The term Zionism was first used publicly by Nathan Birnbaum at a discussion meeting in Vienna on the evening of 23 January 1892.* The history of political Zionism begins with the publication of Herzl’s Judenstaat four years later and the first Zionist congress. But the Zionist idea antedates the name and the organisation. Herzl had precursors in Germany, Russia, and in other countries, whose writings reflected the longing for the ancient homeland, the anomaly of Jewish existence in central and eastern Europe, and the need to find a solution to the ‘Jewish question’.
The emergence of Zionism in the 1880s and 1890s can be understood only against the general background of European and Jewish history since the French Revolution on one hand, and the spread of modern antisemitism on the other. The present book starts with a discussion of the European background of Zionism, covers the prehistory of the movement and five decades of Zionist activities, and ends with the establishment of the state in May 1948, the turning-point in the history of the movement. It is debatable whether there is a history of Zionism beyond 1948, and not only because many of its functions have been taken over by the state of Israel. Before the word ‘Zionism’ became generally accepted, the term Palestinofilstvo (Hibat Zion) was widely used in Russia. A similar term, Philisraelism, may well provide an accurate definition of the present, post-Zionist, phase. Even if my assumption should be wrong – periodisation being a risky business – a good case can still be made, I think, for ending this history of Zionism in 1948.
Long as this book is, I was aware from the beginning that a full, detailed history of Zionism was not only beyond my capacity but also, most probably, beyond the tolerance of the non-specialist reader, not to mention the publisher. Zionism, a worldwide movement, consisted of dozens of federations and political parties. To do justice even to the more important among them an entire library of monographs would be needed. The abundance of published and unpublished material does not make the task of the historian any easier. The shelves of the Zionist Archives in Jerusalem extend for two miles; for every Zionist past or present there is a book, or at least an article in a periodical, or several issues of a newspaper. The present writer had to be selective in his approach and concentrate on what he considered the main lines of development.
This volume, with all its limitations and imperfections, is the first comprehensive history in English on a comparable scale. Of the two major histories written previously, Sokolow’s comes only to the end of the First World War and is devoted largely to the precursors of political Zionism, while Böhm’s Zionistische Bewegung, to which every work on the subject is greatly indebted, stops in the mid-1920s (it has never been translated). These books, as well as some others much briefer (such as Israel Cohen’s surveys), were written by leading Zionists. They bear witness to the commitment of the writers; their very involvement is their main source of strength. A history of Zionism written now must be more than a labour of love; it should not proselytise but must ask searching questions if it is to be faithful to the truth of history.
In some respects it is easier now to write with detachment of past quarrels, and there are always the benefits of hindsight. But there are also difficulties which my predecessors did not have to face. Some of them are of a methodological character: up to 1917 the history of the Zionist movement presents no particular problems; it is the story of a somewhat eccentric movement of young idealists who met every other year at a congress and espoused various political, financial, cultural, and colonising activities. But after the Balfour Declaration at the latest, the issue becomes much more confusing: there was still the Zionist movement, more widespread and influential than before, but there was also the Jewish community of Palestine growing in numbers and strength. It may be possible to write the story of Palestine in the Mandatory era without constant reference to the Zionist movement, but it is quite impossible to do the reverse. Within Zionism, too, the situation became more complicated with each year after 1917, as new parties and factions appeared, and some of them broke away from the world movement. Up to the Balfour Declaration the most useful approach is the chronological; after that date this becomes difficult, sometimes impossible. I have tried to deal with these difficulties in my own way. There may be other and better methods, but I could not think of one.
Most of this book is based on material published by, about, or against the Zionist movement in the various linguae francae in which these discussions were conducted: German, Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, and English. The Zionists were a talkative tribe; no secret could be kept for long – all of them can be found somewhere in the books and journals. Through the last decade of events described in this volume I lived in Palestine, watching events and sometimes the dramatis personae from a close angle. This provided a certain perspective and, I believe, understanding: which is difficult to acquire from the study of archives alone. This personal element should be mentioned, for without it I probably would have lacked the incentive to write this book in the first place. I had the opportunity to discuss some of the events described here with veterans of the Zionist movement; to all of them I am grateful; one of them in particular, Robert Weltsch, has been of great help throughout. These discussions did not yield many startling new revelations, but they made for a better understanding of the metapolitics of a movement that had many facets to its character, in addition to the purely political one. I have on a few occasions made reference to unpublished material, with regard to some aspects of Zionist history which have not yet been adequately studied. But this hardly affects the general picture as it can be pieced together from generally accessible sources.
A preface is not the ideal place for the author’s credo; my thoughts on the subject emerge from the following pages. The question whether Zionism was a good or a bad idea is discussed in this book, but it is not the only nor indeed the central question which has preoccupied me; it is of undoubted historical interest, and on a philosophical level the debate may well continue for a long time. This study is not, however, an exercise in the philosophy of history; it deals with the fate of a sorely tried people and their attempt to normalise their status, to escape persecution, and to regain dignity in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world. Perhaps they were wrong in pursuing this aim; perhaps their efforts were bound to create new and intractable problems. However, several decades ago Zionism moved out of the realm of the history of ideas, good, bad, or indifferent, into the field of action. It has resulted in the birth of a nation, to the joy of some and the distress of others.
It was my intention to provide a truthful account of the origins and development of one of the most embattled movements in recent history. Since I do not believe that historical truth is likely to be located somewhere in the middle between two extremes, I have not tried to disguise my own position and am aware that others may not necessarily share my views. It is, I believe, a truthful account, in the sense that I have not knowingly suppressed historical evidence and that I have tried to discuss dispassionately views which are not my own and actions which I deplore.
The apologetic character of Jewish historiography has traditionally been one of its main weaknesses. Zionism has been instrumental in changing this. Some of the most critical comments on Jewish history have emanated from Zionist ranks and, on the other hand, some of the most bitter attacks on Zionism have come from Jewish critics. I did not feel particularly self-conscious in writing this book; I did not take as my motto ‘Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon’. On the other hand, I make no claim to Olympian impartiality. When Acton launched the Cambridge Modern History, he told his contributors that ‘our Waterloo must satisfy French and English, German and Dutch alike’. Few critics would agree that this aim has been achieved, and I suspect that such a history of Zionism will be written, if ever, only when the subject has ceased to be of topical interest.
I would like to express my thanks to the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft for a research grant to study the history of German Zionism, to Mr Meyer Weisgal and to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for a fellowship. Dr Benjamin Eliav guided me along the highways and byways of the history of revisionism but the views expressed on this as on other issues are, for better or worse, my own. Mrs Jane Degras, old friend and stern critic, read the manuscript, and I have benefited, as so often before, from her editorial skill and experience.
* Strictly speaking the term had already appeared in print on a few occasions in 1890/1 without, however, any clear political connotation.