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Conflicts Religious and Secular

Sunday, August 1, 2004

Arthur Hertzberg.
The Fate of Zionism: A Secular Future for Israel & Palestine.
HarperSanFrancisco. 208 pages. $19.95

Before the Iraqi-Jewish poet Sasson Somekh left Baghdad for Tel Aviv in 1951, he returned to one of the literary cafes of Al-Rashid Street “to bid farewell,” as he recounts in his recent memoir Baghdad, Yesterday, and vowed to his non-Jewish colleagues that he would “never forget their friendship” and would “remain eternally loyal to Arabic literature.” Somekh went on to teach that literature at Tel Aviv University and to direct the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo. He is also, of late, the co-founder of a group called Israel’s Society for Solidarity with the Iraqi People, which has been providing humanitarian aid in the wake of the Iraq war. Somekh’s story defies the easy Manichean narrative so often applied to the Jewish-Arab encounter in the Middle East. Popular depictions of the Arab-Israeli conflict typically paint the controversy as a centuries-old religious war. But the religious conflict is of a more recent provenance. At its outset, the clash was between two secular nationalisms, both of which were born of common intellectual roots.

As Arthur Hertzberg reminds in The Fate of Zionism: A Secular Future for Israel and Palestine, Jewish nationalism began as a nonreligious movement aimed at confronting the problems of anti-Semitism and Jewish homelessness. It was not until Israel’s stunning victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 that many Zionists began to see something of the miraculous in the endurance of the Jewish state, and Zionism acquired an overlay of religious messianism. In a way, both the victors and the vanquished agreed on the religious significance of the war. Islamists argued that the Arabs’ defeat was divine punishment for their secular politics, for the loss of Muslim faith. After the failure of secular pan-Arabism in 1967, Arab nationalism gave way to Islamic fundamentalism. The region’s religious conflict, then, was born on what some have called “the seventh day of the Six-Day War.”
Hertzberg sees a path forward only by returning to the older, secular quarrel. “If there is ever to be a road to peace,” he writes, “the conflict must be secularized.” Israelis and Palestinians “can come to peace with each other — even to some semblance of coexistence — only if they accept the modest aims of secular nationalism.” In truth, however, the aims of secular Arab nationalism were never especially modest. Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the repository of all the Arab secularists’ hopes, closed the Strait of Tiran and prompted the 1967 war “to wipe Israel off the face of the earth and to restore the honor of the Arabs of Palestine.”


Even when Zionism and Arab nationalism each first awoke at the close of the nineteenth century, they seemed destined to clash. Nine years after Theodor Herzl published Der Judenstaat in Vienna, an Ottoman Christian named Négib Azoury wrote Le Réveil de la Nation Arabe — a work that scholar Sylvia Haim calls “the first open demand for the secession of the Arab lands from the Ottoman Empire.” Even here, at the beginning of Arab nationalism, was competition with the Jewish aspiration to statehood. Azoury wrote:

