians of the diaspora - Heinrich Graetz, Simon Dubnow, Salo Baron. They lived in ‘exile’ and therefore could not appreciate ‘real’ Jewish history, as viewed from Mount Scopus and Palestine. As Rakotzkin described it, Zionist history is the history of the victor. To the ‘princess of Zionism’, Anita Shapira, even the Nazi holocaust could only be understood on Jewish national soil, even though it took placed in the accursed diaspora. As Piterberg notes, “Arendt committed what is for Zionist Israeli scholars, from Scholem to Shapira, the cardinal sin: she had a universalist perspective” (Piterberg, p148).

And, although she veered between Zionist and non-Zionism, Arendt was a universalist above all. She rejected the narrow parochialism and particularism of Zionism - its reduction of Jewish history to the desire to ‘return’ to Palestine. “She was incapable, in Shapira’s absurd judgment, of sensing the Jewish experience, because she was from ‘there’ - as if ‘there’ was not where the holocaust had occurred …” (p149). Shapira’s denial of universalism was in itself another example of the negation of exile.

In 2001 she had given the keynote speech at the Yad Vashem commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Adolf Eichmann’s trial. Yad Vashem is the Zionist’s holocaust memorial. It commemorates only Jewish victims of the Nazi holocaust and the righteous Christians who saved them. As Piterberg notes, the murder of 13 Palestinians six months before the lecture made no impact on the text of her lecture, because the Palestinians were invisible to Jewish national history (p150).

Piterberg devotes a whole chapter to the first professor of Jewish mysticism, Gerhard Gershom Scholem, the most famous of the Jerusalem scholars. Scholem, another member of Brit Shalom, was a Jewish chauvinist who particularly hated George Steiner. In a manifestation of the Zionist desire for a renewed anti-semitism, he hoped that “perhaps one day he [Steiner] will be beaten on the head and he will then discover that he really does not belong there” (p156). In his essay, ‘Redemption through sin’, “Scholem promptly announces the superiority of the Zionist position in Zion, as the only location from which Jewish history can be unfolded authentically and objectively” (p167). As Steiner noted, most thinking Jews who thought of emigrating to Israel, had second thoughts because they were nonetheless unwilling to exchange the legacy of Spinoza, Heine and Freud for the reactionary Herzl (p187).

In The Bible, nakba and Hebrew literature, Piterberg shows how the ‘liberal’ Shapira, whilst gushing about Ben Gurion’s biblical ‘awareness’, fails to see that this was not simply a matter of geography, but a consequence of the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians.

Piterberg describes S Yizhar’s The story of Khirbat Hiz’ah about a generic Arab village laid to waste and whose inhabitants were driven out in 1948. Piterberg considers Yizhar, nephew of Brit Shalom activist Moshe Smilansky, the greatest Hebrew author born in Palestine. He was a Mapai (Labour) member of the first Knesset who embodied within himself the contradictions of Labour Zionism. When Ben Gurion split from Mapai to form the rightist Rafi, alongside Moshe Dayan and Peres, he joined him. The other novel of Yizhar that Piterberg describes is Days of Ziklag about a battle to control the Negev in 1948 against the Egyptian army, a battle in which colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser fought.

Citing Ben Gurion on the need to eradicate all traces of the Arab presence - renaming villages and destroying their structures, Piterberg reminds us that Lord Kitchener, the arch-British imperialist “would have understood the logic of the Israeli bureaucratic campaign. After all, that is precisely how the British had behaved in every region they chose to colonise …” (p212).

Piterberg savages that doyen of the liberal chattering classes, Amos Oz. For some strange reason he is seen as part of the peace camp and even of the left. Citing his racist and sexist Black box, he remarks: “ how anyone can see dissent in this literature, aesthetically and/or politically, is puzzling” (p231). Piterberg describes his production of Siah lohamim (Soldiers’ talk) about the veterans of the 1967 war, which became one of the most potent Israeli propaganda weapons. He shows how it was specifically doctored to remove anything which could impair the image of the “shooting and crying” Israeli soldier and the oxymoronic “purity of arms” - a particularly pathetic indulgence of the ‘left’ Zionist Mapam. This was a propaganda book, not an actual history. Hence conversations were edited to change the meaning. The words below highlighted, of the killers of a Palestinian peasant, are an example:

“What perhaps added to this terrible feeling was my impression of the enormous gaiety of the soldiers who, as it happened, killed this fallah [peasant]” (p237).

Conversations with soldiers of the Merkaz Harav yeshivah of Rabbi Kook were also omitted because their messianism was at odds with the philosophical, reflective Zionist soldier. Describing how he felt “downcast and mourning” after his encounter at Merkaz Harav, Piterberg notes that what “really hurt was the utter apathy towards our moral crisis”. And this sums up the self-centred nature of ‘left’ Zionism (p238).


In the final chapter on the Bible of an autochthonous settler Raz Krakotzkin is cited as describing how the Zionist return to history is actually the Christian conception of the history of the Jews. Wending his way via the evangelical George Elliot’s Daniel Deronda, Piterberg argues that Zionism can be best understood as the intersection of Protestantism, colonialism and anti-semitism: “It cannot be overemphasised that the Zionist Israeli project was not merely national but, crucially, settler-national” (p260). Ben Gurion, with his return to Old Testament literalism, was nothing if not a Protestant Jewish settler. Piterberg ascribes the myth of Joshua to the desire of king Josiah to ethnically purge the kingdom of Israel that he had conquered: “There was no book in the Old Testament that Ben Gurion preferred to Joshua” (p278). Because Joshua too had smitten the non-Jews and expelled them.

Perhaps the best example of the ideological and political polarisation between Zionism and its messianic siren voices, with its negation of the diaspora, and the voice of that Jewish diaspora, is the reply of Hanna Arendt to Gershom Scholem. On June 23 1963 Scholem wrote to Arendt, having just read her Eichmann in Jerusalem (which enraged the Zionist movement with its references to Zionist collaboration with the Nazis), Scholem wrote sneeringly that “In the Jewish tradition there is a concept, Ahabath Israel: ‘Love of the Jewish people …’ In you, dear Hannah, as in so many intellectuals who came from the German left, I find little trace of this ...”

Arendt’s reply of July 24 1963 was devastating and demonstrated that even Scholem, when stripped of his mystical prose, was left with naked chauvinism.

Arendt wrote: “I am not one of the ‘intellectuals who come from the German left’ … It is a fact of which I am in no way particularly proud and which I am somewhat reluctant to emphasise - especially since the McCarthy era in this country. I came late to an understanding of Marx’s importance …

“You are quite right - I am not moved by any ‘love’ of this sort, and for two reasons. I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective … I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons. Secondly, this ‘love of the Jews’ would appear to me, since I am myself Jewish, as something rather suspect ... I do not ‘love’ the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them; I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute or argument ... But I can admit to you something beyond that: namely, that wrong done by my own people naturally grieves me more than wrong done by other peoples” (H Arendt The Jew as a pariah New York 1978, pp245-47).