Maxime Rodinxon, Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question, London: Al Saqi Books, 1983.

Akiva Orr, The unJewish State: The Politics of Jewish Identity in Israel, London: Ithaca Press, 1983.

Lenni Brennr, The Iron Wall: Zionist Revisionism from Jabotinsky to Shamir, London: Zed Books, 1984.


There can be no doubt that the “Jewish question” is still with us. The survival of the Jews as a people; religion and secularism; Zionism and the struggle over Palestine; political and cultural contradictions in Israel — these and other issues must today be reckoned as aspects of this complex and persistent “question.” Maxime Rodinson’s Cult, Ghetto, and State makes a major contribution to a more precise understanding of a number of historical problems. The book begins with an essay that is both personal and scientific. In “Self-Criticism,” Rodinson discusses his own membership in the French Communist Party from 1937 to 1958, and explains why he and many other French intellectuals were willing to compromise their integrity in the service of Stalinism. He undertakes this difficult task because French Zionist critics have attacked him for an article on Zionism published in 1953, at the time of the “Doctors’ Plot” frame-up immediately preceding Stalin’s death. Rodinson discusses the intellectual atmosphere that prevailed in the communist movement of that era, and acknowledges that certain parts of the article, rewritten by his editor, were indeed odious and unacceptable. Unlike many ex-communists, however, Rodinson not only condemns Stalinism and criticizes his own complicity; he also insists on the honesty and sincerity of many of those who joined the communist movement in those years because it seemed the best way to struggle for a better world, and he criticizes the hypocrisy of those who renounced Stalinism but continue to use the same dishonest and pernicious intellectual methods in the service of some other repressive cause.

The essays collected here were written between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. As “Self-Criticism” makes evident, all are to some extent part of a heated polemic over Zionism, Israel and the Jewish question that has raged in France for some years. In that debate, Rodinson, himself of working class Jewish origin, has frequently been subjected to vicious attack from Zionist circles who accuse him of being a “self-hater,” a traitor to his people. Several of the essays respond to his critics or attempt to present clearly his own views on the Jewish question and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Rodinson rejects what he calls “Judeo-centrism,” the perspective which contends that Jewish history is completely unique, imbues it with a metaphysical or mystical content and views it from a narrowly nationalist standpoint. He insists that Jewish history must be studied as objectively as the histories of other peoples. In “From the Jewish Nation to the Jewish Problem,” which first appeared as the introduction to Abram Leon’s pioneering attempt at a Marxist analysis of Jewish history (published in the United States without Rodinson’s contribution as The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation), Rodinson criticizes, clarifies and amends Leon’s theses. This very valuable short discussion of the broad outlines of Jewish history helps explain why the Jews managed to survive as a distinct group long after the end of their territorially-based nationhood in Palestine. It is complemented by a more general essay, “Nation and Ideology,” which seeks to define such terms as “people,” “ethnic group,” “nation” and so forth in their historical contexts and to examine the character of nationalist ideology.

Rodinson regards Zionism as a colonial-settler phenomenon. He rejects as a distortion of history the central premise of Zionism that anti-Semitism is permanent and ineradicable, an existential rather than an historical phenomenon. But he is no apologist for the Arab opponents of Israel and Zionism. Rodinson explicitly condemns a number of myths and distortions prevalent on the Arab side which deny the reality of the Israeli-Jewish people and refuse to recognize their rights. The author’s unwavering commitment to an objective and intellectually honest examination of highly complex issues is complemented by his concern for the cause of human liberation and social justice. These well- written and often witty and pointed essays gathered in Cult, Ghetto, and State are required reading for anyone with an interest in the Jewish question.

Identity and the State

The central focus of Akiva Orr’s The unJewish State is Jewish identity in Israel. The goal of the founders of Zionism, to create a Jewish state in Palestine, has been realized. But what exactly is a “Jewish state”? What should be the relation of Judaism as a religion to the Israeli state? If the state is secular, in what sense can it be Jewish? And how does one define Jewishness? As Rodinson points out, the term “Jew” can be defined in several ways, and serious problems arise when a secular state chooses one definition and seeks to apply it to its citizens.

