Bernard Avishai, The Tragedy of Zionism — Revolution and Democracy in the Land of Israel, (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1985).


By far the best part of this book is its epilogue, in which Avishai berates American Jews for their uncritical adulation and idolization of Israel and its policies, to the point that “Israeli politicians, including the guilty General Sharon, [are] received in American synagogues with a reverence justly denied them at home” (p. 353). Among non-Orthodox American Jews, this subservience has replaced the Jewish religion as the basis for Jewish identity and institutional life. Avishai — a Jew who tried to make his home in Israel but returned to Canada when, after three years, he and his wife felt they “were living among foreigners” — believes in the possibility and desirability of developing a modern secular Jewish identity in America, but feels that it must not be based-on servility to Israeli policies and the new post-1967 Zionism.

Avishai is by no means anti-Zionist. In the rest of the book, he argues that while pre-1948 Labor Zionism was “a good revolution” (p. 10), admirable in every way, it became outdated with the founding of Israel. This old Zionism, incapable of serving as the guiding ideology of a democratic state, ought to have been discarded. Instead, it was maintained but became increasingly ossified, holding on to power by means of anachronistic bureaucracies such as the Histadrut and the Jewish Agency. Since 1967, this atrophied Labor Zionism has been increasingly displaced by something much worse: the new Zionism of the rightwing and the religious movements — expansionist, fundamentalist, chauvinist and therefore inconsistent with democracy. This post-1948 process is what he regards as the “tragedy” of Zionism.

Avishai’s main thesis cannot be dismissed out of hand, even if it must ultimately be rejected. Nor should he be condemned for writing, in effect, a propaganda tract rather than a dispassionate account. What does condemn this book is its cavalier treatment of the truth, its sheer lack of veracity.

I need not dwell here on numerous factual inaccuracies resulting from simple ignorance but otherwise quite harmless. [1] Much more serious are the numerous misstatements consistently biased in favor of Zionism. Significantly, these abound even in the second half of the book, which is ostensibly devoted to exposing the ugly face of the “new” Zionism.

A typical example, one of dozens: on page 276 he mentions the policy of collective punishment, instituted by Dayan, “by which the security forces routinely destroyed the homes of relatives and neighbors of convicted terrorists.” The use of the past tense here is misleading, because (as Avishai, who can read Hebrew, must know) this same punishment is still in use. He must surely also be aware that this punishment is meted out not only to convicted “terrorists,” but, much more frequently, to Palestinians who are merely accused or suspected of “terrorism,” without any juridical process.

A more serious example is his report of the notorious events at Kafr Qasim: “During the Sinai War in 1956, Israeli soldiers shot forty-three people for breaking the curfew at Kfar Kassem. [2] (The Israeli commanders were court-martialed, and pardoned after a number of years.)” (p. 317) There are several prevarications here. First, Avishai simply “forgets” to mention that the 43 were not merely shot, but shot dead at point-blank range. In fact, most of these unfortunate Arabs were taken off trucks on which they were traveling, and then mowed down. Second, this massacre took place not merely “during” the Suez War, but on its very first day. While the victims were technically in breach of the curfew, they could not have known this, because they were returning home from their day’s toil in the fields; on this first day of the war the curfew was announced in the village after they had left for work. The fact that the victims were unaware of the curfew was perfectly clear to the murderers, as transpired in their trial. Third, Avishai reports that the “commanders” were pardoned after a “number” of years. He omits to mention how small that number was: most of the murderers were out after less than two years; one or two served a bit longer. (By the way, one of the worst murderers was appointed, soon after his release, as advisor for Arab affairs in a mixed Arab-Jewish town.)

Now re-read Avishai’s two-sentence report and see how a gruesome massacre has been deodorized into a relatively commonplace, if regrettable, incident. The most charitable reading of this text would lead us to suppose that Avishai is merely guilty of a careless choice of words, perhaps subconsciously influenced by his basic political sympathy for Israel. However, the blurb on the dust-jacket tells us that the author is “professor of writing at MIT.” He is thus a professional in the art of deliberate use of the written word. And so it goes, page after page. Avishai is not the kind of person from whom you should buy a second-hand history.

