‘On the night of 15 April 1897, a small, elegant steamer is en route from Egypt’s Port Said to Jaffa.’ ‘At the end of October 1898 the small steamer Rossiya made its way from Alexandria in Egypt, via Port Said, to Jaffa.’ It is unusual, or maybe even unique, for the first chapters of two books published at the same time to open with almost identical sentences. But then My Promised Land and Herzl are telling different sides of the same tale: the story of Zionism from the beginning, one of the strangest, most romantic, most bewildering episodes in modern history, and to this day one of the most bitterly contentious
Aboard that first steamer to Jaffa was ‘the Rt. Honourable Herbert Bentwich’, as Ari Shavit calls him, although the official record doesn’t suggest that he was entitled to the prefix of a Privy Councillor, for all his considerable distinction. He was a London Jew, one of the first generation of his family, originally from Poland, to be British-born; the son, grandson and great-grandson of rabbis; a successful lawyer; and the great-grandfather of Shavit, himself a celebrated Israeli newspaper and television commentator.
As Shavit says, the Israeli question cannot usefully be answered with polemics, though that doesn’t stop them pelting down like this winter’s rain. Instead, he has made a fascinating personal odyssey, a voyage round the past and present of ‘the Jewish State’, as an idea and a reality. That was the title of the little book published in 1896 by Theodore Herzl, ‘a German Jew from Hungary’, in his own words, who became a Viennese journalist. And it was he who, as the Israel political theorist Shlomo Avineri relates in his new biography, was travelling in the Rossiya to make his first visit the Holy Land, where he would meet Kaiser Wilhelm II: from the beginning the Zionist enterprise would be bound up in the great game of international power politics.
Born in Budapest in 1860, Herzl moved to Vienna and law school. But he soon found his metier in journalism, as a litterateur, essayist and playwright; and Zionism was indeed a very literary movement from the beginning. Herzl’s early years were a time of hope for European Jews, who had seemingly achieved longed-for emancipation in many countries. But then hopes were dashed, with the dramatic rise of the new aggressive anti-Semitism associated with almost every nationalist movement. Herzl experienced it close at hand, from student fraternities which banned Jews to the Dreyfus affair, which he covered as Paris correspondent of the Vienna Neue Freie Presse, witnessing for himself the hideous ceremony in Paris when Alfred Dreyfus was degraded in front of a mob baying for Jewish blood.
After toying with other far-fetched ideas, such as the mass conversion to Christianity of the Jews of the Habsburg monarchy, Herzl then conceived what he called ‘the answer to the Jewish question’, though many Jews at the time thought it no less far-fetched. Herzl said, as it were: if you can’t join them, beat them. Since European nationalism had turned on the Jews, let the Jews turn away from Europe, and create their own nation, with a national home and state, in the land where their forebears had lived a few thousand years before. Which is to say that while Herzl was an attractive personality and a gifted writer, he was a luftmensch, a dreamer or even fantasist
His preferred method of advancing his cause was parlaying with power. He made the acquaintance of Prince Philip von Eulenburg, the German ambassador in Vienna, who told him ‘the Kaiser is very warmly inclined toward the project’. Then Herzl met the Grand Duke of Baden and Bernhard von Bülow, the foreign minister in Berlin. He travelled on to Constantinople while the Kaiser was making a vainglorious progress through the Ottoman lands, culminating in Jerusalem. It was there that Herzl and his Zionist delegation, impeccably dressed despite the intense heat, presented themselves to the Kaiser, and received a somewhat Delphic answer: ‘The matter, in any case, requires thorough study and further discussion.’
Shortly before his death in 1904 at only 44, Herzl had visited Rome, where he met King Victor Emmanuel III, who expressed sympathy for the scheme while saying, quite truly, that the small Italian Jewish community was fully integrated and engaged in public life. The Pope was another matter. Pius X was the most intransigently dogmatic pontiff of the past century, and he spelled out what would be the Vatican’s position until at least the 1960s: ‘The Jews have not recognised our Lord, therefore we cannot recognise the Jewish people.’
But for Herzl, the immediate problem was resistance from Jews rather than Christian leaders. Avineri touches on this, although he could have made more of it. Herzl’s scheme was utterly rejected and bitterly resented by many emancipated Jews, notably the owners and editors of Herzl’s own paper, as a challenge to their own hard-won position as citizens of the countries where they lived. And it was anathematised by devout Jews, among them the Chief Rabbi of Vienna, as a blasphemous anticipation of the Almighty’s own work.