This book consists in large part of translations from Hebrew of Knesset debates, court decisions, articles in the press and other sources that elucidate the problem of Judaism in contemporary Israel. Orr traces the political struggles that have broken out over this issue. In 1950, the Knesset enacted the Law of Return giving every Jew the right to emigrate to Israel and automatically become a citizen. The question of how to define the term “Jew” soon arose. Should religious criteria, which require that one must either be born of a Jewish mother or convert, be applied? If so, should Reform or Conservative conversions be recognized as well as Orthodox procedures? What about people who feel themselves to be Jews or Israelis by culture or nationality but are not religious?

Orr’s central thesis is that despite the hopes of its founders, Israel has failed to create a new, secular Jewish identity. For thousands of years, Jewish identity was religious in essence. Modern political Zionism asserted that the Jews were not a religious group but a nation whose members should return to their ancestral homeland and there constitute an independent national state. Through this process there would emerge a secular national culture and a new form of Jewish identity not dependent on religious faith. But, Orr argues, things have turned out quite differently. A secular Jewish identity has not emerged, and since 1948 the secular majority of Israelis have time and again capitulated to the religious minority — some elements of which are ambivalent about or even oppose the very notion of a Jewish national state. Orr believes that this surrender cannot simply be attributed to political opportunism, to the bargaining power of the religious parties in a political system where no single party has ever enjoyed a majority in the Knesset. Rather, he asserts, this situation reflects the impossibility of creating a Zionist or Jewish secular-nationalist identity. Secular Zionist leaders, even those on the left, were compelled, by virtue of their commitment to preserving the unity of the Jewish people, to give in to the demands of the orthodox for an ever-growing role for Judaism in the state. Orr goes on to argue that there in fact can be no Jewish culture or identity without Judaism, which means that the only long-term choice is between a state based explicitly on religion, and “Canaanism” — a sort of Hebrew nationalism which sees the Israeli Jews as completely distinct from Jews in the Diaspora and constituting a new national entity. “Canaanism” thus rejects the Zionist premise that Israel is the state not only of its own (Jewish) residents but also the state of all Jews everywhere. In either case, Orr suggests, Zionism is doomed as irrelevant, having failed to achieve its long-term goal.

Orr, an anti-Zionist Israeli who has long resided in Britain, has done all those interested in this problem a service by collecting and translating many crucial documents and by tracing the evolution of the issue in Israel. His attention to the cultural dimension of Israeli politics and to ideological conflicts is admirable, and his work provides important psychological insights into the consciousness of many Israelis. But his central thesis is, I would argue, flawed. True, the initial Zionist dream of creating a vigorous and secular Jewish national culture has not been realized in Israel, and his point that something more than the political extortion of the religious parties is involved is well-taken. But the sharp dichotomy he draws between Zionism as a secular nationalist movement and traditional religious Judaism is inaccurate and leads to false conclusions.

Judaism and Nationalism

Soon after the appearance of the modern political Zionist movement, a religious Zionist movement emerged which combined adherence to traditional Judaism with nationalism. This tendency rejected not only the secularism of the socialist and bourgeois Zionists, but also the belief held by many religious Jews that redemption had to await the arrival of the Messiah. These religious Zionists argued that the reconstitution of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel and the application there of religious law were steps on the road to redemption. They fought against the radical rejection of Judaism displayed by the pre-state Labor Zionist movement, and then against the “statist” viewpoint (expressed by David Ben-Gurion) which rejected Labor Zionism’s voluntarism, saw the Israeli state as central to Jewish life and downplayed traditional Diaspora Judaism in favor of pre-exilic symbols. The religious Zionists had also to fight a rear-guard action against the officially non-Zionist orthodox community, but most of the latter long ago accepted the existence of Israel, provided that they got their share of government aid for their schools and other subsidies. Only the small Naturei Karta sect continues to reject Zionism and Israel unequivocally.

In the period since 1967, the religious-nationalist synthesis has gained considerable ground and has affected broad segments of Israeli society which are not strictly religious. Labor Zionism, statism, bourgeois Zionism and the conceptions of Jewish identity they sought to foster have grown increasingly bankrupt, and the cultural vacuum has to a considerable extent been filled by traditional Judaism in its modern nationalist form. The religious Zionist forces have taken the offensive, and their symbols and slogans — the centrality of religion in Jewish life, the validity of Diaspora Judaism, the interpretation of the Holocaust as proof of the eternal and global hatred of non-Jews for Jews, the sanctity of the land of Israel, the events of recent years as signs of the approaching redemption — have become increasingly potent. The presence in power of a Likud-led coalition from 1977 until the 1984 elections created an atmosphere of chauvinism and religious-national hysteria in which this brand of Zionism could flourish. The way has been opened for even the most retrograde religious elements to press for the application of religious law and the transformation of Israel into a state based on the Torah. Many secular (and even some religious) Israelis are shocked and frightened at the rise of this tendency and continue to resist it. There is thus a cultural struggle going on which parallels the political struggles now raging over the country’s future course.