Two important phenomena, of the same nature but opposed, which have still not drawn anyone’s attention, are emerging at this moment in Asiatic Turkey. They are the awakening of the Arab nation and the latent effort of the Jews to reconstitute on a very large scale the ancient kingdom of Israel. Both these movements are destined to fight each other continuously until one of them wins. The fate of the entire world will depend on the final result of this struggle between these two peoples representing two contrary principles.
Azoury studied and formulated his nationalist ideas in Dreyfus-era Paris, the same place and time in which Herzl first articulated the principles of political Zionism. To the ideal of political independence advanced by Azoury, the theorist Sati al-Husri would counterpose an ideal of cultural nationalism that drew on the ideas of German thinkers such as Herder and Fichte. For Husri, an emphasis on Arab cultural authenticity and renewal was the indispensable prerequisite for achieving political statehood. As director-general of education in Iraq, Husri instituted curricula that sought, as he put it, “to strengthen the feelings of nationalism among the sons of Iraq and to spread belief in the unity of the Arab nation.”
At the same time, the Jewish nationalist Asher Ginzberg (who wrote under the Hebrew pseudonym Ahad Ha’am, or “one of the people”) was advocating his own agenda of cultural Zionism against Herzl’s political Zionism. Before a state could be established, Ahad Ha’am warned, it was necessary to strengthen the national Jewish culture and consciousness among the Jews. “A political ideal which does not rest on the national culture,” he wrote, would “beget in us a tendency to find the path of glory in the attainment of material power and political dominion,” neglecting the “spiritual power” that is the Jews’ historical inheritance. Ahad Ha’am worried that “in the end the Jewish state will be a state of Germans or Frenchmen of the Jewish race.” He advocated a “modernist” school system that would disseminate a Jewish national culture.
From the beginning, then, Zionism and Arabism shared the same intellectual patrimony and spoke the same language. But, as Azoury wrote, they remained “of the same nature but opposed.” In his important 1938 book The Arab Awakening, George Antonius could condemn anti-Semitism as “a disgrace to its authors and to modern civilization,” but he still insisted that the “relief of Jewish distress caused by European persecution must be sought elsewhere than in Palestine.” At the moment of Arab awakening, “the national rights of the Arabs in Palestine” could not be compromised. Antonius even justified the violence of the Palestinian Arabs as “the inevitable corollary of the moral violence done to them.” National rights were likewise nonnegotiable for even the most liberal Zionists. Judah Leon Magnes, the first president of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and a prominent advocate of compromise with the Arabs, was willing to forgo a Jewish state and even a Jewish majority in Palestine, but he insisted that “the Jewish people are to be in Palestine not on sufferance, but as a right — a right solemnly recognized by most governments and by the League of Nations, and also by thinking Arabs.”
Neither Zionism nor Arabism, just as each was trying to dignify a dormant nation, could bear such an injury to its nationalist aspirations: to see another nation carved out of the Arab patrimony or to require others’ permission to live in the Jewish ancestral home. So the older, secular conflict was not as negotiable as Hertzberg initially suggests. “There was really no middle ground between the moderates,” he eventually concedes, “not then, and not in the next fifty years, especially after the state of Israel was proclaimed in 1948.”
Hertzberg might charge, as he does of today’s Palestinian nationalists, that the problem was still a religious influence — that behind Antonius’s veneer of secular nationalism lay “the old Muslim doctrine that any land that was once possessed by the followers of Muhammad is inalienable,” and that this religious conviction accounted for his unwillingness to compromise. Even though Antonius was not Muslim, Islam surely had something to do with his idea of Arab culture — Antonius worried that he was inadequate to write The Arab Awakening because “I have not even the qualification of being a Moslem” — just as Judaism was inevitably bound up with the Zionist aspiration.
But for two nationalisms inextricably tied to a religious heritage, the best they could do was adapt that inheritance to a secular modern world. To fully set aside that heritage would be self-defeating, if it were even possible. As Fouad Ajami wrote in The Arab Predicament (Cambridge University Press, 1981), “The intellectual who asks people to stand naked before history perpetuates a false myth: He or she fosters the illusion that such a thing can be done and that others elsewhere have done it to get where they are today.”
Albert Hourani, in his Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age (Oxford University Press, 1962), writes, “Explicitly, Arab nationalism was a secular movement” because, among other reasons, Arab leaders “wished to state their opposition to Zionism in national terms, in terms of the threat to the interests of the Christian and Muslim Palestinians alike, rather than of religious hostility.” But outside the minds of Arab intellectuals, Arabism never effected a complete break from Islam. This was probably inevitable. To succeed, Arab nationalism had to articulate a national culture and identity. To this end, Husri aimed to recast Islamic history in a secular nationalist mode. In his writing, for example, he employed the Islamic term al-Umma to mean not the community of the faithful, but al-Umma al’Arabiya, the Arab people united by culture and history rather than religious faith. Husri “is at pains to show,” historian Adeed Dawisha has explained, “that Arabs had existed long before the advent of Islam, that indeed the glorious achievements of Islamic history are but a testament to Arab genius, and that if Arabs cease to be Muslims, they would still be Arabs.” Yet the heritage of Islam does not present itself as a product of “Arab genius,” but as a divine gift and revelation. By interpreting a religious tradition such as Islam as a worldly cultural achievement like any other, cultural nationalists like Husri disfigured the meaning of their heritage. The cultural-nationalist compromise with religion was almost fated to collapse, and in fact did so following the Arabs’ defeat in 1967.
Nasser’s humiliation in the Six-Day War discredited secular pan-Arabism, leaving it without legitimacy. Since the idea of Arab unity had already undermined the legitimacy of the individual Arab states, the Islamic alternative took on a new urgency. The leaders in Cairo and Damascus had faltered, admonished Morocco’s King Hassan, because they had abandoned their religion. Sa’d Jumah, who had served as Jordan’s prime minister during the Six-Day War, called for the restoration of Islamic rule in order to save the Arab world from “barbarism and unbelief.” It was natural, after the war, for power in the Arab system to shift to Saudi Arabia, which had long opposed pan-Arabism and saw itself instead as a guardian of the heritage of Islam, as Ajami has observed. Yet even from within the assumptions of pan-Arabism, with its emphasis on cultural authenticity, it made sense to question whether secular nationalism itself had been a corrupting foreign import. The Muslim Brotherhood writer Muhammad Jalal Kishk made just such an argument following the Six-Day War. Kishk argued that European-style secular nationalism had led the Arabs to abandon the source of their historical strength — Islam — which had mobilized disparate populations and unified them in a community of faith. Had the Arabs seen their war with Israel in religious terms, says Kishk, victory would have been theirs.


