The Political Philosophy of Zionism: Trading Jewish Words For A Hebraic Land, by Eyal Chowers. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 274 pages. $99.
The Origins of Israeli Mythology: Neither Canaanites Nor Crusaders, by David Ohana. Translated by David Maisel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 266 pages. $90.
Reviewed by Donna Robinson Divine
How Jews imagined creating a homeland and state continues to draw sustained attention either for its vision of endless possibility or for the upheaval and suffering Israel's founding presumably caused. Scholarly efforts to turn to this topic rarely avoid raising questions about whether the building of a Jewish state was good or bad for the Jews and for the world. The very terms habitually used to designate the study of Zionism, the movement responsible for establishing the Jewish nation-state, reflect uncertainty not only about what category of thought it represents - philosophy, ideology, rhetoric - but more importantly, how to assess its moral status.
Any attempt to talk about Zionism in the singular must also immediately confront its many varieties. Is Zionism simply a Jewish nationalism whose different versions form subsets of a distinct ideology, or does it encompass so many ideas that it cannot be contained within a single philosophical tradition? Eyal Chowers regards Zionism as encompassing a unique philosophical tradition, while David Ohana responds by viewing Zionism as consisting of composite myths. Both scholars have written outstanding books. They begin by explaining how the new forms of power surging through Europe that swept Jews out of homes and weakened the force of their traditions nourished the Zionist vision of renewal. Ironically, Zionists found in the vulnerability of Jews a warrant for the establishment of a Jewish homeland not by appealing to God or to rabbis but rather by urging Jews to engage in a struggle for dignity and self-determination. As Chowers points out, there would be no Zionist recycling of Max Weber's "iron cage" theme, in which the modern economic order is depicted as structuring the lives of people and individual souls are necessarily molded to fit between its bars. Seeking liberation from the authority of God and not incidentally from rabbis, Zionists would not easily exchange one kind of subordination for even the thought of another. Into what was a general philosophic contempt for the idea that humans could be truly free, Zionists adopted the notion that with a modern state of their own on the sites of their ancient kingdoms, Jews could take control of their destiny. The embattled Zionism David Ohana portrays in the capacious volume he calls The Origins of Israeli Mythology emerges from challenges to its legitimacy with new and sometimes creative ideas about Jewish identity as a source for solidarity and moral and political instruction for the modern world. At a time when European philosophy recognized that humans were treated as commodities in the modern economy or as cogs in a powerful bureaucracy, Zionism insisted that these same impersonal forces could be harnessed to give Jews both the capacity for personal freedom and most importantly, collective transformation.
How a people subjected to so much hatred and to the same political and social forces many social thinkers described as beyond human control managed to suppose that it could remake its future is the story told by Eyal Chowers. In a brilliantly original study of Zionism as a political philosophy, he explains the assumptions and the logic stitching together the idea that creating a Jewish state would bring cultural, economic, and social achievements worthy of past Jewish glory and also, and not incidentally, of new measures for human progress.
Zionism emerged, according to Chowers, from a confrontation with history and time. The European philosophic trend positing the world as moving toward an enlightenment of rights and reason initially commanded widespread allegiance even among Jews who believed that they, too, would eventually be swept into its progressive embrace. …