These developments are nowhere to be found in Orr’s book. His depiction of the cultural contradictions inherent in the Zionist experiment is insightful. But because he treats Judaism and Zionism as monolithic polar opposites, and because his study of the problem is not only more descriptive than analytical but perhaps also too culturally oriented, the conclusions he draws seem to be rooted more in wish-fulfillment than in reality. Thus, he predicts the adoption by Israeli Jews, over a period of generations, of the “Canaanite” option, the clear separation of Judaism from Israeli nationality. He sees this as the only way out of Israel’s “collective identity crisis” which Zionism has only exacerbated. This cultural reorientation would, of course, imply a political reorientation, a new willingness by Israelis to regard themselves as Middle Easterners who must come to terms with their Arab neighbors, and particularly with the Palestinians whose land they occupy. This may be a desirable and comforting vision, but it fails to take into account other developments and tendencies already in evidence. Many young Israelis do think of themselves not so much as Jews, but as Israelis, a newly formed people, and the term “Zionism” has become a synonym for bombast, as Orr asserts. Yet there has been a reassertion of Israel’s Jewishness. It may well be that the coming years and decades will witness neither a return to an anti-Zionist traditional Judaism nor a full-fledged Canaanism — the only two options Orr’s cultural-psychological analysis allows for — but the rise of the religious-nationalist right, a development resisted by an alliance of progressive forces encompassing both liberal Zionists and anti-Zionists. The unJewish State is an important examination of the question of Jewish identity in Israel, but it should be read critically and perhaps in conjuction with more academic works, such as those of Liebman and Don-Yehiya.

Finally, we come to Lenni Brenner’s The Iron Wall. This is a companion piece to Brenner’s first book, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, and the two books are indeed largely of a piece. A study of Revisionist Zionism, The Iron Wall begins with a biography of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of this rightwing militarist tendency within the Zionist movement. After tracing Jabotinsky’s career and the emergence of Revisionism, the book turns to the careers of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, both leading disciples of Jabotinsky. Here, as in his first book, Brenner provides a great deal of useful and relevant information about the reactionary ideology and sordid history of this tendency. Brenner is at his best when he details facts today’s rightwing Zionists would rather forget: Revisionism’s affinity for fascism in the 1920s and 1930s; the colonialist and racist predilections of its founder; the terrorism of its military arm in Palestine, commanded by Menachem Begin; the overtures to the Nazis made by the “Stern Gang” (to which Yitzhak Shamir belonged) in 1941; massacres from Deir Yasin to Sabra and Shatila. The book’s title is taken from the image Jabotinsky employed to emphasize his eminently realistic belief that it was only by military force that the Zionists could carry out their program of settlement in, and eventually gain control of, Palestine. The Revisionists and their successors under Begin and Shamir recognized that the Palestinians would never voluntarily surrender their claim to their own country and would have to be subdued or expelled by force. The Labor Zionists who led the Zionist movement before 1977 adopted this viewpoint in practice but for decades insisted on denying that they had done so.

Unfortunately, The Iron Wall is written in the same hectoring style as the earlier book. It is less a critical study of Revisionist ideology and practice than a relentless exercise in Zionist-bashing. Subtlety and depth of analysis are not the author’s forte. Brenner has little grasp of, or interest in, the historical context for the words and actions he discusses and condemns. Everything his subjects do is measured against his own absolute standards of political morality rather than explained in terms of contemporary circumstances. A more analytical study might have helped us better understand the origins and significance of Revisionism while evoking the same degree of revulsion. Brenner also brings up, and then abruptly drops, elements of a crude Freudianism in his discussion of Jabotinsky’s childhood. What is this talk of oral fixations supposed to tell us? If readers ignore the style and tone of this book and go for the valuable information it contains, they may see the historical continuity between Jabotinsky’s Revisionism and the policies of Begin, Shamir, Sharon and their partners in crime.

How to cite this article:

Zachary Lockman "Israel and the Jewish Question," Middle East Report 131 (March/ April 1985).

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