Israel experienced a similar religious turn after 1967 — with similar implications for national unity. Just as many Arabs associated their defeat with the loss of their religious heritage, many Israelis saw in their victory the recovery of theirs. For the first 19 years after Israel was established, its cultural centers were the secular, cosmopolitan cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa. After only six days of war in June 1967, Israeli sovereignty had been extended over lands that were the cradle of Judaism and holy sites with vast symbolic power. Arik Akhmon, an intelligence officer who was one of the first Israeli soldiers to come upon the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, described the encounter: “There you are on a half-track after two days of fighting, with shots still filling the ear, and suddenly you enter this wide open space that everyone has seen before in pictures, and though I’m not religious, I don’t think there was a man who wasn’t overwhelmed with emotion. Something special had happened.” The soldiers had to ask directions to the Western Wall, but once they found it, even the secular soldiers broke into prayer and song. The news of Israel’s capture of the Temple Mount unleashed what Israeli ambassador Abba Eban called “a flood of historic emotion [that] burst the dams of restraint and set minds and hearts in movement far beyond the limits of our land.”

It’s easy to overstate this change, and Hertzberg is quick to note that those possessed by “messianic madness . . . are small in number” and that their ideas “have never swept aside the more sober and pragmatic self-definitions of the founders of modern Zionism.” Still, the Six-Day War shifted the religious from a temperate faction in Israeli politics — Israel’s National Religious Party was one of the most reluctant to go to war in 1967 — to one of the more immoderate.
It is not difficult to understand how some Jews could have seen the miraculous in Israel’s victory over six combined Arab armies or how some could have succumbed to hopes of messianic redemption. Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the Israeli army’s top chaplain, suggested that soldiers demolish the Temple Mount’s mosques in preparation for the imminent messianic age. Significantly, no one in authority rushed to implement his proposal. But one of the results of the Six-Day War was lasting friction between Jews and Muslims at holy sites in Jerusalem and Hebron as well as between religious Jews and the secular Israeli state. Indeed, the Six-Day War — in what Amos Oz has called “the ecstasy of the military victories and the messianic intoxication” — opened a rift in Israeli politics and society, with some proclaiming Jewish religious entitlement to the land. Some, as Hertzberg writes, “feel free to engage in the most dangerous provocations because they are certain that they will be forcing God to come down to earth and give them victory.”
As Hertzberg is at pains to show, the messianic vision has nothing to do with Herzl’s original vision of Zionism, which was to make of the Jews a “normal people.” The philosopher Isaiah Berlin, the most committed Zionist among British intellectuals, denied that the Jewish state he envisioned would be a “light unto the nations.” It was enough, he said, for Israel to become another Albania: simply a secure place for Jews to live in the world.
This more modest national vision found some expression in the Arab world after the collapse of Arabism. Anwar Sadat concluded a peace treaty with Israel to get Egypt’s land back, placing national interest above pan-Arab unity and attempting to extricate his country from the Palestinian question entirely. After the Six-Day War, the Palestinians themselves discarded pan-Arab politics to build a nationalism based on a particularly Palestinian identity. Yet, as the example of Palestinian nationalism has shown, secular nationalism can be just as triumphalist and uncompromising, messianic and violent as any religious doctrine.
Despite the promise his book initially places in secularism, Hertzberg ultimately comes to this conclusion, too. “Negotiations in the past hundred years have proved, over and over again, that Jews and Arabs are incapable of making peace across the table,” he writes. “I am persuaded, after fifty years of involvement in the problems of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, that the hope that the two parties can find ways of settling the quarrel between them is a myth that needs to be retired. They have never been able to, not from the very beginning. Other powers have always brokered the arrangements that have stopped hostilities.” To Hertzberg, then, returning to Theodor Herzl’s original conception of Zionism is important not because of its secular character, but because Herzl “internationalized the Jewish question.” “One of the bases of Herzl’s Zionism,” writes Hertzberg, “was the notion that the Western world needed to settle the Jewish question not primarily to make the Jews happy, but for the sake of society as a whole.” Just as Herzl convinced the world’s powers that their own national interests required a resolution of the Jewish question, Hertzberg argues that today’s great powers — primarily the United States — have an interest in settling the Arab-Israeli dispute. He invokes the specter of weapons of mass destruction to say that the conflict “is very likely to explode soon as a threat to world peace” and to highlight the urgency of forcing compromises through the imposition of American power. Yet Hertzberg counsels only modest palliatives. He suggests deducting the cost of Israeli settlements from U.S. aid to Israel, and he urges America to “dry up the financial and military support of the Palestinian warmakers” by freezing their financial accounts and pressuring state sponsors of terrorism such as Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.


