E-PAL JOAN SWIRSKY REMINDS ME THAT THIS PIECE IS AS WONDERFUL TODAY AS WHEN IT WAS FIRST WRITTEN IN 1998…..BY EMINENT HISTORIAN PAUL JOHNSON…RSK
Israel: The Miracle: Reprinted from Commentary, May 1998, by permission; all rights reserved.
In May 1998, the eminent British historian Paul Johnson published an essay in Commentary to mark Israel’s 50th birthday; marking its 63rd, we re-publish the essay here.—The Editors
The state of Israel is the product of more than 4,000 years of Jewish history. “If you want to understand our country, read this!” said David Ben-Gurion on the first occasion I met him, in 1957. And he slapped the Bible. But the creation and survival of Israel are also very much a 20th-century phenomenon, one that could not have happened without the violence and cruelty, the agonies, confusions, and cross-currents of our tragic age. It could even be argued that Israel is the most characteristic single product, and its creation the quintessential event, of this century.
Certainly, you cannot study Israel without traveling the historical highroads and many of the byroads of the times, beginning with the outbreak of World War I in 1914. That great watershed between an age of peace and moderation and one of violence and extremism set the pattern for all that followed, and marked a turning point as well in the fortunes of Zionism.
Theodor Herzl’s Zion, a product of the 1890’s, was not exactly a modest proposal, but it could fairly be described as a moderate one. His book was entitled Der Judenstaat, and that phrase—a “state of the Jews”—fairly describes what he had in mind. But he was not necessarily wedded to the historical dream of a state in Palestine. He toyed, for example, with the notion of a giant settlement in Argentina, and not until the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905 was Uganda, too, finally rejected as a possible site. By that time Herzl was dead, at the age of forty-four. One of his last pronouncements had been: “Palestine is the only land where our people can come to rest.”
Uncertainties and ambivalences of other kinds abounded. Although Herzl had always used the word “sovereignty” in connection with his imagined Jewish state, his friend Max Nordau, the philosopher, believed that in order to avoid offending the Turks, of whose empire Palestine then formed a part, the term Judenstaat should be replaced by Heimstätte, or homestead, rendered into English as “national home.” This fortuitously became an important factor in winning acceptance for the Zionist idea among European statesmen. Similarly, Herzl had written of a huge “expedition” that would “take possession of the land,” but the idea that the land would actually have to be conquered, and then fiercely defended, does not seem to have occurred to him.
As for the arrangements of life in his future commonwealth, Herzl was enamored of the model of Venice at the height of its power. He imagined a Venetian-style constitution, a Jewish doge, a coronation ceremony, and city plans featuring huge squares like the Piazza San Marco. He also foresaw theaters, circuses, café-concerts, and an enormous opera house specializing in Wagner, his favorite. The only military touch was to be a guards regiment, the Herzl-Cuirassiers, for ceremonial occasions; the New Zion would not, he thought, need much of an army. In many ways, Herzl’s conception had more in common with the Ruritania of Anthony Hope’s novels than with the state that actually came into being a little over four decades after his death.
World War I had a double effect on Zionism, transforming its program from a theoretical into a real possibility but also ensuring that the creation of the Jewish state would be bloody. Until 1914, the men who ran the British empire, though sympathetic to Zionism, were inclined to fob off Jewish leaders with schemes for developing a slice of Africa. Turkey was a traditional British ally, and keeping its ramshackle possessions together was a prime object of British policy. What put an end to all that was the fateful decision of the Turks to join the side of Germany in the war. In a dramatic speech in November 1914, the British Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, announced: “The Turkish empire has committed suicide.”
Immediately, a Palestinian Zion became conceivable, and what would be known as the Balfour Declaration was in train. But the British decision to end the Turkish empire in the Middle East also presupposed the existence of new Arab states as well, and inevitably brought into being Arab nationalism. It is here that Herzl’s initiative and dynamism proved to be so crucial. Timing is all-important in history. No doubt a Zionist political movement would in due course have come into existence without Herzl. By launching it in the 1890’s, Herzl gave the Jews, in effect, a twenty-year headstart over the Arabs. Even before the war began, Zionist leaders had been in touch with leading British policy-makers, and they exploited the possibilities produced by the war with great energy and sophistication.
It is amazing, in retrospect, that the Zionists were able to secure the Balfour Declaration—ensuring the “best endeavors” of the British government to achieve “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”—in 1917, while the war was still undecided, thus preempting the postwar negotiations and settlements of national claims. By the time the Arabs got themselves organized as an international pressure group, at the Versailles Peace Conference, it was too late. They did win their Arab states, but the Jews had already gained their national home and were settling it with all deliberate speed.
But World War I also introduced unprecedented degrees of violence and extremism into the world, and these too held consequences for the future of Israel. Gone was any possibility that the Jewish national home might integrate itself peacefully with its Arab neighbors, paying for its presence in their midst by teaching them the modern arts of agriculture and commerce. The so-called Arab Revolt that began in 1936 and that was encouraged and rewarded by the British mandatory power confirmed local Arab leaders in the view that their most promising option against the Zionists was force. What had driven out the Turks and created the new Arab states could also be employed, in due course, to extirpate the Jews. This became a fixed Arab notion, so that in time, both within Palestine and across the Middle East as a whole, Arab leaders, faced with the choice of negotiation or war would invariably choose war—and invariably lose.
The violence bred by the searing years 1914-18 also decisively changed the moral climate of Europe, again with fateful results for the future Jewish state. In the wake of the war, extremist regimes seized power and ruled by force and terror—first in Russia, then in Italy, and finally in Germany. The transformation of Germany from the best-educated society in Europe into a totalitarian race-state was, of course, determinative. Although the anti-Semites of Central Europe had always treated Jews with varying degrees of cruelty and injustice, up to and including murderous pogroms and expulsion, it was only with Hitler that actual extermination became a possible program. The outbreak of World War II provided the covering darkness to make it not just possible but practical.