- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2005

Few conflicts draw more attention and few are as misrepresented as the Arab-Israeli dispute. Sadly, Jacqueline Rose’s “The Question of Zion” provides no fresh insight, launching instead a diatribe against Zionism — the movement supporting the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own.

The author challenges Zionism, the core of contemporary Jewish identity: “People who thunder,” she writes “are generally those who are least sure of themselves.” By demonizing Zionism, she can become reconciled with her own unease as a member of a collective whose core identity she rejects. And true to her words, Ms. Rose’s thunderous book reflects more her wavering Jewish identity, less the reality of Zionism.

Her argument is that Zionism is a form of Messianism, which she considers an apocalyptic view of the world that thrives on disaster: “In 1929 and 1936-39, the years of the worst Arab-Jewish confrontation in Palestine, the number of … pioneers, among emigrants, climbed, only to fall during periods of relative calm.” It is precisely at times of violence that Zionistic motivation is higher, so her argument goes.

Ms. Rose conveniently forgets why in the 1930s Jews more likely immigrated despite the unrest: not Messianism, but deteriorating economic and political circumstances in Europe. With the gates of most Western nations shut to mass Jewish immigration, those who could leave, did. Even inter-ethnic violence seemed preferable to Europe’s gathering storm. Messianism did not motivate them; if anything, they were escaping the apocalypse.

According to the author, all violence in the Arab-Israeli conflict derives not from Palestinian intransigence and Arab rejection of Jewish rights, but from the fanaticism purportedly inherent to Jewish nationalism. This trend spells disaster for the Jews themselves. They are to be blamed for their future misfortunes.

To prove her point, Ms. Rose links 19th-century Zionism to a 17th-century Messianic Jewish movement that ended in disaster. But Zionism did not advocate a return to Zion — the prime mover of Jewish identity for 2,000 years — in fulfilment of a Messianic vision: As other forms of nationalism, Zionism merely tapped into a rich world of shared memories to shape modern Jewish national identity.

Zionism strove to make the Jews masters of their own destiny, ending their dependence on others’ benevolence, historically so volatile. Most Zionists thus opposed Messianism: They saw Zionism as a very mundane utopia, seeking to return the Jews to history, not hasten history’s end.

No doubt among religious Zionists (a small minority) some embraced Messianism, as do two Jewish settlers Ms. Rose interviewed in 2002. The righteous confidence with which she derides her interviewees betrays her intellectual obduracy. Their choice is “conclusive” evidence that Messianism pervades Israel. With so many Israelis supporting a two-state solution and Israeli withdrawal from parts of the territories, Ms. Rose should know better than to make a theory out of a conversation.

An orphan of Marxism, she should be familiar with people’s reactions when confronted with the shattering of their life-long dreams — as the case with Israeli settlers. Ms. Rose’s doctrinaire approach makes her adapt reality to an unbending ideological fervor instead of reassessing deeply held beliefs in the wake of developments her dogmatism did not anticipate.

It follows from this lack of intellectual flexibility that nationalism is invariably evil because it inevitably engenders savagery. For Ms. Rose, Jewish nationalism is even worse, because Jews should be better than other nations. To aspire to normalcy is a moral failure to live up to an impossible standard of utopia that Jews alone should meet.

Disappointed by Jewish normalcy, Ms. Rose falsely accuses Israel of terrible crimes, such as ethnic cleansing in 1948 or the razing of an entire city — Jenin — to the ground in response to a suicide bombing in 2002. Consequently, Ms. Rose sees no alternative: Only Israel’s demise as a Jewish state will save the Jews from themselves. Ultimately, though the author’s rejection of Zionism rests on fallacies and selective readings of history, a missionary zeal pervades the book. More than the accusations she levels against Zionism, it is her crusading spirit that should sound a warning to readers.

Emanuele Ottolenghi teaches Israeli politics and history at Oxford University.

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