Rosa Brooks claims in her latest Foreign Policy piece that she’s thankful “America didn’t turn out like Israel.” I must admit I fail to see the purpose of the argument, except as a gratuitous attack on Israel in the context of the recent violence between it and Hamas. Moreover, the piece is devoid of context—not just of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also intra-Zionist arguments and politics—that contributes to an over-simplified version of Israel that borders on caricature.
I’ll focus on that last issue. To begin, the argument that early Zionists deceived themselves into thinking Palestine was “a land without a people” waiting for the “people without a land” (i.e., the Jews) is supported by evidence. But at the same time, there were prominent Zionists who made the opposite argument, and believed that this would pose serious problems for Zionist settlement. Ahad Ha’am, Yitzhak Epstein, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and others argued that the presence of Arabs was a factor that would have to be accounted for as the Zionists tried to build their national homeland.
Major scholars of Zionism argue that the term should not be understood literally. Alan Dowty contends, for example, that most Zionists didn’t actually use that phrase; and that when they did, they meant that Palestine was not occupied by a “people,” or a nation, that could lay historical claim to the land as part of its identity—not that it was devoid of persons actually living there.
As further evidence, Dowty notes that the Zionists viewed the Arab population in paternalistic terms (see also Anita Shapira and Derek Penslar). They argued that Palestine was so under-developed, that Zionist immigration would lead to economic, political, and cultural growth that would also benefit the Arabs. Arabs thus fit into their conceptualization of what Palestine was, but as individuals and not a collectivity.
Brooks also misunderstands the purpose of Zionism. She writes “Once, Israel represented a dream [of] freedom, safety, and peace for Europe’s persecuted Jews.” Her point here is that Israel’s policies toward Gaza and other regional actors have, in contrast, only served to leave it “isolated, imperiled, and in danger of losing its soul.”
But protection from rampant anti-Semitism was only part of the motivation that drove the Zionists. Equally, they were concerned that without being in control of their own destiny in their own home, they were a rootless people that could never belong anywhere in the world. Jewish self-determination and agency was as much a part of the Zionist urge as anti-Semitism.
Regarding the early socialist Zionists, who came to build and control Zionist institutions in Palestine, Howard Sachar put it thus:
They had come, too…to rebuild their nationhood, their very manhood, by the sweat of their brows. The emphasis of the Second Aliyah was upon physical labor on the soil ofPalestine. The youthful visionaries who fled the misery of the Pale evinced a genuine sense of guilt for having been alienated from the land. … the Jewish intelligentsia subscribed to this romanticized image. … As members also of Poalei Zion, the newcomers appreciated that Socialist thinkers from Marx to Lenin had cited the absence of a Jewish peasant class as evidence that the Jew were not a nation, but rather a peculiar social or functional entity. It was this assertion that had now to be disproved (1996, 74).
The emphasis on the “new Hebrew,” “muscular Judaism,” and Jewish control of the Jewish fate were all outcomes of this. One could argue, then, that from the Zionist perspective, Israel’s isolation in the Middle East is representative of Israel’s ability to be free to choose its own actions. For many rightist Israelis it’s even a perfectly natural state, for “a people that dwells alone.”
Brooks ends quite ominously. She writes the US, with one eye toward the value of (Israeli-inspired) torture, drone wars, and expanded police state, is in danger of becoming the very opposite of what the pilgrims originally intended the US, as a new Israel, to be—a shining light to the nations.
Taking all this into account, one should also note that Israel maintains a lively (if shrinking) free press, independent judiciary, full political liberties, and so on. It’s also a place of great scientific, technical, cultural, and economic vitality even while it occupies the West Bank and besieges Gaza, sometimes uses questionable tactics in its wars, has not done enough for peace with the Palestinians, and certainly has institutionalized discrimination toward its citizens of Arab, Russian, Ethiopian, and Mizrachi heritage. Put another way, it’s a far more complicated place than the picture painted by Brooks.
If Brooks wants to criticize Israeli policy today, I’d argue that’s both her right and even necessary. But stretching the discussion back to its origins isn’t necessarily helpful, particular when it’s founded on an incomplete understanding of Zionism and Israel. Israel as a religiously-inspired Eden was never a realistic comparison point. If one wants to propose solutions to a problem (though Brooks doesn’t claim that’s her point), the problem needs to be as fully understand as possible.