In the annals of liberal opinion, Hertzberg’s proposals are pretty unexceptional and, since the publication of his book, Israel’s unilateral disengagement plan has changed the contours of the debate. The more interesting question, especially in light of the book’s title, concerns Zionism itself. Herzlian Zionism was remarkable, after all, not simply because of its internationalist orientation, but because of its evident success. If Jewish and Arab nationalism have common intellectual roots, how is it that Israel has emerged as a prosperous first-world democracy while — as the Arab Human Development Report 2002 put it — “Arab countries have not developed as quickly or as fully as other comparable regions” and remain untouched by the “wave of democracy that transformed governance in most of the world”?

Fleetingly in The Fate of Zionism does Hertzberg touch on the Arab world’s troubles. “Is it really true,” he asks, “that the hostility between the Israelis and the Palestinians is the most painful and bloodiest conflict afflicting the Arab world?” He observes how human-rights advocates have criticized Israel while ignoring the slaughter of tens of thousands of Arabs by Hafez Assad’s Syria or by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Hertzberg further notes that American involvement in the region is difficult because most of “the essentially Muslim states are not states at all. They are collections of people whose primary loyalties are usually to their tribes or families. They have very little sense of belonging to a national community.” And he condemns Arab rulers for promoting hatred of America and Israel among their populations in order to distract them from their “real woes: poverty, corrupt rulers, and the lack of hope that their societies will ever provide for their future.”
Arab nationalism bears some substantial responsibility for this state of affairs. Arabism focused on outward political aims. Indeed, Azoury’s predication that the Zionist and Arabist “movements are destined to fight each other continuously” appears, in hindsight, much more realistic than the early Zionists’ naïve predictions about economic cooperation and peaceful coexistence. But if Zionism was too sanguine about external politics, it focused more intently on an internal social critique. One early preoccupation, for example, was the need to develop a Jewish working class, which had been almost nonexistent in Europe. Thus, Herzl’s Der Judenstaat speaks of the need to “transform many present small traders into manual workers” in order to build a stable economic system.
The Jewish pioneer slogan, “We are coming to the land to build it and to be rebuilt by it,” spoke to the Zionist aspiration not merely to establish a state but to remake Jewish society in accordance with the demands of nationhood. As political scientist Shlomo Avineri has written, “Arab nationalism has generally been focusing its attention on political aims, and there has been no preoccupation parallel to the one which characterized Zionism on the need to transform society as well.” Instead, an external political enemy (the Turks, the British and French, the Israelis) was seen as responsible for Arab society’s shortcomings. So it may be that the fate of Zionism, or its legacy, is to highlight the need for fundamental social reform in accordance with political realities — and the relative dangers of the opposite approach.
In the present era, threats to global order tend to emerge more from the fault lines within societies than the borders between them. In such an environment, the Zionist prescription — social reform in the light of political necessity — takes on a special urgency.