At the time of Herzl’s death, Herbert Bentwich had been converted from the traditional position he still supported when he landed at Jaffa, favouring no more than humanitarian resettlement of Jews in Palestine, to Herzl’s own political Zionism. And part of what makes My Promised Land so absorbing is this family story. Herbert’s son Norman Bentwich was a barrister and colonial civil servant who became first attorney general of British Mandatory Palestine until he clashed with the authorities in the person of Sir John Chancellor, the High Commissioner. But he was an eirenic moderate, who pursued the remote ideal of a bi-national state shared by Arabs and Jews, before returning to England.
Rather than a consecutive narrative, Shavit gives chapter-by-chapter snapshots, from ‘At First Sight 1897’ to ‘Existential Challenge 2013’. We meet, for example, Aryah Deri, who grew up in some comfort and security in Morocco until the cataclysm which followed the Six Day War in 1967. Fleeing with his family, he later became a leader of the Orthodox Oriental Jewish party, and a cabinet minister, until charged with corruption. He personifies two of the schisms within Israel, between religious and secular, and between the Oriental Jews and the Ashkenazi or European elite who had founded the state and ‘thought that most of the people who emigrated from the Arab world were primitive’.
Then the family plot thickens further. Shavit’s father and uncle were both closely connected with the building of an Israeli nuclear bomb at Dimona. Shavit meets one of their colleagues, the anonymous head engineer of the Dimona project, whose father was killed by an Arab gunman in 1943, and who worked on the great, secret project as a form of recompense. ‘Secret’ it was supposed to be, but Dimona has always been an ‘unknown known’, to borrow the ingenious coining of Fintan O’Toole, after Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘known knowns, known unknowns …’ O’Toole has in mind the sundry outrages in his own country, from the unchecked abuse of power by the Catholic church to some of the most corrupt politicians in Europe. But none of these was really a dark secret: everyone in Ireland more or less knew, but they preferred to ‘unknow’ or ignore them.
And so with Dimona, for all that the Israeli government has never admitted that it has nuclear weapons — and so also with ‘Lydda 1948’, a chapter which has been published in the New Yorker and caused some stir. Shavit unsparingly describes the forcible expulsion of up to 50,000 Palestinian Arabs during the fighting which established the new state: ‘Lydda is our black box. In it lies the dark secret of Zionism.’ But again, there was never any real secret here, even if successive Israeli governments did their best to make it one. In 1979, when Yitzhak Rabin, a once and future prime minister who would die at a Jewish assassin’s hand in 1995, published his memoirs, they originally contained a frank account of how he, as a brigade commander acting at the behest of David Ben-Gurion, drove out the Arabs of Lydda. This passage was suppressed by an Israeli censorship board. All the same, anyone who wanted to know could have known.
Now Shavit muses about these two unknown knowns. The unnamed nuclear engineer took part in the destruction of Arab villages in 1948. And so ‘Even if he does not say so, it is clear that a straight line leads from those villages to Dimona … Because of those dead villages it was clear that the Palestinians would always try to flatten us.’ But then Shavit still sees a stark personal choice: ‘Either reject Zionism because of Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda.’
We have come a long way from those steamers with their dreamers arriving at Jaffa in the reign of Victoria, and the days when Herzl the romantic imagined that the Arabs would welcome the Zionists with open arms. By contrast Shavit thinks himself a hardened realist, but maybe he’s another kind of luftmensch. He says, what by now is a pious platitude repetitiously reiterated in every other op-ed column, that there must be a Palestinian state if Israel itself is to survive as a democratic Jewish state. But what if one thinks, as some of us by now do, that the ‘two-state settlement’ is a chimera, and that, if a moment for achieving this ever existed, it has now passed?
Toward the end Shavit muses that, ‘if Herbert Bentwich had not been overcome by an obsessive yearning for Zion’ the family would have remained in England. ‘I like to think I could have been a literature don at Oxford or a producer at the BBC. My life would be much more relaxed and far safer than my Israeli life. My children’s future would not be under a cloud. But would I have had a richer inner life?’ Well, there are Jewish dons who might like to answer that; or at least, as the Oxford exam papers used to say: ‘Discuss.’
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Zionism, £18.00, Herzl: Theodore Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State, £16.00, Tel: 08430 600033. Geoffrey Wheatcroft is a former literary editor of The Spectator and the author of The Controversy of Zion.