Idealist and realist: rich blend of Zionism’s instigator


By Shlomo Avineri
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20

The tragedy of the birth of the Jewish state was its lateness. Israel was not founded in time to provide refuge to European Jewry from catastrophe. Had the cause of Jewish nationhood been accomplished in the aftermath of the First World War, Israel’s legitimacy would also have been that much harder for malign forces to denigrate in the post-colonial era.

That there came into being a Jewish state at all is, however, something close to a political miracle, born of an effort of will to realise an idea. As an outstanding political theorist and former Director-General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Shlomo Avineri is well placed to explain the historical significance of the principal begetter of that vision, Theodor Herzl. He has produced a model biography of the father of political Zionism that is itself a notable work of political philosophy.

Herzl was not, Avineri notes, the first writer to argue for a Jewish state, being preceded most notably by Moses Hess and Leo Pinsker. Herzl had the distinction, however, of transforming an idea into a movement, with its own organisational and political infrastructure. There is no shortage of studies of Herzl’s life; Avineri’s, however, excels in explaining the intellectual evolution of his Zionism. He treats Herzl not as a semi-mythical hero but as a politician, who considered how to translate ideals into outcomes.

How Herzl, a journalist, became such an influence in political history is a dominant theme in Avineri’s account. Herzl is famed for his writings from the Dreyfus affair. Yet among the surprising features of his thinking is the lateness with which he focused on the scandal. Before the trial began, writes Avineri, Herzl “viewed it as a run-of-mill espionage case with no important public —- or Jewish — implications”. His play, The New Ghetto, written in Paris after his seminal The Jewish State, contained no reference to the issues faced by French Jews. What drove Herzl’s scheme, and convinced him that Jews needed a polity of their own, was the precarious status of the Jews in Vienna and the Habsburg Empire.

Herzl was preoccupied, with extraordinary historical prescience, with the plight of the Jews. Some of the notions he toyed with were utterly fanciful — Avineri mentions a brief consideration of the possibility that Austria’s Jews might collectively convert to Christianity. But what comes over in this biography is not only the intellectual fertility of Herzl’s Zionism but the attention to practicality and common sense. Not all political visionaries are so occupied. Herzl proposed a Jewish public realm — institutions that could legitimately and efficiently represent the Jewish people.

Political idealists are prone to the Procrustean temptation of forcing reality to conform with their visions. Herzl was not. Avineri notes that it isn’t hard to list disparities between modern Israel and Herzl’s vision but underlying the Zionist project is an attention to the world as it is. The pluralism inherent in the Jewish national claim has produced a vigorous political democracy. When there is, one day, a sovereign Palestine alongside a secure Israel, that will be wholly consistent with the ideal. Turning an idea of Jewish nationhood into an organised movement was Herzl’s work of genius, which is expounded by Avineri with scholarship, sensitivity and wisdom.

Oliver Kamm is a leader writer for ‘The Times’

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