Matters are, if anything, worse in the first half of the book, devoted to washing the older, pre-1948 Labor Zionism whiter-than-white. Writing about the eve of the 1948 war, Avishai tells us that “Ben-Gurion began to devote himself to organizing Labor Zionist settlements according to Haganah’s military strategy, embodied in its detailed ‘Plan D,’ to drive out the Palestinian Arab forces that had been operating there since the Second World War” (p. 175, my emphases). Anyone who has even a slight knowledge of Palestine’s history must be aware that after the British crushed the Palestinian Revolt in the late 1930s and until the beginning of the 1948 war, there were no Palestinian armed “forces” in the country. Certainly this was true of the time when Plan D was drawn up. Of course, many individual Palestinian peasants had arms, usually antiques, but this can hardly be described as “forces.” So what was Plan D for? Its goal was to expel the Palestinian civilian population. Israeli military historian Col. Meir Pail writes that it was a plan “for creating a Jewish territorial continuity from Metullah to Revivim” (that is, from north to south) and that in implementing it the Haganah “conquered tens of hostile Arab villages while expelling their population.” [3] Avishai’s prevarication conceals the fact that the Palestinian exodus of 1948 did not happen by chance, but according to a detailed plan, drawn up a considerable time in advance.

Avishai is keen to magnify and exaggerate the differences between Labor Zionism and the Jabotinsky-Begin school of political Zionism, both at present and in the past. He even goes so far as to claim that before the 1940s “statehood was not a critical element in labor Zionist ideology” (p.12; see also pp. 136 and 157). This is patently false. [4] There was never such a disparity of aims between the two Zionist camps. Both wanted to convert Palestine into a Jewish state. A careful reading of the sources — even of the mostly biased sources used by Avishai — will reveal what the main dispute was really about. Before 1940, Labor Zionists argued that it was too soon to reveal the political aims of Zionism publicly, before the whole world, because this would needlessly arouse the hostility of the Arabs and the rest of the world; better to appear more modest. The Jabotinsky camp disagreed, claiming that a candid statement of the aim was necessary in order to maximize mass Jewish enthusiasm and mobilization.

Avishai simply refuses to accept the colonizatory nature of Zionism, particularly Labor Zionism, which from the very start aimed not at exploiting the labor of the indigenous Palestinian Arabs but at their total expulsion and elimination. He actually claims that Labor Zionism was “humane” towards the Arab majority in pre-war Palestine (p. 12), and was veritably imbued with “anti-colonialist ethos” (p. 147). Four pages later he forgets this, and speaks about “Labor Zionist colonial strategy.” This passage, which borders on self-parody, deserves to be quoted: “If Labor Zionist colonial strategy is to be faulted for the injury it caused to Arab parents and grand-parents, must it not also be credited with creating the conditions for partitioning the land fairly, i.e., between the two nations which grew up in essentially distinct economic systems? Such a partition was never feasible between the propertied Pieds-Noirs and the Algerian Arabs who worked for them” (p. 151).

So the Palestinians should be grateful to their colonizers for creating, by 1948, a situation in which what used to be the Palestinians’ country could be “fairly” partitioned between themselves and the colonizers, who (even according to the 1947 UN partition plan) got more than half the cake. Such privilege was denied to the Algerian Arabs (as well as the Blacks of Zimbabwe, and others), who had to make do with retrieving their whole country.

Avishai is unable or unwilling to understand that Labor Zionism was a colonizatory movement that created a settler state subject to an inexorable dynamic. Such a state has a Frontier, across which the previously dipossessed “natives,” resentful of their dispossession, mount desperate attacks. The frontier is always precarious and the colonizers feel insecure. The only way they can deal with this insecurity is to push the frontier still further. This is their manifest destiny. The process must go on to the bitter end, unless it is stopped by an insurmountable external resistance, or by internal revolutionary collapse, or by a combination of both. Israel could no more simply switch off Zionism than the expanding United States could stop itself short of the Pacific.

The “new” Zionism, which Avishai so dislikes, is the true and legitimate heir of the old Labor Zionism which he so adores. If there is a tragedy of Zionism, it is not a tragedy of something progressive and positive that has outlived its usefulness and become detestable. Rather, it is a Macbethian tragedy: “Thou marvell’st at my words; but hold thee still:/Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.”



[1] To give one tiny example: he quotes the date of the Bolshevik overthrow of the Kerensky government as “November 17” (p. 104). This cannot be a misprint, because he goes on to say that this was “two weeks” after the Balfour Declaration.
[2] “Kassem” is an acceptable, though unscientific transliteration of what should be rendered as “Qasim.” But “Kfar” is a chauvinistic mistake: it is the Hebrew word for “village,” while the Arabic is “Kafr.” There is no reason to refer to an Arab village in English by a half-Hebraized name. Another ideologically inspired use of language is “Sinai War” for what all the world knows as the “Suez War.” The aim is to deny the collusion between Israel and its two colonialist partners in that war.
[3] Yedioth Aharanoth, April 4,1972.
[4] For a quote from Ben-Gurion, dating from 1927, in which he makes clear that the true content of Zionism is the desire for a Jewish state, see Machover and Offenberg, “Zionism and Its Scarecrows,” in Khamsin, No. 6, p. 49.

How to cite this article:

Moshé Machover "Avishai, The Tragedy of Zionism," Middle East Report 149 (November/December 1987).

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