The Founding Fathers of Zionism
By Benzion Netanyahu
(Noble, OK: Balfour Books, 2012.) 230 pp.

Reviewed by David A. Meier, Ph.D., Chair, Department of Social Sciences, Dickinson State University

While popularly known as the father of Israel’s current prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, Benzion Netanyahu’s scholarly reputation rests on his well-received works on medieval Spanish Jewry, including, Don Isaac Abravanel: Statesman and Philosopher (1998) and The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain (1995). In his most recent publication, Netanyahu has revisited five key figures in the emergence of modern Zionism, namely, Leo Pinsker, Theodore Herzl, Max Nordau, Israel Zangwill, and Ze’ev Jabotinsky. All five articles have been previously published. With the exception of the final article on Jabotinsky, however, each article appeared as Zionists coupled Jewish identity with their political program.

As described in Michael Berkowitz’s Zionist Culture and West European Jewry (1993) and George Mosse’s Confronting the Nation (1993), Zionists elevated Jewish uniqueness alongside a secular nationalism and a moderate Judaism while seeking to avoid the dangers of European nationalism. Within this group, Ze’ev Jabotinsky demand for armed Jewish resistance suggests the only possible path to a Jewish state against Chaim Weizmann’s emphasis on diplomacy in Europe and the Middle East.

Netanyahu’s articles must be understood as a product of the times, as works of historical significance laced with hyperbole and less as scholarly research. Organized in the text around their emergence in the Zionist movement, the opening four biographies were first published in 1944 (Pinsker), 1937 (Herzl), 1941 (Nordau), and 1938 (Zandwill), while the final piece appeared only in 1981 (Jabotinsky). Focusing on the first four, Netanyahu’s passionate narrative accented the sense of dire emergency facing European Jewry. Written well into the period of growing Nazi oppression, the Herzl article pays limited attention to emerging anti-Semitism in France and early Zionist congresses. Instead, Netanyahu presents Herzl’s willingness to consider Uganda as a possible Jewish homeland as a misunderstanding of Jewish history. In contrast to the cultural Zionism of Ahad Ha’am (a.k.a. Asher Ginsberg) and Israel Zangwill, Netanyahu returns Herzl’s pride of place among leading Zionists by describing Herzl’s political Zionism as embracing the foresight necessary for the creation of an actual state in Palestine, including the creation of Jewish self-defense units.

Published in 1944, Netanyahu found in Pinsker as advocate of Jewish uniqueness and a drive for self-liberation. Pinsker had toyed with assimilation as a possible path, including the adoption of Ukrainian by all Jews. Events betrayed the bankruptcy of assimilation. Motivated by Russia’s 1881-82 pogroms, Pinsker felt Jewish survival depended on the creation of a state. As articulated in Auto-Emancipation (1882), Pinsker stressed Jewish culture, language, and history as effectively prohibiting the possibility of assimilation. While Pinsker understood the idea of a state as a region where Jewish customs and traditions could be protected and preserved, Netanyahu underscored Pinsker’s call for a secular state, where Jews would also enjoy “complete independence and immediate freedom.” (38) Within the context of 1944, early western European Zionism appeared vastly out-of-touch with the course of events. Experiencing the brunt of German exterminationist policies, Pinsker provided a potential tool for drawing what remained of eastern European Jewry into the larger Zionist objective of creating a secular state.

Jewish intellectuals played an active role in furthering the causes of nineteenth century European liberalism and nationalism. As the century waned, European intellectual discourse included substantial doubts about Europe’s future. Max Nordau counted among Europe’s ardent skeptics. Nordau’s skepticism emanated continent-wide corruption and with others, including H.S. Chamberlain, the expectation that things could only get worse. Unfortunately, Nordau wanes as the focus for reflections on the dangers of Communism, Nationalism, anti-Semitism and National Socialism enter in. Nordau’s identification with Zionism followed his skeptical vision of larger trends and, he argued, was essential if Jews were to survive.

In contrast, Israel Zangwill retained a limited faith in “freedom and liberty” as the essence of Zionism. Zangwill struggled with his faith in Britain while promoting a Zionist vision of Palestine. Extremely confident in the ability of Jews to govern themselves, Zangwill considered Uganda, Australia, and other regions as equally viable locations for a future Jewish state. Within the context British politics and the First World War, Zangwill endorsed Zionists hopes for a state in Palestine.

Overall, Netanyahu unveils his own place in the history of Zionism and its travails. History and expediency merge as Zionists confront Europe’s political realities in the 1930s and 1940s. Though scholars will lament the absence of a bibliography and index, these articles allow a unique insight into the evolution of Zionism.