Zionism: The Concise History – a book review by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen

December 10, 2019 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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Zionism is one of those issues no two Jews can agree on although they can generally agree on what it is not.

This book attempts to bring the various thoughts together even though I am sure that one side nor the other will feel totally in agreement with what Alex Ryvchin has put on paper.

When I received this book and saw its title the first thought that came to mind was the classic definition of a Zionist. The version I heard was from the beginning of the twentieth century and since then there have been a plethora of variations. According to that definition, a Zionist is an American Jew who gives money to a German Jew to enable a Russian Jew to settle in (then) Palestine.

There is a quote attributed to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister which is along the lines of “when Jewish prostitutes walk the streets of Tel Aviv Israel will be like other nations.” This raises the question of exactly what is Zionism? Is it just nationalism for Jews much like nationalism for other nations such as Germany or France or Russia? Personally, I would hope that it is more!

The author Dennis Prager in his comments on the book “… Zionism, the modern name of the oldest national movement in the world: the Jews returning to their ancient homeland, Zion.” This hints at what is unique about Jews that for nearly 1900 years they existed without a homeland. It was a question addressed by the Dalai Lama in his encounter with a number of Jews as retold in Roger Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus.

The book covers two phases- up to the trial of Alfred Dreyfus and the reaction of Theodor Herzl and his manifesto called The Jewish State and his utopian novel Altneuland. This takes up the first 54 pages of the book. While they are a summary of more than 1800 years, they also tempt the reader to pursue other texts including the recent Simon Schama’s Belonging.

The middle section of this book focuses on the period from the first Zionist Congress in 1897 and the subsequent 50 years until the decision of the United Nations in November 1947 to partition the United Nations protectorate administered by the United Kingdom. Obviously during these 50 years the world experienced two World Wars and the Holocaust.

Since most to the Jewish world today was born after the establishment of the State of Israel and many more have grown up with no memory of a world without a state, we find it hard to even conceptualise a time when part of the Jewish establishment was opposed to a Jewish state. Around the beginning of the twentieth century Herzl tried to convince Lord Rothschild of the merits of a Jewish state. In Australia there were those such as Isaac Isaacs who were vehement in their opposition which was reflected in the pages of the Fairfax papers with a correspondence between Isaacs and Professor Julius Stone of Sydney University who was a strong Zionist.

The third section deals with Israel since 1948. I found this section a little sparse. Perhaps this is dues to the fact that it is too close to the events. This is a pity. I think there has been at least two parts of this history. From 1948 through 1973 and the Yom Kippur War. Some would argue that it was 1948 until the election of Menachem Begin in 1977. In this first period as reflected by the stranglehold of the Labor Party of the arms of the state. In this period Israel fought four wars [1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973]. From the election of Begin there has been a shift in how Zionism can be perceived. This included the “Greater Israel Movement” as well as a far stronger nationalistic tendencies.

Alex Ryvchin

This highlights my frustration with this book. The book glosses over the realities of the (Jewish) world today. Like all things Jewish there is never one opinion and that applies to Zionism as well. In today’s world Zionism has a mixture of elements- for some it is religious [be it Orthodox or other branches of Judaism] or political or some mixture of both. As I listen to contemporaries some believe that the current Israeli government is too lenient on anyone which disagrees with it while others feel it is neo-fascist. And in addition, there is a group within Christianity which proclaim themselves as Christian Zionists which does include those who see Israel as the beginning of the End Of Days and the Tremendium.

At the end of the book I had no better understanding of the strands of Zionism that exist today.

The final section of the book deals with Anti-Zionism. This can be divided into two sections- by Jews and by others. Jewish Anti-Zionism is reflected by the extreme Haredi community who believe that no state can exist without a theological basis established by a messiah. The other Jewish group are those who identify with the (extreme) left. The non-Jewish world is more diverse- some is based on political ideology be it the extreme left or the extreme right. Those of us who survived the turbulent sixties have memories of how both Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism were disguised as opposition to rescuing Soviet Jewry. There are two other sources of current Anti-Zionism. One is hidden under the banner of BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions]. This is based on the assumption that Israel is an occupier and just as a similar program was assumed to have brought down Apartheid in South Africa so too it will succeed in Israel. The other is from the religious communities. Many in the Islamic world treat being anti-Israel as an act of belief. The other reflects parts of the Christian world which feel that it is part of their Social Justice mandate to fight for the ‘underdog’ [and prior to 1967 Israel was seen as the underdog in this world].

Given the world in which we live and given the convolutions in the United Kingdom about the Labor Party’s position on Anti-Semitism and the French parliament passing a resolution stating that Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism this book is important. And balanced against the recent book by Deborah Lipstadt on Anti-Semitism it is an important contribution to the discussion.

Book: Zionism: The Concise History

Author Alex Ryvchin

Pages: 245

Publisher: Connor Court Publishing, 2019


Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen is Associate Professor (Adjunct) in the School of Medicine (Sydney Campus) at University of Notre Dame Australia. Previously he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at UNSW Medicine and also the CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum

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