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A Sloppy Hit on Israel

Review: Milton Viorst, ‘Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal’

Menachem Begin, right, and Anwar Sadat in 1978 / Library of Congress
• August 20, 2016 5:00 am

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Go to a library and toss a coin at the Israel shelf. You’re almost certain to bounce it off a title critical of the Jewish state. The latest contribution to this death by a thousand books is Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal by journalist Milton Viorst. At the heart of this book is the assumption that Israel is wholly to blame for the conflict between Jews and Arabs.

Though himself a Jew, Viorst veers into racist-sounding rhetoric when he asks whether "the Jewish DNA contains an immunity to peace." Given Israel’s many attempts to achieve peace, the question isn’t whether Jews are immune to peace but whether they are immune to reality. Viorst clearly is. Otherwise he could not declare that Israel adheres to the "Begin doctrine," a "diplomatic principle" that purportedly maintains that if a small state "offers concessions at a time of pressure, it only invites more pressure upon itself."

The manifold problems with this theory begin with Menachem Begin himself, who gave up the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1978 in return for a peace treaty, few provisions of which Egypt honored. In 1993, Yitzhak Rabin handed over large swaths of the West Bank to Yasser Arafat, the man known as the "founder of modern terror," who showed his gratitude by launching a wave of suicide attacks. In 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak didn’t even bother getting an agreement before pulling Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon, paving the way for Hezbollah to turn it into a launching pad for rockets into northern Israel. Similarly, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon uprooted over 8,000 Israelis from their homes in the Gaza Strip, declaring "I am convinced in the depths of my soul and with my entire intellect that this disengagement … will win the support and appreciation of countries near and far… and will advance us on the path of peace with the Palestinians and our other neighbors." It did neither, as "the world community" became ever more hostile and Gaza became another launching pad for rockets.

In 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made Israel’s most far-reaching proposal, offering even to forgo sovereignty over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest site. Olmert proposed that Israel keep 6.3 percent of the West Bank (areas close to the pre-1967 armistice borders now densely occupied by Jews) but compensate by giving the Palestinians an equal amount of land that had been within the borders of pre-1967 Israel. Mahmoud Abbas was not interested.

Viorst examines the lives of eight Zionist leaders, from Herzl to Netanyahu, to answer his own question: "How did Zionism, over the course of a century, evolve from the idealism of providing refuge for beleaguered Jews to a rationalization for the army’s occupation of powerless Palestinians?" This question is based on a false premise. Israel’s purpose was and remains what Herzl set forth in The Jewish State: "We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes." Zionism has not a glimmer of oppression in it, which explains the Jews’ many efforts to find a solution to the conflict. Those whom Viorst calls "powerless Palestinians" enjoy the support of all Muslim countries, as well as Europe, the U.N., and the world media. Many of them are determined to annihilate Israel, indoctrinating violence in their young people, who then go out and slaughter children in their sleep, gun down families on the road, and ax rabbis at prayer. Those who commit these crimes are hailed as martyrs, and their families are given stipends. When Palestinians hear of a successful attack against Israelis—or Americans for that matter, as on 9/11—they hand out candy to children. A far better question Viorst might have asked is: How is it that the Jews have managed to keep their humanity in the face of such inhumanity?

Viorst blames Zionism’s supposed moral descent to the rise of the Revisionist movement led by Vladimir Jabotinsky in the 1920s and ‘30s. "Revisionism thrives today, with an ideology that has grown only harsher since Jabotinsky’s time," he writes. This is a bizarre statement: nobody is walking around Israel today calling himself a Revisionist. Revisionism was of a specific time and place, its name referring to the need to revise Zionist policy toward Britain during the period of the Mandate. The most one can say is that there are still followers of Jabotinsky, those who admire his highly original writings and warmth of character. Unlike David Ben-Gurion or Chaim Weizmann, Jabotinsky showed a sincere interest in the masses of Jewry.

Yet, for all his vilification of the Revisionist movement, it’s clear that Viorst blames all Zionists, including Labor leader (and Jabotinsky’s arch foe) Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion’s "failure was to leave unresolved a conflict with the Arabs," Viorst writes, arguing "he did not so much as try." While Viorst admits that Ben-Gurion met with Arab notables to broker an agreement with the Mufti of Jerusalem, he complains that it did not lead him to "consider any real changes to the Zionist course." Viorst never explains what changes, short of abandoning Zionism, would have assuaged the Mufti, who went on to do all he could to help Hitler during World War II, going so far as to raise Muslim troops for the SS.

The book is riddled with basic factual errors, large and small. In the latter category, Viorst describes Jabotinsky’s The Five as an "early novel" when in fact Jabotinsky wrote it five years before his death. Viorst repeats tales of old calumnies like that of Deir Yassin, an Arab village attacked by Irgun forces during the War of Independence. He describes it as a massacre of Arab women and children who put up little resistance, when in fact the Irgun suffered 41 casualties, as both residents and foreign fighters opened fire. He claims repeatedly that Betar, a youth group led by Jabotinsky, organized a demonstration at the Western Wall that provoked the 1929 Arab riots. Only it wasn’t a Betar protest. Even the British officer who negotiated with the protesters said they weren’t Betar members.

The list of errors goes on: Viorst states that the Haganah turned in members of the underground group Lehi to the British during the Saison, when in fact the Haganah turned in only Irgun members. (If Lehi members were captured, it was by accident.) He wrongly states that Jewish military units were formed too late to fight in World War II when, in fact, they fought the Germans in Italy. He asserts that America opened its arsenal to Israel in 1948 when it did the opposite, imposing an embargo on arms to the region. The embargo had no effect on the Arabs, who received weapons from the British, but had a profoundly detrimental effect on Israel.

Some of what he writes is off the wall. Viorst blames Begin for fleeing invading Nazis rather than organizing Betar to fight the Germans on Polish soil. Betar had a large membership, but these were teenagers learning martial skills that they hoped to use in Palestine—they were not a military force with the equipment or training to oppose the Wehrmacht. The million-man Polish army was totally demolished in two weeks and three days. The idea that Betar could have had any impact on the Nazi juggernaut is beyond ludicrous.

These exaggerations, errors, and smears grow out of Viorst’s seemingly pathological need to find fault with the Zionists for their every action, and indeed for the actions of others. This need goes so far that, when writing about Hamas bombardment of Israeli population centers with rockets, Viorst finds a way to point a finger at the Jews, saying that the rockets served "to remind Israel and the world that a million and a half Gazans could not tolerate living under the deplorable conditions that Israel imposed on them."

Viorst dedicates his book to the late Rabbi Leonard Beerman (who also assailed Israel) "and the other peacemakers, the greatest of the Zionists." Here one gets the sense that Viorst is paying tribute to himself. If you’re looking for a book riddled with errors written by a man whose assumptions are all wrong and who marinates in his own moral virtue, then Zionism by Milton Viorst should rise to the top of your summer reading list.

Published under: Book reviews, Israel